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Interview with Cindy Hill, President, Special Libraries Association.

Interview by Annabel Colley, FreePint.

NB: When you have finished, click here to see photos and read other FreePint dispatches and interviews from the SLA conference.

Special Libraries Association President Cindy Hill works in a Hi-tech company leading knowledge management initiatives, but still believes there will long be a future for both the physical library and the electronic one. She also believes that as people are finding flaws in the Internet, they are coming back to the qualified people - information professionals.

Annabel Colley of FreePint chatted with her in New York, about her career, the SLA, her vision of the future and how she once launched a space shuttle!

Cindy, can you start by telling me about your background and your current job at Sun Microsystems?

I am Director of Sun Library and Learning Technology at Sun Microsystems Inc. in California. I have actually been in the corporate environment the whole time as a professional. I used to work at a company called Failure Analysis that analysed disasters - human and natural, which was a great place for doing research. Then I worked for an executive firm and then an environmentally orientated technical company.

Currently at Sun Microsystems, I have a team of 10 individuals who are located across North America. In the last three years, my groups have changed from having only 90% located at our California headquarters to now only 40% in the same location. 60% of my group is living and working in states other than California. Our group reflects Sun's iWork initiative, which is to expect that people can work anywhere, any time, and continue to contribute at their high levels.

As a manager, I've acquired many new skills as I learn how to remain highly connected with my team and be an effective long-distance/remote manager. While we encourage Sun employees to use our digital resources and capabilities, we also recognise that people need local connections in the form of targeted physical collections and/or people to work with them on their information and research needs. We are currently exploring increasing our local connections in the U.K. and in India.

What motivates you and what has been your biggest professional challenge so far?

I personally get excited about working with people. How can we work together to get people answers to the questions they have? Frequently people already know a lot about their question, and they just need some more information. What is exciting right now is that people are interested in the internal information as well as the external. They don't care where it is coming from - they just want an answer.

As the incoming president, what is your vision for the SLA?

For me it is about collaboration and partnership. As groups get larger, there's more power and possibilities, instead of trying to do things in isolation. I really see opportunities to work with other associations, information providers, the peer to peer connections - that is one of the great things about our solo librarians division. They help each other solve problems.

In a speech given last year, you said rather than letting change happen to you, you wanted to help facilitate the changes. What is the best way to do this? How do you manage change?

For me the best way is to listen to what people's message is, regardless of how they deliver it, and then to pull out the kernels of that and use that to get change implemented. A lot of the time people have the solution. You realise this is the direction that we need to go in, and you use that energy. So listening, making decisions and then acting on it.

SLA members attending this conference just voted to retain the name Special Libraries Association instead of changing it to "Information Professionals International" - can I have your reaction to the vote?

We have a process, we used the process - we are going to go forward with Special Libraries Association. That is just a powerful example of how we do business, we allow and accept everybody and their differing opinions - and that's how it goes.

Do you think the membership will feel that the vote was representative of views? Looking at the numbers - the SLA have around 12,000 members, 7, 000 people attended this conference and yet only 830 people chose to participate in the final vote.

I would say yes, that is about the same percentage we get by mail; the ratio usually works out that way when we have had previous votes on other issues regarding bylaws for example.

How do you personally ensure that you stay one step ahead of changes and challenges outside the information profession in the wider business world?

I read a lot, listen a lot. I always pay a lot of attention to what our executive officers at Sun Microsystems are saying. I also do things outside of my profession. The more multi-dimensional I am, the more I am going to be able to impact a specific problem.

Talking of being multi-dimensional, I read that you have had some pretty interesting experiences - like going to space camp, tell me about that!

Ah Space Camp! Both times I went to NASA Space Camp (in Huntsville, Alabama) were exhilarating events in my life. I learned more about the Astronauts' experiences by participating in space simulations. Even though what we did were only simulations, every member on our team began to believe that we were really in space. At one time we were part of Houston's Ground Control team launching the space shuttle and the next time I was part of the Astronaut team orbiting the earth and running experiments. We wore space suits, learned the basic protocol for leaving and entering a space shuttle, and how to talk to Houston. Definitely an unique experience!

What fun! Did it teach you anything?

Things like Space Camp, high-altitude backpacking, talking with my neighbour's four-year old while we weed our gardens, and riding my motorcycle (it's a 650cc Honda Shadow) provide opportunities for me to stretch my physical boundaries allowing me to also stretch my mental boundaries. I get to consider different solutions to situations, have a usually "safe" environment to test things out, and try new experiences. Like many of us in the information profession, I like and need a variety of experiences and opportunities in my personal and professional lives.

Do you think it is important for professional organisations like the SLA to be more outward facing rather than looking inward?

Oh definitely, in fact that is one of the areas that the branding campaign will approach. Looking at our external stakeholders. Building partnerships not just with our members but with our external stakeholders.

How do you think the SLA can be a catalyst in the information economy?

Well it definitely is. In many instances, individual members and individual organisations already are. But what I would like to see is that the SLA - as an organisation - has a voice. To have that representation that people come to us.

The executive director plays a crucial role in providing specific direction towards the SLAs' strategic goals. Janice La Chance, New Executive Director, can I turn to you to ask: What are going to be your very first steps?

Obviously, I will be getting to know people and building relationships initially. This week, being here at the conference, I have seen the passion and commitment that the membership and the leadership have to their Association and their profession. The future is very exciting. So, it is relationship building and using the member and leadership resources to learn.

