10 Questions: Leslie Hicks and Tracy Maleeff

Shared interests in social media and networking led to a collaboration that resulted in the top-rated contributed paper presented at SLA 2015.

By Stuart Hales

Note: This article appears in the July-August 2015 issue of Information Outlook.

One lives and works on the East Coast, the other on the West Coast. One began her career as a travel agent, while the other had dreams of becoming the next Indiana Jones. One is an avid sports fan, the other enters competitive canning competitions (yes, you read that correctly). One sees herself as a Sherpa, guiding her clients up mountains of information; the other self-identifies as a ninja, with enough tricks up her sleeve to satisfy even the most demanding of information users.

They found each other on Twitter (how else?). After discovering they shared a passion for networking, they decided to do more than just tweet about it. Across 3,000 miles and three time zones, they collaborated on a paper they presented at the SLA 2015 Annual Conference. Though they had never met until they arrived in Boston, they were soon talking and acting like old friends. And next year, they’ll have the opportunity to meet again—theirs was judged the best of the 12 contributed papers presented at SLA 2015, so they’ll both receive free registration to attend SLA 2016 in Philadelphia.

The story of how Tracy (Maleeff) met Leslie (Hicks) sounds like a modern-day social media success story, but in fact it’s a time-honored SLA tradition. SLA brings together information professionals from different environments—in Tracy’s case, a law firm; in Leslie’s, a corporation—and provides opportunities for them to achieve more than they could individually. The contributed paper Tracy and Leslie wrote, and their work together on the SLA Online Content Advisory Council, are testaments to the value SLA offers.

Information Outlook spoke to Tracy and Leslie in August, in a wide-ranging interview that addressed everything from why they became librarians to why they like Twitter to how they relax.

The two of you co-wrote a paper, “Network Like Nobody’s Watching: Demystifying Networking as a Skill for the Librarian and Information Professional Community,” and presented it at SLA 2015. What prompted you to write the paper, and how difficult was it to collaborate across three time zones?

Tracy: I think it has to be mentioned at the outset that Leslie and I met each other for the first time at the Boston conference. We didn’t actually know each other except through Twitter. (laughs)

But I think what prompted us to write the paper was that Leslie and I share a disdain for the labels introvert and extrovert. We kept chiming in on each other’s tweets, and we would both get annoyed when people would say “introvert” or “extrovert.” And I think it was Leslie who threw the idea out to me—hey, we keep going back and forth over Twitter, why don’t we channel our anger about introvert and extrovert into something positive, like writing a paper.

Leslie: It wasn’t just anger at the labels. I think both of us have a passion for professional development and networking in general. We connected over those topics on Twitter, so it seemed like a good idea for us to write a paper about networking. And I also wanted to write a paper about networking because of my job. I can’t really publish about what I do, but networking is something that I’m passionate about, and it’s a topic that touches our entire profession. So I was already very interested in writing about this.

Tracy Maleeff (left) receives a Presidential Citation from 2014 SLA President Kate Arnold.

Tracy Maleeff (left) receives a Presidential Citation from 2014 SLA President Kate Arnold.

Tracy: So, yeah, all of this started to come together through Twitter, but I was hesitant at first—not because of Leslie, but because of all I had to do for the conference as the conference chair. I thought, don’t I already have enough on my plate? But as Leslie said, we are so passionate about networking as a professional development skill and a core competency that the lure of being able to put it into something that would be seen in our community was too strong. So I said, I’m in, let’s do it.

Leslie: And the reason we wrote a paper was because, by the time we realized we wanted to do something, it was too late to schedule a conference session. So we decided to write a paper, because we still had time for that. We used Google Docs to collaborate on it—it really wasn’t that difficult.

Tracy: No, it wasn’t. A couple of times we had to speak on the phone, and because of the time difference, it would be 10:00 my time and Leslie would be driving home from work. But we were able to get in half an hour or 45 minutes of uninterrupted paper chat. So it wasn’t difficult at all—the time difference was the least of our problems.

What did each of you learn from researching and writing the paper, either about the topic or about yourself (or both)?

