GURU INTERVIEW: BARBARA QUINT
As I mentioned recently, I am editing a collection of the wit and wisdom of Barbara Quint. In preparation for writing the intro, I asked her to sit still for an interview. Here are some excerpts.
Marylaine: Tell me about your jobs as a librarian, back in the days of Chem Ab in paper copy. What did you learn from each of them?
Barbara: Mainly I learned how to suppress acro- and claustrophobia. In the Rand Corporation's library at that time, the copies of those ancient tools resided in the sub-basement. (The main library resided in the main basement. We had to chin ourselves to see light.) To reach the high stacks in low places where Chem Abs and Sci Abs resided, you had to go downstairs to this airless, dimly lit grotto and then clamber up and down rolling stairs to reach whatever volumes you needed. Needless to say, when online arrived - even in the guise of Texas Instruments TI700 barely-luggable with its "wanna-wrestle?" acoustic coupler - I never saw that sub-basement again.
Initially I hired on at Rand as a cataloger, but management used to assign us to the Reference Desk half a day a week, just to give the poor lone reference librarian time to breathe, I guess. I enjoyed it, particularly because I got a chance to chat with researchers. One day I chatted away for 45 minutes (alright, an hour) with a researcher, while, unbeknownst to me, my boss, the head cataloger, cruised the area intermittently. She transferred to head of public services a few months later and drafted me to head up Reference, telling me that she figured I had the stuff it took after observing that conversation. Her actual language as I recall was, "Looks like you're not a phony, or at least he couldn't figure it out." Life's second lesson: Doing the things you shouldn't do can sometimes do as much good as doing the things you should, especially if they feel right at the time.
Marylaine: Talk about SCOUG [Southern California Online Users Group] if you would -- how it started, what it does, how it's grown and changed over the years, and what you've gotten from it.
Barbara: Remember I told you about that boss who shanghai-ed me into Reference work? Well, one day back in the mid-1970's, I wandered into her office to complain about Dialog never offering training sessions in Southern California. "Honestly, here we are the second largest city in the country and they still make us all motor to Palo Alto like we were Peoria…" Finally, she got bored with my kvetching and told me to stop complaining and do something about it. Start an online users group and get them to come to us.
So I did.
Our first meeting in 1976 was supremely auspicious. We invited the head of a "newbie" called Information Access Company (now part of Gale Group), which promised an online (and microfiche) alternative to H.W. Wilson's Readers' Guide called Magazine Index. Dick Kollin was that wonderful speaker and became a permanent and steady SCOUG-er through all the years since. After a wonderful initial address, he got hammered by a couple of UCLA reference librarians over a data quality issue. He gulped once and then promised to fix the problem, and, when we checked, turns out he did. There, in one session, was set the pattern for the ages - vendors teaching searchers, searchers teaching vendors, everyone teaching everyone else, and somewhere around, the hammer of consumer advocacy.
Ten years into SCOUG, still operating as we do today with no dues for membership and regular quality programs designed by users for users, all depending on the talent, vigor, generosity, and professional collegiality of volunteer leadership, we decided to launch an experimental Retreat. Some of us fantasized that it would become an Aspen-like affair with vendor executives mixing with "real people" searchers as the years went by. Guess what? It did. Of course, the fact that the second retreat happened to coincide with the first major sale of Dialog and gave us a hot vendor topic that got national press coverage didn't hurt either.
Marylaine: You must have already been well-known in the searching community to be invited to write columns for Wilson Library Bulletin and Information Today. How did that come about? That is, how were you rousing rabble BEFORE you had a regular column?
Barbara: Once again, luck - and readiness -- is everything. One evening I was all set to mail out a SCOUG flyer for an upcoming meeting. By sheer happenstance, I had picked up three juicy pieces of online industry gossip, and just couldn't resist sharing them. Since the flyer had an empty page just sitting there waiting, I wrote up the gossip and titled it "SCOUG Miscellany". Within a year, I was grinding out six or more single-spaced pages every two months filled with news, tips, problems, etc. (If now were then, it would have been a webzine.) Sometimes the writing took me deep into the night, but, lucky me, RAND was open 24/7 even then (sigh). Online Inc. got a hold of some copies and drew me into their conferences and even a little writing.
Then one day in 1985 I got a call from Alan Meckler inviting me to edit and write a magazine called Database Searcher. I never looked back. A month or two before the new magazine was scheduled to start, I joined Meckler at a dinner he gave during the Online conference. Gingerly, I passed him a copy of the latest SCOUG Miscellany. Turns out he had hired me not only sight unseen, but sight unread. He read one page of my prose and spoke the words I want hacked into my tombstone, "I get it: Breezy but Profound."
Marylaine: Of all the things you do -- edit, write, speak, organize conferences, think about where our technology is taking us -- what have you enjoyed most?
Barbara: Writing and speaking. I can still remember groaning when my contact at Mecklermedia called upon receiving the first issue of Database Searcher from me and said I had to add an editorial. Now, writing my "Searcher's Voice" editorials, followed by that month's "Quint's Online" column for Information Today, marks the most enjoyable tasks of the month.
Speaking was great, though I do very little anymore. I loved to see all those shining faces and meet my readers, but two incidents on one of my last trips led me to the decision to get off the road. Dragging my be-wheeled luggage through LAX at midnight on my way to Chicago, a guard greeted me with the spine-chilling words, "Oh, I know you. You're a regular, aren't you?". Then on my way back from Chicago, a stewardess dragging her own be-wheeled luggage looked around and said, "Oh, hi! Guess we're going to have you on our flight again. Nice to see you." Man! When they recognize you 2500 miles from home in O'Hare airport, you have been on the road too long!
Marylaine: With all your varied roles, you still pride yourself on being first and foremost a librarian. If you were asked to design a library school curriculum, what are the key things you think librarians and information professionals need to be able to do? What are the attributes of the ideal information professional now?
Barbara: Commitment. Belief in the service ethic, in our role as protectors and providers for the minds in our charge. The ideal information professional remains largely the same, just the tools have changed. But we must never get trapped by formats. We define our resources, they don't define us. The greatest gift the new technologies have provided is the chance to make permanent solutions to problems. In the past, we have had to do the same things over and over. As intermediaries we got the same types of requests from the same types of users over and over. Now, when a question keeps coming up, we can record a permanent answer, or a permanent route to an answer, and mark that question forever completed.
At least we can if the sources we tap remain stable. The greatest task facing information professionals today is building flexible access to stable archives of digital information. We must build The Virtual Library that can provide all people with all answers all the time. Library school curricula must recognize that task and build the professional skill base to accomplish it. In a sense, this task only expands the commitment. In the past, no librarian could be expected to serve any but the minds in their constituency - their clients, their citizenry. They could only dream of fulfilling a commitment to all minds everywhere. Now technology has made that dream a possibility. It's our job to make it a reality
Marylaine: Barbara, thanks so much for the interview. I think you've just shown a lot of people why they might want to buy our book when it comes out.
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Personal Note: A new book in the Opposing Viewpoints Series, American Values, includes one of my columns. Originally titled "AdLib," it is re-titled here as "Advertising Demeans American Values." (It even includes study questions!) After writing 220 My Word's Worth columns, 90 Fox columns, 60 issues of ExLibris, and several articles, at last I am a REAL writer -- I'm in a book.
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The trouble with miracles is figuring out the installation instructions.
Barbara Quint, in Wilson Library Bulletin, December, 1994
They say that one of the great gifts of human design is the inability to remember pain. Unfortunately, the downside of that gift is a certain flattening in the learning curve.
Barbara Quint, in Wilson Library Bulletin, January, 1993
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You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.