10 Questions: Catherine Lavallée-Welch
Her travels, her curiosity, and her SLA experiences have taught Catherine Lavallée-Welch several skills, introduced her to new people and ideas, and broken down barriers.
By Kate Vilches, MLIS
This article appears in the September-October 2016 issue of Information Outlook.
Few librarians can claim a career as geographically diverse as that of Catherine Lavallée-Welch. After graduating from the Université de Montréal, she worked in information services in Belgium and in her home province of Québec before moving to the United States and becoming the electronic resources librarian at the University of Louisville, where she was drawn into SLA. From Kentucky, Catherine moved to the University of South Florida Lakeland, where she started her managerial career while also creating the campus library from scratch. She is now the director of the library at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, in the city of the same name.
Catherine’s SLA experience is nearly as diverse as her professional one. She has held roles in the Academic, Science-Technology, and Information Technology Divisions, chaired committees, and worked on task forces and now sits on the SLA Board of Directors.
Information Outlook asked Catherine recently about her involvement in SLA, how her international experience has influenced her librarianship, the skills that came in handy when she moved into library management, and the most unusual task she’s performed in an academic library.
You’ve had a geographically varied library career—two continents, four countries, three states, and one province. What attracted you to the profession of librarianship in the first place?
Yes, you saw my not-so-clever tagline on LinkedIn. Well, what attracted me were . . . several things. I found out, and it was in a little bit of an indirect way, that I had an uncle who was an archivist for Quebec City, which for an archivist is one of the best places to work in the province of Quebec, and maybe all of Canada. Quebec City is one of the oldest cities in North America. Personally, I really like history. I like the humanities and social sciences, and I thought what he did was completely fascinating.
So, with my love of history and my natural curiosity, I thought being an archivist would be really interesting. I did my undergrad degree in history, with a minor concentration in records and archives management. Then I started to work, and all the jobs I could find were in records management. I did that for a year. I wasn’t too thrilled about it.So I decided to go for my masters at the Université de Montréal. Doing the masters there, you could either choose a library path or an archive path. So I did the first year, which was the core courses, and I realized that the job market was not propitious—it wasn’t very good for archival work. I decided to go to the “dark side,” so I went into library. I specialized, in my second year, in indexing, and I’ve never done any kind of paid work in indexing whatsoever. I’ve always ended up more on the public services side of things, all the way to, now, being a manager, being a director of a library. I think that would be the way I got into the profession, a profession that I really enjoy.
I think it’s awesome because I get to touch so many different things—there are so many different things you can do. I worked at the beginning of my career more with not-for-profit organizations and in the co-op sector. I did websites and intranets, and I was an information broker. I started a co-op of information services and worked on digital libraries with French-speaking organizations in Europe, and that’s one of the reasons why I did work in Europe. When I moved to the United States in 2000, that’s when I became an academic librarian. I had the opportunity to set up a new library, to try new things, and to benefit from the support of a lot of people.
I have to say, I’ve been very lucky in my career and I’m very grateful for it. I was lucky also to have a supportive spouse who let me move him across the country a couple of times.
You mentioned some of your work in Europe, and you’ve worked in the United States and Canada. How has your international library experience influenced the kind of librarian and manager you’ve become?
I think any kind of travel opens your mind to how people live, how people think elsewhere. You can get culture shock, but I think it’s a very good thing, especially when you stay in a place long enough that you have to do your own laundry and your own groceries and you live in an apartment. It’s totally different from a vacation, and that’s when you really get an experience that will enrich you. You realize that people may live differently, they may go about the work that they do differently, but it can be completely valid and it still works.
Professionally, I think it brings a bit of humility. You’re not the arrogant person, and you’re not the savior. You’re there to learn. I was there to learn. It was at the beginning of my career, and I was there to learn, and I did.
I also think, personally, traveling and working overseas, working in totally different environments, helped me create a certain assertiveness and self-confidence as well. You have to deal with government offices, and they’re not always the friendliest bunch, and you have to figure out how to get a visa and all that kind of stuff. Dealing with preconceived notions of people, like what Belgian people or French people think of a Québécoise, what I went in thinking of French and Belgian people or American people—travel breaks down those barriers and whatever preconceived notions or prejudice that you may have.
