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Profiles in Awesome – Lynn Yarmey

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Lynn Yarmey is a fellow distance-learning (or LEEP) student in the University of Illinois’ Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS). I first met Lynn last summer and was interested in the similar paths we seemed to be taking in school, despite the differences in her science-oriented background and my humanities-oriented background. In the email interview below, Lynn talks about why she’s pursuing an education in LIS, challenges in the larger social understanding of information issues, and how she stays on top of developments in her field.

Lynn Yarmey, LIS student

Nicole Forsythe:  Tell me about your background, and your current work (as in, job).

Lynn Yarmey: Many years ago (maybe 9th grade? 10th?), a friend and I did a History Day project on the Anasazi.  We learned about how the culture and life of the people were so intimately tied to the geography of the area. At the time I was taking physics class that I really enjoyed.  I didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I smashed geography and physics together and decided I wanted to be a ‘geophysicist’. It was terribly difficult, but I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Geophysics from Boston College in 2000.

After a stop at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, I was hired in 2001 by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (part of UC San Diego) in the Programmer/Analyst track to process and analyze ocean current data from a particular instrument (my senior ‘thesis’ at BC looked at that same instrument).  Five years ago, the funding for that project ended and I ended up as a programmer-for-hire. I was lucky enough that at the same time, there was a new data management initiative starting up in my department. Now I split my time between the data management side and programming and analysis work for other scientists who have funding and work.

NF:  What made you want to go to library school and what do you hope to do with an MLIS?

LY: I had been putting off grad school until this year because I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I couldn’t stomach learning any more programming but the thought of getting an oceanography degree wasn’t that much more appealing.  I am much more a jack-of-all-trades type, a little good at a lot of things, and I like people, which didn’t necessarily fit directly with my CS or PhD options. My job is great, though there is only funding for me to do what I love to do half-time and many of the other positions I was seeing listed an MLIS as a requirement.

I would love to work with scientific data and metadata full time in a sustainable career path, and libraries seemed like a place that have the career path and organizational placement figured out.  While I tend to agree with critics who point out that libraries are not ambitious enough in terms of staking claim to the realm of data curation, I think that libraries have at least accurately articulated the problems and worked to define the realm. I hope the rest of academia comes around!

I am hoping to be one of those (seemingly rare?) people who have a foot in the theory world and the other solidly in the practical work – a “pracademic,” as you called it. I would love to be able to do information work and write about it, to blend science, technology and social elements. I want to be able to explore the complexities on the ground and also be able to understand those actions enough to put them all back together again.  Information work brings everything together: how we learn, how we record what we know and how that gets translated to other people across time.   It means mediating across hugely diverse fields like psychology, business, communication, education, political science, computer science, and for me, environmental science.

In my own little ideal situation, working with information means I get to bring people together, help them talk to each other, and move from the big-picture goals to the nitty-gritty details as a partner, and then step back and think about what elements of that experience can be made generic, or can help other people do the same thing.  I seek to think across time, people and subject. I want to be an insider and an outsider at the same time, balancing the reality and the ideal, the theory and the practice, and all of the different tensions, demands, possibilities and limitations. For me, information work is like mental gymnastics and sounds amazingly fun.

NF: What do you see as a big issue in the world relating to LIS – challenges for the field itself, info challenges for the rest of the world, or challenges for individuals?

LY: I don’t think I know what the Grand Challenge issues in LIS are.   From my very limited perspective, I can see a lot of smaller issues:

  • For individuals, as far as I call tell, there is no identifiable career track in information work, even though almost every organization, business, non-profit and individual deals with similar issues at various points. Education still seems to be on a specialization track while LIS works more across domains. Information issues are being identified, but are still being dealt with by traditional organizational structures and existing expertise rather than brought together with new expertise.
  • For the field of LIS itself, I think we are playing out one aspect of globalization but again with existing paradigms. There is an amazing amount of complexity in bridging local knowledge to global standards and practices and I think it is possible that the relevant perspectives are not all at the table just yet.

Generally, I think that in many ways we need a mental and cultural shift to appropriately address information problems and to really get ourselves to the web 3.0 leaping point where ‘seamless’ integration is the norm.  I have been told that these things just take time.

NF: What might “information leadership” mean to you?

