10 Questions: Lois Ireland
Brief stints in public libraries nurtured a customer service ethos that has served Lois Ireland well during her long career in government and corporate settings.
By Stuart Hales
This article is published in the November-December 2015 issue of Information Outlook.
Many organizations have eliminated their physical libraries and information centers in recent years, and some have done the same to their switchboards and call centers. Lois Ireland is the rare librarian who has managed to survive the former and benefit from the latter.
Not long after being hired at Freddie Mac, where she is director of Corporate Business Services, Lois was assigned to oversee the replacement of the corporate switchboard with an automated call attendant. She used her knowledge of cataloging and controlled vocabularies to make sure the automated system could properly route calls to Freddie Mac’s employees and its many corporate offices, including the library. Although the physical library no longer exists, Lois and her fellow library staff at Freddie Mac have developed a reputation for being a “knowledge hub” for the organization.
Information Outlook interviewed Lois recently about her stints as a public librarian, her involvement in SLA, whether she would encourage a college student to consider a library career, and why she never left her job to become a seamstress or professional dancer.
You entered library school right after you graduated from college. Did you go to college knowing you wanted to be a librarian, or did something happen during your college years that turned you on to a library career?
I did have an interest in being a librarian when I went to college. I started working in the local public library at 16 as a page, and eventually I was given more responsibility to work on the circulation desk and then the reference desk a little bit. I worked there in the summer during high school and college—from the age of 16 until I graduated from college—and then during summer and winter breaks while I was in college.
I also worked at my college library in the government documents section. So I had the chance to see a public library setting and an academic library setting, and I decided that, yes, this is something I would like to do. When graduation approached, I started looking at library schools and ended up at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Did you hear about SLA while you were in library school, or did you join later?
There was an SLA student chapter at Chapel Hill, and I was actually president of the student chapter while I was there. Looking back, it didn’t feel like we did a lot, but there was a student group, and I can remember some networking events with other library students at North Carolina Central.
You’ve worked in special library environments practically your entire career, but you had some early experiences with public libraries. Why did you make the switch, and did you learn anything from your public library experience that has been helpful to you as a special librarian?
I worked briefly at the New York Public Library. It was a function of proximity—the job was available when I came out of library school and moved to that area. Then I worked for an engineering company for almost a year, then moved back to North Carolina and got a job in another public library. It was the same thing as in New York—it was based on proximity.
What I came to value about that job and about public libraries in general is that you’re exposed to all kinds of resources. You really have to think on your feet. You never know who’s going to be on the other end of the phone—it could be an 8-year-old with a homework question, or a local businessperson looking for a supplier. We had to deal with the homeless and the mentally ill, and we had some shut-ins who would call us nearly every day. This was the late 1980s, pre-Internet, and I think these folks just wanted to be able to talk to someone.
Working in public libraries, your customer service skills get developed in a different way. I think it builds empathy, because the user base is so diverse and the needs are so varied. Public libraries also kind of set the bar for me in terms of being busy. The library in North Carolina was in an urban area, and on weekends during the school year right before science fair season, the phone never stopped ringing. People were standing three-deep at the desk, and my feet hurt when I went home at night. (laughs) Yes, we’re busy at the libraries where I’ve worked since then, but it’s a different kind of busy.
I think every librarian should work in a public library at some point, just to see how it feels. Public libraries are a real touchstone for the community—they provide a service that is unique.
You’ve worked in public libraries, on a contract assignment with the Environmental Protection Agency, and for the past 18 years at Freddie Mac, a government-private sector hybrid organization that helps provide access to home financing. Have you developed a “librarian persona” from all of these experiences?
I think of myself as a corporate librarian—the culture here is very corporate. We try to serve information needs across the entity, whether it’s IT or legal or the business areas. We’re always looking for tools and resources that will help support all of these groups.
