Cameron Pollack / Sun Photography Editor

October 20, 2016

CORNELL CLOSE UPS | Ken Bolton Recounts Path From Air Traffic Controller to Librarian

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After years of directing airplanes down a runway, Ken Bolton now leads Cornellians to research resources. A self-described “human search engine,” Bolton says his work as a librarian has been revolutionized by the internet age.

Bolton said the dynamic work he conducts every day as a librarian is very different from the regimented and repetitive job he performed before arriving at Cornell.

“A lot of people envision [being an air traffic controller] as being stressful, and sometimes it was,” he said. “But 90 percent of the time, it was very regimented. You had to do everything following a certain protocol, certain standards. Until a big electrical problem or a big thunderstorm rolls in, then it gets crazy.”

Other than those few moments of variation, Bolton said that “most of the day was sitting at a radar screen directing airplanes. It just didn’t feel like something I wanted to do forever.”

After those five years, Bolton made a monumental move from California to upstate New York, completely changing the direction of his career. While his wife attended Cornell, Bolton said he worked on obtaining his Master’s degree in library and information science from Syracuse University.

Now in his current role, Bolton said he does “a little bit of everything,” including working as a librarian, teacher, negotiator with publishers and a marketing team for the library.

As he moved from air traffic controller to a librarian, Bolton said he was able to translate his skills of multitasking and accuracy to new challenges — although of course there were different risks involved.

Bolton calls changes in technology the primary factor driving the dynamic nature of his job in the library, where, he says, “everyday is different” and multitasking is essential.

While many students see librarians as someone “sitting at a reference desk waiting for someone to come ask them a question,” today librarians have to be be far more proactive, a quality Bolton considers imperative to the profession.

Fewer and fewer students are seeking assistance from the library in this traditional format because they “don’t think they need help or maybe, they don’t realize they need help,” Bolton said.

“If you just leave it up to students to do [it] on their own, they’ll just do what they can,” he said. “Anybody with a phone can find information. Librarians can help with the next steps — evaluating, applying, and protecting the integrity of that information.”

Bolton said students often struggle to find enough credible sources for their papers and projects, using only the information they find in the first page of a Google search. This makes it Bolton’s job to become what he refers to as a “human search engine.”

“Only about five percent of the information on the Internet is actually available through a free tool like Google,” Bolton said. “Most of the information out there is somehow protected behind a firewall or some kind of registration process. This usually comes as a surprise to students.”

To combat this problem, Bolton said he designed an entire course to help students find that other 95 percent of sources. This decision was additionally a response faculty members’ disappointment with the caliber of students’ research skills.

Bolton pointed out that 15 years ago, everyone was a consumer of information that was created by some other authority. Therefore, in a world where students are both information-consumers and information-producers, sifting through research to find credible sources can be a cumbersome task.

“Mostly through social media, all of us are now producing information — with blogs, websites, Facebook posts, tweets, those kind of things,” Bolton said.

The proliferation of information available on the internet has made it increasingly difficult to determine the credibility of authoritative sources, the librarian said.

Bolton said his course was “an effort to help the students get through all the junk that’s out there in the information landscape and get to the good stuff that they need to help with their assignments to help with their career research as well.”

From his various roles and unexpected career path, Bolton says his openness to change — both in his career and his life — led him to take on the dynamic role he has today.

“Looking back at it now, it worked out great,” he said of this unconventional path.