Featured Librarian: Heather Ward

[This post mirrors content I’ve posted to Re:Generations, a blog for new and emerging academic librarians.]

This is the first of (I hope) a small series of posts profiling librarians doing unusual, unexpected, and interesting things with their careers. I’m starting out with my own network of friends and colleagues, but if you know of someone you’d like to see interviewed here, please let me know in the comments.

Heather Ward is the Librarian for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. Previously, she has worked as the Humanities Librarian at the University of Oregon and in several positions with USAID in Afghanistan and Thailand. She’s been a librarian for about twelve years, and a certified mahout for…a little less than that. She blogs about libraries and life at Lisons et Dansons.

Heather says: “Be patient. Be persistent. Figure out what you have control over and concentrate on that. (Let the other stuff go.)”

Q: What do you do? (What’s your job title, who do you work for, where in the world are you?)

A: I am currently working short-term as the Librarian for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Q: Okay, but really–what do you do? (Describe your job in big outlines–what kinds of things might you do in any given day?)

A: Although the UN Office in Geneva has a very large research library, the OHCHR maintains its own collection with single librarian and a single staff member. So, the two of us do everything from refilling the printer, to trouble shooting the computers, to selecting, processing and cataloging books, to circulation, to answering reference questions, to performing in-depth research for patron requests. I guess it would be termed a “special library”, but it has a lot of things in common with running a small public library branch.

Q: When did you get your MLIS/MLS, and what school did you go to?

A: 1997, Indiana University. I completed a dual degree program for an MLS and an MA in history. I also worked as a Graduate Assistant running a Residence Hall Library, not all that different in day-to-day operations from the current one.

Q: What other jobs have you had before this one?

A: Here’s the short answer:

  • French tutor, historical interpreter, graduate assistant, temp
  • Library Assistant
  • Office Manager
  • Humanities Librarian at the University of Oregon (8 1/2 years)
  • Outreach & Website Assistant, USAID, US Embassy Kabul, Afghanistan
  • Public Affairs Specialist, USAID, US Embassy Bangkok
  • Information analyst, US Embassy Bangkok
  • Development Outreach Communications Specialist, USAID, US Embassy Bangkok

And here’s the long one:

My first post-MLS library job was as the Humanities Librarian at the University of Oregon. It was my dream job with a subject specialty in history and Romance languages–I eventually wheedled a medieval studies fund out of them, too. It gave me a great grounding in academic librarianship–reference, instruction, collection development, and lots of professional development opportunities, some good mentorship models, too.

Fast forward several years…my future hubby, Chuck, and I were interested in pursuing work overseas. I focused on “public diplomacy”–providing outreach and public relations/communications for the US Government abroad a.k.a. “soft” diplomacy. (See What is Public Diplomacy.) We explored possibilities in the US Foreign Service including their general public diplomacy track and their specialized Information Resource Officer (IRO) (librarian) position. Attempting to join the Foreign Service can be a lengthy process. In the meantime Chuck found a job as the IT guru for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Bangkok. So after 8 1/2 years, I left the UO for the unknown.

In Thailand I kept up my library ties, serving on the boards of two local libraries. I applied for various jobs and contacted the US Embassy Information Resource Center and the Open Source Center (makers of World News Connection) for possible opportunities. I took Thai language classes and taught a bit of Irish dance. I also read a lot, kept up my blog, and took lots of naps (highly recommended if you ever get the opportunity.)

After more research, I learned that it was easier to break into USAID’s public diplomacy program than into the more structured hiring system of the US State Department. With my reference librarian drive to help people and my interest in public diplomacy, development seemed like a good match. USAID has what they call Development Outreach and Communications specialists (DOCs). So, I jumped at the chance when a 3-month position to roll out a website opened up in a USAID DOC Office…in Afghanistan.

It was a great experience, intense, stressful at times, but what an opportunity! Part of what made it great was luck–by the time I got there, the website was done and they needed help with the regular outreach work. Part of it was just making my skills known. You need information management? I can do that. You need something edited? A website updated? An eye for detail? You got it!

A few months after returning to Bangkok, Cyclone Nargis struck Burma and the USAID office needed some outreach help. I was the logical person, because I had recent USAID DOC experience. Could I come to work tomorrow? Yes, I could. I worked with the media, arranging interviews. I wrote talking points. I put together briefing packets for VIPs. I maintained records of media contacts, US Government updates, and info from partner organizations like the UN. It was exciting and when that situation calmed down, I stayed on to help roll out their website. When they posted a one-year position, I applied and made a strong case for myself as a candidate. They hired me.

In the meantime, I was keeping an eye on more permanent opportunities with the Foreign Service. Last August, I passed the oral assessment for the IRO librarian position and I’m currently going through the security clearance process. This summer I also took the US Foreign Service Written Exam for the third time with the public diplomacy track in mind. In February 2010, I’ll have my second shot at passing that oral assessment. So, it worked well to have found a temporary job at the UN to tide me over.

