10 Questions: Stacie Calabrese

A layoff made Stacie Calabrese realize she needed to leave human resources behind and find a new profession. HR’s loss was librarianship’s gain.

By Kelly A. Johnson, MS, DVM, MLIS

This article appears in the November-December 2016 issue of Information Outlook.

Many librarians, especially those of us who work in special libraries, share a similar story of adopting librarianship as a second career. And though many of us do not consider librarianship until we are ready to make a career change, special librarianship frequently allows us to utilize the skills and experience we accumulated in our previous field(s).

Stacie Calabrese is a case in point. Currently the library manager for a medical communications company, Stacie takes advantage of her 10-year career in managing human resources (HR) for the pharmaceutical industry as she provides information services to clients and especially to internal medical writing teams.

Stacie spoke recently with Information Outlook about her path to librarianship, how she stays abreast of new developments and learns new skills, and how she maintains a healthy work/life balance.

Before attending library school, you held HR positions in the medical and pharmaceutical fields. How and why did you get into librarianship? Were there any compelling financial or personal incentives to make a career change?

I spent about 10 years in human resources, but after a few years it didn’t feel like it was the right fit for me. With a master’s degree in HR management and increasingly responsible positions, I started feeling that it was unlikely I would be able to make a career change. Human resources is a very important function, but it wasn’t right for me. The things I enjoyed doing—researching and compiling information—were small parts of my job in comparison to the other functions like employee relations and recruiting.

Then I was laid off in 2009, when the economy was at its worst and the competition for jobs was intense. I was struggling to find a position, yet realizing that I didn’t feel passionate or excited about any of the jobs that were out there. One day I decided to investigate other careers that might work with my interests, and I discovered different types of librarianship, including special libraries. Up to that point, I’d only really known about public and academic/school libraries. I hadn’t felt such enthusiasm about any career in years, and I quickly made the decision to apply to library school.

We often hear people say that library school isn’t necessary to prepare for librarianship. Even some librarians express frustration at having had to earn an MLS degree in order to keep jobs they were already performing well. Do you feel you gained relevant skills through your MLS that you would not have learned on the job (or at least not as easily or quickly)?

This is a tough one. I can see both sides of the argument, and I know people who are functioning as librarians who haven’t completed library school. However, for me, I think I did learn skills that I probably would not have been able to pick up as easily on the job.

Stacie Calabrese

Stacie Calabrese

The first one that comes to mind is searching. My knowledge of literature searching was tenuous at best when I started library school. Going through the process in a systematic way and learning all of the ins and outs gave me a solid foundation that I was able to bring to the job. When you learn on the job, you often learn one person’s style or method, and that might not always be the right way. Library school allows that solid foundation to be set.

That said, I do think it is essential to have some kind of work experience while in library school. Academic learning combined with real-world experience is the best way to be prepared upon graduation.

How do you respond when people say that librarianship is a dying profession, or at least a less relevant one? Is there anything about your experience to suggest the opposite?

Librarianship is certainly changing. Perhaps one could argue that some of the old ways are dying off, and if someone were trying to operate as a librarian without up-to-date skills, he or she would certainly be obsolete. There is definitely a large group of people who don’t use libraries at all—they search the Internet and read e-books, and that fully satisfies their information needs. On the other hand, my department has grown since I joined the company three years ago, and most of the complex research we are doing in proprietary databases is not accessible by others.

We’ve been saying for years that the profession needs to reinvent itself, and I think it has. We are using and teaching technology to reach and teach people, which is one of the most important things. We should be embracing the opportunities to improve information literacy so patrons can access information.

How important do you think your HR experience with pharma was to your transition into your current position? Or, more specifically, how easily do you think other librarians without pharma/ medical backgrounds could do the same?

I don’t think my HR experience specifically helped, other than to situate me into working in a corporate environment. My experience within the pharmaceutical industry, however, was extremely helpful. I had a strong understanding of the drug development process, as well as a lot of the terminology and an understanding of how the industry works.

I think having a solid background in the industry, combined with attending library school, helped me land my first job in the library of a large pharmaceutical company. But even though I have a greater understanding of the industry than the average person, I am not a scientist. I’ve made a conscious effort over the years to try to educate myself to the extent that I can without going back to obtain another degree. This has included non-credit coursework at community colleges.

Other than taking advantage of the courses you mention, how do you stay up to date? The medical and pharmaceutical fields change so rapidly! Are there any continuing education opportunities that are especially relevant for you?

