When Nancy Talks, We Listen by Michael Wood, MLIS Day


1973. Las Vegas, Nevada. 117 degrees in the shade:

A young woman named Nancy Huling, just out of graduate school and not yet employed, attends her first ALA conference, held for the first (and last) time in Sin City. Her reaction? “That was really an interesting experience!” Attending that conference led to her first job, at the State University of New York at Binghamton, launching a terrific career. With a master’s degree in history, Huling became a subject specialist. This served her well in public reference as people came for help in researching family trees. Like it or not, “[i]f you are going to work in a public library, you are going to have to do genealogy!” Huling said. Now, thirty-two years after that first ALA conference, she is Head of the Reference and Research Services Division of the University of Washington’s Libraries.

And so, on the recent, damp Friday morning of October 29th, about forty eager first and second year iSchool students mounted the steps leading to Odegaard room 220 to hear Huling speak about reference librarianship and the ALA, with an emphasis on ALA’s Reference Users Services Association (RUSA). After coffee and pastries were served, Huling made a point of welcoming our Canadian Library Association colleagues from British Columbia who attended the event, and began her talk with a question:

“How many have attended a [library] conference?”

Charming the crowd with anecdotes about her long and successful career as a reference librarian, Huling began speaking to the importance of taking part in professional organizations and activities. She observed that in the academic library world, practitioners can lose sight of the good ideas being implemented in other types of libraries. By volunteering on committees and going to conferences, Huling has met people with fresh ideas and perspectives from all over the country, stating that she has really benefited from their knowledge. Huling suggested that all present consider attending the ALA annual meeting: Get a mentor, go to an ALA convention, and attend an orientation session. “Float through the exhibits; enjoy the social part of it!” said Huling.

Discussion groups are a great way to get involved. Huling also told the crowd about group meetings at ALA: virtual reference, librarian history, ethical and legal issues in reference, and many more topics of interest.

A librarian’s librarian, Nancy Huling is not the sort to sit watching on the sidelines. Becoming a committee member and leader, she began running conference programs. Huling described one recent convention panel featuring leaders from OCLC, public, and academic spheres and moderated by the iSchool’s own Joe Janes. In it, Janes moderated an open forum to explore the new possibilities of innovation in service for a typical community—as if starting over again from scratch. Judging by the numbers, Huling’s event was a huge success, as over 700 people attended!

Huling became the 2003 president of the national Reference and User Services Association. RUSA is one of eleven specialized divisions within the ALA, and the only ALA organization solely devoted to reference services. Formed in 1957, it has five thousand members. (If you have an ALA card, you can join via the ALA website).

She spoke of RUSA’s efforts to implement guidelines for maintaining good reference services, and pointed out the fine web resources that RUSA links to their website. Professional resources take up a whole page, including peer reviewing services that could lead to publication in RUSA’s quarterly journal, Reference and User Services Quarterly.

RUSA has an important role to play in education and training, according to Huling. Classes on the reference interview are offered online at reasonable prices.

She spoke of a new definition of reference being forged now. “We want to have people just out of school; [it] doesn’t matter if you are 50-- we want to hear all of the new perspectives and ideas.” Adding that “[e]ach of the ALA committees has volunteer forums.” She believes that personalization and customization are the real challenges in reference work now. Librarians are getting involved in creating the new tools to be used for reference in the new century. She sees information seeking behavior as a substantive growth area in the profession, and mentioned the importance of LIS 510.

Huling mentioned four good reasons to become involved:

1.) Cool people!

2) An opportunity to contribute to the profession.

3) To re-energize yourself; to experience the inspiration of collaboration.

4) Networking: to help your users, and to advance your professional career. Nancy said that meeting your colleagues from across the country and building personal connections can make you a very effective librarian. “We now are collaborating with librarians from all over the world,” she said.

What message does she have for the new MLIS student just beginning iSchool and interested in reference?

“Well, first of all, if you are interested in reference work, you have to like people. You have to have a pretty broad understanding; if you are going to be a librarian, it helps to have exposure…reading the newspaper, being tolerant, being flexible. As a reference librarian you are really a partner, you work with the user to solve their information needs.” She said that job shadowing was a good starting point, directed fieldwork being a good thing too. “Be flexible and open to new ideas. Be wiling to approach your users. “

Be like Nancy.





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Page last updated: November 9, 2004