Tag Archives: Susan Catterall

Back to School: Lessons for the Second Time Around

To educate

“Are you just filling in for the regular librarian?”   I was stunned, and on that particular day, frustrated almost to tears.  Had the question come from a law student, it would have been understandable and more palatable. I was, after all, only 2 months into a new job. Instead, it had come from a “public patron” whose inability to articulate his needs paled next to my inadequacy to walk him through a reference interview.

Like many reference librarians, I’ve spun my share of straw into gold and was proud of it.  A previous director frequently bragged that books flung themselves off the shelves into my arms, opened to the correct page and that a halo would highlight the significant passage.  Those days were gone. I felt like a failure and wondered if I would ever be competent again.

This anecdote, now legend among the staff, serves as a reminder that every job holds its own challenges, even for veteran librarians.  After seventeen years as a research librarian in private law libraries, I had returned to academic law libraries.

I had learned much as a private law librarian, including the business side of practice.  It had been rewarding, but I missed the interaction with students, the chance to support scholarship and the stimulation I had found in teaching.  I wanted new challenges, but wasn’t quite ready to let go of the familiar.

And so, armed with my desire to return to academic law libraries, a yearning to be nearer to family and a leap of faith, I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, changed time zones and moved to North Carolina. I began work as a reference librarian at the Charlotte School of Law.

While I had been away, law schools had been realigning their missions and a new model of legal education had emerged. Charlotte School of Law epitomizes that model.  Charlottelaw is a member of a consortium of independent, community-based law schools. It’s strategically located in North Carolina’s largest city, at the center of the banking industry.  The school’s mission advocates student-centered outcomes, serving the underserved and preparing practice-ready graduates.  The school set a pro bono requirement for students and incorporates experiential learning into many of its courses.

I had expected that my greatest challenge would be advances in technology and their incorporation into the classroom. Integration had moved beyond PowerPoint presentations. Fortunately for me, not only has Charlottelaw  encouraged faculty to incorporate emerging technologies into instruction, it has provided professional development opportunities regarding training on video conferencing software, course management systems and the creation of distance education modules.  Librarians continue to go into the classroom, but now we do it both live and virtually. I am in the process of creating an online legal research component for the first year research and writing course. Adapting to technologies is a continual process for me. I hope to stay at least one step ahead of the students.

I had departed law school libraries before the release of the 1992 MacCrate report on law schools and the legal profession. In the aftermath, there has been a concentrated attention to rubrics, mapping, outcomes, and applications of Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy.   Most recently, this interest has been propelled by the proposed revision to the American Bar Association Standards for Approval of Law Schools.

The A.B.A. Standards Review Committee, after assessing the condition of legal education in the wake of the MacCrate report and the subsequent findings compiled by William Sullivan and others in Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law (also known as the “Carnegie Foundation Report”) and Roy Stuckey and others in Best Practices for Legal Education, proposed a revision to the standards that would address learning outcomes. The proposed revision shifts the focus from teaching to learning and from curriculum to outcomes.

Charlottelaw, as a young school has been an early advocate.  In May, Charlotte Law hosted the “Assessment and Student Outcomes Conference – Implications of the Proposed ABA Standard on Student Learning Outcomes.”  Conference speakers included consortium faculty, education professors and legal scholars, including President of the New York Law School, Richard Matasar, and Steven Bahls, principle draftsman of the proposed revision. I feel as if I’ve come in on the ground floor of something monumental.

I’m pleased with the transition I’ve made and am enjoying my new position.  I’m not only grateful for the opportunity to stretch my own skills and knowledge, but I am beginning to feel competent again.  I also better understand the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  When spring arrived, I found that I missed the fragrance of lilacs.  They don’t do as well here as they did in the Midwest, because they need sustained periods of cold. I have, however, discovered Crepe Myrtles. Their blossoms are gorgeous and resemble those of lilacs.  They lack the fragrance of lilacs, but they last for months and remind me of both homes.

~Susan Catterall~

This article was originally published in the November-December 2010 issue of the online West publication, Law Librarians in the New Millennium.

