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M. Kathleen Kern's picture

M. Kathleen Kern

This seems like a fitting time to be the IAmRUSA member of the week as I've just completed my year as RUSA president. Kirk MacLeod and Sarah Hammill launched IAmRUSA in October, making my "wouldn't it be neat?" idea a reality with their hard work. RUSA is a diverse group of librarians and IAmRUSA is a place to get to know a few of them.

A little about me. I've worked in libraries for twenty years and post-MLS for 15. During that time I've worked in: academic reference, a map library, a tax and accounting library, academic information literacy, freelance corporate research, and in ILL. While I haven't loved _every_ minute, I have found every job rewarding and worked with some great people. I consider myself a true generalist, enjoying the challenge of what each new question or situation will bring but being able to focus in to become adept with a new topic area or resource.

I am currently at the Univeristy of Illinois Library (Urbana-Champaign) where I supervise twelve graduate assistants who work our reference desk and I co-manage our reference services. I helped to build our virtual reference service (13 years old and answered over 16000 questions last year!) and wrote a book for ALA Editions on Virtual Reference (VR) which grew from my involvement in writing the RUSA guidelines for VR. I've taught reference for two library schools, and the RUSA Behavioral Guidelines are a fundamental text. So, a lot comes back to RUSA for me. I'll be leaving Illinois soon to relocate in the greater DC area with my spouse. Job leads and search tips welcome!

My hobbies are travel, crochet, making jewelry, and baking. Sometimes I combine my hobbies. I made my first crochet project (a blanket for my grandfather) while on a work exchange in Shanghai, China and finished it while at a conference in Croatia. I've trained librarians in Nigeria and am in search of my next opportunity to travel overseas.

I have the most adorable dog (not hyperbole) and a husband who has a lot of forbearance for my long work hours, time spent on RUSA, and my international travel. I am in the middle of a PhD that I am looking forward to refocusing on now that Joe Thompson is RUSA President. 

Like any good reference librarian, I look forward to your questions, whatever they are!

- Kathleen 

Sarah Hammill's picture

Hi Kathleen:

Great to learn more about you!  I am interested in learning more about your international travel.  How much of your travel has been related to librarianship?  Can you tell me how you were able to do the 2 things I love to do together? Where do you learn about such opportunities?  For example, if someone was interested in an exchange program where would he/she learn more about it?




M. Kathleen Kern's picture

Hi Sarah,

My level of international travel for work is a little unusual!  My love of travel started with a trip to the Soviet Union when I was in high school but all of my international travel since 2000 it has been related to my career. I am not sure I have any great insights, but I'll tell you the ways in which my travel came about.

Work exchange at the Shanghai Library: I was recruited by the library about this opportunity.  At the time, this was something that they brought in a couple of librarians a year to do.  I cannot find any information about it on their website however. From conversations with them, it seemed like international outreach and exchange was common for large institutions, so it is possible that other libraries have these programs or would be open to them if contacted. Indeed, a quick internet search for Shanghai Library work exchange brings up recent blog posts and articles about other Shanghai libraries (there are several universities).  If you are interested, perhaps contacting libraries to see if they have this type of program or working with your library to see if they are interested in starting a program.  (CUNY has an exchange program with Shanghai Normal University, for example.)

Nigeria: I went as part of a team with the Mortenson Center for International Librarianship which is housed at UIUC.  So, the luck of proximity and a willingness to travel to Nigeria on short notice played a part in addition to my skills and experience matching the training goals of the grant that was funding the training.  Two of the four team members were not from UIUC but were experts of which the team leaders were aware or were recommended to them by people they contacted. So the answer there is to work your network to see what might be available.

My other travel (Croatia, Crete, Scotland) was speaking at conferences. One was an invitation to be a plenary but the others were opportunities I found and put in a proposal.  Using something like PapersFirst (which is a subscription database) is a great way to find CFPs and you can target to a particular geographic area.  I will admit that while I had a great idea for my paper in Scotland, part of the appeal was the ability to stay with a friend (which also kept costs low.)

In considering a work exchange or conference travel abroad, you might need to be willing to pick up costs out of pocket.  It depends on your library's funding.  If you area allowed to be away from work (and not use your vacation) will also depend on your library.  I did do some work for my library while in Shanghai. 