Is it time that SLA merged with other special library associations creating some sort of federation so that there could be more strength in numbers? Medical librarians, law librarians, etc.

I am not sure that it is mergers, but collaboration. We all have our uniqueness and individual styles. By identifying our uniqueness we can build upon that, go forward, and choose two or more - but as united forces.

The only programme with mass appeal that the SLA has is its annual conference. What else can SLA offer to attract members?

We are finding that our virtual seminars are gaining in popularity. Attendance is higher than we had expected and we are getting requests for different subjects. People who do not want to travel are using them as learning opportunities. Also, as you have noted, our discussion lists are very active. We have to recognise that it is an ongoing communication process.

Yes the annual conference is highly visible but all of the things that happen throughout the year keep the members highly connected to each other. There are also electronic newsletters and we are going to be reinstating our very popular State of the Art Institute. We had this programme for 10 years. We stopped to evaluate its effectiveness and we have just recently voted to bring them back, starting from October. We will be covering very popular subjects like strategies and tools for Information Architecture, content management, collaboration and learning, and we also have one planned on the design and usability of interfaces.

How can the SLA become more inclusive internationally and overcome cultural boundaries? We in Europe see you as still culturally very North American focussed right now.

That is an excellent question and one that I keep struggling with. I find that people are being very generous in telling us what would work for them. We are exploring more electronic communication, a change in the fee structure, different kinds of publications. It's not going to be one answer for every country or every member because we have to look at the diversity of our population.

Is the teaching of information students at Universities in the US keeping up with the changing demands of the market? What are the key skills for the Knowledge economy, now and in the future?

I think that we have several outstanding Schools here in the US. I know this is also true in Europe. I did also explore a little bit in Australia and I got to meet instructors and faculties in Mexico. Many people are aware of what is needed. One thing I would like to see more of is more emphasis on Special Libraries curriculum. There is a very strong emphasis on Public and Academic. More emphasis on the types of organisations that we work in, and the skills we are looking for. Our newly revised SLA core competencies is a really good tool to look at to see what our basic skill set is <>.

I know you read and enjoy FreePint. Some FreePint readers are qualified information professionals (holding a degree or postgraduate degree in library & information studies) however many more of our FreePint community are from outside the traditional "library" profession. Intranet managers, IT professionals, Web developers - anyone from information-rich professions who need to find and evaluate quality information online. Are these the sort of people that the SLA wishes to attract to a newly branded and re-positioned SLA?

These are the sort of people that we work with. Many of them are interested in our association and they do see opportunities - such as the competitive intelligence, knowledge management and sharing, data-mining, taxonomy building. All of those are core competencies of our qualified profession. So there are a lot of synergies and opportunities between the different groups. We are always going to see cross-over and blending of organisations.

The development of digital rights management systems, addressing rights and copyright information, means that document suppliers can finally provide fast access to print, electronic and microform material via electronic delivery. Do you think that the physical library is now an anachronism?

I work in a hi-tech company that has 35,000 employees around the world. I was stunned when I first came there and we had a physical library. I figured, high-tech - we are going to push information out to people and our users, but our stakeholders want physical places to come to in addition to electronic resources. They come into the physical library to do a different kind of work. It's collaborative, it's a place to do research, it's a place to think differently. So to answer your questions, I think it's a combination. It's not an either or - it's an "and" plus. The more we have the more that they want. India is the latest place that has recently asked me for a physical library. So, I really don't see libraries going away. I see them changing. The footprint of the physical library may be reduced but they are going to still exist.

What is your view of the information profession in 10 years time?

I was watching a movie this week. The Time Machine - HG Wells - the recent one. They had the New York Public Library. A man had gone forward into the future. He walks into what we recognise as the two lions on either side. All of a sudden, he is walking in front of these holograms of the library and the librarian. I can actually see that. Sun Microsystems has that vision too - where you can find information anytime, anyplace anywhere, and I see people behind providing that. So, there's a whole future for us. I think that we are going to be highly visible but in different ways. There will still be a physical library. It holds a place and serves a purpose - in addition to getting the digital information out. Because what we provide is the qualified information. We vet the information rather than just provide tons of information. As more people are using the Internet and finding flaws in it, they are coming back to the qualified people.

As long as they know that we exist?

Exactly. But you know, I use my public libraries and they are packed. The librarians are helping people answer questions, showing them how to search effectively on the Internet and using the physical resources.

Yes, that is what came up at many conference sessions this week, people want context and guidance, not just content and information overload. Cindy, where do you think the Internet is going and what specific technologies will have the greatest impact in the next 10 years?

I think the visualisation of information. So that when you do a search on any of the search engines and you come up with hundreds of thousand of hits - to help with that, I think that the mapping technology - where it visualises - like a map, a geography, and it points to where the big bulges of information are. That is the future. You can also look at the outlying information too using mapping.

Anything else?

Speech recognition. Also, I read a lot of science fiction and for me it is hard to separate science fiction from reality because I see a lot of this happening. I think that we are going to be able to have a screen in front of our face. Walk along and ask questions and there pops up the answer.

Is there anything else you want like to add?

I really did like your questions, I really did appreciate you sending out the request to FreePint readers, and asking them to ask me questions.

Yes, that's in the spirit of FreePint! Thanks a lot


NB: When you have finished, click here to see photos and read other FreePint dispatches and interviews from the SLA conference.

If attendees/organisers have comments or additional photos, please contact <>.