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Books, Libraries and Serendipity

As we celebrate National Library Week, I encourage you to reflect upon the enchantment which attaches to certain books.  Book lovers know the value of a good book; how it may inspire, challenge, foreshadow and, in other ways, impact lives.  However, even book lovers acknowledge that sometimes a book is more than just a book.


The embossed book plate bore the words, “Sioux City Public Library, Sioux City, IA” and the inscription read “From the Children of Sioux City, Iowa to the Children of Lund, Sweden.”  All in all, it was pretty straight forward, but I still had no answer for my friend, Nancy’s question – “Does your library often give books away to other libraries?”  It wasn’t an unheard of practice then, and it continues today. However, this exchange involved a heartland city of approximately 75,000 and similarly-sized city in southern Sweden.  Actually, I wondered how Nancy had happened upon that particular book. Or to paraphrase a classic, “Of all the books in all the libraries in all the world,” how did she pull that one off the shelf?

Nancy and I had been friends since college.  My goal was to finish grad school and land a job in a college or university library.  Nancy was finishing up her degree in education, but also planned to enter graduate school and earn her degree in library science.

As it happened, we were both side tracked. After graduation, Nancy married, temporarily put her career on hold and moved with her husband to Lund, Sweden where he pursued his post-doctorate work.  My first job after graduate school was not in an academic library, but rather as the Young Adult librarian at the Sioux City Public Library.  I was working there when I received Nancy’s letter.

My direct supervisor, Ella Lauritsen, was the Assistant Director and in charge of Children’s services for the entire library system. By the time I met her, Ella had served that library for nearly 40 years and was nearing retirement. She was of Danish heritage and her pride in her ancestry lead her to make almost annual trips to Denmark.  In my mind, it seemed logical that perhaps on one of these trips, she had taken the ferry across to Malmo, Sweden, boarded the train to Lund and had bestowed gifts to several libraries along the way.  For all I knew she traveled around all of Scandinavia presenting books to various libraries on each trip.  But when exactly would that have been?  At the time, the book in question was over 40 years old (and is now nearly 70).  Anyone, Ella, or someone prior to her, could have sent or taken the book to Sweden.

Many years earlier, 1941, in particular, Robert McCloskey published a children’s book, Make Way For Ducklings. The book, for those who aren’t familiar with it or can’t recall the plot, relates the story of a Mother duck who parades her baby ducklings across the Boston Public Gardens and is assisted by a kindly policeman who stops traffic for them.  The book won the Caldecott Medal, became a beloved classic and has delighted many generations of children, both in this country and around the world.  Even today, one may view the charming statues of the duck family in Boston Public Gardens.

Yet when I asked her about the book, Ella was stumped.  And, as it turned out, she didn’t carry armfuls of books around the world to other libraries.  She deliberated on how and when this title had ended up in Sweden. She also asked me how I had learned of it.

As I mentioned earlier, Nancy had put her career on hold while in Sweden. As a young mother, she often took her baby for walks.  Also, because her plans were to become a children’s librarian, she thought it would be interesting to explore some of the children’s books at the local library.  She had enjoyed reading Make Way For Ducklings as a child and was pleasantly surprised when she found the book on the shelf of the children’s section. The book, after all, had been translated into several languages.  What startled her was that this specific book was in English and bore the aforementioned book plate.

What made this situation all the more fluky was that I was in the midst of planning a trip to Lund in order to visit Nancy and her family.  In the days before internet access and cell phone availability, all negotiations had to be done by airmail letter or phone.  Because Nancy had no telephone, arrangements had to be made sufficiently in advance (again by letter) in order to ensure that she would be near a phone, should I call.  When I received this particular letter, I had expected it to include further plans and directions, but not a mystery that seemed to foreshadow the plans of two fairly unexceptional young women.

I never actually found an answer to her question.  Ella thought there may once have been, years before, an international children’s literature conference which had been held in Lund and that her predecessor had attended.  We could never validate this.  The predecessor was deceased and no one at the library actually recalled any literature conference.  It probably didn’t matter.  I have chosen to suspend evidence-based reality and, instead, embrace a more ephemeral explanation involving serendipity, kismet and karma.  Yes, sometimes a book is just a book and yet… .

