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Celebrating Serendipity and Collaboration: An Interview with Judith Russell
Posted On March 14, 2017
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Judith Russell is dean of university libraries at the University of Florida. Previously, she was superintendent of documents at the U.S. Government Printing Office (now the U.S. Government Publishing Office; GPO) from 2003 to 2007. Earlier in her career, she held positions in the information industry with Disclosure Information Group, LexisNexis (then Mead Data Central), and other firms. She has also held leadership positions in a variety of professional associations, including the Association of Southeastern Research Libraries, the Association of Research Libraries, and the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS). In recognition of her achievements and “leadership in information services throughout a career spanning academia, government, the non-profit and private sectors,” she received NFAIS’ Miles Conrad Award and delivered the Miles Conrad Memorial Lecture at the NFAIS 2017 Annual Conference (Feb. 26–28). I spoke to her after the lecture (which was covered in the previous NewsBreak), and our discussion has been condensed and edited.

Dave Shumaker: Judy, congratulations on receiving the Miles Conrad Award.

Judith Russell: Thank you, Dave. It was an unexpected honor, and I’m very grateful.

Shumaker: In your lecture, you emphasize the role of serendipity in your career. You mention that your own career moves have been largely unplanned and unanticipated. That runs counter to a lot of the advice that students and early-career professionals get about developing their career plans. So, I’m wondering what career advice you would give to today’s new library and information science graduates.

Russell: There’s real value in having a plan and giving yourself some intentional direction. The danger is that the plan might limit your horizons and lead to focusing on one specific objective. As a result, you may overlook other opportunities that might take you in a different direction. When I look back, I see that if I had stuck with my original thought of working in special libraries, I would have missed the opportunities that opened up. When I was working in special libraries, if I had been asked if I would consider going into publishing, I would have responded that I hadn’t thought about it, so I didn’t consciously prepare for it. I was living in Washington, D.C., and hadn’t thought about moving to Denver either. Yet when the opportunity came up, I was open and intrigued enough by the idea to go from Washington out to Denver for an interview. Once there, I was excited by the opportunity. So I was willing to take the risk to do it, even though it pulled me off my original path.

The same was true when I went to the GPO and again when I went to the University of Florida. If you had asked me a week before I got the call inviting me to apply whether I aspired to be the director of an academic research library, I’d have said, “Well, no.” If you’d asked if I ever thought about moving to Florida, my answer would have been the same. And yet, when I came back from the interview in Florida, I said to myself, “Wow, I really want this job.” I told the provost afterward that if she had designed the interview as a recruiting activity, instead of a weeding-out activity, she could not have done a better job. I was so impressed to think that if I went there, the people interviewing me would be my friends and colleagues.

So my advice would be: Don’t be on such a rigid track that you don’t explore opportunities that are out there.

And going hand-in-hand with that is the importance of having mentors. My definition of a mentor isn’t someone who will be your cheerleader or tell you you’re wonderful all the time. The mentors I’ve valued most are the ones who helped me see myself in ways that I can’t. They’ve helped me understand strengths and weaknesses and how to improve my skills. So yes, a mentor should be supportive, but they must also be able to be honest with you and help you be self-critical, and they can say “yes, you could do that”—or not.

Judith Russell Image

Shumaker: Judy, your perspective on mentors strikes me as also being a reminder that in working with a mentor, we need to be open to the critical feedback and not always expect praise and positive reinforcement.

Russell: Yes, and the other point that I’d make about mentoring is the idea of “anti-mentors.” An anti-mentor is someone you’ve worked for, or observed, and you’ve felt that you don’t want to act like that or treat other people the way that person does. When I have conversations about anti-mentors, people often say they’ve had more influence than the positive mentors. The negative examples, if you’re open to them, are very powerful. But you have to be open to asking yourself, “Am I behaving like that? Am I falling into that trap?”

To sum up, I’d say that my career path has been influenced by my mentors, my anti-mentors, and, above all, the curiosity and openness to try something new and different and unexpected.

Shumaker: To follow up on the themes of serendipity and openness to the unexpected, I’d like to ask about your experiences in making the transition from industry to government to academia. We often think of those as very different organizations with very different cultures. Was that your experience? How did you adapt?

Russell: Certainly there are differences. But I think there are more similarities. NFAIS exemplifies those similarities. There’s a great mix of nonprofit and for-profit and government here, and it’s one of the things that has been most beneficial about the organization. It helps you see that we may be approaching the work with different expectations, in terms of things such as making a profit or different boundaries in terms of regulations and so forth. But there’s a fundamental agreement about the value of information and the desire to deliver it effectively.

As for handling the transitions, maybe it has to do with my background as a military brat. Military families move a lot. When you move around as a kid, you learn to adjust to new situations and make new friends. That’s carried over into my career, and I’ve been fortunate to work with good people and develop good working relationships with my managers and co-workers everywhere I’ve worked, in every sector. There are always things to learn about every new organization, but that’s to be expected.

Shumaker: Let me try a theme with you. I’m struck by the appreciation you’ve shown for the people you’ve worked with—at the University of Florida and before. How much have the transitions been eased by being able to work with great people?

Russell: You know, that’s advice I’ve given my children and others I’ve mentored. You spend a lot of time at work, so it’s incredibly important to work with people you like and respect. It’s also important to do a job that you love. I couldn’t stay in a job if I were working for someone I didn’t respect. Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case. I’ve been at Florida now almost 10 years, and I’m still getting up in the morning thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe they let me do this job. This is so much fun.” My colleagues at Florida have been welcoming from the moment I arrived, and they helped me in the transition at the beginning. The tenure process was one of the most unfamiliar to me at that time, and several other deans helped me understand it. If you’re working with people who have that kind of attitude, it makes all the difference.

Shumaker: I’d like to ask about some of the issues you’ve worked on, starting with one of the most recent. You formed a partnership with Elsevier and then one with the CHORUS organization to harvest metadata for your institutional repository. Lots of university libraries are involved in building repositories, but your partnership broke new ground. Also, you commented in your lecture that “the most important goal is facilitating compliance.” Why is compliance so important?

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Dave Shumaker is a retired clinical associate professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former corporate information manager. He is also the author of The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed (Information Today, Inc., 2012), and he founded SLA’s Embedded Librarians Caucus in 2015.


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