Get to know Jenny Benevento (MS '05), taxonomist

JennyB_portrait.jpgA sense of inquiry and enterprising approach to her work makes every day interesting for taxonomist Jenny Benevento. She's found success in her field, working on a contract basis and using her time in between jobs to learn new things and see the world.

Where do you work and what is your role?

I am a taxonomist. I've worked fulltime as an employee of corporations (Sears/Kmart) and organizations (Associated Press) and freelance on smaller projects. Currently I am doing taxonomy contract work at Etsy.com. Taxonomists tend to hyper-specialize and most recently I've worked with ecommerce product classification and metadata. Basically that means I help people shop more effectively online by creating classification schemes and filters based on analyses of what products a given company sells, how people buy and browse for them, and competing companies.

What do you like best about your job?

I like so many things! I like being a subject generalist. I spend a short amount of time binging on a lot of specific information and then move on. So if you need to know what you should consider when purchasing a stroller, though I have no experience with babies, I'm your woman! Likewise, I've interviewed people about their underwear shopping behaviors and discussed the classification of bongs more than I ever thought possible. Every day is a different (and often weird) thing. I like finding odd outliers and solving the problem of what to do with them.

I enjoy being the ambassador between the technical implementation side with engineers who have the constraints of how the data is modeled and the design and user experience side who care more about how people actually find things and coming up with a compromise that works for everyone. I love advocating for users and user privacy.

I also like that my job is (at least currently) highly in demand. More people need taxonomists than there are taxonomists, so I don't have to take jobs I find boring. 

How did GSLIS help you get to where you are today?

Librarianship is many different jobs but the first is classification. Having a library and information science degree is the best training for what I do, especially with the classification-forward training Illinois historically provides. Though people consider me a "nontraditional" librarian, I disagree. The father of library science, Ranganathan, did exactly what I do for a living but for a different audience with less technology. I essentially have an online reference desk for connecting people with stuff they need and serve millions of people a month. I use a reference interview on all of my "patrons" or "clients" or "customers" or whatever we'd like to call it. Without Pauline Cochrane's instruction, I wouldn't have my career.

I'd also say GSLIS indoctrinated in me that a professional presents and gets experience in their chosen field in order to get a job. 

What advice would you like to share with GSLIS students?

It's great to have preferences about what specialization of librarian you want to be and where you want to live, but the more open you can be about those constraints, and the broader the training you get, the better jobs and salaries you'll get down the line. Your first job is, in many ways, a lot about proving that someone thought you worthy of being hired. Look at job ads the whole time you're in school and see what kind of librarians people are hiring for. Even if it isn't your first love, if there's a shortage of science librarians or Arabic catalogers and you can put up with that job for a couple of years, you're far more likely to find a job than someone who will only be a reference/instruction librarian at a medium sized school in a town everyone wants to live in. If you don't want to move and you're set on a certain kind of job, that's a valid choice, but accept that that choice may come with an uphill battle to employment and less employment than the rest of your cohort.

Your training doesn't stop with graduate school—you should be teaching yourself new things and technologies all the time. Saying you're not a tech person is like saying you enjoy being illiterate and refuse to learn to read. Codexes were once technology. Librarians led the charge with "technology" even before there was a printing press. Everyone shouldn't need to code beautifully, but ignorance about technology leads to buying tech systems that are overpriced, broken, unsuitable, and a privacy nightmare. It's also offensive to tech staff that have gone out of their way to understand the mission of your organization that you can't repay the favor and even basically understand their day-to-day existence and make it easier. Learning how the technology works that you make decisions on will lead to fewer headaches and better partnerships, and ultimately better service for the end user. 

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Traveling! I have only nine U.S. states to go, and a whole lot of countries. I love road trips to weird places like those in Atlas Obscura. I'm the most obsessive travel researcher you will ever meet. I love swimming, craft beer, eating delicious food, photography, and of course reading. 

What’s next for you?

I am mostly working on medium length contracts and then taking time off to travel or learn things in between. Careerwise, I'm interested in recommender systems and some document processing which I have to teach myself because I was too scared to take classes with Dean Renear or Professor Dubin.

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