10 Questions: Tina Franks
She’s jumped from the public to the corporate to the academic sectors during her career. What keeps her grounded? Her SLA network.
By Stuart Hales
This article appears in the May-June 2016 issue of Information Outlook.
To appreciate the wide range of environments in which special librarians work, the subject areas they cover, and the issues they address, you could review the list of divisions within SLA—or you could take a look at Tina Franks’ résumé.
Currently head of the Architecture Library at The Ohio State University, Tina previously worked as a children’s services librarian and branch manager for a large metropolitan library and as a solo librarian at a design engineering firm. Along the way, she accumulated experience (and expertise) in reference, cataloging, knowledge management, and several other facets of librarianship. She credits SLA’s global network of information professionals for sharing ideas and advice that have helped her succeed at every stop along her career path, which she cheerfully describes as “always about wanting to try something new or different.”
“Within SLA, I’ve bopped around and gotten a perspective from different units,” she says. “And each time, people were more than willing to share their knowledge. If I needed a particular resource, people would get back to me. We’d all try to help each other out.”
Information Outlook spoke to Tina shortly before the SLA 2016 Annual Conference, at which she is presenting a contributed paper and a poster.
You entered library school shortly after graduating from college. Did you know when you entered college that you wanted to be a librarian, or did something happen in college that pointed you in that direction?
I had worked in my local library in high school and college, so I had eight years of public library experience before I even graduated from college. But I had no expectation of becoming a librarian. One of my supervisors at the library said, “You know, you’d make a pretty good librarian,” and I thought, why would anyone even consider such a profession?
I kind of worked my way up, starting out as a book shelver and then working part-time at the circulation desk. Then I got bored, so they let me work in the cataloging department. It just seemed like over the years, I was given more and more opportunities to try out different aspects of the library.
I originally went to college to become a textbook editor—I was interested in editing and writing from the get-go. By the time I graduated from college, I had some student loans to pay off, so I continued to work at the public library. At one point I switched to a larger library—the metropolitan library here in town—and they said to me, you have some great experience, you should be a librarian. And I thought, people keep telling me this, so maybe I should start listening to them!
Your first full-time library job was as a children’s services librarian in a public library. What lessons or skills did you learn in that job that have helped you as your career has progressed?
One of the lessons I learned is that librarians need a great deal of patience. I worked with kids of all ages I led story time for children as young as nine months. And part of being successful at that is getting comfortable being in front of people and kind of performing, if you will. It gave me a greater sense of confidence—I learned to feel OK that people were staring at me and listening to me.
I also learned some little ways to hold people’s attention. For example, sometimes if I’m speaking at conferences, I’ll see people texting on their phones or falling asleep. So I’ll use voice inflection and other tricks like that to keep people attentive. That’s helped a lot, at least in my current position.
I think one of the great things about being a children’s services librarian is that you’re getting experience not just introducing people to the library, but also re-introducing them. I was dealing not only with the kids, but also their nannies and their parents and sometimes their grandparents. So I had an opportunity to work with a wide range of users who had varying levels of familiarity with the library.
Also, when I was first starting out, it was very competitive here to get into adult reference positions, but there wasn’t much competition to get into children’s services. A lot of people don’t want to spend 40 hours per week with other people’s children; heck, a lot of them don’t want to spend 40 hours of week with their own children. (laughs)
I had worked in the children’s department in high school and college, so there was an opportunity there for me to start out as a children’s services librarian, and also more promotional opportunities. I’d really had my heart set on an adult services job, working at a big reference desk, but I’d probably still be sitting and waiting for that particular position to open up, whereas this gave me an opportunity to try some new things.
I liked working with kids—it came very easily to me. But I think it was kind of a matter of not being afraid to try something outside my comfort zone. I could have hated it, but I really enjoyed it. It’s not something I’d want to go back to after all these years, but I can still do “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” if you want me to! (laughs)
Most librarians are shy and introverted and don’t like attention—we just want to do a good job and help people. The children’s services people are in the opposite situation. When you’re leading a story time, people will be focusing their attention on you, and sometimes the local media will come in and start filming you. Those experiences helped prepare me for what I’m doing now.