~Susan Catterall~

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Which Barbie Are You? Lawyer Barbie?


There’s a game making the rounds of social media, notably Facebook, which encourages one to embrace their inner Barbie.  I haven’t tried it yet, but I probably will. I believe the odds are good that I’ll be happy whatever the outcome.  After all, Barbie Millicent Roberts, over-achiever that she is, has had over 150 careers, the majority of which have been successful.  She’s also excelled in a number of challenging hobbies. Surely I could identify with one of these manifestations?

I’m not holding out for “Lawyer Barbie”, though. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Barbie masquerading as Elle Woods, resplendent in pink suit, pillbox hat and dog pal Bruiser or whether it’s Barbie as herself, sporting a stylish, bobbed hairdo and wearing a skirt, the length of which indicates that she’s channeling Allie McBeal. I’m just not feeling it.  Actually, I may be as reluctant as she is to be defined by one lone Barbie choice.

Although I didn’t own one of the first Barbies, I was an early adapter. I’m not even a collector, but over the years, I have defended her choices, cheered her triumphs and even noted her 40th and 50th birthdays.  She’s held on, despite her critics, and has emerged victorious on more than one occasion. This doll has legs, literally and figuratively, and over the years they have carried her past Ginny, Tammy, the “Happy to Be Me” wannabes and the Bratz. (The latter, I’m delighted to note, are currently engaged in a turf war with the “Ever After High” gang. I’m pulling for the storybook off-spring. Please don’t judge me.)

Barbie’s never been afraid of hard work.  In the board game, “Barbie: Queen of the Prom,” the prerequisites for success (and yes, unfortunately success meant becoming prom queen), were that one had to be a club president, go steady and buy one’s own prom gown with money earned by babysitting, waitressing and addressing wedding invitations.  There were not many career choices in those days. After high school, Barbie apparently found success as a flight attendant, nurse, teacher, ballet dancer and a cheerleader for most of the Big 10 Universities, as well as LSU, Alabama and Kentucky. (I don’t ask how; I just marvel.)

Barbie parlayed those early achievements into career goals and transitioned from teen model to…well, to just about anything. Sure, there were some missteps. I’m not talking about fashion and hair faux pas, because anyone who lived through the 80s shouldn’t throw stones. Most notably, there was the infamous “math is hard” statement, but clearly that was taken out of context because Barbie went on to become a veterinarian, surgeon, pilot, astronaut and presidential candidate, all the while simultaneously serving in several branches of the military, as well as being a fire-fighter and police officer.

In addition, she has competed in several Olympic events, drives race-cars and sings. (Most recently, she was an American Idol winner.) Through it all, Barbie has never lost her sunny disposition or her ability to accessorize.  Furthermore, she has never permitted herself to be defined by a man, whether it’s good guy/occasional boyfriend, Ken, or hunky G.I. Joe.  More importantly, she has never allowed a single career or hobby to limit her.  It makes me wonder what the results would be if she were able to take the “which Barbie are you” challenge.

~Susan Catterall~

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Ownership of Presentation Materials: Advice from “The Reference Desk”


“The Reference Desk” is a regular column featured in the AALL Spectrum.  The column below originally appeared in the September/October 2011 issue and is reprinted here with permission.

Q: Recently, I created a presentation on “Topic X” for a law library conference. Not long after that, a law librarian friend, who lives in another state, called me. She had just attended her own regional conference and heard a session on “Topic X” given by my coworker. My friend knew that I had recently prepared materials and lectured on “Topic X” and had expected to see or hear my name referenced, but did not.  I asked my co-worker about it, and she readily admitted that she had used my slides and handouts. I told her that I would have gladly consented to her using my materials but that I was disappointed that she hadn’t asked to do so or acknowledged my work. She responded that she didn’t need my permission. She claimed that as I had created the materials while at work, they didn’t belong to me. Is she right? I’m hurt and feel as if I can’t trust her.

