The DNA of a Science and Law Librarian: My interview with Ruben Diaz

One aspect of becoming a librarian that I find particularly fascinating is learning more about specialized areas of the profession that I don’t know much about. I was fortunate enough to get to speak with longtime librarian, Ruben Diaz, Research & Information Services Manager at the biotechnology company, Genentech.

Can you tell us a little more about you, how you got into librarianship, and your career path leading to your current role?

In my teen years, I was influenced by my older sister who was studying to be a nurse. I remember she brought home a starfish from her lab which got me interested in the life sciences. My sister was also the one who encouraged me to become a doctor. During college, my work-study jobs were always working in the college libraries. It was a great way to get homework done and be in a library environment.

My undergraduate degree was in biology and after graduation, I worked as a courier for a year law firm in Los Angeles. This was before fax or PDF technology, so a lot of my job was racing L.A. traffic to get paper documents filed at the courthouses before 5 P.M.

After my year as a courier, I went to medical school for two years. It was only in starting my third year in the clinics when I realized I didn’t have the stomach for seeing illness. This was quite a revelation that led to a lot of soul searching and working through the classic career change book, What Color is Your Parachute by Dick Bolles. Ironically enough, it was a book that changed my life as it made it clear that working as a librarian was of interest to me.

During my time away from medical school, I also worked in a law firm library. Once more, I enjoyed found I enjoyed being in the library environment. In chatting with my boss who was the head of the library, she pointed out that I could consider getting a degree in library science.

I took a chance, left medical school, and was accepted to library school at UC Berkeley, back when they still offered an MLIS degree. I completely enjoyed library school. I definitely experienced it at an inflection point where I learned to use the printed Union Catalog on one hand, and created a simple database of basketball statistics on the other hand. My fortune was that my last library school class was, “Health Sciences Bibliography”, which was taught by the Library manager of Genentech. At the end of the course, she announced an opening for an acquisitions librarian and encouraged us to apply.

I applied for the job and during my interview, I made a point about my experience working in the law firm legal library. I just mentioned that I would like to maintain my legal research skills. Luckily for me, this led to the creation of a patent searching position at Genentech, and I got that job! A fellow classmate got the acquisitions position as well. That was the beginning of my fulfilling 26 year career in patent information at Genentech. I am currently the manager at the Research & Information Services team (three of us) in the Legal Department of Genentech.

What would you say have been the biggest changes in your work since library school?

There have been multiple big changes since my days of library school.

The first and largest change was the beginning of the web browser. During my first few years at Genentech, I largely used Unix and character commands to interact with databases and the computer. I was impressed by being able to find data on the internet and being able to download data using ftp or ups commands. In 1993, we tried Mosaic, the precursor web browser to Netscape. Now we could point and click to navigate the internet and have results that were visual. Yet the subscription databases we used were still based on character based commands.

The next big change was in 1999 when we started to promote a new search engine, Google, that gave useful results.

That led to the next revelation for me: end users were getting work done without us and in ways we didn’t know. The year was 2005, and I was giving a presentation to get support for a link resolver to the head of research at Genentech, Richard Scheller. As I demonstrated the many steps required to reach the PDF of a research article and was ready to deliver the punch line of how a link resolver would dramatically simplify the process, Richard stopped my presentation and asked the other researchers at the table how they get their articles. They all said they used Google and got to the PDF that way. Needless to say, my presentation ended at that point and I didn’t get to the punchline. That is when it definitely hit me that we needed to keep up to date with how end users are finding information.

Another big change in my work came in 2007 when the Genentech corporate library closed and all the staff was laid off. I was then hired in the Genentech Legal Department. Since then, the biggest change I have seen has been the increasing number of sources that are available to search in full text (i.e. scientific articles, patents from many national offices, books, etc.).

What might a typical work day look like for you?

A typical day would start by reviewing my calendar, then checking email and responding to urgent messages. Amongst the email are news alerts I have on biomarkers, pharmaceutical and legal news, as well as patent and drug development alerts. I share relevant news with the appropriate attorneys that have an interest in these topics.

The key responsibilities I have are managing two information specialists and fulfilling search requests from the Legal Department staff. Search requests require understanding the concepts of the science behind the question, as well as understanding the structure of different databases, and how to translate concepts into the correct search syntax using Boolean and proximity operators to appropriately limit/refine results. The search itself is an iterative process based on reviewing sample results, number of hits, further discussions with requestor and/or colleagues, and time limitations.

As a manager, I have most of the responsibility surrounding negotiating vendor contracts and vendor relations. I try to help my team to effectively track research requests and share the search work load. In my monthly meetings with my team, I make an effort to mostly listen and provide guidance when relevant.

Starting this year, I started taking yoga, barre, and dance classes at our corporate gym. My intent is find balance by strengthening the connection between my analytical brain, my body, and my intuition.

Can you share a project or two in particular that was most interesting to you or that you took a lot of pride in being a part of its success?

The year after I began in the Legal Department I carried out a needs analysis of the staff. I read the library literature in this area and developed a questionnaire that I emailed to all the staff. The takeaways from the results were that the staff felt overwhelmed with the amount of information and didn’t know where to get the best information. The two top sources for getting information were colleagues and Google.

As a solution, I decided to create an interface to Lexis that was easier to use than what was available from Lexis. I worked with the Lexis representative and programmer and developed a customized user interface. The search page contained search fields that directly searched the areas of most interest to the attorneys. In addition, the interface was accessible without entering a password by using IP authentication. I was happy to have created a tool that was a direct outcome of the user needs analysis. It was fun to design the interface and test it with a few of the Legal staff prior to rolling it out!

What skills do you draw upon most often in your work?

The skill I work on and find most helpful is to listen. When I interact with the requestor I make it a point to say very little and let the requestor direct the interaction. I want the requestor to express their ideas and needs. Once I feel the requestor has finished their interaction, I then go through my mental list of questions I had. Another outcome of listening is that I try to make it my goal to meet the needs of the requestor. When I finish my search, I review the question the attorney/agent/administrative assistant asked and sometimes I find that I had failed to search on a key aspect of their request. I go back to the search and make sure I incorporate that aspect to make sure that I meet the requestor’s needs. Persistence, curiosity, thoughtfulness, attention to detail, my science background, and analytical skills are also crucial skills for the job.

For library students that might be interested in going into librarianship in a specialized area like biotech or law, what advice would you have? What kind of experience is important?

I believe taking subject matter courses (biology and/or law) is key to improving your chances of getting hired and being able to handle the work. Just as important though is working hard in all you do. Whether it is writing a paper, taking a yoga class, raising a child, creating a synonym list, or preparing for an interview, I try hard to tackle all the work that I have, especially work that seems less exciting or interesting. I would recommend getting an internship during Library School to see if the field is of interest and enjoyable to you. I have been fortunate to have had a fun, challenging and fulfilling career even though it wasn’t a direct course to getting to be a Librarian.

1 reply

  1. Wow, this is amazing. As most of the time, we tend to be so afraid of change, thinking that we will fail.
    I guess it is a matter of listening to your gut and just go for it or make calculated risks to get to where you want to be in life. Thanks for sharing.


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