You ended up spending almost 10 years in public libraries, including serving as a branch manager and a department manager. As you look back, what did you like best and least about working in public libraries, and why did you decide to leave the public library sector?
The answer to what I liked least is easy—it’s called working nights, weekends, and holidays. A lot of people going into the public library field don’t understand that you work every other Saturday or Sunday, and it’s difficult to keep a healthy work-life balance when you’re giving up your nights and weekends and holidays. So I was glad to put that behind me when I left public librarianship.
The thing I liked the best was being part of a reference team. I was fortunate enough to work in locations where there was more than one librarian working at the reference desk, or maybe a librarian and some paraprofessionals. It was kind of nice, because if I got a question that was outside my knowledge zone, I could tap into the person sitting next to me. That kind of collaboration is essential to giving the best service possible.
In my current academic position, as in my corporate position, I’m the only librarian in the building, so I’ve kind of lost that sense of working collegially or collaboratively. So that’s one of the things I really liked about public libraries—the way they functioned.
Deciding to leave a job, for me, is always about wanting to try something new or different, and for the promotional opportunity. I’m always looking to move up and gain new perspectives on librarianship.
Speaking of gaining new perspectives, after you left the public library job, you went off to an information center in an engineering and design firm, Burgess & Niple. What attracted you to that job, and what skills and knowledge did you discover you were lacking after you began working there?
The switch to corporate wasn’t planned; I’m never really actively looking for a job. Things just kind of pop up in front of me. In this case, a friend noticed a library job being advertised in the newspaper, and she said, “You know how to order books, you know how to catalog, you know how to answer questions. This ad is for a ‘Jacqueline of all trades’ job, because there’s only one librarian. And as far as making the decisions, there’s only one person doing that, so ultimately you’ll be responsible for the success or failure of that library.”
I wasn’t really thinking about moving into corporate. My big thing was that I was an English literature major, with minors in journalism and speech communication, so I didn’t know anything about architecture or engineering or construction. I didn’t have any background in those things, and I really didn’t have any interest in them. So I kind of talked myself out of applying for the job, because I didn’t have the content expertise.
But my friend kept nudging me, saying, “You know, you’re kind of sabotaging your career here. Maybe they aren’t finding anyone with that expertise. Go and talk to them. If you know how to answer one kind of question, why can’t you answer another kind of question using a different set of databases?”
So, on a lark, I applied for the job and ended up getting it. What they liked about me was that I had a little bit of experience in a lot of different realms, so I knew how a library functions. And I understood how a library works from a customer service viewpoint—how to get the books in the door, how to classify and catalog them, and so on. That’s what they wanted—they were finding people who perhaps had worked as archivists and knew how to catalog but who couldn’t find answers, because that’s not what they were trained to do. So they thought I would be a good fit, and I ended up staying there for 11 years.
It was about the same time you started working for Burgess & Niple that you joined SLA. How did you hear about SLA, and what made you decide to join?
My MLS degree included a lot of different courses—cataloging, tech services, special collections—so I’m sure that SLA was mentioned at some point. There’s PLA [the Public Library Association] for public librarians and MLA [the Medical Library Association] for medical and ALA [the American Library Association] as an umbrella, but I wasn’t active in any of them.
I was looking for something that would help me relate to my customers and give me a peer group, because I was now a solo librarian at my location. Nobody in my company knew what a librarian does or what we can do. So I needed to be able to tap into colleagues who could walk me through challenges I was facing, and I remembered SLA from my coursework. I thought, this is exactly what I need. It’s a specialty library, it’s a corporate setting, it’s in engineering, and SLA has an Engineering Division.
Over the years that I was at B&N, I switched divisions within SLA a few times. I was in KM when the company was talking about KM; I was in the Solo Division; I was in Engineering. So, within SLA, I’ve bopped around and gotten a perspective from different units. And each time, people were more than willing to share their knowledge. If I needed a particular resource, people would get back to me. We’d all try to help each other out.
