An Interview with Kitty Porter

An Interveiew with Kitty Porter
Chemical Information Expert and Retired Reference Librarian at Vanderbilt University
By Vincent F. Scalfani

Bio: Kitty received a BS in Chemistry from Denison University and an MLS from the University of North Carolina (UNC).  In 1974 she became a cataloger at the Duke Medical Center Library and in 1980 took over the Chemistry Library. In 1998 she and her husband moved to Vanderbilt University where she joined the staff of the Sarah Shannon Stevenson Science and Engineering Library as a reference librarian and liaison for Chemistry and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.  Later she assumed responsibility for Materials Science and Mechanical Engineering. She was active in SLA where she served as Treasurer and Chair of the Chemistry Division, and in the American Chemical Society where she was chair of the Education Committee in the Division of Chemical Information.

Vincent F. Scalfani:

Kitty, congratulations on your retirement! While we have never met, I have been aware of your great work in the chemical information field ever since I began my career as a Science & Engineering Librarian three years ago. Can you give us an overview of your career as a librarian?

Kitty Porter:

I graduated from UNC in 1973, having studied about an amazing new entity, OCLC.  Hard to imagine life before that!! My first job was cataloging at the Duke Medical Center Library 5 PM to 9 PM as there were no desks free during the day. We made our own catalog cards and one of my first tasks was revising filing in the card catalog. BORING!  They were good about giving me six months off though to go live in the Netherlands with my family while my husband took a sabbatical.  In 1980 I took over the Chemistry Library. I had a half time assistant, a catalog of only my own branch, a silent 700 terminal for searching, and a building full of great chemists. Before I left, we had a locally developed online catalog with two dedicated computers and a bank of Macs for patrons. During the Duke years I got active in both SLA and ACS. In 1998 my husband was recruited by Vanderbilt and we moved lock, stock, and barrel. I traded my branch library for a central science facility, a good trade for me. I really liked having on-site colleagues to share the desk schedule and the library life. After a year or so the Chemistry Department asked me to teach Chem 250, Chemical Information.  I jumped at the chance and had a great time with it. I learned a lot at Vanderbilt, the system was generous with travel money, so I got to attend a lot of meetings, and the divisional library set up gave us a fair amount of independence to try things, especially when we were lucky enough to hire Tracy Primich to be our director.  I’d have to say the years until she left for greener pastures were the best for me in terms of my professional life.

VFS:

Your “Finding Physical & Chemical Properties” guide is extremely useful and has been linked to by many other University Libraries (http://researchguides.library.vanderbilt.edu/Property). Even with modern chemistry databases and property search options, it seems that oftentimes nothing beats a manually-curated guide for locating property data. What prompted you to develop this guide?  I’m curious if you had any thoughts about other similar comprehensive guides and/or small databases that chemistry librarians should be focused on creating? Perhaps unrelated to physical and chemical properties?

KP:

I created the guide while I was at Duke.  Evenings and weekends the chemistry library was staffed by student assistants and they often had problems helping people find properties. The first version was linked to the Duke collection. In those days there weren’t a lot of things on the open web so that part of the guide was pretty small.  When I moved to Vanderbilt, I took the guide along with me and adapted it to the Library of Congress classification and the Vandy collection. Over the years the online part has grown as more and more of the traditional resources went online. There are always resources that disappear or are moved to storage, so every summer I would update the information. I don’t know what will happen to it now, or even if it is really needed anymore. I think that this is a very individual kind of resource.  Such things are created to help with special kinds of information or collections. For us at Vanderbilt another important small database is one about maps as there is a medium-sized map collection and the map librarian is not always around to answer questions and help find specific maps.

VFS:

How has chemical librarianship changed over the past several decades?

KP:

Ha!! I will sound like a dinosaur here I think. It is hard to imagine what a library was like back in 1974 when I started as a medical library cataloger. When I started at Duke in the Chemistry Library, we didn’t have an online catalog. In fact, all we had was our own shelflist.  If I wanted to find a book, even one in my own library, I had to call the main library reference desk and ask them to look it up for me.  This was a problem at first until I got to know the collection. There was no end-user searching, and only a silent 700 acoustic-coupler terminal for searching.  One fun thing I did was to go to Columbus to CAS for a week’s training in how to name compounds and do CA searches.  They trained us so well, that I became a point person for grad students in naming their compounds. Today no one has to do this with the available software for naming compounds. I was on the original Web task force in 1993 and spent a lot of time creating a web presence for my library.  In those days there was time to do a special page every Friday on what is new and fun.  I remember including Driveways of the Rich and Famous in one week’s offering.  It wasn’t too long until there was way too much being introduced to gather and summarize on a weekly basis.  Too bad because that was really fun. I also learned to write my own HTML doing this and that proved very valuable. In those years, I saw a lot of the grad students and even some faculty as they had to come in to the library for everything. I had a good grasp of what everyone was doing, and could see the books they scanned on the new book shelf and what they checked out. That changed pretty quickly when we moved to Vanderbilt.  The Science Library is on the ground level of the science complex, just an elevator ride from the chemistry labs so it isn’t distance that kept people away.  Vanderbilt was quick to jump on ejournals and it wasn’t long until we had online most of the things that chemists needed. So, I had to work harder to keep up with what people were doing and who they all were. When I came we had a large section for display of current journal issues, more than seven double ranges three slanted shelves high. Today there is one range with current issues only on one side.  That’s one huge change.  The other is the availability of user-friendly databases, especially SciFinder.  That pretty much ended mediated searching. Over the years, the number of reference questions has dwindled and the content of the questions has changed.  Now we librarians are pretty much the “go-to” people for all kinds of electronic resource problem solving.  This means we had to learn a whole new set of skills.  While still at Duke I was lucky enough to go through an Apple network training course so I could be a point person for our switch from PCs to Macs. That proved to be a really useful opportunity even though the practice changed and at VU we were definitely NOT a Mac shop.

