Sara Tompson, Fermi National Accellerator Laboratory

This electronic tour is by Sara Tompson, who was the Library Director at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory at the time this tour was conducted in the fall of 1998.


  1. Describe the organization/corporate culture and political climate.
  2. Fermilab is run by Universities Research Associates, Inc., under contract to the U.S. Dept. of Energy. Since we are run by this universities consortium, we operate like, and "feel" like, a university/academic environment. Adding to the academic feel and culture is the fact that we are a single purpose,basic research lab -- all we do is high-energy (subatomic particle) physics research, no applied research, weapons programs, etc., like many other Dept. of Energy labs.

    The Library is in the Laboratory Services Section, which includes the cafeteria,employment, etc. As part of a service unit, we are expected to serve the whole lab population. However we are also chronically underfunded! Sometimes I think it would be better to be in the many research division, the Particle Physics Division. However, in the 3.5 years I have been at Fermilab I have (with the help of my staff), fairly successfully expanded library service to other lab populations besides the physicists, most notably the environmental folks, and I would hate to have to curtail that, which could happen if we were in the physics division.

  3. Discuss the availability and use of information technology in general, with particular attention to internet/intranet applications.
  4. The global high-energy physics community INVENTED the World Wide Web, so our culture is very Webbed and computer oriented. (Though interestingly, not everyone is as computer literate, including some physicists, as one might expect -- there is still a training niche for information professionals/librarians!) Our Library has 6 UNIX X-terminals as public workstations, running Netscape and telnet, which can be used for access to our Web-based catalog (we use DRA), and anything else. We also have one PC that is our CD-ROM server; presumably because it is a PC/runs Microsoft, people often try to hack it, so we had to really restrict the permissions on it. The X-terminals are better public workstations, because on the UNIX side it was very easy for us to lock out mail and newsgroup functions from the browser.

    As mentioned above, we have a Web module to our online catalog -- we beta-tested it for DRA in summer of 1995, and have been running it since fall of 1995. We also have the UNIX server (in a remote building) that is the fulltext fileserver for our laboratory's preprints (pre-publication articles - the main intellectual currency in physics) and technical publications. The Library and the Office of Publications jointly maintain this server and its contents (we are part of the same dept., Information Resources), and have clickable hyperlinks from the online catalog records for the preprints and reports right to the fulltext documents.

  5. How do you align your information services with strategic planning or your organizations?
  6. This is a very good question! A KEY thing that special librarians and libraries must do! It is difficult to do at a lab as large as ours (I worked in two smaller physical science labs before Fermilab, and found it easier to get the ear of the Directors at those places). Fermilab does have a pretty straightforward mission, and our Library Collection Development Policy (on the Web at: references the mission statement, plus lays out some other guidelines. We worked on the CD policy for a number of months. The Library Advisory Committee just signed off on it last month.

    Recently in the Library we embarked upon a weekly info-about-the-Lab sharing session, designed to keep ourselves more up-to-date on what is happening around our lab, so we can better provide info to the community. The meetings have already helped -- we were able to prepare a timely bibliography for a training group, and got a heads up on a planned publication that could affect our dept. All Library staff are combing various portions of the Lab's huge Web site and reporting at these meetings, plus reporting things we learn from family and friends that work at the Lab. The current Lab management is not terrifically communicative outside of a small group, so we have to ferret out what's going on.

  7. Describe your responsibilities, with emphasis on those areas in which library school did not prepare you for.
  8. Here is the introduction to my self-analysis of my 1997 performance, for my 3/98 performance evaluation:

    I see my key functions as Library Administrator falling in two categories:

    1. leading and managing Library staff and operations, and
    2. outreach to current and potential Library users and promotion of Library services.

    Attached is a break out of the main functions I perform in reality. In 1997 I increased my knowledge of, and time spent on, budget planning tracking, and analysis. I learned more about our computer systems, especially the VAX, and did some troubleshooting and support. I was able to spend more time on, and, I think, do a better job on, management tasks of planning and coordinating Library efforts." Ooh, soapbox time! 8-) I think ALA ought to require, for library schools to be accredited, that they require at least one course in management, with an emphasis on people management. If you graduate with an MS or MLS in library and information science, it is very likely you will end up supervising people sooner or later. We need to be better prepared for this! I became a supervisor 2 years after getting my MS in LIS. I have good people skills, and like to organize people (as well as materials!), so I have done fairly well. But in 1995-96 I took a number of management classes at my local community college to hone my skills, and found these super useful.

