10 Questions: John Cruickshank

The chair-elect of SLA’s Food, Agriculture, and Nutrition Division talks about turning critics into advocates, why he hasn’t (yet) embraced social media, and why everyone should read a Management 101 textbook.

By Stuart Hales

Note: This article appears in the March-April 2015 issue of Information Outlook.

Many people, and surely many librarians, can trace their career paths back to a discussion with a friend, mentor or family member. John Cruickshank may be the only person to become a librarian because of a conversation about aluminum toxicity in plants.

Now the librarian at the University of Georgia’s Griffin Campus, John was working on a graduate degree in soil science when he underwent a “profound change” while speaking to a plant researcher. That change led him back to school years later to earn his library degree and then to stints at Mississippi State University (as both a science librarian and as branch librarian at the College of Veterinary Medicine) and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography before taking the job in Griffin.

Information Outlook spoke to John about his career in librarianship and what he sees on the horizon, why he joined SLA and why he’s still a member, and how a simple request from a faculty member led to an oral history project with a local African-American community.

Why did you become a librarian? Did you sense it was your calling in life, or was it based on pragmatic considerations?

I’m sure that, to a large extent, it was because of the morning when I learned how to use a library. At the time, I was working on my master’s degree in soil science, and I was sitting in an office talking to a plant physiologist.

I was taking a graduate reading course in plant physiology because I wanted to obtain a more basic understanding of what I was doing with plants. The course was entirely about how to use a library, and this was long before there was an Internet or databases on CD-ROMS. It really was about how to get information from a library. I had to write a 10,000-word paper on many different aspects of plant physiology as they pertained to my experiments, and I had to find all that information in the library.

That morning, the professor said to me, “Explain to me the mechanism of aluminum toxicity in plants.” So I said, “Well, that’s very well known. Aluminum simply passes through the cell wall and the membrane and accumulates in the nucleus of the cell and binds to the DNA.”

Then he said, “But how do you know that the aluminum gets into the cell in the first place?” And I said, “Well, it’s very well documented in the scientific literature.”

“What literature?” he asked. “Well,” I said, “I have about a dozen papers here I could show you.”

“But how do those scientists know that aluminum gets into the cell?” he asked. “Well, they use a very widely accepted scientific methodology,” I said. “They introduce dye into the cell, and when aluminum makes contact with the dye, it changes the color of the dye.”

Then he asked, “But how do they know that it’s aluminum that’s changing the color of the dye? How do they know it isn’t something else?”

At this point, I’m getting frustrated and I’m fishing for an answer. So I said, “Why are you asking me this? What else could it be? Too many scientists have done this to be wrong.”

So he said, “Show me the literature where it’s been tested.” And I’d never thought of doing that.

Then he said, “Well, how could aluminum get into the cell? Here’s the size of the aluminum ion, and here’s the size of the openings in the cell wall. Aluminum couldn’t possibly get into the cell.”

So I’m sitting there speechless, and then he drew out this really extensive outline of information that I needed to get from the library and put in my paper. It ranged from information on the biosphere right down to the molecular level.

Later that morning, as I was walking out of his office, I knew that I had just undergone a very profound change in my world view. I had a different understanding of science and what it was, of how scientists conduct research and how some of them don’t, of what a library is and how it’s used, and, perhaps most important of all, of the dire need that an awful lot of researchers had to get help in conducting research and learning how to conduct it.

I didn’t exactly swallow hook, line, and sinker what that professor was telling me. To this day, I still don’t know if what he said about aluminum was true—maybe he was just pulling my leg. I never bothered to find out, and I couldn’t care less. When I walked out of that office, I was thinking, here’s a scientist who has a radically different world view of plant physiology than many of his peers and very different ideas about many aspects of plant physiology, but he’s very successful in defending all of those positions because he knows how to use a library.

That morning, I sort of lost my appetite for just cranking out data. To me, the world of a librarian was fascinating. I didn’t make the connection at that time—it took a few years to begin to realize that this was the domain of the librarian, not the scientist. Yes, there are scientists out there who ask brutal questions, but for the most part, scientists are trained to use tunnel vision. But when I’m doing database searches or reference interviews, I’m asking the kinds of questions that the professor was asking me that morning.

