10 Questions: Abby Thorne
Named to the first class of SLA Rising Stars, Abby Thorne soon found that patience, persistence, and skills trumped accolades when it came to landing a job.
By Stuart Hales
This article appears in the March-April 2016 issue of Information Outlook.
It’s said that good things come to those who wait. A very good thing—a challenging, permanent, full-time job—finally came to Abby Thorne nearly a decade after she received her library degree, but it’s not as though she was sitting back and waiting for it. In fact, she had hit the ground running even before she entered the job market.
While a student at the University of Kentucky, Abby started working in the Agricultural Information Center on campus. Two of her bosses—both SLA members at the time—started talking to her about becoming a librarian. Although she was lukewarm about the idea, she later changed her mind and enrolled in library school after graduation. While in graduate school, she was reunited with one of her former bosses, Valerie Perry, who pushed her to join SLA and become active.
“[Valerie] was really excellent at stressing the importance of professional associations and prodding me when she saw opportunities for involvement,” Abby says. “She’s always been very, very accessible when I’ve had questions or asked for help.”
Abby’s early involvement in SLA paid off in 2009, when she was named to the association’s first class of Rising Stars. She has continued to remain active and is now treasurer of the SLA Kentucky Chapter, which is known for being active and close-knit.
“We see each other four, five, six or even more times each year,” she says of her chapter colleagues. “Generally speaking, we all like each other personally; we’re all good friends. We get together for happy hours; we’ve done baby showers, we’ve done wedding showers; we’ve done a little bit of everything. Those connections are definitely one of the things that keep me involved.”
Information Outlook interviewed Abby as she was preparing for the Joint Spring Conference of the SLA Kentucky Chapter and the Kentucky Library Association.
You majored in agricultural communications as an undergraduate, then went directly into library school. Did you know you wanted to be a librarian when you entered college, or did something happen during your undergrad years that pushed you in that direction?
I originally enrolled at the University of Kentucky to major in agricultural biotechnology. I loved science and English in high school, which is kind of an odd combination. But after about a year of the ag biotech program and working in a plant science lab, I decided it really wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted to live as an adult. My boss and his graduate students lived in the lab–that wasn’t what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life.
So I started looking into other options. I loved the paper research involved in the biotech program and the science writing—not so much the actual lab research—so I switched to agricultural communications, because that would allow me to take the science classes I liked and also focus more on writing. I’m not sure I knew what I was going to do with my degree when I graduated, but the summer after my sophomore year, I got a job working in the Agricultural Information Center at UK. While I was there, my two bosses—one who is still an SLA member, one who’s a former SLA member—started talking to me about being a librarian and considering it as a career path. I didn’t really take their advice very seriously at the time, but after working in several campus libraries and thinking about what I was going to do after graduating, I decided to go to library school.
I think it was definitely the right choice; it just wasn’t something that came to me immediately. I guess it should have—I helped in my school libraries when I was younger. In middle school, the librarian selected a certain number of students every year to help her in the library, and I was one of those students. I helped out in my high school library somewhat, because the librarian was one of our academic team coaches. I liked doing it, but it just didn’t occur to me at the time that it was a valid career option.
At what point did you hear about SLA? Was it from the two librarians at the Agricultural Information Center?
I think I heard about it when I was a student worker in the Agricultural Information Center. Valerie Perry, who was my boss and an SLA member, was attending an SLA conference that summer, so I started learning about professional conferences because she talked about what she did after she came back.
When I went to grad school and went back to working for Valerie, she definitely pushed professional association involvement in general and SLA in particular. We have a very tight-knit group of librarians in Kentucky who regularly provide professional development, and it’s a really good way to get involved when you’re a student and still trying to figure things out.
Speaking of SLA, in 2009 you were part of the first class of SLA Rising Stars. What did that award mean to you, and what impact has it had on you and your career? Do you feel pressure to continue being a “star” in the library profession?
It was definitely very flattering, and certainly very surprising, to be given that award because I had no idea that I was being nominated, much less that I would be selected. I was very involved in SLA, so it felt really great to have something to reflect that, and it was really awesome to know that my colleagues thought enough of me to nominate me for that award.