  9. Are your or your organization affected by copyright and intellectual property rights issues? How so?
  10. Somewhat, in that for interlibrary loan purposes we have to be cognizant of, and comply with, copyright. Same deal with our Library photocopier. As mentioned above, preprints and technical reports are a key component of our collection, and of the sort of information requests we often get. Most of these are designed to be shared/widely disseminated, so copyright restrictions are not an issue

  11. How do you market yourself and the services of your unit to the organization? Describe successes and failures.
  12. Market, market, market, and never stop -- a special librarian's mantra! Our dept., Information Resources, publishes a bimonthly newsletter, which we distribute to all lab personnel (about 2,000 people, not counting some visitors). We periodically do signs about library services (e.g. when we introduced self-renewal via the Web) that are posted on all the floors of our our main, 16-story building, by the elevator banks, plus are sent to outlying buildings. We periodically send news items to the "What's New at Fermilab" Web page (they always post them for us.) We also periodically have the Office of Public Affairs mention something about the Library in "FermiNews," the biweekly newsletter that is more an outreach/PR to Congress document, but does have some pieces of local lab interest. We have our Library Advisory Committee test out new products and services, and/or use them as a vehicle for announcing things

  13. How much resource sharing do you use? Describe ILL and other activities which help you to meet the information needs of your users when resources are not locally available.
  14. We use OCLC for much of our interlibrary loan activity. We are a net BORROWER. Mostly we borrow from large academic physics libraries, especially the University of Chicago, but also UW, Univ. of Ill., IN Univ., lots of the big 10/11 schools.

  15. Do you have experience with outsourcing? Please describe the details in depth
  16. No. Not yet!

  17. What changes or projects have your or are you implementing? How have you approached the management and users about these changes?
  18. I mentioned above my efforts to first get my staff on board to, and then do, expand library services beyond just the physicists, the population on which my predecessor had concentrated efforts. Another thing I've undertaken, and which has been pretty successful, is cross-training staff. They used to have very defined niches, and could not back each other up. There are only 6 of us all together, so that's ridiculous in my opinion to be that differentiated. Now we can all back each other up to some degree, while still retaining areas of core responsibility. This was not as hard to implement as I feared -- some resistance from long-time staff, but they got on board. I have been less successful in "lighting a fire" under some staff -- getting them to work efficiently and effectively. Too many dawdling tendencies, with a few key staff picking up the slack that others leave. We still need to work on this!

  19. How did you get/keep your job? Any job hunting tips or advice?
  20. I saw the job advertised on the Web. The science lab library job I was in was threatened, because our whole agency was being taken over by another state agency. (The takeover did happen, but the library remained! Though it was put on a lower reporting tier -- I reported to the director.) I am not a physical scientist, but somehow have ended up working for and with chemists, engineers, environmental engineers and physicists over the past 13 years! This is because I am great at finding information, organizing information, and making information available to customers. I have successfully sold myself as an info expert to 3 different physical scientist experts. In a science lab, your customers are the SUBJECT experts, but YOU are the INFORMATION expert. You needn't be a physicist to be a good physics librarian. You just need to be intelligent, alert, aware, and talk to your customers! On the other hand, the more general reading you do in the subject the better. I have read thousands and thousands of pages of physics stuff over the past 3 years.

  21. What can be realistically expected from new graduates in terms of specific skills and orientation? How important is previous experience prior to the MLS degree? How important is subject specialization? How can deficiencies be compensated for? For example, do you look for students who have had practicums in relevant areas?
  22. I have had the opportunity to have a number of GSLIS graduate assistants over my years in Champaign and at Fermilab, as well as several GSLIS interns. I really enjoy having library/info grad. students around, because you all are up on the latest theories and approaches to info access and organization. I think we are a profession in large part because there ARE theories behind our practices. This is really important, that some principals guide us. Out in "the field," one can get too lost in the practice and lose the theory. So I like new grads to have a very good theoretical grounding in info. science. But ALSO it IS a buyers/employers market these days, and I much prefer hiring new grads who have had some experience working in a library. On a day-to-day level we are a very hands-on profession, and need to be out there talking with our customers. So I like grads who have done some of this already. I think ALA also should REQUIRE practica of all students! in an ALA-approved curriculum. At least practica/internships would give GSLIS students some field work experience if they had not had it previous to grad. school. I've already answered the subject specialization -- I don't think it is necessarily necessary. Some special librarians would disagree with me, however. The SLA Competencies document (on the Web at: touts subject expertise as key. However, the only job descriptions I see that regularly ask for subject expertise, esp. in the form of two MSs, are for academic positions that have LOUSY salaries! Why do this?! I ask.

  23. What is the one good thing you wished you had learned in library school, or learned before you got the job?
  24. The critical importance of gearing your resources AND your access tools to CUSTOMERS'/PATRONS' needs! This was a key theme of Professor Deborah "Ralf" Shaw, whom I was fortunate to have as an instructor for 3 classes at Univ. of Illinois-Urbana. She was also my advisor. She is now at Indiana University, and also is Past-Pres. of ASIS. Another key instructor for me at Urbana was J.D. Divilbiss, who's training was actually in engineering. I took 3 special topics computer courses from him, and he taught us a practical and pragmatic and business-oriented approach to these tools of our trade. Otherwise I found Urbana pretty research/"ivory-tower" focused. That IS the university's focus as a whole; sometimes it can be detrimental in a professional school like the graduate school of library and info science, I think. Nevertheless, I AM proud of my UIUC degree.