A: I understand why you’re hurt and why you can’t trust your co-worker. However, whether she’s correct about ownership is another issue. Librarians, as a group, have been very generous, especially to one another. I’ve worked in academic and private law firm libraries, and my colleagues and I have swapped flash drives and PowerPoint slides as if we were trading baseball cards or Beanie Babies. Many of us, myself included, have been naïve and a little behind the times when it comes to educating ourselves regarding ownership. The presumption is that a creator holds the copyright, whether the copyright symbol is evident on the work or not. Therefore, at a minimum, your co-worker should have asked your permission to use your materials.

This presumption of ownership, however, could be rebutted by the particular policies that are in place at your institution. For example, academic institutions should have a copyright /intellectual policy addressing academic freedom and “works for hire.” The Copyright Act defines the latter as works created by individuals within the scope of their employment. Law firms may have similar policies in place, as well as disclosure policies, which govern the dissemination of confidential information, and disclaimer policies, which are often found on the firm’s website and which address the information located on the website. Works created by court and government employees could, but may not be, considered to be in the public domain. The burden is on us as employees to make the inquiry. There should be someone at your library who could provide the answer.

If our libraries don’t have these protections in place, we need to lobby for them. Librarians are resourceful. We can locate sample policies by researching the topic, by searching the websites of colleges and law firms, or by contacting experts among AALL members. We don’t have to stop sharing our materials; we simply need to become more prudent in doing so. I have often turned to my colleagues when responding to questions in this column. I rely on their collective wisdom and generosity. I recently spoke with Angela Secrest, director/LRC support for Houston Community College, who reminded me that librarians are teachers. We not only teach individuals how to research and retrieve information but we also instruct people how to use that information ethically. We educate patrons on how to correctly cite resources and how to provide appropriate attribution for the works and ideas of others. We lead by example. To quote her, “We don’t swipe other people’s stuff.” What happened to you illustrates the collision of law and ethics. We need to continue to hold ourselves to a high ethical standard. If we don’t, how can we expect others to do so?

~Susan Catterall~

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“Dear Karma, I have a list of people you’ve missed” (and other Tee-Shirt Tweets)

teeshirtI’ll be honest.  I don’t Tweet.  This has less to do with my reluctance to use social networking technology (although that may be part of it) and more to do with the fact that the text messages are limited to 140 characters.  Seriously?    Give me Fitzgerald over Hemingway any day.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy the witty, often snarky turn-of-the-phrase as much as the next person. I realize, however, being someone who is challenged by having to answer a yes/no question without the embellishment of explanations or context, I won’t be uttering them.

Recently, I found myself flipping the pages of a SkyMall magazine and ran across two full pages of tee-shirts, each with its respective catchphrase.  It occurred to me that Twitter might be the next iteration of tee-shirt messaging.  (“Everything old is new again.”)  How different, really, is a tweet from tee-shirt “speak” or, for that matter, from a bumper sticker, cocktail napkin or coaster?  All require a fairly succinct message.  A tee-shirt encourages a following by immediately alerting others to our sports team preferences, fraternal association memberships, political affiliations and philosophical leanings.  Tee-shirt slogans also provide instantaneous entry into a private club with its own insider language and traditions. Two illustrations spring to mind.

I am, for example, a “Big Ten” girl living in North Carolina and whenever I catch sight of the golden Tiger Hawk logo emblazoned on someone’s shirt, I feel as if I’ve been reunited with family, or at least, with a fellow Hawkeye.  Secondly, not long ago I saw someone wearing an “Opera Carolina” tee-shirt which bore the phrase, “Is She Dead, Yet?” and recognized the joke shared by many opera fans.  (By the way, in case you didn’t know, most operas do not end well for the hero and heroine.)

So with no apologies, I’ve returned to the SkyMall pages and have included some of the slogans, including the one referenced in the title, which resonated with me.

                “If only closed minds came with closed mouths.”

                “It’s my cat’s world.  I’m just here to open cans”

                “Those who can teach; those who can’t pass laws about teaching.”

                “Cleverly disguised as a responsible adult.”

                “Contrary to popular belief, no one owes you anything.”

                And, last, but not least, “I’m not a pessimist; I’m an optimist with experience.”

~Susan Catterall~

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Dress Code Advice from “The Reference Desk”

Now that the Charlotte School of Law has relocated to the heart of the banking and legal services industry, it’s appropriate to address the topic of professional attire.