As far as the impact on my career, I’m not really sure there’s been one. Kentucky is a very small state for library jobs, and it’s taken me a number of years to find a permanent position, so I’m not sure that the award has helped in that regard. But it certainly didn’t hurt for it to be on my vita when I was applying for permanent positions. As for pressure, I don’t think I feel pressure to live up to any expectations, but the award certainly gives me motivation to continue my involvement in SLA.
You mentioned Kentucky, so let’s go in that direction for a moment. You’re the treasurer of the SLA Kentucky Chapter, which is well known for its camaraderie and enthusiasm. How has your chapter involvement benefited you?
I think it’s one of the essential reasons I’ve stayed involved with SLA. Being in Kentucky, where we have a fairly active chapter, we get together several times a year for meetings and programming. That’s been very important for me. I don’t see it from other associations I’m involved with—like, at the state level with the Kentucky Library Association, we have one conference a year, and I see those people at board meetings because I’m on the board of that association, but I don’t see them as regularly as my SLA colleagues and I don’t know them as well.
Having an active group with the Kentucky Chapter is great because we see each other four, five, six or even more times each year. Generally speaking, we all like each other personally; we’re all good friends. We get together for happy hours; we’ve done baby showers, we’ve done wedding showers; we’ve done a little bit of everything. (laughs) Those connections are definitely one of the things that keep me involved.
I wish more people would get involved at the chapter level, because those are the people you can see most often, and they’re the easiest personal contacts to make. If I have a question in my job right now, I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to pick up the phone or send an e-mail to one of the other chapter members and ask them how they would deal with it. Those personal connections are really, really helpful. I’ve seen the impact since I took this position—I’m starting to become involved with MLA [the Medical Library Association], and it’s a lot harder to meet people because their chapters are multi-state groups whose meetings are held once a year and the locations rotate from state to state.
Let’s step back from SLA for a moment and talk about your career. The words agriculture and librarianship rarely appear together in the same sentence. What kinds of looks did you get when you told people you were a librarian at the University of Kentucky Agricultural Research Office and, later, at the Equine Research Foundation?
It was probably about the same as when I went to library school. You’re sitting in class on the first day of school, and people are asking, who are you, what was your undergrad major, and what do you think you want to do? And I would say, “My name is Abby, and I majored in agricultural education, communications, and leadership with a concentration in communications and a minor in biology,” and people would look at me like I had three heads. The standard in library school seems to be an English degree or a history degree, or maybe something in the social sciences.
So, going into a place like the Research Office or the Equine Research Foundation with a master’s in library science is not something people really understand. I think they were surprised that there’s even such a thing as a master’s degree in library science. You hear that a lot from people—“You need a master’s degree to be a librarian?”
Practically speaking, for those jobs, the skill sets I have as a librarian were needed, especially in the Research Office, because I was processing archival materials to go to the university archives. Somebody with a knowledge of the history of the College of Agriculture and agriculture in general and a librarian’s skill set would be ideal. For the Research Foundation, that was more general work—mostly serving as the assistant editor of an equine journal, with my boss as the editor. Having a knowledge of publications and editorial work was really helpful there.
So, yes, the combination of agriculture and library science is fairly unusual, I guess. But what I’ve learned is that the transferable skills that librarians have are very often useful in nontraditional locales.
You’re currently a health education coordinator. What are your primary job duties, and what does a typical day look like?
What I do now is very unusual, I think, especially in Kentucky. My position title is health education coordinator, but my role is librarian for the Don and Cathy Jacobs Health Education Center at University of Kentucky HealthCare. We provide patient education and consumer health resources to patients and their families while they’re here at UK’s Chandler Hospital. We also serve Good Samaritan Hospital, which is down the street on the other end of campus, and the clinics spread throughout the community and the state.
The public face of our department is the Health Education Center, but we’re also the patient education department for UK HealthCare, so we do a lot of work on the back end helping prepare patient education materials that clinicians will give to their patients. I do a fair amount of looking at evidence-based practice for patient education, so I do a lot of hard-core research into medical literature. We also do other things like content administration for UK HealthCare’s patient education database and managing implementation of our new interactive patient care system, GetWellNetwork.