I never thought when I started as a librarian that I would have these opportunities. It has been a mix of my work to create opportunities and to spend the money, luck, and support from my library and my director.

M. Kathleen Kern

RUSA Past-President


Kirk MacLeod's picture

My question is actually related a little to the nuts and bolts of the workload for the Presidency of RUSA; as you end up making a three year commitment (a year as VP, a year as President, and a final year as Past President) what exactly hare the time and work expectations for those years?

Obviously attendance at both the Annual and Midwinter Meetings, and in your case availability for your “office hours”, but I know that for a lot of people new to the profession there is a hesitancy in volunteering for association work due to a perceived massive workload and time commitment involved, and I thought you might be able to speak to the reality of the situation rather than the imagined commitment students and new members in the profession may have.

M. Kathleen Kern's picture

I started my reply as a new comment, so see "Volunteer Workload" below.

M. Kathleen Kern

RUSA Past-President


M. Kathleen Kern's picture

Hi Kirk,

If I start with the workload of RUSA President I might scare off some people.  So, I'll start with a more common volunteer workload. 

It varies, of course, and depends on the work of the committee that you are on. Your involvement in launching IAmRUSA has been more work than a typical committee. (Thank you!)  I've been on committees where the workload is more like 10 hours over the course of the year - to help plan a program for instance.  So, an hour a month?  But it will not necessarily spread out over the year evenly. 

  • RUSA has a goal for the year that every committee will post on their website 1-3 things that they are working on during the year.  This will help volunteers with choosing committees not just based on topic but on activity and time commitment.
  • Many committees now require either only attendance at one conference or do not require attendance at all.  (Some do have a face-to-face requirement, so check!) But, to be a member you will need to work between conferences via email and perhaps via conference call/online meeting.  These can range from 2 times a year to monthly with quarterly probably being more the norm.
  • Some committees, such as book review committees or a committee revising a document might require hours a week and it might be constant (as with CODES Reading List) or it might be off and on intense (as when waiting for others to revise and share their edits to a guideline.)
  • Ask the chair or a current member if you are interested in a committee about what they are working on now, plans for the next year, and amount of time to expect.
  • RUSA is working on ways to get people involved through "micro-volunteering" and other non-committee volunteer opportunities.  So, subscribe to RUSA-L and the section lists to see what might come up as a call for short-term involvement. Also, send me your ideas! mkathleen.kern@gmail.com
  • RUSA is considering creating Interest Groups which might be a lighter involvement threshold.  To weigh in on this, take the RUSA Review survey at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/HP78MMG
  • Committees at the RUSA-level can, on average, be more intense workloads that those in the Sections, but that varies as well.  The aforementioned book (or website or resource) review/awards/lists can be very intense and many of those are in the sections.

In terms of hours a week for RUSA President?  I'd say a minimum of 5 hours a week, spiking to 20 right before conference, before and during the ALA Fall Leadership meeting, and when I was VP and making committee appointments.  I set aside 3 hours every Tuesday (including office hour) for RUSA business, which helped.  What did I do in 5+ hours a week? There were daily email communications (and sometimes calls) with RUSA Office and various members about a range of things, online meetings and prep, writing four columns for RUSQ and four intros for RUSA Update. As President I was on several committees because of being President.  I'd been told this, but that is an area where I underestimated the time.  If I were doing this again, I'd limit how much that wasn't required by role that I said "yes" to.

I am expecting a lighter year as past-president, although I am still a member of RUSA Exec and on a couple of committees.  I'll also be a sounding board/advisor for the Pres and VP as much as they want me to be and pick up to pitch-in as needed. 

In short (tl;dr) volunteering for a committee is a variable time commitment depending on the work of the committee.  Ask the current chair what they are doing, how often they meet, and the workload for that committee.  If it doesn't seem like the amount/type of work you are interested in, ask around.  With 120 committees throughout RUSA and the RUSA sections, you'll likely find a few that would be "just right".




M. Kathleen Kern

RUSA Past-President


David Koch (non-member)'s picture

Hi Kathleen,

My name is David Koch. I have worked in a reference capacity for about 6 years now in both public libraries and archives. I was wondering what advice you would give to someone who wants to make the transition towards reference work in an academic setting. Also, how do you get academic experience?