Leslie: A lot of our sources for the paper were from outside librarianship and information management—for example, many of them were from business literature. It was really interesting to me to see what professionals outside librarianship have to say about networking and what we could apply to it. I think that was the most interesting thing for me.

Tracy: I agree. And I was surprised to see how many academic articles had been published about networking. Many of the trade publications and trade newspapers had stuff about networking, but I recall we also came across some Psychology of Networking sorts of articles and other things like that. I’m not sure we used all of them in our paper, but we were very proactive—we filled an entire Google Doc with all of our sources. We had way more sources than we could actually use.

As far as learning about myself, just the fact that I wrote a contributed paper was a learning experience. I was always under the impression that the contributed papers were academic papers, that someone from the law firm world or the corporate world wasn’t supposed to participate in them. I know it sounds silly to say that, but I never thought it was an option for me. I think Leslie said something to me about that at one point—that we kind of felt like we were outsiders in a way.

Leslie Hicks in the information center at her workplace.

Leslie Hicks in the information center at her workplace.

Leslie: Yeah, I was excited that our paper was selected for presentation, because we weren’t really doing a study or a recap of a project. We were writing about a skill. So that was kind of what I learned—that the contributed papers aren’t just for academics.

I know a lot of people consider networking to be a sort of soft skill, one that’s not as important as other things like tech skills. So to be able to back up our arguments with actual academic sources was really interesting to me.

Do you see yourselves building on this paper and developing other resources about networking, such as Webinars, or is this your final word on the subject?

Tracy: One of our mantras that we like to hashtag each other on is “always be networking,” which is a riff on the Glengarry Glen Ross theme of “always be closing.”

Leslie: We have a proposal in for the 2016 conference to present an actual session on networking. And we’ve also both been approached to talk to local student groups abut networking and professional development. So I don’t think we’ll stop talking about this topic any time soon.

Tracy: No, not at all. I’m going to be speaking to the San Jose State University iSchool next month, and the whole hour will be devoted to networking. So it’s just going to grow from here. And we can use the paper as a resource with these groups that we talk to.

Your paper clocks in at more than 5,000 words, which is decidedly longer than the 140 character (or fewer) tweets you’re known for writing. What is it about Twitter that captivates you?

Tracy: I like the immediacy of it. You can put something up there and have responses and retweets and likes very quickly. And the reach that it has—I “know” people from all over the world from Twitter, mostly the librarian set. It’s pretty fast.

Leslie: I agree with Tracy about the immediacy of it. I really like the connections I’ve made on Twitter—I met Tracy there, and I’ve met a lot of other really interesting people from our profession and from outside our profession. One of the original reasons that drew me to “library Twitter,” if you want to call it that, is that I used to be a solo librarian, so it was a really good way for me to connect with people in our community and bounce ideas off of them. So that’s what originally drew me to Twitter. And while I’m not a solo any more, I still find a lot of value in the interactions I have on Twitter.

Tracy, your Twitter handle is @LibrarySherpa; Leslie, yours is @LibrarianNinja. Why did you choose these handles, and do you see yourselves ever retiring them and assuming new identities?

Tracy Maleeff, the "Library Sherpa," visits Alberta, Canada.

Tracy Maleeff, the “Library Sherpa,” visits Alberta, Canada.

Tracy: Oh, no, I’m branded for life. I’m the LibrarySherpa. It’s a long story how I got there, but the nutshell version is that at my old firm, I was not allowed to write—even for SLA—using my firm’s name. I felt discouraged from just using my own name as well. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I realized I needed to create an alternative person for myself so I could write and blog and do other professional things. And it literally just came to me one night: @LibrarySherpa, your guide up a mountain of information. I was trying to capture the spirit of librarianship, and I feel I’m a guide, and the name was available (laughs), so I just ran with it.

Leslie: I’ve been on Twitter since 2008, and originally my handle was just my name. But one day, while I still worked at my previous job, I was boasting to my husband about a researcher who needed a lot of information and I tracked it all down and I was really proud, and he made some comment about, “You’re like a Ninja librarian.” And I immediately thought, Oh my God, I love it. So I went to change my handle, and unfortunately there was already a @NinjaLibrarian, so I just reversed the words and became @LibrarianNinja. I really like it, and I’m sticking with it.