A typical day is that I’ll come in, and there may be a patient education request from a nurse or therapist on the phone that I have to deal with immediately. I might spend several hours at our service desk answering questions for patients, or working on our collections, since we have about 600 titles of pre-printed patient education information and a collection of about 150 medical models and 175 posters, and those things are checked out by nursing students to take out in the community for clinical rotations. Then we have about 300 books that people can check out, and a few other resources that I’m responsible for. So my job involves doing reference stuff, collections management, assisting with patient ed projects, and stocking patient ed materials on the floors for things that are held at point of care.
It’s very, very different from any other job that I’ve had, but it’s really fun. My co-workers are three nurses and a health literacy writer, so we all serve different but important functions in keeping patient education at UK current, credible, and presented in health-literate formats. You’re helping people who need information that can make a big difference in their health outcomes, and it’s very rewarding. And I’m very glad that they’re coming to us, instead of taking to the World Wide Web themselves for medical information.
Health care is a field that is often described as one that could benefit from better use of information—better care for patients, better health outcomes, etc. Do you see health care as a promising field for librarians, and are there any types of jobs that hold particular promise for them?
I would certainly hope so. As the only librarian here, I certainly have plenty on my plate at any given time. And the research shows that patients with higher health literacies have better outcomes and don’t come back to the hospital as frequently, so we can decrease readmissions. This saves money on the hospital end and trouble on the patient end. These sorts of things are so important.
Especially these days, when it’s so easy to find bad information on the Internet, I think people don’t realize how essential it is to get information from a valid, credible resource. I would hope to see more library positions in health care as more and more facilities realize that the skills librarians possess can help them—skills like researching evidence-based practice. Librarians are the experts in researching, and they have a little more time to do that than nurses on the floor, who are taking care of patients. Also, librarians can do things like verifying that the patient education materials that hospitals provide reflect current best practice. These are roles for which librarians are uniquely suited, so they can save organizations time and money and save patients from potentially bad outcomes or bad experiences in the hospital.
If more librarians were to enter the health care field, this could present you with opportunities to mentor some of the younger information professionals. Did you have any mentors in your early years as a librarian, and do you feel you’re at a stage in your career where you could take on that role?
I don’t currently do any formal mentoring, but I have been in contact recently with some students at the UK library school to talk about what I do here and especially to answer questions from a set of them who were taking a class in consumer health information resources.
I did definitely have a mentor when I went through library school and was a new librarian. My former boss, Valerie Perry, was really excellent at stressing the importance of professional associations and prodding me when she saw opportunities for involvement. She’s always been very, very accessible when I’ve had questions or asked for help with job applications—just asking her about various things related to my career.
I’m hoping that, now that I’m more settled into a permanent position and have several years of experience, I can do the same thing for someone else.
So, as you look ahead at the next 5 to 10 years, how do you see your career progressing, and what are the main challenges you expect to face?
That’s a tough question to answer. I’m happy where I am, so I pretty much hope to stay here. I expect that my responsibilities will change and evolve as time goes on, and that’s always sort of challenging, especially since my position is sort of non-traditional compared to what I’ve done in the past. So I think my main challenge is to be very open and willing to learn new skill sets and take on new responsibilities.
That leads in to my final question: Knowing what you know now, if you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to Abby Thorne on the day she received her MLIS degree, what would it be?
Good question. I think, at this point, my advice would be to be patient with the job market in Kentucky. I ended up taking a lot of temporary or adjunct or project-based positions because the job market here in the state is pretty tight and challenging. But as it turns out, in most of those jobs, I picked up skills that I needed for the position I’m in now. So, looking back, the almost 10 years that it took me to find a full-time, permanent position turned out to be a really good thing, although at the time it didn’t necessarily feel like that.
I definitely remember feeling stressed about finding a job when I graduated. I wish I had known then that I needed to take all of those jobs to pick up the skills to get where I am now.
Stuart Hales is content director for the Special Libraries Association and editor of Information Outlook. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.