I think, then, when you are a manager or when you’re in higher education, you have students and colleagues from all walks of life who may come from elsewhere, and I think it just opens you up to more diversity and to . . . people in all their differences, their marvelous differences. I think it helps you when you’re a manager.
You’re very active in SLA. How long have you been a member of SLA, and what prompted you to join?
I believe I joined in 2000. I had moved to the United States; I worked at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky.
The Kentucky Chapter of SLA is a force to reckon with. They take you in and they don’t let go, and they’re very friendly. I went to a social event they held, it was a cocktail hour kind of thing in a bar. By the end of the night, I had volunteered myself to be the webmaster and newsletter co-editor. They didn’t ask me, I volunteered. They got me, they got me!
That’s where I started becoming more involved—first in the Kentucky chapter, for the webmaster and Awards Committee, those kinds of things, then on the board of the Sci-Tech Division, IT Division, Academic Division, the Florida and Caribbean Chapter, all the way to now being on the SLA Board of Directors, which is quite an honor and privilege. I think SLA has served me and my career quite a bit, and it’s my way of giving back.
That leads really well into my next question. You’ve taken on a variety of roles, everything from, as you mentioned, being in communications and newsletters and a webmaster to sitting on task forces and steering committees, and now you’re on the SLA Board of Directors. Have any of these roles really influenced your career? Is there any particular experience that stands out?
I’ve definitely learned skills through SLA that I would not have the opportunity to learn in my regular work, at least not in the same time frame, not as quickly—things like leadership and delegation, and meeting management, and talking and presenting to large groups of people, and how to persuade people, strategic planning, those sorts of things. I think SLA has helped me gain confidence in my skills and capabilities, which then made me prone to think, yes, I could be a director, yes, I could go to Florida and go to a campus where there’s no library and start a library.I’m a big fan, as a library director, of having my librarians be involved in professional associations because I know they are going to learn skills, and it’s an investment in them and their careers. It’s also an investment in my organization, because I think I’m going to have better librarians from that. I’ve really enjoyed being active at the chapter and division level, because you can go deeper into a role and you can try things—for example, I’ve never been an event planner, so I’m going to try that. It’s a safe environment to do it.
I think being involved at the association level brings an awareness of the organization as a whole and all the parts working together, and it gives you a big picture. Last year, I joined the SLA Board; I’m in my second year now. It’s been quite an adventure, because a lot has been going on with the association, and resolve was needed, and decision and action. I think the board has achieved that.
I was on the Transition Committee last year. The Transition Committee was formed to determine what the leadership staff was going to look like after the executive officer had left. Were we going to hire a new person? Then the idea came to maybe look at AMCs, association management companies, and that’s what we decided to go with. The Transition Committee did—I mean, it was a very important task, and we were super-efficient and on task and on timeline with, I believe, positive results. I think great things are going to come with our AMC. Probably that is the particular experience that stands out the most.
You’ve had a varied career—records management, then nonprofits and academia, plus the diverse roles you’ve performed in SLA. What’s the most “outside the box” role you’ve ever taken on, either professionally or with SLA?
That’s a tricky question; it’s one I’m not sure I’ve found the answer to yet. Recently, I was a bird catcher. I mean, we have critters that come into the library. Often we have birds and bats, so one afternoon I was the only one left and a bird was trapped inside, so I had to catch it. We have nets at the front, literally.
In the very early 2000s, I created one of the first subject- or discipline-specific blogs in librarianship, which was called EngLib. I was, at the time, in an engineering and science library, so I would just find information that would be useful in new publications, conferences, and job announcements, and I would publish them on my blog. Back then, blogs were very cool and advanced. I had a lot of fun with that, and I think it was actually useful to my colleagues in science librarianship.
You’ve been a library director for about a decade, first at the University of South Florida and now at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. What advice would you give librarians who are interested in moving into management or are just entering that area—transitioning, as you said, from a specialist to a manager?
