Nancy Huling began her career as a reference librarian in 1973, when print was king and most of a library’s secrets were contained in a card catalog of smooth, polished wood.
She’s still hard at work in the online, interconnected world of 2011, but with something new: Huling is the recipient of this year’s Distinguished Librarian Award.
“I can think of nothing better than to be honored by your own colleagues — people who know your work,” she said. “It’s just a huge honor to have them recognize me.”
And indeed they do. The selection committee described Huling as “the embodiment of excellence in research librarianship” and praised her for leading the effort to develop “digital reference services that take the library to wherever users are — any time and any place.” They continued, “Even on the global stage, Nancy had provided visionary leadership for the international digital reference and research community while never forsaking teaching, service, publishing, and mentoring ‘back home’” at the UW.
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Huling said she comes from “a long line of educators,” including a grandfather who was a professor at Pacific Lutheran University and served as the librarian there. A somewhat shy English major in college, she was warned off teaching by her father, a longtime school principal. “A couple of my aunts were librarians, but I never thought much about it.” One suggested she consider public relations, a path in which she had zero interest.
“For whatever reason I just hit on library science, and I decided to go on and get my master’s degree,” she said. “I actually finished fairly early — I was only 22. I think I turned 23 two weeks into my first job.” That was at the State University of New York, Binghamton.
She came to UW Libraries in 1993 after serving as head of the public service division of the University of California, Riverside, libraries for nine years, and as head of reference services for five years before that.
Most of the reference units had email by the early 1990s, Huling said, “but you can imagine that was scattered all over the place” and difficult to track. She attended a 2000 conference in Seattle on virtual reference desks, where she volunteered when a colleague from Cornell asked for a partner in another time zone with whom to explore running a live, online chat reference program. “And so that’s how we first got started.”
Since then, she said, UW Libraries have moved to a 24/7 online reference program called QuestionPoint. The UW joined in 2005, and Huling said traffic on their online chat services tripled immediately.
Live online reference chat makes real the idea of bringing the library to the users, even if they’re sitting just a few feet away from an actual reference librarian. “When people have a question, they’re not going to close up their computer and come into the library, no matter where they are,” Huling said. The any time-any place approach works with UW Libraries’ many other online services as well — reserving books, paying fines and accessing e-journals.
“We’ve done such a good job of making it seamless,” Huling said. “I think there are a large number of faculty and students who don’t realize that what they’re actually getting is through the library.”
There has always been a teaching element to her work, whether formal or informal. “Over the years the … involvement of librarians in teaching and learning, has become stronger and stronger. When I started in ’73 I had no training in teaching at all. That wasn’t part of our graduate school curriculum. It is now.” She also teaches a graduate class in the Information School.
“I tell the students two things,” she said. “One is to leave your ego at the door, because you are not telling (library users) what to do, you are working with them on their information needs. …And the other thing is that I have never been bored one single day in my career.”
Much has changed since Huling became a librarian, but a wooden card catalog sits in her Suzzallo Library office as a reminder of those days, one drawer still packed with index cards, as before.But at least one aspect of the job never changes. “It sounds kind of trite but I like working with people,” Huling said with a winning smile.
“And where else could you work that you could learn something new every single day, and be humbled by it?”