What made you become librarians in the first place?

Leslie: As an undergrad, I double majored in anthropology and history, and during that time I worked at my university’s library. That experience sparked my interest in libraries in general, but what happened is that I eventually realized that what I liked most about history and anthropology was the research aspect. So, after I graduated and traveled a bit and worked overseas, I returned home and went to library school with the intent of becoming a reference librarian in an academic or museum setting. Then I kind of fell into corporate librarianship. That’s about it—nothing really too fancy.

Tracy: I also sort of fell into it. Librarianship is a second career for me; my first career was as a travel agent. I could see that the travel industry was waning, so I went back to school, and I did an internship at Temple University’s archives and had a moment of enlightenment where I realized, Oh, wait, this is a job—people can work in libraries and archives.

When I got my first job after I graduated with my bachelor’s—I went back to library school later—I worked for Baker & Taylor, which is a professional cataloging company. I was talking to one of my co-workers one day about librarianship, and she said, if you want to go anywhere in this field, you’ll need an MLIS degree. And I thought, I’m gonna’ get me one of those. (laughs) And the rest is history. So it was sort of by accident—I just wanted to do something that was more stable than being a travel agent.

I’d always been a fan of libraries; it just didn’t occur to me to be a librarian. I’m not one of those people who knew all their lives that they wanted to be a librarian. I mean, I respect those people who have that conviction, but that’s just not me. It took a journey for me to find this professional path.

Leslie: I’m the same way. I’ve always loved libraries—I use the public library a ton to this day. But I went to school with the full intention of becoming Indiana Jones. (laughs) I even worked on archaeology digs for a little while. I kinda’ fell into librarianship, and I love it.

When and why did you join SLA, and what do you like most about it?

Tracy: I technically joined when I was in library school, but honestly, I don’t think I knew what I was doing with it then. But when I got my first law firm job, in 2006, I was told that one of the perks of the job was paid membership in an association. I was basically told, “You will join SLA” and I said, OK.

Everything really took off for me in 2007 when I won the Legal Division’s new member travel stipend to attend the conference in Denver that year. I was so grateful for that opportunity because it changed everything, and I wanted to give back, so that’s why I started to get involved.

What I like most about it is the networking, obviously. I’ve gotten to meet so many people—I’m still friends with people I met at that first conference in Denver. The networking is amazing, the community is great, and it’s just a wonderful group of people.

Leslie: I knew about SLA previously, but I didn’t join until I started my current job. My employer pays for my membership, and I knew SLA was the place for corporate librarians. I got involved locally with my chapter, and pretty quickly on a bigger level with the divisions I belong to.

I love connecting and meeting people, and I really like the conference. This year in Boston was my first SLA conference, and it was an eye-opener for me. I’ve been to a lot of other library conferences, but SLA was the best one I’ve attended.

I like meeting all of the people and learning about the different library jobs out there. I think SLA is a great representation of the variety of things you can do with a library degree. I don’t think you get quite the breadth of diversity of what you can do with a library degree from other professional library associations out there.

And I love the fact that SLA is international. I belong to some other organizations that are based in the United States, and one of the things I love most about SLA is the fact that we have international chapters and we get to meet people who perform librarianship in other countries.

Tracy: I’m actually a board member of the SLA Europe Chapter. It’s been great for me to be able to develop professional relationships and even friendships with people from not only Europe but from around the world. It’s really life-changing—you get to learn about other cultures and how our profession operates in other countries. It’s really amazing.

Look ahead 10 years, and assume you’re collaborating on another contributed paper to present at SLA 2025. What’s the topic of that paper? Is it about a new challenge facing librarianship, or something like networking that’s timeless?

Tracy: If we were to do networking again in 10 years, I have to think the focus would be on how new technologies can help with your networking. The basic human principle won’t have changed, but the technology will have changed.