Well, I think the first step—and I think it’s good for any librarian or information professional, in fact—if you’re interested in going in management, I think you have to start thinking beyond your immediate duties and your immediate unit, beyond your library or information center. Start to figure out the place and role of your unit related to your overall organization and your overall field, like higher education in my case. How does your unit fit, and how do you contribute to the overall mission and vision of your organization and in the field? So again, it’s the bigger-picture-thinking kind of thing.I see my role as a manager or director to provide, as much as possible, to my staff and my units, the tools and resources they need to succeed, and then to give my boss, which in my case is the provost, a successful unit that runs well and contributes to the overall mission of the organization. When my staff is successful and looks good, and when my boss looks good, then I look good. That’s basically how I see my role as a manager. Managing relationships and managing people, I think, are a big part of being a boss. There’s very little training, though, that can completely prepare you to do that. It’s just easier to learn how to make a budget or follow your budget or that sort of thing than managing people. I think having a vision and being at ease with strategic planning—that’s another skill that is needed when you’re a manager.
When it comes to managing people, I think that respect and modeling and then finding what motivates people are important, and it’s not always money. It’s rarely money. Typically it’s something else that motivates people, so if you find that thing, it will help people be happier at work.
Were you able to use any SLA resources to help you transition to management—anything you might recommend to others?
What helped me is my network of colleagues that I’ve made through SLA, who have gone down the path before me and become managers. I can e-mail them, I can make a phone call, I can talk to them at the conference about challenges—that sort of thing.
What challenges have you faced as a library director? How have they differed from challenges you encountered, for example, as an electronic resources librarian?
Some challenges were, maybe—I don’t want to say they were more important, because when you’re an electronic resource librarian you have some definite and important challenges, for example, budget cuts or negotiating the best deal with a vendor. I think the challenge you face at the manager or director level is that you have to make sure you have that big picture. You don’t need to know all the details of everybody’s job, but you need to know what each is doing and how they relate to each other. You have to be prioritizing, planning ahead, strategic planning, wondering what you can do to meet the goals of the library. And then those goals, of course, have to meet the needs of your bigger organization. I think these would be the challenges.
In higher education, we have to deal a lot with budget cuts and the ever-rising prices of resources. That’s where prioritizing and strategizing are important. Of course, when you are an administrator, a director, you have to deal with a certain amount of office politics. You have to make sure that you communicate the value of your unit to the rest of the organization and that you can advocate properly for resources.
You speak French and English. Do you have any tips for information professionals who might want to become proficient in another language?
I married an American, but that may not be advice that would work for everyone. Actually, immersion is the best way of learning a second language. When you don’t have the choice of speaking the other language, that helps you learn it quite rapidly. I’m a native French speaker. I’m from Canada, so I learned English, the other official language, at a fairly young age in school, and I had schooling throughout high school in English. I also watched a lot of American shows and movies. When I moved to the States, my comprehension, my reading level, was excellent. My speaking was not up to par, I didn’t speak English that well or that often, but immersion then worked its magic.
I think in the U.S., having a second language is definitely a plus. It’s a plus in higher ed. It gives you access to more published research, for one thing. I don’t use French regularly at work, but sometimes I’ve had people ask me to translate documentation or invoices or things like that. In Florida, my campus was trying to create relationships with universities in France, so I would have people call me and say, “I need to talk to so and so in France. How do I pronounce their names?” I would do recordings. I think it just opens you up to other cultures, speaking another language. It can only be beneficial.
Now for the fun question to wrap up. What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in the library?
I enjoy playing pub trivia, in which librarianship, bilingualism, and having traveled help quite a bit. My husband is still better than me. We play together on the same team.
I enjoy walking. I enjoy movies. I’m finding myself with an increased interest in gardening. We bought our house last year and I’m getting more interested in gardening, although I don’t know what I’m doing at all. I’ll look at plants while I walk through the neighborhood—see what other people have done, what sort of trees and plants they have. I will kill any indoor plants that I have; outside plants have a better chance of making it with me. I do enjoy this.
Kate Vilches is senior research librarian at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, where she focuses on competitive intelligence, engineering, and intellectual property research as well as resource evaluation and purchasing. Outside of her library duties, Kate is involved in the company’s internal history museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.