When did you first hear about SLA, and what was your initial impression?

As well as I can remember, I was told about SLA by colleagues at Mississippi State University, where I started working in 1995. They told me it was an organization that was really in touch with its constituency, and I think they turned out to be right.

Why did you join SLA, and why have you remained a member?

Initially, I joined because it was part of my job. I was sort of expected to be part of some library organization, and this was the organization that was recommended to me.

Very soon after that, I was given many reasons to belong to SLA. I was put in charge of running a library that had a history of problems. At that time, I had no management experience and no supervisory experience. So I turned immediately to some of those wonderful, concise SLA publications on how to run a library, and I followed them like a cookbook. I did what they said to do—I even went around and had some extensive, in-depth interviews with a lot of the faculty at Mississippi State, the veterinarians and researchers, in their offices. In some cases I even watched them conduct research. I came out with a gold mine of information about things that needed to be changed at the library.

About a month after I started working at that library, I attended an SLA conference in Minneapolis. I remember attending a counseling session with a lot of librarians from Harvard, advising me on how to interact with a couple of librarians I’d been having problems with. They gave me some wonderful information.

Over the years, I’ve made a lot of contacts in SLA who have taken me well beyond what you can get out of a management book or journal article. They’ve often saved my neck and helped me identify significant oversights and opportunities. And you can’t get that from a book or journal article.

You started your library career as an academic librarian, then returned to academia in 2013 after nearly 10 years at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. What changes did you notice when you returned, and what changes do you expect to see in this field during the next 10 years?

There was about a three- or four-year window while I was at the institute when I noticed all of the changes happening in libraries. And the reason I noticed them was that researchers started coming into the institute library and asking for a lot of really old, very valuable data from the 1970s. But there wasn’t a trace of that data to be found in the library—there was no documentation on it. There were supposed to be backups of the data at other libraries, but they had gone missing as well.

I started looking into it, and I discovered that this sort of thing was very common—it goes on everywhere, at research institutes all over the nation. So I looked into it some more, and about three years before I left the institute, I embarked on a very intensive research project of my own to learn how I could help scientists with data. I read as much of the literature as I could, traveled widely to conferences and workshops, visited academic libraries and institutes, and talked to data librarians and directors of libraries—no-holds-barred discussions about not just data, but about the library world in general.

It was during those three or four years, when I was doing all of this research, that I noticed the changes in libraries. One way or another, I got to see firsthand all of the major changes I was reading about in the library literature. When you see it firsthand like that, you experience it very differently than when you just read about it.

I think Tyler Walters at Virginia Tech, the director of the libraries there, put it very well. He told me it really was the wild, wild west out there in terms of all the different experiments going on with data curation and the blending of the archival and library science approaches to information and other stuff.


As for where academic librarianship will be in 10 years, I think librarians everywhere, in every kind of library, have a serious problem. It has nothing to do with reality; it’s a problem of perception. There’s a very widespread perception of the librarian being the keeper of the book. And when you’re in a world where everyone and his dog is getting information from the Internet—and we all know how bad some of that information is—if the information does the job, that’s all people care about. But the mental image that people have of librarians scares them away from librarians and toward Google.

I don’t know how librarians are going to get over this. I don’t anticipate it will change much over the next 10 years, because I think it’s too deeply ingrained. That’s why I think all of the experiments going on in libraries with social media are critically important, because that’s how you build communities, and building communities leads to greater interaction with people, which is how you change perceptions.

There are other pieces of information going around that feed into this misperception. There’s a famous graph from ARL [the Association of Research Libraries] which shows that academic libraries have been losing ground since the early 1980s in terms of total university expenditures going to them. Their slice of the pie is dwindling. Some people think this means libraries are diminishing in importance, but I don’t think it means this at all. I think it means that libraries are better at controlling costs than other centers around campus. But it’s not the reality that matters—it’s the perception.

On the other hand, I look at the things I’m seeing in the new generation of library directors, and I’m very encouraged. I’m seeing a wonderful flattening of the hierarchical structure in a lot of libraries, and it’s just brilliant the way librarians are working in teams now. That’s critically important.

