Honing Your Skills | Mike McCaffrey

Many professions require that their members stay current. Librarians, however, are not subject to any such requirements despite the fact that our profession has changed more than was thought possible even a generation ago. Very few of us will finish our careers doing what we did at the start.

We must therefore concern ourselves with professional development even if we aren't compelled to do so by an external authority and what better place to start than at the core? Basic research skills are often overlooked and yet that is our bread and butter. I’ll wager that most of us went into this business because we liked to find things. 

New resources and technological changes enable us to do more but they also give rise to heightened expectations. We must therefore make sure we are always on our game. For an example close to home, let’s look at a recent event and consider how we would have formerly handled it and how we could handle it today.

On December 21st last year, the UN General Assembly met to pass a resolution condemning the US announcement to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This condemnation by the international community was, to put it mildly, newsworthy and sent many people off in search of the text.

If we had been asked for this a generation ago, most of us would have checked the New York Times in the hopes that, in its capacity as the UN’s newspaper of record, it would have published the text. Having no luck, we’d sigh and wait until a depository shipment box arrived in the mail. Some of us may have resorted to the efficacious use of our Rolodexes and called Ottawa. The really knowledgeable would have known that NYU was a “super depository” and received daily shipments of internal documents from the UN. We might have contacted them for a fax copy.

Today, we can be much more efficient, but only if our skills are up to date. Most of us would have first checked the UN website. We may have known that resolution texts are sometimes contained in press releases. We might also have checked the General Assembly documents portion of the website, the UN Library Research Guide and we might even have checked UNBISNET, the bibliographical database. Would we have found it? No, but we would not have been entirely out of luck. Using new tools and up to date knowledge, we have the ability to pull a rabbit out of our hat. We could have…

  1. Used the website to determine that the Resolution passed at a meeting of the (resumed) 10th Emergency Special Session on Palestine. The daily Journal of the United Nations will help us here. We might find a link to text of the draft resolution but we cannot count on it.
  2. Known that draft Resolutions receive limited distribution and this one will have a document number beginning with A/ES-10/L.- .
  3. Known that all documents currently make their first appearance in a Document Management System known as the ODS.
  4. Performed a simple search for recent documents having a symbol beginning with “A/ES-10/L” knowing that there’s little useful metadata in the ODS (that’s added elsewhere at a much later date).
  5. Finding something none of our colleagues could — the draft resolution (A/ES-10/L.22) circulated and available in PDF (in all six official languages) the day before.

Few of us would have been able to find the answer this way unless we had made a concerted effort to stay current regarding resources.

What Should I Do to Stay Current?

At a minimum, you should seek to learn one new skill or master one unfamiliar topic per year. At present we lack for professional development and continuing education opportunities in Canada but that’s changing. In the interim, you can get a good start on your own.

Start by figuring out what you do not know and then go from there. Look at textbooks and reputable research guides. Read the trade literature (ignore the academic literature, especially any journal with “Critical” in the title). Look for emerging issues, areas of practice, and concerns. Look for recurring columns and features in the literature. If nothing else, read Mary Whisner’s excellent Practicing Reference series of articles in the Law Library Journal. Can you talk knowledgeably about the Revised Statutes of the United States? No? Assign yourself the task of learning about the US federal statute publication cycle, and the history of the US Code and its predecessors.

Take a look at what your colleagues elsewhere are doing. Are more and more of them doing Business Development and Competitive Intelligence? Take a course, read up on the topic. Find out which resources are used and arrange for demos. Join SCIP. Your firm may not follow the path taken by others but would it not be better to be prepared just in case?

Try to anticipate internal needs. Is your firm representing clients with an increased presence in, say, Europe? Learn EU law and the EU legislative process. Seek out the professional literature in the UK, look for guides maintained by British libraries, and set about gaining access to curricular materials from CILIP accredited universities.

Make sure to monitor existing resources for changes. Did the Parliamentary website change? Can you find everything? Is there anything new? Is anything missing?

If you do this on an ongoing basis, your efforts will be rewarded. Fewer and fewer questions will scare you. Your efforts, however, must be ongoing. Identify your pain points and anticipate changes in your job and in the needs of your clientele. Prioritize and take small steps. Treat the list of what you don’t know as a challenge; a checklist rather than a reminder of your inexperience. Keep at it and you will be rewarded.

Are you interested in being a feature article contributor in the future? Then kindly provide your contact information and potential topic idea(s) to christine.rocheleau@lexisnexis.ca. We look forward to hearing from you.


<< Back to Law Librarian Featured Articles