March 17, 2018

The Most Important Resource | Not Dead Yet

Cheryl LaGuardiaI count myself incredibly lucky for the library school I attended: what was then the SUNY Albany School of Library and Information Science and is now the SUNY Albany College of Computing & Information. This is mainly because of the faculty with whom I was able to study: Joe Morehead (between his class and Tae Moon Lee’s government documents collection I was able to see the beauty of documents…and find them!), Ann Prentice (her course on library administration was a real eye-opener, but everything she told us was right on target. Wow!), Bill Saffady (of whom I will always think fondly for having taught cataloging as gently as possible to a bunch of us reference types in an Albany summer), Richard Sweeney Halsey (with whom I once had a three-hour conversation about information, culture, and the connections between the two in the graduate common room at SUNYA/SLIS), and my adviser and mentor, Bill Katz, who, among other things, taught real-world librarianship as he had experienced it.

Bill had a somewhat unusual—but very valuable—preparation for being a librarian, having started out as a newspaper reporter, then working as a reference librarian at the University of Washington (UDub) and King County Library for some years before going on to be an editor at the American Library Association (ALA) and then a library educator. The reporting experience must have influenced him a lot, because he taught us reference work pretty much as if we were reporters working on a red-hot story as well as detectives digging up the salient facts for that story. Bill’s approach to reference made the work exciting, dynamic, and fascinating, and he kept introducing us to more and more reality along the way: he brought in working bibliographers to tell us how you really go about creating a collection; had a serials librarian demonstrate the legerdemain it takes to acquire, keep track of, and make accessible journals as they morph from name change to name change; and knowing that many of us had never encountered some of the more controversial materials that libraries might be asked by patrons to provide, he brought in some of those publications for us to take a look at and discuss why the library might or might not add them to its serial holdings.

But the most crucial thing Bill taught me was that, as a reference librarian, my most important working resource would be people: the people I worked with and the people I met along the way as I practiced librarianship. He stressed the importance of becoming an integral part of the community you serve, reaching out to as many people as you can, building good working relationships with them, and earning their trust and respect. Bill’s idea of a rich, far-flung network preceded that of LinkedIn by decades; he knew “the power of knowing people” long before the Internet or even personal computers. It was a highly practical approach: if you don’t know or can’t find the answer right away, call somebody you know who might. I’ve done this everywhere I’ve worked, and I’ve been astonished at how much folks like being asked to draw on their expertise. But it makes perfect sense when you think about it: when a reference librarian can’t find something and asks you for help, it is a testament to your knowledge and reputation. The first few times I did this, I did it with trepidation: asking a world-renowned Shakespearean scholar about a detail in The Tempest had my knees shaking as I placed the call. But he answered my question immediately and then thanked me for calling and invited me to consult him again if a similar need ever arose. He was not only gracious, he sounded pumped, and I know I was! Bill’s advice turned out to be spot-on, once again.

The same goes for colleagues, both current and past. I have colleagues at my present workplace whose knowledge of research is phenomenal, and they are very generous in sharing it (a characteristic I’ve found in many fellow librarians). I enjoy staying in touch with friends and acquaintances through email and phone inquiries (I don’t text message much; my fingers, which can palm a basketball and reach an octave and two notes on a keyboard, are too big for easy messaging), and, again, folks not only don’t mind being asked, they appreciate the acknowledgement of their wisdom. And all the while I’m building a network, extending it as far as I can, all thanks to Bill.

I don’t know how many other folks out there studied under the inimitable Bill Katz, but I’d love to hear from you if you did. I’d also love to hear from others about how you create and work your networks: Is it through LinkedIn and other social media? Is it through conferences and committees? Or is it my “old-fashioned way,” one person at a time?

Read eReviews, where Cheryl LaGuardia and Bonnie J.M. Swoger look under the hood of the latest library databases and often offer free database trials

Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.



  1. Barbara Fister says:

    What a lovely tribute! I think Project Information Literacy’s report on the day after graduation bears out Bill’s belief that people are an important information resource – but our students are often far more comfortable asking Google.

    Personally, I have found Friendfeed (especially the Library Society of the World group) and Twitter terrifically useful places for making connections with librarians and others and hospitable places to ask questions and get help.

    • Thanks for writing, Barbara! Your reference to the PIL report and students preferring to ask Google rather than librarians made me think of Oracle, aka Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, “librarian-as-super-hero” — and if superheroes consult her it implies everyone should consult with their superhero librarian, right? That prompted me to look up Oracle in Wikipedia, where I found this section on Oracle’s “Representation for library and information science” (, which discusses
      how ‘author Sean Wise asserts [Oracle’s] character as a model for business networking. In How to Be a Business Superhero: Prepare for Everything, Train with the Best, Make Your Own Destiny at Work (2008) he states that “[o]ver the last decade, Oracle has shown the power of a strong network of contacts, and in doing so she shows Business Superheros the importance of cultivating contacts and developing assets that can further their collective goals.”‘

      Who knew? The connections are endless, just like library life.
      Thanks again, and best wishes,

  2. Suzanne Roberson says:

    Cheryl, thank you for this beautiful and spot-on tribute to Bill Katz. I knew when I took his class that I had made the right choice of profession. His humor, humanity, humility, and bristly-eyebrowed candor has continued to inspire me in my career and personal life.

    There are no stupid questions.

    • Dear Suzanne,
      Thanks for writing and sharing your experience in Bill’s class. I was fortunate enough to have him interview me for entrance into the SUNYA program, and I knew right away that this was someone from whom I wanted to learn as much as possible. Bill was one of the greats!
      Thanks again, and best wishes,

  3. Another colleague wrote me via e-mail about this post, and gave permission to have her comment posted. Here it is:

    “I left a comment after reading your piece on our alma mater, but it hasn’t been posted. I thought I would send you a message that I, too, have always been impressed with the caliber of the faculty we had at SUNYA. I received my MLS there in 1972, after receiving my BA there in 1971.
    I remember Ann Prentice’s Library Admin class and had Bill Katz for Serials and Reference. For some reason, I never took Gov Docs with Joe Morehead, but certainly saw his name frequently as the gov docs guru. I’ve always been so proud every time I’ve seen a copy of Bill Katz’s reference textbooks and always pointed out he was my prof for two classes.
    I concentrated on medical librarianship with Dr. Pauline Vaillancourt because I ended up working …in the medical library at St. Peter’s Hospital while in grad school. My final paper was a use study of that library and Dr. V. always used that medical library as a model. After I received my MLS, I became [Director of a medical library in a hospital] until I married and had to move. Over the past 37 years, my husband and I moved all around the country for his profession and I always managed to get a library job – academic, public, special, and at a consortium. We are retiring next year.
    Thank you for writing that piece and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Actually, I enjoy all of your writings!”

    Thanks to my fellow alumna for writing!