“The Reference Desk” is a regular column featured in the AALL Spectrum.  The column below originally appeared in the February 2011 issue and is reprinted here with permission.

Q: One of our reference librarians wears somewhat low-cut tops— not the plunging deep neckline type, but, still, when she leans over the reference desk to help a patron, she shows a lot of cleavage. I fear she doesn’t realize that in leaning forward she leaves her personal space and enters the patron’s personal space, thus potentially creating the impression she’s flirting with him. I don’t know how to tell her.

A: I understand why you have reservations. Clothing is a personal expression and commenting on another’s fashion choices can be a sensitive subject.  With the move toward “business casual,” most formal dress codes have gone by the wayside. The ones that remain often address bare arms (no sleeveless tops) and bare feet (no opentoed shoes) and therefore aren’t much help in this instance.

What’s also gone by the wayside is the “Bunny Dip.” I never thought that in these days and within our profession I would invoke Hugh Hefner, but even Gloria Steinem and Barbara Walters, for purposes of their respective journalist assignments, mastered the move. For those who are too young to know what the “Bunny Dip” is, it’s a bow executed primarily with the legs, rather than the waist. With shoulders thrown back and the spine straight, the waitress would bend at the knees while serving customers and was able to keep her “personal space” to herself.

All that aside, I commend you for wanting to find an appropriate way to discuss this matter. You assume that your colleague is unaware of the impression she is creating. I would further presume that she would like to know what view she is providing and remedy it, just as most people would like to know if something is unbuttoned that needs to be buttoned, unzipped that should be zipped, or caught somewhere (for example, a skirt caught in the waist band of pantyhose) that shouldn’t be caught somewhere. The trick lies in finding a diplomatic way to tell the individual.

I’m making a second assumption that this woman is your colleague and not someone you supervise. The best way to address this would be to do it privately, person to person. Keep your tone light and possibly put it in the context of what I referenced above, i.e., “If your dress were unbuttoned in the back, I think you would want to know, so…” If you aren’t comfortable being the messenger, determine whether there is someone on the staff to whom you could turn.  Her best friend in the workplace? A female supervisor? An “older” woman who could offer her some “big sister” advice?) I think you would be doing her a favor by telling her.

I wanted to provide a second opinion, so I’ve contacted Linda G. Will, owner of Will Legal Resources, and asked for her advice. Linda has been not only the director of major law firm libraries but has also worked as a consultant with major legal firms, court and government libraries, and legal information vendors.

According to Will: “In all seriousness, Susan has covered all the bases. If the woman in discussion is a colleague, you truly need to address the situation in a different manner than if she is a supervised staff member. The conundrum is that with all the new ‘casual Fridays,’ which have bled over into all the other days of the week, where do you draw the line (or the neck line so to speak)? By the way, do any male staff who interact with the public keep their shirts unbuttoned a notch too low? Taking a canvass before ‘the talk’ would be a precaution so that no one is being singled out.

“Maybe this would require an entire staff conversation in which dress code can be addressed in a more global fashion. I believe that discussing the image being used to market the research center should be positive. This image should project scholarship, authority, and of course reliability. You need to not just set an image as a department, but as a profession. This is truly essential for firm and court libraries, which are going through difficult staffing times. Staffing positions are becoming almost a privilege.”

~Susan Catterall~

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Fast and Free Government Internet Resources: Federal, State and Local – A New Research Guide for You

Businessman Wearing Cape

Fast and free legal research online?  While this statement may sound like an oxymoron, the government does provide plentiful Internet resources on a federal, state and even local level which can be used to assist you in your legal research.  Be aware, though, while there is no doubt that the web provides plentiful information, not all of this information is considered credible.

In February of this year, Susan Catterall and I had the privilege of teaching about this very topic for a Continuing Legal Education course hosted by the National Business Institute.  Our manuscript now lives in our collection, and the content created within this document has also been transitioned into a Research Guide for the Charlotte Law Library and our patrons.

Do you know about our Research Guides page, which features a range of information tools designed to assist you with your research and study at Charlotte School of Law?

