My job: a librarian in parliament

Sy Ford was raised in Michigan in the United States. In an early part of her working life she was a member of an elite military force and served during the 1991 war against Iraq. Her present job as a librarian in New Zealand could hardly be more different.

Sy Ford smallWhat is your job?

I work at the parliamentary library; my job title is research services senior librarian. It involves answering questions on a wide range of topics. The team I’m in covers things like parliamentary procedure, defence, health and education. For example, we could be asked for statistics on health morbidity or for an international comparison of policies on vocational education. It can be anything from fact-checking to fairly in-depth research and analysis. We are also expected to publish research papers as needed.


Who uses the parliamentary library?

Everyone in parliament can use the library but in the main it’s members of parliament and their research support staff. The collection is aimed specifically at serving parliament but we also provide a service to members of the public who want to use our collection of international documents or submissions and select committee reports.


What do you like most about your job?

I like the fact that I’m always learning and I like knowing there is a need for the service. There are more than librarians at the library and I work with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests. They really make working here enjoyable. To give some examples, we have a statistician, an economist, an education specialist, a specialist in parliaments and a legal specialist.


What difference would it make if there wasn’t a parliamentary library?

It would seriously hobble parliament’s constitutional purpose of holding the government of the day to account as only the largest political parties would be able to afford to have research done. Small parties would either need to find the funds to gain access to the databases of information and the expertise of staff, or go without information and analysis.


Is Google taking over your job?

It has not taken over our role. What’s interesting about Google from my perspective as a librarian is that it so successful because it’s the only search engine that incorporates the kind of skills librarians use in searching for information. It allows people to use the words they think and works in the background to find the most pertinent things.

It‘s really good but it can throw up a lot of irrelevant information. It doesn’t know if the hits are authoritative and it can’t analyse the information. So these are things librarians can do. Most have a master’s in information science and have learned these analytical skills. 


How did you end up in New Zealand?

I grew up in Michigan and when I was eight-years old, I did a nation report at school on New Zealand. I found out it was great horse country. I loved horses so even then I wanted to come here. As I found out more about the country, it made me more determined to come. I had worked in a district library in Michigan and wanted to do research librarianship and I came here to do a year’s study. That was over 10 years ago. I finished my master’s degree and have been here ever since.


And you are a PSA delegate. How did that come about?

My colleague John Wilson was the only delegate in the library. He had rather heroically carried it on his own for some time but we really needed to have three. When it came time to have delegate elections, I put my hand up. I enjoy being a delegate. It means extra duties of course and everyone’s life is busy so balancing it with everything else can be challenging at times but I think it’s a very important role.


What do you do in your spare time?

I have quite a few hobbies, Right now, I’m redecorating flat. I sew, I write fiction and I have a massive collection of BBC DVDs. After some of my early experiences in the military, I now lead quite a sedate life.


This article is from the September 2011 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.