So I really felt a connection within SLA, since I wasn’t working with other librarians or information professionals. For me, it was a great support system. And my company was more than willing to spend time and money to send me to conferences, and those opportunities were in short supply in public libraries. Being able to go to conferences and sit in on the sessions, I could bring back knowledge and ideas to help me work around problems that other libraries were dealing with.
For example, at B&N we had this really clunky, old, online computer system, and I ended up connecting with someone from another library who told me that if you put all of your holdings into a great big Excel spreadsheet, get your Webmaster to put a front door on it, and put it on your Website, you can do some basic searching. Thank goodness I met that person, because that’s what I ended up doing to get a 24-hour online catalog available to my library users at B&N. Otherwise, we might still have been using a card catalog.
You’ve touched on some of the challenges you faced at B&N. Now that you look back at your career there, what are your proudest accomplishments?
I think, for me, it’s something intangible—creating value. I know that seems to be the trend today, that librarians are trying to show value to their companies. But in my case, when I started at B&N, I replaced a librarian who was not trained in reference. So every time the engineers would go to her and ask for help, she had trouble. She couldn’t find answers. She might be able to find a book if you gave her the title, but that wasn’t how she was trained. She was trained as an archivist. Archivists often preserve and classify materials; reference librarians find answers.
So when I stepped into that role, the first couple of months, only a few people stopped by the library. I had been working in a large metropolitan branch where I could be helping 15 to 20 people an hour when I was on the reference desk. Here, I was getting a couple of people a month.
Finally, one of the engineers came in one day, and I was chatting with him and saying I was kind of surprised how quiet it was in the library, and he said, “Oh, your predecessor couldn’t help us out much, so we stopped asking.” And I think one of the things I’m most proud of is switching that attitude around, from one of seeing the library as a wasted space and wondering why they even had a librarian to, over time, me infiltrating their work groups and showing how I could help them. I tried to go above and beyond and give them more than what they asked for, so that over the years, I got busier and busier and busier. It got so busy that there were times I needed help, because I was still a solo librarian.
But when 2008 hit, people didn’t have money to do big engineering design projects, so there weren’t a lot of contracts out there. The design industry took a big hit from layoffs and reduced hours, and my company was not immune from that—we were doing the same things other design companies were doing. I lost a lot of colleagues to layoffs, and work groups were taken off the organizational chart and hours were reduced. But during that whole time, none of these things affected the library. My hours were never reduced, and they kept giving me money to buy the resources I needed to help the engineers and architects with their jobs.
I think that’s because one of the things I did was change the perception of the library from “It’s outdated and I can find what I need on Google” to “I can find it on Google, but I’ll spend a lot of time doing it because I don’t know how to search strategically, so I’m going to ask the librarian because she can search more efficiently and I can use my time doing what I need to do.”
It’s hard to measure value, so the only obvious thing I can do is point to increased usage. But there’s a lot more to it. At one time, the company president hired me out to one of our clients that needed help working on their library. I think that’s because I had built a reputation as a trusted member of the team, not just the librarian down the hall.
In my current position at The Ohio State University, part of being a tenure track librarian is to have a research agenda. I had noticed at B&N that there are different customer service models in the corporate world—how you handle requests and treat your customers—than there are in the public library world. And that morphed into my research agenda, the “Trusted Librarian,” because a corporate library customer service model and a public library customer service model can be radically different.
Speaking of Ohio State, you shifted sectors again when you left B&N by taking an academic job. What led to this job change, and what have been the biggest surprises you’ve encountered?
I liked working in a corporate setting, but one of the things about me is that I get bored fairly easily. I have to have new things to juggle or new surprises pop up. I’m a lifelong learner—I love to be challenged by new and different things.
I wasn’t looking to leave Burgess & Niple; I liked being in charge of my library and having sole decision-making powers. Again, it was one of those things where someone said, “Did you see this ad?” He was looking at it from a benefits standpoint—I had worked in public service and had the public employee retirement benefit, and now I was in the private sector and didn’t have that retirement benefit available. Wouldn’t I like to go back into the public service retirement program?
