Life as an E-Resources Librarian in an International Graduate Research University based in Saudi Arabia

Disclaimer: The following is my own personal account as a Singaporean Expat living in Saudi and may be different for others (usually based on their country’s passport *wink*).  I have been working in the library field for close to 20 years.

Before proceeding further, I’d like to thank my wife for sharing this journey with me and being my pillar of strength when the going gets tough.  Moving from a first world country,  you will need to have the crucial qualities such as patience, perseveranceresilience and a Can-Do / Never Say Die spirit.  Why those traits?  From my experience here, I’ve encountered many challenges and obstacles along the way that if you don’t possess at least one of those, you’ll probably just let everything go and leave.  You need to have an open mind.  Turn challenges into opportunities.  Like Denzel Washington said “Fall Forward“.  Understanding and respecting local cultures and communication norms would be very advantageous as well.

It began with Access and Digital Services Specialist which later turned out to be Electronic Resources Specialist.  The ride was initially bumpy filled with sweat, tears of joy/sadness against a backdrop of a dynamic work landscape.  Fast forward 7 years later, I won’t trade the valuable experience for anything less.  Life is full of tests and tribulations but in it, are lessons that money can’t buy.

I moved from Singapore to join a newly established Graduate Research university library based in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia way back in late 2009.  I remembered the first time I stepped into the library; and bumped into the then library director, Joe Branin.  He was a warm, cordial and knowledgeable man; full of advice.  He made me feel at ‘home’ in my new surroundings. The very first Uni Librarian has since passed on. RIP Joe. You made every obstacle into an opportunity as reflected in the saying “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.”   Richard Bach, (Illusions)

Being the Electronic Resources guy, I had the chance to work with various equipment: the main ones are: iMac, MacBook and my trusty iPhone – all provided by the university.  I ‘expanded’ that equipment to include IoS and Android devices.  Such is the support that I got over here.  One of the reasons why I got all those stuff is that I need to ensure that our e-resources work / behave well on all computers as well as mobile devices whether Windows, Mac, iOs and Android.  I get ‘fan-mail’ every once in a while when one of the e-resource titles don’t perform to expectation.

One of the things that you need to understand is to learn about the norms and work culture over here especially when locals are involved.  Working in a multi-cultural team is sometimes perplexing and needs adjustments at many levels in terms of expectations and understanding the knowledge and expertise of each team members.  Sometimes, a staff may be at a disadvantage due to his/her ‘indispensable’ status in a department especially  when he /she is so used to multi-tasking in their country of origin.

For example,  a staff who is good at his or her work may be held back in the trenches.  The Boss may feel that by having this individual around would be useful in getting the job done and done well where other staff fail(s) to deliver.  On top of that, the individual may be asked to ‘mentor’ other group members as they are not apt in their area of work.  This may be good for the Boss but not for that individual who will have to put in ‘double or triple shifts’.

Like most universities, this place is a flat organization.  Perhaps, any dissatisfaction with regards to promotions is quelled by trips abroad for conferences,  international paper presentations and of course not to mention the most important deciding factor is the remuneration perks.

To excel as an E-Resources Librarian, you need the key professional competencies as outlined by NASIG:

Life cycle of electronic resources:
(Pesch, 2009)

You need to have knowledge on this.  I picked it up on the go over here.  Because of my background in Reference work and Web usability, the learning curve was gradual. Being in the electronic resources field also meant that I need to keep abreast of any technology changes.  I also have to be alert and stay on top of things (work-wise) so that they don’t fall thru the cracks.  In terms of “sharpening the saw”, I was fortunate that the library is supportive in my trainings which included attending a number of overseas conference(s). On top of that, I immersed myself in the numerous literature available on the subject matter.  Till today, I am still learning and would continue to learn.  At times, you will need to learn, unlearn and relearn.  You have to be honest with yourself.  It’s OK to admit not knowing some stuff on electronic resources management.  Take steps to address this by attending webinars, asking peers, read some books on the subject matter and so forth.

Last but not least, you sincerely want to make the organization that you work in to be successful and not just mediocre when compared to international standards. To achieve this reality and not just a mere figment of our imagination, everybody’s efforts and contribution counts regardless whether they are locals or expats.  After all, most of us are motivated to work and aim to ensure that the workplace would be successful and stand shoulder to shoulder with our peer universities.  However, the practice of promoting duds; those who do not have the RELEVANT expertise or experience should be stopped as such negativity would only slow down or worse impede , the vision of any university and bring down the morale of those who are passionate and good in their work.