That said, with the skill sets I’ve developed, I think I would be able to move into a new setting relatively easily. I didn’t have an environmental background when I went to the EPA, but I picked up a lot of the subject matter on the job. And I knew only vaguely what Freddie Mac does when I started here, but they were looking for someone with overall library skills and management experience, and I was able to learn on the job and teach myself things as I went along.
Being able to ask the right questions makes a big difference. People will come to us and ask for stuff, and we may not know what it is they want, but if we ask good questions we can find it. And I think that goes back to the public library reference interview—you get used to saying, “Tell me more.” So, if I left Freddie Mac, I’d probably be inclined to look for a corporate library position. But I wouldn’t rule anything out.
One of your early assignments at Freddie Mac was to do something I’m sure they didn’t teach you in library school—set up an automated phone system for the company. How did that fall into your lap, and what did you learn from the experience?
The library at Freddie Mac is part of Corporate Services, which houses all of the non-IT support services, including the corporate switchboard. During a reorganization of functions, the switchboard came under my direction. The logic was that the library provides information internally, and the switchboard staff provide information to external callers. So that’s how I wound up with the switchboard.
As we were converting from onsite personnel to an automated system, it made sense for me to oversee the implementation of the automated phone attendant. I know everyone loves to hate those things, but there’s a real art to figuring out how to set one up.
There’s a logic involved in making sure things point to the right direction. It’s like a combination of Web page development and cataloging. You’re building menu structures—you can’t just say, “Give me the number for IT” if you’ve got six numbers for the IT Department, so you have to build out a menu that prompts people to say, “I need software development” or “I need the service desk” or whatever other part of the organization they’re trying to reach.
One of the components or functions of the system is that you can include synonyms. So, if someone asks for the library but we’re also known as the information resource center, you can put both of those terms in. We had to think of other words people would use to ask for particular functions. So there’s your controlled vocabulary. (laughs)
There was an engineer with the company that manufactured the phone system who was onsite and was coaching us through the development of the automated attendant. And the onsite phone personnel had their own data set that they were already utilizing. We just took that information and entered it into the automated system.
You’ve been at Freddie Mac 18 years now, which is a long tenure with one employer by today’s standards. What do you consider your proudest accomplishment so far, and what do you think you could have done better?
Well, we’re still here. I know of a number of banking and financial services libraries that have closed in the time that I’ve been at Freddie Mac, but we have not succumbed to that same fate. We’ve had some brushes with that, but we’ve managed to avoid them.
When I first arrived at Freddie Mac, the perception was that the library was only there to serve the Legal Division. We put a lot of effort into changing that perception, to getting people to recognize that we are a resource for all business areas within the corporation. I think we have developed a reputation for being a knowledge hub for the company. We regularly get calls from people who say, “I don’t think this is you, but do you know who I should talk to about …?” And oftentimes, we do know, or we can at least point them in the right direction. That reputation of being a knowledgeable resource is one that I’m quite proud of—we’re known for being a quality resource and service across the company.
There’s always something you can do better. Some of our outreach efforts flopped, quite frankly, in that we just couldn’t seem to increase usage among certain user groups. We might get one or two loyal converts, but the rest of the group just wasn’t interested.
Getting back to SLA, you weren’t very active for several years after you joined, but ultimately you became president of the D.C. Chapter. What prompted you to become more involved, and how do you think you’ve benefited from taking on leadership roles?
I was a lurker, I admit it. (laughs) When I first moved up here and was doing contract work at the EPA, my company covered the cost of membership. They were very supportive of belonging to SLA, and one year they said they would pay the cost of attending the SLA Annual Conference if you got a paper accepted. I had submitted a proposal for a poster session and it was accepted, so I went to Seattle in 1997.
That made things a little more interesting for me. Then I moved to Freddie Mac, which is out in Tysons Corner, in the suburbs, so getting downtown for D.C. Chapter events required some effort. I was feeling a little restless and isolated, I guess, and then one year the chapter put out a call for dine-around hosts, and I thought, I can do that. So I hosted a dine-around, and people showed up, and we had a nice conversation. So I did it again, and then I did it another time, and then suddenly I got a phone call from someone in the chapter asking me if I would consider running for sponsor relations chair.