I thought, I’m not trained to be an academic librarian. I don’t know what they do, I can’t imagine working with faculty, and there’s this whole professor thing—I don’t think I’m qualified for that.
But I investigated it a little bit, and I found out I didn’t have to have worked previously in an academic library to do the job. They were looking for someone who had headed up a library, had supervisory experience, collection development experience, reference, etc. And as I kept looking at the qualifications checklist, I saw that I had everything—I just hadn’t worked in an academic setting or campus setting before.
So I thought, OK, I’ll try it for the experience. It was the first time I had ever applied for an academic job, and I got it. I like to joke that they called the wrong person when they made the job offer. (laughs)
One of the things that attracted me to the academic world was that, over the years, I’ve volunteered for my local newspaper to write news articles and columns. That’s the editor and journalist in me—I like to write. So it seemed natural to elevate to scholarly writing, which held a big appeal for me. And there was the fact that, when I had moved from public libraries to a corporate library, my focus of answering quick reference questions changed to answering research questions, which I really liked. In my academic position, I’m not answering basic questions like you would at a public library reference desk; I’m answering research questions, and I get to do my own research and publish it, which is really exciting.
There really haven’t been any big surprises yet, except that it has become more clear as I’ve transitioned between the different settings that the decision-making processes and the scope of how decisions are made are very distinct. This may not be everyone’s experience—I’ve only worked in Central Ohio, in a fairly small geographic area—but in the corporate world, they were always trying to be ahead of the game. So it was OK if you spent $100,000 on something and it failed miserably, because at least you were trying to get ahead of the competition. They were always very forward thinking.
Public libraries, on the other hand, take the approach that we need to order 600 copies of the latest novel by James Patterson, because that’s what people will want to read when it comes off the bookstands from the publishers. So they are very much into solving the demands of today.
In the academic world, they’re very rooted in history and tradition, which is not something I had experienced in the other two environments. For me, it’s how they approach their decision making—in the corporate world, it’s very quick; in the public, it’s relatively quick depending on immediate needs; and in academic, it’s a little slower and more deliberate. That’s pretty much the biggest surprise.
Hearing about the differences in the environments where you’ve worked makes me wonder if you’ve ever wished you had changed jobs in a different order—working in academia first, for example. Have you ever thought about that, and what advice would you offer someone who’s leaving one sector to move to another?
I don’t think I would change anything; I‘m really happy with the way things have played out for me. There are jobs I’m glad I didn’t get, and there are jobs I’m glad I did get. It seemed like a natural progression to go from one job to another the way I did.
Another part of my research agenda is librarian mobility and transferring between different locations and environments, and diversifying your skills portfolio along the way. For some people, it’s OK to get a job as an academic librarian and stay in academia and never move. I get bored easily and like new challenges, so that’s why I keep moving around.
There seems to be a typical progression of going from public to academic but never academic to public. Some people go from corporate to academic or academic to corporate. I think it ends up depending very much on what you want out of a library position.
For me, one of the goals is diversifying my skill set. So if I knew I wanted to move up to a bigger library, I would ask for new challenges or volunteer for things that might be out of my comfort zone so I could diversify my portfolio.
It’s also important that you not refer to yourself in terms of the kind of library you work at. Many people say, I’m a public librarian or I’m an academic librarian. We’re all librarians and information professionals, and we can all pitch in and help out each other.
I think sometimes people put up self-barriers. They’ll say, I’m not an academic librarian, so I won’t apply for an academic job, but they might be perfect for the job. I think you have to diversify your skills and connect the dots so that, in your head, you know what skills you have in the public library where you work and you recognize the skills you might need to move to a corporate position. You want to find opportunities to build those skills.