The Charlotte Law Library Research Guides page now plays host to this new guide – Fast and Free Government Internet Resources: Federal, State & Local.   The overarching goal of this LibGuide is to provide you with efficient and cost-effective tips and resources, but as you conduct your research, acknowledge that your time is valuable and weigh that cost against the cost of supplementing your research with fee-based searches.

This guide will introduce you to free Internet resources to assist you in your legal research, from the federal to the state to the local level.  Check it out to learn more about specific resources relating to state and federal statutes, government agencies and regulations, licensing boards and commissions, using federal statistics and making FOIA requests.

And as always, don’t hesitate to ask your friendly library staff for assistance!

~Ashley Moye~

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The Reference Desk — June 2013

“The Reference Desk” is a regular column featured in the AALL Spectrum.  The column below originally appeared in the June 2013 issue and is reprinted here with permission.


Q: I’ve read your columns about the use of cell phones during meetings, but what about the use of cell phones or interrupting conversations in general? I coordinate the training for new associates at a law firm, and I’m appalled when I see someone taking a call or having a side conversation when I’m talking with them or catch them texting during a training session. It’s not that I take it personally as much as I’m afraid that one of them will do the same thing when they’re in a shareholder’s office or with a client. I’ve tried to explain that some of the more “seasoned” attorneys don’t appreciate it when younger associates try to multitask or when they don’t give their full attention to the supervisor. I’ve been blunt, but then I hear my mother’s voice about to come out of my mouth. Doesn’t anyone appreciate good manners anymore?

A: Are we related? I swear I heard my parents’ voices when you were describing this situation. I see two interrelated issues here: the first addresses an overall need for business social skills and the other has to do with cell-phone etiquette, impulse control, and multitasking.

Speaking of hearing our parents’ voices, I’m reminded of a specific conversation that my dad once had with me. My parents were raised during the Depression and were part of the World War II generation. The G.I. Bill and the post-WWII economic boom enabled their generation to leave farms and small towns, buy homes, acquire cars, and go to college. As a group, they rose above their “station,” and, as my dad admitted, occasionally they found themselves in uncharted waters and feeling uncomfortable. As he said, “There was no one to show us what to do.” Fortunately, that group had each other to lean on.

It’s not so very different today. Good manners may not go out of style, but etiquette classes did. To answer your question, yes, people appreciate good manners. In fact, the need for business social skills has created a niche industry. Within most major cities there are entities that specialize in providing instruction on topics such as how to conduct oneself at a business dinner, make small talk, work a room, and initiate a proper introduction. Furthermore, law schools and MBA programs have begun to incorporate similarly themed seminars within their curricula. My law school will soon be partnering with the Charlotte, North Carolina, office of Finesse Worldwide, Inc., an international business etiquette company, to host a dining and networking dinner.  I spoke with Aimee Symington, CEO of Finesse Worldwide, Inc., who has more than 20 years of experience in business etiquette instruction. She can attest to the importance of mastering these skills. 

Aimee says, “As we all know, the job market is tight, and even seasoned professionals are competing for jobs. For this reason, it is more important than ever before to polish your social skills so that you will have a better chance of getting a job, keeping your job, and moving up the corporate ladder. Your professional presence (charisma), and how you interact and build relationships with others, does make a difference in whether or not people will like you, trust you, and want to do business with you.

“In addition to learning about cell phone etiquette, many college students and professionals are realizing that they can improve their professional presence and influence if they have polite table manners, confident greetings, and excellent communication and networking skills. Sometimes these skills are not taught by our parents or do not come naturally to us, so attending a business etiquette workshop can give you the tips and tools you need to get ahead.

“With regard to the question about cell phone etiquette, we all need to be aware of the message we are sending to others when we immediately respond to a call or text while in the middle of a conversation or meal. Our actions say the person we’re with is not as important as the person who’s calling or texting. The key to professional success is to make those around you feel valued and respected, so limit the amount of multitasking when interacting with others and exercise polite business etiquette.”

