Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: “Where are they now?”.
Karen Barton graduated from the University of Illinois in 2013 with an M.S. in Library and Information Science and certificates in Community Informatics and Youth Services. She currently works at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio), where she is the Liaison to the School of Health Professions and Community Engagement Librarian. Karen is the single point of contact for library services for students, faculty, and staff for one of five schools within the institution and works on various campus and community engagement initiatives to promote library resources and services in support of education, research, and community health.
What was the transition from graduate school to a professional career like for you? Were there any surprises on your career path?
I was fortunate to have been hired by a public library system four months before I finished graduate school. My degree was awarded on December 23 and my first day on the job was December 30. During my entire time as a graduate student, I took advantage of as many opportunities as I could to learn more about the field and figure out where I saw myself in it. I felt pretty confident starting my first job as a librarian because of all of the learning experiences that I’d had. I am forever grateful to the iSchool and the Graduate College for the many amazing opportunities I was given, and I am constantly telling people to apply! When it comes to surprises, I never saw myself as an academic librarian and didn’t know much about medical librarianship when I started my current position. However, when I learned about the job, I thought it would be a great new challenge to be the first liaison librarian for my assigned school and to use many transferrable and new skills to be successful in the position.
What is the most interesting, rewarding, and/or challenging aspect of your job?
For two years, I have worked in both the Liaison Services and Outreach and Community Engagement unit at my library, so my job is interesting and challenging in that my job duties vary greatly. Besides helping community members in my hometown find health information, I get to learn about many medical conditions and help students and faculty access information for research that could improve and even save lives. I also enjoy being able to assist with redesigning library spaces for both study and relaxation and facilitating use of technology such as virtual reality anatomy software.
What has been the most valuable transferable skill you gained from graduate school?
My graduate school program really stressed helping communities help themselves and being a facilitator rather than a sole creator of programs or services. Whether working with teens or seniors, I have always tried to allow them to take the lead in developing or steering programming. If you listen closely or even do an informal assessment, they will let you know what they need and want and how best to serve them. I try to apply this same principle in working with college students and professors.
What experiences made an impact on you to pursue your career in librarianship?
Coming in to library school, I was set on a goal of having a career where I could help communities in some way. At the time that I applied, I was working in a cubicle with very little interaction with others and reminiscing on the days when I had worked with middle schoolers in an afterschool program that took place in a school library. I discovered the library program at the iSchool through its website and was amazed at all of the great work that students were doing in the surrounding communities. I was so excited about it that I booked a flight to see in person if it was really where I wanted to be. The school itself was very instrumental in my decision and it was the only graduate program that I applied to!
What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?
The University of Illinois and the surrounding communities are unique in that there are so many ways to make connections and gain experience in what you want to do. I would encourage students to get to know their professors, students in their own programs and in others, campus affiliates, and other contacts. Your time as a graduate student may pass quickly, so as I was told by one professor, “Hit the ground running!”
This interview was conducted by Mike Firmand, Assistant Director for Employer Outreach in the Graduate College. He works with employers to connect University of Illinois graduate students to new opportunities and promote the value of graduate education. He previously worked for the College of Business at Illinois State University and has held positions in insurance, marketing, banking, and retail and event management. Mike holds a B.S. in Recreation, Sport and Tourism from the University of Illinois and an M.S. in Communication from Illinois State University.