And if you’re lucky enough to get the interview, remember that the people interviewing you may have no idea what it’s like to walk in your shoes in the libraries you’ve worked in. When I applied for my current job, nobody on the search committee had ever worked in a public library, so they had no idea what it’s like to conduct a story time or how to respond when tornado sirens go off and you have to secure the building. I had to try to connect those dots in a very polite way to show them that I had the experience, and just because I had switched environments, it shouldn’t be considered a barrier to getting a new position.
When I met with the search committee at OSU, one of my questions for them was, “What answer did I give to you previously that got me to where I am today, as one of three finalists?” And they said, you’ve done reference, you have management experience, you’ve done this and that. Then the person sitting next to me said, “My first reaction when I read your application was, how rude of you to waste our time. You have no academic experience; you are not an academic librarian.”
I thought, wow, I’m never going to get this job. Then she turned to me and said, “But when I read it again and cleared my mind of what I thought an academic librarian had to be, I realized that you have everything on our checklist that we’re looking for, just in different environments.” And I ended up getting the position.
So you have to recognize that there can be some misconceptions out there, some biases. You just have to plead your case, connect the dots, and show what value you can bring to this new environment.
You’ve worked in different environments and learned a lot of lessons, and now you’re presenting papers and posters and you’re very involved in helping plan the SLA 2016 Annual Conference. Is this just a function of being an academic librarian and you need to do this to get tenure, or have you decided that it’s time to “give back” and share your wisdom with others?
Full disclosure: I’m a tenure track librarian, so it’s part of my responsibility to provide service to my professional organization and develop a research agenda and share that knowledge with the community at large. It’s just so awesome, because I’m getting paid to do this! (laughs)
I didn’t set out to be a tenure track librarian, and going back to what I said earlier about work-life balance, I had never been able to have my outside life and still fit in all of these other things. But OSU is very supportive of making sure that we give back to our profession, so they carve out a slice of our annual hours to make sure we do it.
On a tangent, I’ve always been someone to volunteer and give back along the way, just not at an international level like in SLA. It’s been more on a community level—I’ve mentored graduate students at Kent State and worked with younger librarians in a very informal way, not as part of an organized program. So it just seemed like, now that I have the time and the opportunity and the means to do this, I’m going to jump right in.
So, yes, I am a conference planner this year for SLA 2016, and I’m a conference planner for next year also. It’s interesting, because I’ve now added a new division to my SLA perspective—I’ve done Solo, KM, Engineering, and now Academic. It’s a whole new set of peers and colleagues that I’m making connections with, which I really enjoy. It’s come kind of full circle now—I’m making presentations in front of large crowds of people, but they’re about librarianship, not the “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” (laughs)
Am I giving back to my profession? Yes. Am I sharing with my colleagues? Yes. But as I mentioned earlier, I joined SLA so I could make connections and tap into that network of sharing, so it’s been very beneficial for me to build a portfolio of colleagues across the world.
Given that you’re in a tenure track position, I assume you’re set for the time being. But looking down the road, do you think there may be another twist or turn in your career?
I’ve been working in libraries for 30 years and I’m not really all that old, so I still have a good 15 or so years to put into the profession. As I’ve kind of mentioned, I haven’t really planned my career path (laughs), and I don’t think I would recommend to someone else to just apply for jobs and take the first thing that falls in front of you. But I always seem to get bored after seven or eight years; if you look at my résumé, you’ll see that’s when I hop off to something else. I think the combination of my varied work experience and library school courses have allowed me to maneuver pretty easily through the library world.
As a tenure track librarian, I’m now 2-1/2 years into my six years. I would like to think I’m on a trajectory to make tenure, but who knows—in a few years I might be looking for a job if I don’t make tenure. (laughs) I can’t control the outcome; I can only do the best job I can. So I could see myself staying at OSU until I retire; I could also see myself thinking, hmm, what other kinds of jobs would I like to try?
I’ve never been one to pre-plan. If you plan too far in advance, something’s going to go wrong and you’ll be disappointed, whereas this way, special opportunities pop up and I think, oh, that would be a great job. I’m kind of a hands-off, whatever happens, happens kind of person. So check back in about six years and see where I am!
Stuart Hales is content director at SLA and editor of Information Outlook.