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Publication identifies librarian O'Clair as ‘Mover and Shaker'

April 25, 2007

As an undergraduate student in environmental science, Katherine O'Clair looked forward to the day she could leave the classroom behind and do field research – studying birds in their native habitats.

But once she got her degree, she discovered that she had a huge problem with her chosen career: the research was fine, but being in the field wasn't.

“I learned that I wasn't cut out for field research,” she says. “I couldn't be isolated from people. If I were to go into research biology, I saw myself ending up in South America studying birds by myself.”

O'Clair eventually found her niche – as a research librarian and Noble Science and Engineering Library liaison to the School of Life Sciences.

Her enthusiasm for her job has earned her the title of “Mover and Shaker” from Library Journal, the national library trade publication.

O'Clair says she had never worked in a library, and the thought of being a librarian did not occur to her at first.

After several years of volunteering as a bird banding assistant at the Braddock Bay Bird Observatory in Rochester, N.Y., O'Clair headed west, where she took a research assistant position at the American Museum of Natural History's Southwestern Research Station near Portal, Ariz.

“I had a lot of time to think about my future while wandering in the woods, searching for nests,” she says. “I thought a lot about what I wanted to do. I didn't want to abandon biology. I asked myself, ‘What is it about biology that I really like?' I couldn't put my finger on what I wanted to do.”

Then she thought about how much she loved to do research in the library.

“Unlike many of my classmates, doing a research paper was really enjoyable for me,” she says.

She decided that taking a few graduate-level classes in information studies “wouldn't hurt” her, and she gradually came to the realization that she did have a very specific career goal: to be “a science librarian at a Research I institution.”

To that end, O'Clair enrolled in the distance-learning program at Florida State University to earn her master's degree in library science.

At the same time, she was offered a job as a research assistant at the Center for Environmental Studies at ASU, which put her in a very strategic position to achieve her goal, though she didn't know it at the time.

Just after O'Clair received her library degree, Diane Moore, the longtime life sciences librarian at Noble Library, retired. That enabled O'Clair to realize her dream.

“I have big shoes to fill,” she says.

O'Clair does far more than sit behind a desk and help students and faculty find research materials. She's in the classrooms and brown-bag luncheons every semester to learn what the students need in their research. She co-teaches a first-year seminar with Robert Page, director of the School of Life Sciences.

“Dr. Page and I have the same philosophy,” she says. “We want to help students to succeed and to develop as scientists.”

Give her a huge challenge, such as finding a copy of a paper published in Russia on the population of Great Bustards in Mongolia, and she's on it.

“I enjoy the thrill of the chase, finding something that can't be found,” she says.

Doctoral student Mimi Kessler, who is studying the Great Bustards (a very large, steppe-dwelling bird and the heaviest bird capable of flight) in Mongolia, and who requested the Russian paper, says that O'Clair has helped her identify and obtain articles in a variety of languages for her research on the conservation biology of the Great Bustard.

“These articles have frequently been difficult to obtain, and Katherine has been instrumental in locating copies in libraries abroad, even contacting one author in Japan to request a copy of one important document for our library,” Kessler wrote from Mongolia.

Those days of thinking about her life while watching birds have paid off for O'Clair, who has found her own “nest” in life.

“I love what I do,” she says. “I love coming to work every day. I love getting to work with the students. I love getting to teach. I have the best of both worlds – life sciences and the library. I think I'm particularly good in putting people in contact with the information they need.”

O'Clair will receive her award during a luncheon in Washington, D.C., in June. She is one of Library Journal's 50 “up and coming individuals from across the United States and Canada who are innovative, creative and making a difference” in the library field.