In 2014, I had the amazing fortune of being accepted into Copyright X, which is a networked course offered by Harvard Law School, HarvardX, and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. It was a fascinating course that explored the current state of copyright law and ongoing debates about reform. It was a rigorous 12-week course delivered through pre-recorded lectures, weekly interactive seminars facilitated by Harvard law students, webcasts, and online discussions, ending with an intense pass/fail written test.

Copyright X was one of the best courses I’ve ever taken, and I was thrilled to be accepted and successfully pass the test. Lately I’ve been looking into digital asset management courses as my next undertaking.

Do you feel developing professional relationships is more difficult for you, since you are part of a relatively small group of niche librarians and you work primarily from home?

I manage a department of three, and even though we are spread out across the country, we stay connected regularly through phone calls and chat programs. Outside of the workplace, organizations like SLA are crucial in maintaining connections. This applies on both the local chapter level and at the national conference. Finally, even though I work primarily from home now, I maintain the connections I made when I was starting out my library career in an office.

On the topic of working from home, do you have any advice on recognizing when to punch the proverbial clock?

During a 2012 vacation in Hawaii, Stacie swam with sharks, walked along the "terrifying narrow" Hana Highway, and deepened her love of pineapples.

During a 2012 vacation in Hawaii, Stacie swam with sharks, walked along the “terrifying narrow” Hana Highway, and deepened her love of pineapples.

At the risk of making myself sound like a slacker, I will admit that I rarely have issues with stepping away from work when it’s time to do so. Of course, if things are really busy, I will put in extra hours as needed, just as I would if I were in the office. However, I feel like it’s really important to make an effort to establish a work-life balance to avoid burnout and spending all day working.

I’ve set up a fairly regular schedule for myself that includes a morning walk and a lunchtime walk. It’s really important for me to be able to step away and recharge so I’m able to tackle work with a fresh mind. I also often sign up for exercise classes and events that take place locally in the evenings—it helps force me to step away and move on to other activities that are going to help me refresh myself for the next day. Also, it definitely helps that I made the decision not to have my work e-mail sent to my phone!

When I was in HR, I felt like I was on call 24/7, responding whenever my Blackberry buzzed. I think constant access to work via mobile devices is what truly prevents people from moving out of work mode, whether they work in an office or not.

Other than supportive professional networks, what do you feel is the most compelling reason to belong to SLA? Do you have any favorite experiences from the national conference or from your local chapter?

Staying connected is one of the most compelling reasons for me. It’s extremely valuable to be able to meet others who are similarly situated and learn from each other. I also love that it seems like there is a strong amount of outreach and effort to be inclusionary. Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss an e-mail blast, but having personal invitations to participate in programs or opportunities can make a huge difference!

SLA membership has also allowed me to broaden my knowledge through various programs put on by chapters and divisions. I love that so many programs are web-based and available to all.

You’ve mentioned to me before that you enjoy live trivia and geocaching in your spare time. Do those interests allow you to use any of your librarian sleuthing skills?

Stacie (in glasses) and fellow fans of the New Orleans Saints watch a game at a bar on the Lower East Side of New York.

Stacie (in glasses) and fellow fans of the New Orleans Saints watch a game at a bar on the Lower East Side of New York.

Yes, very much! Geocaching is a global scavenger hunt for objects hidden at specific GPS coordinates. I’ve been into geocaching for a few years, and I’ve learned that even when you get to the coordinates, the location of the geocache isn’t always obvious. Just like a reference interview requires taking a deeper scan, geocaching requires astute observation of the environment and the need for “geosense.”

As for trivia, it’s similar to librarianship in the need to look for clues and take a deeper scan. A lot of times, the questions include pretty heavy clues, so just slowing down and taking time to consider all of the information allows me to figure out the answer, even when it’s very often something I didn’t “know” when I woke up that morning.

Finally, what is your earliest memory (or favorite early memory) of a book or library?

I remember reading obsessively, to the point where I would drive my parents crazy by wanting to read at the dinner table or even while walking on the boardwalk during a family vacation! I also remember going to the public library as a child and checking out stacks of books. At the time, I never considered a career as a librarian. As much as I loved the atmosphere, it wasn’t something that even occurred to me.

Even though what I do is very different than public librarianship, I sometimes think about my early days of enjoying the library. I appreciate the programs and efforts that allowed me to experience so much joy and satisfaction from losing myself in books and learning.

Kelly JohnsonKelly Johnson is a life sciences librarian in the Bobst Library at New York University. She can be reached at kelly.johnson@nyu.edu.

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