The Accidental Science Librarian

I think of myself as being an “accidental” science librarian—for the past three years I’ve worked in health science and science libraries and I’ve fallen in love. It’s refreshing to look forward to going to work as much as I do (it’s why I decided to become a librarian in the first place, after all!), and I think that my time at the UT Physics, Math & Astronomy Library has been the absolute high point of my entire MSIS career. It’s really given me a chance to see all sides of academic science librarianship from collection management to eResources management to in-depth reference services to the day to day of managing library staff and performing basic circulation tasks.

When I interviewed for the PMA position, my now boss asked me why I wanted to work in a Physics, Math & Astronomy library with my medieval studies background. The answer is that I’ve always loved science topics, I’m just not as good with numbers and theories as I am with studying language and literature. When I was nine I went to Space Camp and I was determined to be an astronaut for most of my young life (along with a paleontologist, ballerina and Pepsi truck driver—I had a lot of big ambitions!), up until the point where I stopped getting any taller just below the minimum height for astronauts. Even as a literature student, for my non-medieval elective courses I gravitated towards history of medicine and science courses, and courses that talked about science in literature and science fiction. Part of my undergraduate thesis talked about Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe and the Kalendarium of Nicholas of Lynn.

My original plan at the UT iSchool was to focus on special collections, archives and preservation, but over my two years here and at the encouragement of my boss at PMA, I’ve drifted into seriously looking at science librarianship as a career possibility. To that end, my courses have split pretty evenly between special collections/preservation courses and courses that focus on data informatics, data curation and collection management. I’ve also become a member of the Special Libraries Association and their Physics, Astronomy and Math subdivision.

In particular, this semester I’m taking a course on science data informatics, which is focused on examining the information properties of scientific data, developing criteria to appraise the properties of scientific data sets, understanding the Semantic Web and the growing network of Linked Data, examining issues of long-term management of, and access to, scientific data, and endeavoring to write a semantically marked up and enhanced term paper about what we learn. Within the broad spectrum of science data, I’m looking in particular at astronomical data and how it is archived, preserved, and reused for new research projects—I’ve been lucky enough to talk with one of the computer scientists involved with the Hubble Legacy Archive and I’m working on setting up a time to talk with some of the UT particle physicists about how they archive their data.

As I’m looking into the job market, I find myself torn between these two competing enthusiasms and am trying to find ways to bridge the gap between them (librarian for a history of science-centric special collection, anyone?), but I’m also excited to be looking into positions that focus on working with science researchers to manage and archive their research data for long-term preservation. It’s an area I’ve wandered into without really noticing, but now that I’m here I’m excited to start making contributions and getting my hands dirty.

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