These last several things are part of the biggest change, the declining importance of the physical collection.  This is a hard one for those of us well-steeped in library tradition to accept.  Over the years I have bought a lot of chemistry books and seen them used heavily on reserve and checked out often.  Now those very volumes are seldom read.   We had to do a lot of weeding do make space for other kinds of services so would send them to storage, offer them to patrons, or even pitch them. Our monograph circulation has dropped way off. Just as with journals, many people would rather get a book online. So why should we keep shelf after shelf of dusty books. The books that we have been buying are mostly ebook collections and individual volumes. While some of us might regret that, I have to admit that when I do research, I vastly preferred to use ejournals and ebooks myself.

VFS:

Can you tell us about your involvement in the ACS Chemical Information Division over the course of your career? Were you active in any other professional societies?

KP:

I joined the ACS as soon as I started in the Duke Chemistry Library in 1980 and was active in the Chemical Information Division Education Committee.   Most years I went to both annual meetings.  They were always lots of fun.  In addition to the programs, the chance to get together with other chemistry librarians, all of whom are great fun at meetings, was something special.  Also I enjoyed the interactions with vendors. This is really the way to get noticed and have your opinion matter.  It was satisfying being someone a vendor called to get a comment on a new or proposed product, or the chance to be a beta test site. 

I also belonged to SLA and was treasurer and also Division chair and program planner.  I enjoyed that as well.  SLA meetings, being smaller, were in smaller cities so I got to see Winnipeg, Canada and San Antonio, Texas.
I served on the ACS Library Advisory Board in its first iteration. The yearly meetings in DC were really interesting as well as fun.  It was another opportunity to work closely with librarians in government and industry and to appreciate the very different problems they face.

VFS:

What advice would you give to new chemistry librarians? What are the biggest challenges we need to overcome?

KP:

We need to remain useful.  The new librarians already come with a set of skills that we oldies had to learn on the job.  We should be learning a lot about data curation and offering to help our users deal with the data required by granting agencies. We should be out talking to people in their labs and meetings. I really enjoyed my teaching and the students always told me how valuable it was for them.  So we should be out there convincing departments that a basic information course for first year grad and upper-level undergraduates in really essential (if they don’t already know that). We need to be able to at least help people with media production and 3D printing.

They need to keep their eye on the world out there and pay attention to what people are doing. Some of the most interesting new developments are coming out of research groups or being done by groups of grad students.
I would also point out to them that it is really important to have fun and to get to know your people.  Chemists are interesting people who have a lot to teach about life as well as chemistry. 

VFS:

What was your favorite job responsibility as a reference librarian?  What are you most proud of accomplishing during your career as a librarian? 

KP:

My favorite job responsibility was teaching, whether a seminar for incoming grad students in chemistry or in chemical engineering, a one-shot presentation to a drug development class, an engineering class or even a freshman writing seminar or my one-credit chemical information class.  Especially with the grad students you form a relationship and they come back to you with their questions as long as they are around.  I think I am most proud of my Chem 250 course.  I tried to keep it always fresh and up-to date.  I had a student who took it twice (paid for it both times!) and he said it was very useful both times as it had changed so much.

VFS:

So what’s next for Kitty Porter? What do you hope to accomplish during retirement? What do you enjoy doing in your personal life?

KP:

Well, I hope to go visit my grandkids more. They are now in high school and middle school and very involved with soccer year round.  So if I want to see them outside of Christmas week in Tennessee or a week or two at Sunset Beach, North Carolina in the summer, I have to travel to Oakland, CA and Columbia, MD.  Also I am taking piano lessons and I finally have enough time to practice as much as I want to.  There’s a great exercise class three days a week at the local Rec center I take so I can stay mobile.  Then there are my dogs to keep busy with walks and ball games. I would like to join a book group, take watercolor lessons, and get back to my Spanish studies. I still have the last two Harry Potter novels, the Lord of the Rings, and the Narnia chronicles plus a pile of novels to read in Spanish. I have never had time to do any volunteering so I’d like to find some way to use my expertise and experience to help out, maybe at the public library and the animal shelter.  I joined the board of the Friends of Fort Negley, a Union Army civil war fort that is in Nashville. Vanderbilt has a retirement learning institute that is part of the OSHER program and offers interesting classes.  I just took one on soul food cooking taught by Alice Randall and her daughter that was wonderful fun.  My games closet is full of new jigsaw puzzles, and there is a bike in the garage and an elliptical trainer in our tiny exercise corner. There are lots of geological sites in Tennessee that I want to see. So I think I will keep busy.