Open access is going to be even more important in 10 years. I don’t think for a minute that anyone is going to knock commercial publishers off their perch; no one is going to prevent them from making piles of money. But I don’t think that’s going to matter as much. The important thing is that we have librarians who can compete with them, which means that in 10 years’ time, there will be a more mixed economic model.

Ultimately, in the long term, I don’t see that it’s humanly possible for academic librarians to come anywhere near meeting all of the needs of faculty and students on campuses. I think there’s going to have to be some sort of self-serve model, where faculty and students are doing most if not all of the work. But I don’t see that happening in the next 10 years.

I think data curation is going to be important to libraries in a couple of ways. One is that it helps build communities around the library. The other way is that, when big business tries to come in and take over—and that day will come—we will have a critical mass of expertise on hand to compete with them. I don’t think there’s anyone working in libraries today who wants to see a repeat of the early 1990s with journals, where we got nothing but the same old PDFs decade after decade after decade. I think that with data curation, we’ll have an infrastructure of experts that will force them to be a little more innovative.

Soon after starting your current job, you began working with a local community group to research the history of the Fairmont District, an African-American subdivision of Griffin. You later reported on that history for the Fairmont Education Prosperity Initiative in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas. What prompted you to tackle this project?

At first, it was simply part of my job, because it started with what I thought was a very straightforward reference question. A faculty member wanted to know how the local African-American high school, Fairmont High School, got its name. Well, obviously, it got its name from the district, from the Fairmont subdivision, but how did that get its name? So I thought, well, I’ll just look it up in a book, but it wasn’t in any books.

So I started asking around the Fairmont community, but no one seemed to know. Then I turned to the local newspaper, which wasn’t indexed, so I had to leaf through years and years of stuff, which took an eternity. I was finally able to narrow down the time frame by going through the land records in the courthouse, so then I went back to the newspaper and took my camera along and photographed all of the relevant information I was able to find.

I fired all of this off to the faculty member who had inquired, and she was ecstatic. She immediately forwarded it to the local branch of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] here in Griffin, and they asked me to give a presentation at one of their meetings. It was a wonderful experience—they were on the edge of their seats.


After the presentation, I talked to a lot of people from the community, and we all hit on this idea of an oral history project. So, what had started as answering a reference question as part of my job had become a service to the community and was now becoming an oral history project. I took the idea to the oral history experts at the main campus in Athens and contacted some anthropologists and sociologists there, and they all got in on it and started coming down to Griffin and holding workshops for us on how to conduct interviews.

Griffin originally was a mill town, and we wanted to hear the stories of the mill workers. But most of the residents of Fairmont didn’t have the skills to be line workers in the textile mills, so they were janitorial workers and domestic staff. And this created a vicious cycle of poverty—Fairmont is one of the most persistently poor districts in Griffin, and many of the properties are substandard. All of this has created a feeling of isolation among the residents.

A lot of the older residents remember Fairmont as a good place to live; back in the civil rights era, it was a more prosperous place. Lawyers and doctors and school principals lived among the mill workers. And with this oral history project, we’re hoping to recapture the lives of those people who lived in Fairmont at that time and see how we got to where we are now. And the library is a really important part of this effort.

You mentioned that the Fairmont project began as a simple faculty request for information. What do you do on a day-to-day basis, and what are the most and least interesting parts of your job?

I’m involved with pretty much all of the aspects of running a library, except for the cataloging and IT operations. I spend a lot of my time doing database searches for researchers in the sciences and social sciences; I field reference questions; and I help patrons in the library. I spend most of my time on projects—I try not to work on more than two at a time. Right now I’m trying to get an oral history project going.

I’m fortunate to have a very good assistant here. She handles virtually all of the circulation work and pitches in wherever else I need help.

What I like best about my work is applying what I’ve learned over the years about organizational culture. I’ve studied management through the years and discussed it a lot with experts. There are very specific ways in which I use this knowledge. For example, it’s very helpful in dealing with hecklers. You walk into a lab, and a scientist says, “Oh, John, this metadata is all wrong, you librarians don’t know squat.” And the way you deal with this is to agree with him—“I know, but did you see that scientist down the hall? I can pull up his data in Google in, like, nothing. Can you do that?”