Thank you so much, Aimee. What you’ve said seems like common sense, but it’s easy to become distracted in the moment. Part of our responsibility as teachers, trainers, and mentors is to model the behavior that we expect from others, and often we fall short by sending inconsistent messages. How many of us respond to an email the moment it crosses our desk, jump to answer our phone the second it rings, or call out a greeting to a colleague when we’re working with another individual at the reference desk? Can we expect students and young professionals to do as we say rather than as we do? On the other hand, we also need to be patient with ourselves and with others.

We’ve established that people (especially employers and clients) appreciate good manners and why such skills matter. So to respond to the original question, you mentioned that you coordinate the training for new associates. This puts you in a great position to make a difference by integrating social skills and time management into your training program. I’m sure you’ll be able to explain the benefits to both your shareholders and your new associates. I’d like to know whether any of our colleagues have started similar programs. Good luck.

~Susan Catterall~

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The Reference Desk – March 2012

In the column below, reprinted with permission from the AALL Spectrum, former reference librarian, Liz McCurry Johnson, provides her perspective regarding the use of mobile technologies during meetings.


Q: My boss just had a conversation with me about the exact type of behavior your last column addressed: using a smart phone during meetings. However, she brushed it off as another generational difference. Then she commented that the millennial generation doesn’t know how to communicate face-to-face, so she expects us to be rudely attached to our devices at all times. I’m outraged, because I take my smart phone into meetings for multiple reasons: 1) to check the time so that I stay on schedule, 2) to look up information as questions arise, and 3) to check my schedule if future meetings need to be arranged. How do I bring this issue back to my boss so that she doesn’t see me as immature and rude?

A: I agree that you need to address this issue with your supervisor. She not only seems to have made broad assumptions, but she also seems unwilling to investigate other viewpoints. That sort of rigidity could thwart the healthy conflict of communication that often leads to creative ideas and solutions. I think this goes beyond merely dealing with multiple generations in the workplace. I’ve asked my friend and former co-worker, Liz McCurry Johnson, for guidance. Liz is the chairperson of AALL’s Gen X/Gen Y Caucus, as well as a reference librarian at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Liz says: “As with anything in life, you have choices. You could stay mad at your boss and continue to take your smart phone into meetings. But by ignoring the situation, you run the risk of creating a bigger rift between yourself and your boss. And it doesn’t allow you any personal growth opportunities.

“Another option is that you could merely stop taking your smart phone into meetings. Changing your behavior here may have some effect on your boss’s perspective, meaning she may believe that her message was effectively communicated, but on the flip side, you force yourself to figure out alternative methods of organization that you previously relied on your smart phone for, such as scheduling and timekeeping. Additionally, I don’t generally recommend avoiding conflict situations like these because they tend to breed frustration and more tension between colleagues.

“The choice that I would recommend would be one that opens up a conversation rather than sticking to discrete changes in behavior. I would encourage you to use this situation as a learning opportunity for you and your supervisor. When you approach your boss about the situation, make sure you couch the conversation as a positive discussion about how you use your technology to improve your efficiency in the workplace. This may be an opportunity to learn how she manages her projects and communicates during meetings. Conversely, it may also open up a conversation where you can teach your boss about a new technology or skill you implement in the workplace.

“Also, keep in mind that your boss may not be the only person impacted by your behavior. Other people, including firm managing partners or deans, may be in meetings where it appears you are distracted by your electrical device rather than engaging in the discussion. So when you are using your smart phone or electrical device in meetings, be mindful of the impact or appearance that you are having on the other meeting attendees. Always heed the meeting rules, which may or may not set guidelines for using technology during meetings. If there are no clear rules established at the beginning of the meeting, I would suggest specifically asking about smart phones and laptop use. I’m sure those who don’t want them to be used will be vocal in their responses. 

“In any meeting, I would encourage you to first listen to the conversation, add your valuable points respectfully, and then, when you are ready to pull out your smart phone, expressly comment why you’re using it. For example, a simple ‘Let me check my schedule on my phone,’ or ‘Does anyone mind if I take notes on my phone? I’ll be happy to email them out to the group afterwards?’ clears any ambiguity in the situation. By explaining to your colleagues the rationale behind using the device, you open the door to many other opportunities.