So I did that, and I was elected, to my surprise. That got me on the board, and I did rather well with it, and the next thing I knew, I was asked to run for president. I found that I really enjoyed getting to know others in the D.C. library community. It forced me to get out of Tysons Corner and go into the city for things that I probably wouldn’t have attended before.
I’ve been a manager for several years, so I didn’t get more involved in SLA to acquire management skills, which I think is what a lot of younger professionals get out of it. For me, it was a matter of making connections in the local library community and being more a part of that community and the profession.
During your career as a librarian, the profession has been pressured by advances in technology, budget cuts, and a growing sense that librarians are misunderstood and under-appreciated. Would you encourage a college student to become a librarian today, and if so, what advice would you give him or her about how to be successful?
I would certainly encourage people to consider a career in library science. My staff and I have seen a number of areas within Freddie Mac that could have benefited from having an embedded librarian or someone with those skills. We’ve been working with one group in particular to set up a research process, and in talking with them, it’s been apparent that they could have benefited from having someone who understands research processes—someone who knows you can’t just rely on the computer algorithm to answer every question. We were playing that role for them, and then someone from their group came to the library one day and said, “I’ve been looking for this piece of information and I haven’t been able to find it, and I was hoping you could look for it.” The reference librarian found it in about 15 minutes, and they wanted to know how she did it, and her response was, “I have 20 years of experience and a library degree.” They were hoping for some kind of simple checklist, I think, but we know there’s more to it than that.
There are opportunities for librarians, but they may not be what we think of as traditional library opportunities. I no longer have a physical space—I have a set of bookshelves that hold hard copies of things that are not available electronically, but that we’ve held onto because they’re important to what we’re doing. However, we are not in a traditional library space anymore.
It’s not about the place, and it’s not about the stuff. It’s about the service. For someone who’s interested in providing that kind of service and has a research mindset and a logical way of thinking about things, this can still be a good profession to enter.
A lot of librarians “follow” other librarians on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Is there anyone outside the library field you follow—whether through social media or in some other fashion—who offers ideas and advice that are helpful to you professionally?
I have a liberal arts education, and that background taught me to take inspiration from any resource that I can find. So I don’t follow anyone in particular—I take inspiration from things that come to my attention, wherever they may come from.
Your Google profile is overshadowed by another Lois Ireland who painted pastoral landscapes in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the 1940s and 1950s. Have you ever secretly wanted to trade places with her, or wished you had made a living sewing or dancing (which are your hobbies) rather than as a librarian?
It’s certainly fun to entertain the thought of dancing as a career. It’s something I came to in my thirties—I got introduced to couples dancing, social dancing, by a friend, and I loved it. I actually met my husband dancing! But I was at a point where I didn’t want to compete with it, so it’s just for enjoyment. I am reserved by nature, so the idea of “dance like nobody’s watching” is something I have to remind myself of periodically.
As for sewing, I grew up in rural Maryland, on the Eastern shore. We were active 4-H members. We were town children; we didn’t live on a farm, so we weren’t raising heifers. We were taught to sew and to cook and do other projects that didn’t involve animal husbandry. One year I trained our dog, but that was the closest I got to doing anything with animals. (laughs)
Sewing was something they started you on bright and early. At age eight, we were sewing hand towels together to make beach cover-ups. It’s something that has stayed with me—I didn’t sew for a while, then I started sewing again in high school, and I’ve been sewing ever since. I’ve never wanted to sew for a living, as a business. I don’t mind doing things for myself or for loved ones who are forgiving if it’s not perfect, but if I had to make something to sell, I think that would drive me crazy!
Stuart Hales is senior writer-editor at SLA and editor of Information Outlook. He can be reached at email@example.com.