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Sunday, February 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

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'Special' librarians, specialized niche

By Sarah Anne Wright
Seattle Times staff reporter

Nancy Gershenfeld, who has a master's in library science and is a lecturer at University of Washington's "iSchool," stands in the Gallagher Law Library.
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Forget the tweedy look, book cart, reference stacks and shushing.

Think Pentium 4 processors at 3 gigahertz and a know-how that holds its own among the metadata crowd.

The new generation of librarians has a more-modern set of skills. As the amount of information increases, so do opportunities for librarians.

"It's becoming more and more technically oriented," said Dan Trefethen, a librarian at Boeing's Future Combat Systems program in Kent.

"We are trying to get away from the image of the musty, old collection of books and get people to understand that we are part of the information revolution and, in many cases, leading it."

Special librarians tend to work at "special" libraries at businesses or in government agencies. Although physical collections at many in-house libraries are shrinking, more organizations are hiring librarians to help find, arrange and deliver information.

"You have to get through a certain amount of eye junk to find the results," said Trefethen.

Librarians work at places such as E! Entertainment Television, Levi Strauss, Planned Parenthood, Amgen, Saatchi & Saatchi and Accenture. Of the top 100 companies ranked by Fortune magazine in 1998, 85 percent had libraries or information centers. Who knew?

Special librarians

Also known as: Corporate librarian, information specialist, informatics manager, knowledge engineer, researcher

Library culture: See movie "Desk Set" with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

Salary: The U.S. average was $61,522, according to a 2003 Special Libraries Association (12,000 members) survey. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that librarians in general earned $33,000 to $51,000 annually.

More Info: Special Libraries Association,; Information Today,; University of Washington Information School,

"When you're 21, it doesn't sound like anything cool," said Nancy Gershenfeld, a lecturing faculty member at the University of Washington's Information School, informally referred to as the "iSchool."

Gershenfeld was a history major who fell into library work through a researching gig at a New York City market-research firm. She'd research quirky facts that were later featured in commercials. Or she'd find background materials to give a sales team making a pitch a fast education.

Later, Gershenfeld moved to Seattle, worked at Microsoft (from Windows 3.0 to 2000) and earned a master's in library science from UW in 1991. She now teaches there full time.

Education is essential to librarians. Most have a master's in library science.

In recent years, UW's iSchool has transformed itself into a top-tier library and information school.

Where the iSchool once offered one degree — a master's in library science — it now has an undergraduate major (in informatics, the study of information systems), two master's-degree programs, a doctoral program and distance-learning curriculum. Enrollment in the expanded master's-level courses is up 180 percent since 1998.

The iSchool is helped by its proximity to Microsoft and its founders, who are library supporters. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has put $250 million toward installing computers in public libraries nationwide since 1998. The foundation also gave close to $5 million to help build Mary Gates Hall, where the iSchool is housed.

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Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, gave $10 million to UW libraries in honor of his father, Kenneth Allen, who was an associate library director there.

Many professionals find the library field after trying a few other jobs. Gershenfeld said that it's a second or third career for many of her students. Many pick up the skills and degree while holding down jobs. One in five librarians works part time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Traditionally, the library field was dominated by women, but more men are entering the profession. The pay is good, and getting better.

"You can make six figures in this business," Gershenfeld said.

Librarians are skilled at organizing, referencing and analyzing. They weigh the credibility of information before passing it on. One of their special skills is to ferret out what information a person really wants when requesting a librarian's help. Often the question is wrong.

Librarians are by nature collaborative. They usually work on small staffs.

"You need a strong sense of professional service. We are helping other people find the information they need to complete their jobs," Trefethen said.

Librarians learn a lot on the job and are curious. They'll say "interesting question" and mean it.

"We never know on a daily basis what we are going to be asked," said Trefethen, whose wife, Joanna, also is a librarian.

Trefethen collects science-fiction books, but his home library is not as organized as the information he manages at the office.

"Nobody pays me to organize my books at home," Trefethen said.

The couple's library careers are an advantage when it comes to parenting two teenagers.

"As many faults as we have, our children don't think we're dumb," he said.

Sarah Anne Wright: 206-464-2752 or News librarian Gene Balk contributed to this report.


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