“And last, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter to which generation you belong; it is generally rude to stick your nose in a smart phone or mobile device without acknowledging the action rather than actively engaging in any conversation. More than anything, though, keep in mind technology can be intimidating to people, so try to keep it fun, exciting, and an opportunity to share ideas!”

This isn’t the first time I’ve turned to Liz for her point of view. I appreciate her emphasis on open communication. Please take her advice to heart. I would like to hear how others are incorporating technology into the workplace and are engaging in learning and teaching between staff on technology issues. Let’s continue this discussion because I would love to hear what kinds of conversations are being had between generations on technology and staff relations. We are all learning from one another.

~Susan Catterall~

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The Reference Desk – Feb 2012

“The Reference Desk” is a regular column featured in the AALL Spectrum.  The column below originally appeared in the December 2012 issue and is reprinted here with permission.


Q: One of our staff members brings a cell phone to our staff meetings and is constantly texting the entire time. I’m irritated beyond belief. This is so rude and disrespectful. He’s even done it once, to a less obvious degree, when we’ve met with our library partner. No one will say anything!

A: I sense your frustration, but I’m not sure what your question is. Are you looking for permission to say something, either to your colleague or to his/your supervisor? Do you need confirmation that his behavior is disrespectful and rude? Both answers come down to communication, followed by degrees of respect and courtesy.

Is his behavior rude and disrespectful? My instinct is to say “yes”; however, I’m basing that on the standards my elders set for me. For my parents, and for my generation to some extent, meetings were conducted by, and respect was shown to, the person who had the “talking stick.”   However, times change, and as much as I’d like to paraphrase Potter Stewart and say that we know rude, disrespectful behavior when we see it, it isn’t always that easy anymore. More collaborative styles of management, relaxed business etiquette, and an increasing use of technology have all played a role in transforming the way in which meetings are conducted.  This doesn’t mean that civility has been thrown out the window; it does, however, mean that the rules are still evolving.

Many businesses have adopted sets of meeting rules or ground rules. It’s a good idea to begin every meeting by having an attendee review the rules as a reminder to the staff and to inform any guests. This places everyone on the same page and is a critical “communication” piece. However, policies at different businesses vary. Some rules forbid the use of cell phones and mobile devices entirely. Some are more flexible and permit the courteous use of wireless devices. In any case, once the rules have been recited, everyone present will know what the expectations are.

If your library doesn’t have a policy, or if you believe it would be difficult to institute one, then by default it’s up to the individual who “owns” the meeting to make the rules. That person should set the expectations, either verbally or by modeling the behavior. I’ve observed judges who’ve set specific rules for courtroom decorum, and I’ve seen professors who’ve insisted that students shut their laptops and put mobile devices away during class. Those individuals own the meeting, and they get to make the rules.

Is your colleague being rude and disrespectful? Again, it depends. I mentioned that I inherited my values from my parents, who were raised during the Depression. I’m a baby boomer who now shares my work space with multiple generations. Much has been written about the collision of work ethics and values when multi-generations work side by side. For example, what happens if the individual who “owns” the meeting has his or her smart phone sitting on the table and frequently glances down at it? Is this the new norm? This illustrates why communicating expectations is so essential.   

I asked you earlier if you were looking for permission to say something to your colleague. If so, then my answer depends on several factors. If you’re running the meeting or holding the “talking stick,” then, yes, you should definitely say something. Hopefully by defining the meeting rules for all attendees, you won’t need to have a one-on-one conversation.

Is his behavior personally irritating to you, or are you his supervisor or designated mentor? If you aren’t his supervisor or his designated mentor, I would caution you against giving him unsolicited advice, regardless of your good intentions. However, try to reflect on the reasons his behavior irritates you. Do you find his texting distracting? Do you find his multitasking annoying? Reflect on the reasons before you speak. Whatever the reasons are, you will need to find a way to address them before things escalate and you say something you regret. It takes courage to enter the conflict zone. Keep heated emotions and blame out of the conversation, and speak from your point of view. For example, you might say, “When you text, I feel____.”    

You might best help him and yourself by remembering that so much of this is new ground for all of us, and we need to be nice to each other and ourselves. Good luck.

~Susan Catterall~

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