The key, in my experience, is to keep moving. The issue is not who’s right or who’s wrong—you just keep talking about things you can do for people, and sooner or later you’re going to stumble upon something they want, and they’ll have to go through you to get it. That’s how you can turn them into advocates.

I’ve often thought that if everyone got their hands on a Management 101 textbook and read it, we’d all be on the same page about 95 percent of the time. That’s probably true, but of course very few people do this.

Last year, at a regional library conference, you gave a presentation titled “How can we take the error out of trial and error?” What was the presentation about, and what did you learn from working on it?

I’ve always found information retrieval to be a fascinating subject. I’ve been studying the literature on it and attending conferences on and off over the years; sometimes I like to play around with ideas about how to teach it. At one point, a regional conference on active learning came to my attention, and I saw it as an opportunity to explore some of my ideas about information retrieval with other librarians.

My main motive in giving my presentation was to get a better sense of how complete my approach was—in other words, were there glaring oversights that someone could pick up on? As it turns out, all the feedback I got was very positive; nobody made any suggestions about how I could improve it.

Since then, my thinking on this has changed quite a bit. Things have occurred that make me see it in a different way. It’s not that what I presented was wrong—I just see things very differently now. So I consider this a work in progress. It’s something I do on the side; it’s not really part of my job.

You’re nearly invisible on social media—your LinkedIn page is largely blank, and there’s no sign of you on Facebook or Twitter. Are you consciously resisting being sucked into the social media vortex, or do you mean to get involved but just never get around to it?

For the librarian community in general, I think using social media is critically important. I myself watch social media very carefully, I study it, and I’ve relied on social media off and on since the 1990s for very specific purposes.

The first thing I did when I came here to the Griffin campus, practically on my first day, was to set up a Flickr account. I got my assistant to scan hundreds of archival photos we have of the campus, some of them going back over 100 years, and post them on Flickr. That got us a lot of attention, and several people got involved in trying to find information about the photographs.

Much of what I’ve intended to do on social media has been postponed several times, because sometimes an opportunity will come up to engage the community, and it makes sense to put that opportunity first because it’s time sensitive. For example, when the question about Fairmont High School came through, and suddenly a simple reference question had the potential to create a community around the library, it made sense to change my plans. And with the oral history project starting, the pressure is on to get some social media going for that.

As for my personal use of social media, I don’t think I ever consciously said to myself that I don’t have time or that it’s not worth it, but I’m not one of those librarians whose career utterly depends on it. That said, my situation is changing—I’m much more involved now in SLA than I have been in the past, and in different ways, so I’ll certainly be wanting to share more information. It’s just a matter of finding a minute here and a minute there to start working on it.

Speaking of SLA, you’re the chair-elect of the Food, Agriculture & Nutrition Division, which doesn’t sound like the most exciting group. What passes for fun at FAN meetings, and what do FAN members know that would make other librarians envious?

Well, food, agriculture and nutrition sound pretty sexy to me!

I think fun is a by-product of serendipity more than anything else, so I would suggest that SLA members drop by FAN’s science and food sessions at the annual conference in Philadelphia in 2016. Come and hear Dr. Solomon H. Katz. He’s an elite scientist—he’s on the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he’s an anthropologist, and he’s the editor of the Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. So it might be fun to listen to him talk about how beer is responsible for the birth of civilization, or what food has to do with religion and culture. This year in Boston, I think it will be fun to join FAN’s tour of America’s test kitchens or FAN’s discussion of Julia Child’s papers at Harvard.

FAN sponsors all kinds of other events as well. But maybe what you need to do is just drop by one of our regular meetings and see for yourself.

You worked with oceanographers at a previous job and assist agricultural researchers in your current position, so you’re certainly familiar with the sustainable fishing and farming movements. If you operated a restaurant at your library, what would you serve for the surf ‘n’ turf special?

Since everyone here on our campus is very, very wealthy, might I suggest Atlantic shrimp, lobster tail, crab legs, ribeye steak, chicken breast, and pork chops?

Of course, the key is where you get it all. If you don’t get it from the right place, it’s not sustainable. There are people out there who say there’s no such thing as sustainable, just as there are people who insist there is. So we have to settle on some definition of what we mean by sustainable, and then figure out where to get the food that will meet that definition.

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