“I haven’t missed a column in eight years,” says Cheryl LaGuardia, as she quickly knocks on the wooden drawer atop her desk.

LaGuardia is Head of Instructional Services for the Harvard College Library (HCL), and has written and edited the column “Database and Disc Reviews” in Library Journal for those eight years. On July 9, 2000, Francine Fialkoff, Editor of Library Journal, presented LaGuardia with the magazine’s “E-Media Reviewer of the Year” award, established in honor of LaGuardia’s column. In making the presentation, Fialkoff observed that the “‘Database and Disc Reviews’ column has set the standard for reviewing electronic media.”

Of the award ceremony, LaGuardia says she can’t convey the feeling of being praised in front of so many people except that it was very touching. This appreciation and the vendor feedback generated by the column give her a feeling of gratification and push her to keep up with all the work. “I feel a responsibility now,” she says. “Credibility has been established and now it has to be maintained.”

LaGuardia initially created the electronic review column in 1992, after an article she wrote with Chuck Huber, “Digital Dreams: A CD-ROM User’s Wish List,” was published in Library Journal and caught the editor’s eye. In 1994 LaGuardia became Coordinator of the Electronic Teaching Center (now the Larsen Room) at the College Library, and brought the column with her to Harvard. What had started as a thematic two-page column soon grew too large for her to handle alone. She began sharing the writing with Michael Blake, former Head of Reference in Cabot, and later with former HCL Coordinator of Research Instruction, Ed Tallent.

From the beginning, LaGuardia says, HCL Administration has been very supportive of her endeavor. Even though she edits the column on her own time, the Library made a CD-ROM station available to her in 1994, so she’d have the necessary equipment to review the products.

In 1998 LaGuardia revamped the column’s format and resumed sole responsibility for editing it, delegating the writing to others. When she first began to look for other reviewers, LaGuardia realized that she was already sitting on a gold mine of library expertise. “Nowhere else in the world do you have the same academic library intelligence resource as you have here at Harvard,” she says.

LaGuardia drew extensively on the resource of talented people at Harvard, and to date over 30 reviewers from the Harvard community, many of them from the Harvard College Library, contribute to the column on a regular basis, reviewing CD-ROMs offered in their field of expertise. And she is always looking for more reviewers. “It is a good opportunity, especially for new librarians, to get published,” she says.

The Harvard reviewers are an editor’s dream, according to LaGuardia. Not only do these specialty reviewers bring authority to the column, but they are also accomplished writers, possessing a keen sense of the importance of deadlines—which makes LaGuardia’s part of the job a real pleasure.

Still, with 20 columns a year, each featuring 6 to 10 reviews, LaGuardia is kept very busy. Only occasionally will she write a review herself: “if,” she says, “I believe I have the level of expertise or if I’m really interested in something.” And while she sometimes misses the creativity of the writing process, she says she enjoys how editing allows her to shape and further develop a column to meet the needs of librarians and vendors across the country.

These needs, especially on the part of the librarians, have changed considerably over the last decade, LaGuardia says. “Teaching is now part of our job. Only that as librarians we are not taught how to teach.” Remembering her own awkward beginnings at the front of a classroom, LaGuardia is determined to pass on what she has learned over the years.

In her position as Head of Instructional Services for HCL, LaGuardia’s main goal is to create a team environment for instruction. Lacking the time to meet individually with the more than 400 people whose input she is looking for, LaGuardia decided on what she calls an “HCL instructional free-for-all,” a brainstorming session where everyone can bring their workable ideas to the discussion table.

Teaching has become a pleasure for LaGuardia, and these days she feels very much at ease in a classroom full of students. But it wasn’t always like that. “There used to be no worse feeling than having to get up and talk in front of a group of people,” she says. Drawing on her own experience, LaGuardia co-authored a book called Becoming a Library Teacher. And at this year’s ALA conference she held a book-based workshop, “Telling the Library Story Well: Presentation as Performance.”

LaGuardia admits both her job and the column are a lot to juggle, but she is determined to carry on with both, possibly even adding another column that, she says, “I can’t really talk about yet. But it would have a more organic look and be more of a comparison, focused on long-term effects of the products.”

There certainly is an art to reviewing products other people may have spent years developing, LaGuardia says. A negative review has just as much of an impact as a positive one, and she urges her reviewers to be as objective as they can be. “You have to take the task seriously,” she says. “Take what’s good and build it from there, or make specific suggestions to improve the product.”

The reputation of “Database and Disc Reviews” has spread far and wide since its beginnings. The column is frequently quoted in advertisements for reviewed products, and the vendors, even those with only a few products, always hope to get reviewed. Just last month, at the ALA conference, LaGuardia was talking to one vendor who said, “Please have people keep doing things like they do. We pay attention and always read your column, to see if our products are covered.”

More than anything it’s this good feedback that keeps LaGuardia going. “If they ever disregard us, it will be time to stop. But I don’t think that’s likely,” she says, and quickly knocks on the wooden drawer once more.


Copyright © 2000 The President and Fellows of Harvard College