To me, information leadership would involve getting the right people together to talk about what we value and how ownership overlaps with that value (if at all). We need to talk about what knowledge is and how we want to represent it digitally, what an information society looks like and what should be public vs. corporate. Discussions need to be had about what information should be regulated and by whom, where the balance should be between privacy and openness, or what topics individuals should consider in these discussions. I think even creating a plan to get us from our current position to the point where we as a society can start to begin to address such questions and formulate others would be a part of “information leadership” right now. In many ways, technology (and technologists) is starting to answer these questions for us and I am not sure that is the best thing, though we don’t yet have a proactive, thoughtful, fair and inclusive alternative. Decisions need to be made at the social level, though the rate of technical advance seems to be forcing early decisions.

NF: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

LY: I’m always interested in the ways that other information professionals are keeping up on LIS issues. For me, I like picking out information articles in popular reading (I love SEED magazine, but also Wired or Newsweek, the local news outlets, etc) to keep a better grip on the big picture.  I love Dorothea Salo’s blog, I try to keep up with the Digital Curation Centre research, and follow a few of the oceanography communities of practice that seem to be emerging (QARTOD and MMI).  The Long Term Ecological Research information management community is also great.

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Are you interested in being profiled in “Profiles in Awesome” or know someone you’d like to see here? Have a good idea for a question to ask? Email me at nicolibrarian{at} gmail {dot}com.

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Written by nicolibrarian

January 17, 2010 at 11:45 pm

Libraries without Walls

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I was reading tonight in About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design, by Cooper, Reimann and Cronin about interaction design principles and patterns, and they quote (of all people), Antoine St. Exupery: “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” Cooper, et al, are using it to support their notion that “one of the classic elements of good design is economy of form: using less to accomplish more.”

This struck a chord as I’ve been mulling over a conversation with a new friend about library school and the field of Library and Information Science (LIS), of which we are both students. She was voicing some discontent about whether the field of public librarianship needs a lot of the theory taught now in the MLIS programs in the U.S., when so little of it seems to be applicable to the actual practice of serving the wide array of public needs on desk in a traditional public library. I was mulling over my place in library school: while I have library experience, love the institution of the library, and would be happy to land in one, I’m primarily attending school to further my knowledge of the organization of information, information architecture, and information design. Needless to say, it’s hard to explain to my peers why I’m there, and even harder to explain to folks outside of the LIS community why library school, and what I hope to do.

The St. Exupery quote above made me realize that, far from fighting the information changes happening in my world, I love them. I like the change; I like the act of reduction, of boiling things down to their essence. I adore that now *everyone* has many capabilities to search and retrieve information, where once upon a time it was only librarians and a handful of other professional knowledge workers who could access information rapidly and across a wide variety of fields. And I realized that part of what I love about library school, this blog, and thinking/learning/studying information is that I like not that libraries are changing so drastically, but that in many ways, the walls have come down. We’re all living in a library – one without walls.

An example: Clay Shirky, a thinker of note, writes a lot about how technology and the Internet is changing the world. He writes about scale of technologies and economic shifts and, although neither he nor his critics might say this, I think he writes about the ideas the underpin LIS. In this post on Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing, Clay says:

“Travelocity doesn’t make everyone a travel agent. It undermines the value of being travel agent at all, by fixing the inefficiencies travel agents are paid to overcome one booking at a time. Weblogs fix the inefficiencies traditional publishers are paid to overcome one book at a time, and in a world where publishing is that efficient, it is no longer an activity worth paying for.”

Although I am an ardent supporters of libraries, a LIS graduate student, and I certainly recognize there are things libraries do beyond serve as a search engines, I can’t help but wonder if the paragraph could read – with apologies to Clay for the change:

The Internet doesn’t make everyone a librarian. It undermines the value of being a librarian at all, by fixing the inefficiencies librarians are paid to overcome finding things one at a time. Search engines fix the inefficiencies traditional information workers are paid to overcome, and in a world where information retrieval is that efficient, it is no longer an activity worth paying for.

Inherent in my edits above are some blind spots: libraries and their staff also serve as collectors, selectors, marketers, conveners, institutions of democracy/social justice/equality. And information workers – broadly writ – are needed more now than ever to sift through information, analyze it, and make sense of it.

So what? I’m not sure yet. I love my field because, largely, I feel it is embracing the massive changes and blending of disciplines that are happening. I love the kind of people attracted to LIS for their diverse backgrounds, and I love the ideas I’m exposed to in school. So in the spirit of these thoughts, I’ve renamed my blog, and look forward to continuing to explore this library without walls with you.

Written by nicolibrarian

November 9, 2009 at 5:10 am