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Robertson Chairs SLA Centennial Commission

By Eddy Ball
February 2009

Roberson, Dav
Robertson, above, stands beside one of the many indications of the evolution of the specialized NIEHS Library to an electronically based information provider - the compact shelving that holds its down-sized print holdings. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS Library ( Director Dav Robertson is excited about the 100th anniversary of the Special Libraries Association (SLA) and his appointment as chair of the 2009 Centennial Commission. This winter he is involved in SLA events that will culminate June 14 - 17 when the group holds its Annual Conference in Washington. The conference will feature a keynote address by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and an Annual Awards Reception at the Great Hall of the Library of Congress.

Robertson kicked off the centennial locally on December 4, 2008 with his keynote address on "InfoPrognostications, 1909 - 2109" to members of the North Carolina chapter gathered in Chapel Hill. He also attended the SLA Leadership Summit 2009 on January 14 - 17 in Savannah, Ga., where representatives of state chapters, division chairs and members of the Centennial Commission met to prepare for the Annual Conference.

According to Robertson, the SLA Centennial celebrates the distinctive character of the organization's mission. Unlike most academic or public archival libraries, the role of special - or "specialized" - libraries like the one at NIEHS, Robertson explained, "is not education per se but the delivery of practical, focused and timely information to the executives and other clients within their organizations."

Over the past 100 years, SLA membership has grown to include 11,000 librarians, or what Robertson prefers to call "information professionals," in 75 countries. The organization strives to provide cutting-edge continuing education and networking opportunities for members and serves as an advocate for specialized libraries.

As their organizations and operating environments change over time, specialized libraries must be proactive as they evolve to meet new needs and take advantage of new resources - forcing them to adopt what Robertson described as an "entrepreneurial" orientation toward collaboration with their users. "We embrace change," Robertson maintained, "and use our knowledge and vision to further the goals of our organizations."

"The more we're involved in SLA and other associations," Robertson concluded, "the more we find out about other resources, new products and services, and other collections that we can then use to answer questions from our scientists."

SLA ( Exit NIEHS was founded in 1909 by librarians who thought that libraries serving business, government, social agencies and parts of the academic community were different from other libraries. Because of their specialized interests, the librarians felt a need to establish a unique kind of professional development organization. According to Robertson, the kind of proactive, user-involvement orientation fostered by SLA has been instrumental in helping the NIEHS Library improve information services for the Institute's researchers in several important ways (see text box).

Keeping Abreast Benefits Scientists at NIEHS

Networking with their colleagues at SLA and other organizations has helped NIEHS information professionals better serve their users.
  • Initiating cooperative purchasing agreements with other members of the NIH Consortium of Libraries (NIHCOL), giving NIEHS scientists online access to such resources as all of the Nature journals, the Web of Science, QUOSA and UptoDate at a fraction of the cost of individual subscriptions
  • Keeping users up to date on changes to PubMed and other National Library of Medicine resources, as well as science databases being updated or developed, such as the Elsevier BrainNavigator
  • Enhancing the subject matter knowledge of "embedded" librarians through such activities as attendance at neuroscience conferences and training in epidemiology to better understand scientists' information needs
  • Developing with colleagues in the Medical Library Association (MLA) more video-based training for individual needs
  • Enhancing the profile of NIEHS through involvement in SLA subject divisions devoted to environment and the biomedical and life sciences
  • Exploring with the Renaissance Computing Institute the possible future acquisition of a touch-sensitive "vis-wall" display for distance conferencing and collaborations
  • Establishing relationships with sister agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services
  • Taking the lead in mentoring and career development for information professional interns and junior scientists, which led to the creation of the SLA's Rose L. Vormelker Award for mentoring. NIEHS Biomedical Librarian Larry Wright, Ph.D., was the first member honored with the award in 1998.

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