What does it take to work as E.R.S. over here …

My office desk - May 2010This doesn’t look like my desk but I’m hoping to get 4 screens if possible 🙂

ERS? It’s Electronic Resources Specialist. In some places, it’s also known as Electronic Resources Librarian etc.  My work deals mostly with electronic resources: electronic books, electronic journals, images and so forth.  I manage the life cycle from start to end; ensuring that trial, acquisition, access, troubleshooting and maintenance and renewal stages are completed.  I have a team of 4 (including myself).  It’s a thankless job at times; no thank you-s until someone cannot get access / download an article or chapter.

I’m not going to ramble on the competencies listed by several organizations such as NASIG (North American Serials Interest Group), UKSG (United Kingdom Serials Group) and the like.  Those are the intrinsic criterion needed.  I’ll list them down later in this blog post.  What I’m touching on are more on the ‘soft’ side of it.  For me, there are a few. They are:

  • Patience
  • Perseverance
  • Resilience

Quick check in Oxford Dictionary:

  • Patience:  “the ability to accept delay, trouble or suffering without becoming angry or upset”
  • Perseverance: “continue doing something in spite of difficulty or lack of success”
  • Resilience:  “able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions”

In our work life, we have, in one way or another, face with testing situations.  In my case, it revolves around people or technology.  The technology part: that’s not that too difficult. Find the relevant manual, read it and you can get the answers.  Otherwise , you can contact the vendor techies and they are willing to check it out on your behalf.  Googling for answers would also be an alternative.

However, when dealing with humans, that can be tricky.  For example, not many would admit that they are wrong even when presented with facts.  The worst part is the “blame game”.  I believe that we can learn a lot when we readily admit our mistakes. Learn from it and move on.  Humans are never perfect.


Coming back to the 3 traits, let me touch on the first one: Patience:  Leading requires patience. Mistakes happen; sometimes accidental; sometimes due to lack of knowledge.  Addressing those mistakes are important.  That’s where learning comes in: for both parties.  It provides a chance to address our shortcomings.  An opportunity for someone to learn new skills; an opportunity for someone to understand personality differences and how to navigate around it.  Win win scenario; hopefully.

The way we address these issues are also important.  Whether its one on one sessions or during team meetings, it will affect whether our message will get across.  Sometimes one to one meetings would work better than others.  In the context that I am in, I believe that having one to one ‘chats’ usually works.  Nobody likes to be mocked in public.

I do tolerate mistakes but if the same mistakes keep happening more than 2 times; that will set off alarm bells in my head 🙂  Either its a case of being incompetent or just insubordination.  Dealing with such cases require more tactfulness.

Perseverance. When the going gets tough, keep on moving, keep on striving.  For example, I encounter issues such as electronic resources sudden access disruption.  Now, the business work week in Saudi Arabia starts on Sunday till Thursday.  Imagine on a late Thursday afternoon, electronic publisher X (located in the States with business week starting from Mon – Fri) decided to pull the access plug for a particular product title ABC.  Reason: Detected excessive downloading activity.

I’ll be scrambling to get publisher X attention to inform them that we are on top of things and identifying the potential root cause.  Next, I have to make sure that our access is re-activated.  If I’m lucky, access is restored by Friday evening. Otherwise I would have to work during Friday (which is a weekend) by the way, to get it up.  If I miss it, then access would be affected till Monday afternoon when the publisher office starts work. (due to geographic time differences). Note that our work week starts on Sunday over here.

To complicate things, we may have researchers who are in need of access and who aren’t able to do so.  They may not know and do not want to know the reason why access is denied. What they want to know, when can they get access to the desired information.  In these instances, people management skills come in handy 😉

Resilience. Before taking my present job, I was previously a Reference/Subject Librarian and a Library webmaster.  Though electronic resources was not something new for me, I was faced with a steep learning curve.  I had to learn most of my stuff fast.  Sometimes you learn on the job.  On other occasion, you will rely on your intuitive and experience to get the task completed.  I had my ‘wins’ and my ‘losses’.  I faced setbacks.  Those setbacks provided a platform for me to learn and a reminder that my learning journey is never ending.

I had no mentor over here.  They expect me to hit the ground running.  Hence the expat terms 🙂  However, the support I got back then (and now) is enormous.  I’m grateful for that.  My superiors were ever willing to allow me to go for overseas conferences and trainings to complement my knowledge.

The adventure continues ….

Oh by the way, here’s the core competencies for Electronic Resources Librarian from NASIG.