Career Advice: 2012 Mover & Shaker Nina McHale

LJ's Career Insights reaches out to our Movers & Shakers and asks about key moments in their careers. Nina McHale, who seeks cutting-edge avenues for technology to serve patrons better, is one of our tech leaders.
LJ's Career Insights reaches out to our Movers & Shakers and asks about key moments in their careers. Nina McHale is one of our 2012 tech leaders.

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Nina McHale Movers & Shakers 2012


CURRENT POSITION Assistant Systems Administrator Arapahoe Library District, Englewood, CO
DEGREE MA/MSLS, English and Library/Information Science, Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, 2002
HONORS Auraria Library Excellence in Research and Creative Activities Award, 2008, 2011
FOLLOW @ninermac Mile High Librarian
Photo ©Sean McGinty Photography LLC
What skills, events, or other opportunities have you found most useful to your career? The overall theme to my career advice is Build Your Network. My most valuable professional asset is my network of colleagues, many of whom I’ve met through collaborative research projects, service opportunities, and at library conferences. I have close friendships with so many people whom I first met professionally! Almost any time I have a question about something work-related, I can think of a handful of fabulous librarians who have probably already solved the very problem I’m working on, and you can always count on a librarian to share a solution. In turn, of course, I do the same. Because of this, it distresses me that so many libraries don’t support travel; while I understand that many are operating under strapped budgets, it’s an investment in your institutional future to send your staff out into the world to connect in person with like-minded colleagues. Is there a colleague or mentor who has helped you in your career, and, if so, how did they help? When I originally enrolled in grad school, it was an English MA program. I didn’t get a teaching assistantship right away, so I went looking for a work/study position with an academic department. Elizabeth Aversa, who was dean of the School of Library and Information Science at The Catholic University of America at the time, hired me, telling me, “An English major, huh? I was an English major, too, wanted to write the next great American novel. I’m going to make you into a librarian.” I had no idea what to say; I really wasn’t interested in being a librarian. Yet, here I am; she was right. For the next eight months, I earned my work/study money by helping the school assemble documentation for their accreditation process, and Dean Aversa and her colleagues convinced me to pursue a joint MA/MSLS degree. While Dean Aversa got me on track to a career in libraries, more recently, Roy Tennant of OCLC has helped me fully discover my true place within them. In a profession that is predominantly women, it’s concerning that so many high-level tech jobs are still held by men. Roy mentors a small, informal group of women who are passionate about tech in libraries. While I’m fortunate enough to be able to say that I don’t feel that I personally have ever been the target of any gender-based inequity in the places I’ve worked, it’s fantastic to have a close network of female friends who share a common passion for tech, and it’s equally fantastic to have the ear of someone who has contributed so much to technology in our profession to chat with or bounce ideas off of when you’re feeling unsure about any aspect of work, your job, or your career. Roy helped me through a very difficult time in my career; I was ready to jump ship and leave libraries, and he talked me out of it. Do you feel that any of the equity gaps — generational, gender, racial, educational — in the library world have affected your career’s trajectory? I definitely feel generational demographics at play in my career trajectory. I’m solidly GenX by all of the varying definitions, and whether or not you agree with generational characteristics and definitions, the demographics don’t lie: the roughly 40 million GenXers are sandwiched by 80 million Baby Boomers and 80 million Millennials. The predicted wave of Baby Boomer retirements didn’t happen, which many have of course attributed to the downturn in the economy, and as a result, it seems like there has been less opportunity for advancement for those of us who are mid-career. This is compounded for me simply because I work in web development as well; most libraries still don’t have large web shops. While I enjoy working in small, close-knit teams, fewer people equals fewer supervisory roles, and I have not had as much opportunity to supervise as I would like. The flip side of that, though, is that I can continue to expand my own knowledge in web technologies, extending the reach of what we can accomplish in our online environment. What do library schools have to do to better prepare graduates for the job market? My instant, knee-jerk reaction answer to this is MOAR TECH. I don’t mean proficiency in individual programming languages or specific software packages, but bigger picture things like change management, best practices for launching new products, file and data management, industry technology standards, and version control. These were things that I learned by trial and error—lots of error. Also, so many of our vendor products are clunky, don’t interact well with one another, are not standards compliant, and, to be perfectly honest, do a lot to hurt our users’ perceptions of us. We have been slaves to bad vendor products for too long, and new professionals need to be able to the talk to not only negotiate, but collaborate, with the companies that provide us with technology platforms. For example, we are at a crucial point in our relationship with publishers regarding ebooks. I believe that everyone has a place at this table, but we need to put ourselves in a position to advocate for our users and not blindly accept the tools and platforms that are handed down to us. We have too willingly thrown too much money at substandard products for too long, and one of the best ways to break this cycle is to arm ourselves with more knowledge about the technologies involved. Where would you like to be in five years professionally? What’s your dream job? A couple of years ago, at a leadership retreat for our state library association, we were asked to write five crazy, pie-in-the-sky things that we wanted to do with our lives on a piece of paper. I was surprised to see the words “be a library web consultant” come flowing out of the end of my pen. I’ve been toying with the idea of being a consultant on and off ever since, but the reality of my personal life—we have three kids, 10, 8, and 6, and care for a parent as well—just doesn’t allow for that right now. The notion of consulting taps into my love of teaching and training, and the prospect of working with more people, on more library web sites, makes me feel like I’d be contributing back to a community that has given me so much. 99% of my own tech knowledge has come from seeking out information from others who are willing to share and help me move forward. What was your biggest failure as a librarian and what did you learn from that experience that helped you grow? My biggest failure has been not knowing when, or even how, to say “No.” This stems in part from being a tenure-track librarian faculty member from 2006 until 2011, where continuity of employment was based on a successful publishing record, participation in service, and otherwise making a name for oneself. This kind of professional involvement tends to snowball; the more you do, the more you get asked to do. I said “yes” to everything, and the hard lesson learned was this will very quickly burn you out. The excitement of making your contribution to a profession that you’re passionate about is replaced by dread and misery. When these activities and obligations are depleting you rather than fulfilling you and complementing your day job, it’s time to let some of it go. Also, any volunteer work that you undertake should benefit not only the group/organization, but you as well. Even if you’re asked to participate in a high-profile project, if you feel like your efforts are not making a difference, or if you’re not gaining anything personally from that involvement, stop draining yourself and seek out another opportunity that is a mutually beneficial fit. Any words of wisdom for those coming into the field? Network, network, network! Find your peeps, wherever they may be; for me, this was joining ALA’s LITA, the Library and Information Technology Association. Take advantage of student membership pricing for ALA, your state association, or any other group where you can find your professional soul mates. If there’s not an existing group out there, make your own; chances are, there’s someone else like you who has similar interests and is looking to connect. And you don’t necessarily need to pay membership dues or travel to connect; there are scores of librarians on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and in many other virtual venues. Also, seek out a mentor outside of your workplace whose work inspires you. The increasingly collaborative nature of our work propels us all forward!

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