Q: What’s the most useful thing you learned on your way to this job–either in school or along the way in your career? Do you have any words of advice for new librarians?


Spin your skills broadly and avoid library lingo: Develop another resume aimed at non-library audiences that you can adapt as needed. Think about non-library applications for your amazing research/web/organizational/communication/leadership skills–a useful exercise in these uncertain times even if you plan to work in libraries.

Be assertive in promoting your skills: If you’re the perfect candidate for a job or even an interesting task at work, tell someone. You know your resume and your experience best and are best prepared to advocate for yourself. Don’t wait for someone else to do it. Once you’ve done it, document it for future reference like a job application or performance review.

Be flexible/adventurous: Temporary positions like my current one or my job in Afghanistan are a great way to try something new and perhaps get a foot in the door with an organization. It’s a chance to make a good impression that may lead to bigger and better things. If you’re able to handle uncertainty and make a leap that others might be reluctant to take, you also have a competitive advantage. Some of you might also be able to do this using a leave of absence or a summer off. There are also long-term possibilities out there for creative job hunters who need more security.

Cultivate people: Actively reach out to others. Find common interests. Keep business or personal cards with you and exchange them with other interesting people. This is not to suggest using people in a calculating way, but being open to new connections broadens your network of expertise and your life possibilities, seriously. And of course, the relationship is reciprocal. I had cards printed with my name, email and blog address, and I hand them out liberally. When you leave a job, stay connected with those with whom you had a good working relationship, whether through Christmas cards or Facebook or whatever, so both of you still feel comfortable asking when one of you needs a reference or wants to call on the other’s expertise.

Keep an eye on new opportunities: Regularly browsing listings in your areas of interest provides not only immediate opportunities, but ideas for broader applications of your skills. Because I’m interested in international work, I tend to browse the UN’s Galaxy, UN Jobs (which lists vacancies with the UN and other international organizations), various library lists including LISjobs, and US Government sites like FedBizOpps (not necessarily limited to US citizens).

Be patient. Be persistent: Figure out what you have control over and concentrate on that. (Let the other stuff go).

Q: What are you learning now? Or, what do you wish you were learning now?

A: I’ve seen a huge need for knowledge management (KM) in recent workplaces–just like a librarian, always looking to connect people with the right information/knowledge. I’m reading up on the subject, but I’d like to pursue some sort of certificate program–particularly in KM as it relates to international development and communication. It’s something that fits naturally with my current skills and experience and definitely has job security.

I wish I was improving my French speaking skills, but it’s too easy here at work to speak English.

Q: If the stars align and everything goes according to your heart’s desire, what else would your career bring you?

A: The opportunity to keep learning, help people, travel the world, and find personal, dare I hope spiritual, satisfaction in whatever work I’m doing.

As for future career plans, who knows? I’d still like to be an underwater archaeologist, an author, a musician, an expert in historical dance….but I’ll always be a librarian at heart.

Q: What are you reading right now?
A: A mystery set in 18th-century Paris called The Chatelet Apprentice and, apropos of work, a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, a complex and fascinating UN official who was killed in Iraq in 2003. It’s called Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World. It’s also giving me a good review of international events in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s.

Thanks, Heather!

4 thoughts on “Featured Librarian: Heather Ward

  1. Juanita says:

    An underwater archaeologist?! Heather, what a delightful surprise!

    It’s been such a pleasure watching your career. You continue to awe and inspire me, I’m so glad we’ve kept our relationship–both professional and friendship–going through all the transformation in the last 10 years. Congratulations on all you’ve accomplished! ~jb

  2. Minakshi Mishra says:

    It was really nice to go through your profile. Being a Librarian, from India, worked with Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute from 1991-1998, then briefly worked with Institute of Economic Growth on World Bank Project & now working with Central Government since 1998- , as the head of the Library, would like to have the vacancy information (UN) in the related field at the Top level. Thanks,
    Minakshi Mishra

  3. Heather W. says:

    Just to add a bit about UN positions. The official job site of the UN, called Galaxy or Compendium, lists jobs by occupational groups. Librarian positions are listed under Information Management. Public diplomacy type jobs are under Public Information. There’s also a link to jobs with Other UN Entities.

    The benefit of registering with the site is that once you’ve entered your info, you can save it and update it and submit it for different job applications. If you think you might eventually apply for a UN job, you can sign up and start entering your information, so you don’t have to do it all at once or at the last minute. It’s useful to have this info around for other applications, too. For example, if you apply with the US Government, you need to account for your work, activities, whereabouts, etc. going back a number of years, so it’s good to have the info all in one place.

  4. […] missed the first post (featuring Heather Ward, UN Librarian and certified mahout) you can see it here. If you know of someone else you’d like to see interviewed, please let me know in the […]

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