Leslie: I agree. If we were to do something about networking in 10 years, it would probably be about how new technologies can help you. Technology has evolved in such a way that people network digitally much more than they do in person, and I think that’s pretty amazing. There are always challenges facing our profession, but I think networking is pretty timeless.

Between your SLA duties and your jobs, you’re both extremely busy. What do you do to recharge your batteries?

Leslie: To just get away from it all, I run. I do my long runs on the weekends, and that’s one of the few times I have to myself. I tend to do it on trails, so I’m in the woods. I really find it a good way to recharge my batteries.

I also garden quite a bit. I raise heirloom vegetables—I’m pretty passionate about finding new types of them, so I talk to other seed savers a lot.

Leslie Hicks shows off her prize-winning pickles at the 2014 Oregon State Fair.

Leslie Hicks shows off her prize-winning pickles at the 2014 Oregon State Fair.

Because of my gardening, I had to figure out a way to preserve all of my vegetables, so I started canning them. Then I got involved in competitive canning, which basically means I enter all of my canned goods in local and county state fairs. I’m usually the youngest participant in these events, by quite a bit! I’ve had some pretty good success in these events—I am the 2014 Polk County Pickle Champion, and this year I won the pickle championship “Best in Show” award for Marion County. I even have a blog devoted to my canning escapades called Canning is My Sport. I’m a very competitive person, and canning is a way to channel my competitiveness into something productive.

I like to give back, so I’m involved in SLA, but I’m also on the Oregon State Library Board of Trustees, which is a governor-appointed board. It’s a four-year term, and I’m entering my second year. Our board meetings are held around the state at different libraries, so I’ve had a chance to connect with other librarians and libraries here in Oregon. It’s been very interesting for me, because as a corporate librarian, I really don’t have as much exposure to the larger library community in Oregon.

Tracy: I like to knit; I like to cook. I have my two dogs, Sammi and Reese, and I like spending time with them. My husband and I are avid sports fans, so we follow English Premier League soccer and U.S. football and college football and so on. I have a lot of jerseys from different teams.

I also—and this isn’t going to sound like something that recharges my batteries, but it does—mentor two SLA members. They’re both outside the U.S., so we communicate through social media or by e-mail. I check in with them, send them articles, and make sure their careers are progressing.

I also blog. I always like to learn, so it’s relaxing to me to surf the Web to find things to blog about or pass along to people or tweet. In my spare time, I’m also learning about information security and cybersecurity. I know it doesn’t sound relaxing, but it interests and excites me.

Speaking of mentoring, what one piece of advice did you receive from a mentor or teacher that’s been invaluable to you in your career, and what one piece of advice would you share with someone who’s just entering the profession?

Leslie: A former boss told me that it’s all about the connections you make and the effort you put into them. That’s helped me be successful in my current job and past jobs because I really put an effort into making connections with every patron who comes into our library and all of the people I work with. You never know, especially in the corporate world, whether the person you help today will be your boss in two weeks. So I always try to make connection s with people and keep those connections up after they leave the library.

This has been important to me in the corporate world, but I think it’s good advice for anyone. It really is about putting effort into building and maintaining your relationships. It helps you in your professional development; it helps you be effective at your job. Even to this day, because of connections I’ve made in the past, I know who to call if I have a question. I have connections I can talk to if I need to solve a problem.

Tracy: So, Leslie and I did not coordinate our answers, but my answer is very similar to hers, which makes sense considering that we wrote about networking. The advice that I received was actually two different things that were similar. One was an anecdote about a professor who gave a final exam to his class, and the question was, What’s the name of the cleaning lady who cleans this room? His point was that it didn’t matter what you had learned during the semester if you can’t meet people and make connections with them. There’s also the maxim about being nice to people on the way up because you might need them while you’re on the way back down.

Those two pieces of advice are all about being people-centric and having a network and getting to know the office cleaner just as you would want to know the CEO. Be curious about everyone. Have a foundation of relationships and nurture it. Always be networking!

Stuart Hales is senior writer/editor at SLA and editor of Information Outlook.

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