Stephen Hamilton Cox, Jr., MLIS – Alumni Spotlight

Stephen Hamilton Cox

iSchool Graduation Date


Professional Organizations/Affiliations

American Library Association, Association of Zoos & Aquariums  

Current responsibilities/How are you using your information skills?

I serve as branch librarian for the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park & Conservation Biology Institute, where my primary focus is scholarly research. The mission of the National Zoo is saving species, and to that end, I assist its veterinarians, curators (head keepers), animal keepers, and fellows in their important work.  Species conservation is a global effort, so I serve many of the zoo’s curators in their work for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. To do this, I provide bibliographic curation for half a dozen Species Survival Plans, including literature searches, database hosting and maintenance, citation verification, and bibliographic reports.     

I also serve as the Mineral Sciences librarian at the National Museum of Natural History and provide reference services for the Natural History library.  Because I sit on committees across the Smithsonian, teach research methodology, and am embedded with the 1,000 patrons I serve, my responsibilities closely resemble those of university library faculty.

Since May, I have sat on institution wide COVID-19 committees.  Seeing the explosion of COVID-19 scholarly literature while performing tailored searches, I decided to create a comprehensive coronavirus/respiratory illness citation database for Smithsonian Institution medical personnel, veterinarians, and epidemiologists.  The database currently houses 120,000 citations.           

What is the best professional advice you can give?

Just as librarianship is often a second or third career, so too can it take working in several subject disciplines to find fulfillment in one’s chosen field.  I attended graduate school with a focus in digital preservation, but have worked in biomedical research, university librarianship, federal contract librarianship, and public librarianship before my current role.  Being able to define professional success and hold to that ideal can be scary, especially when your field’s cursus honorum is well-defined.  Most outsiders would not think of librarianship as having inherent risk, but finding contentment in one’s work means being willing to explore different paths.  

How do you encourage innovative ideas?

I spent a lot of Saturday mornings at my dad’s office, watching him tackle international accounting in Lotus 1-2-3.  Dad was an early adopter and advocate for new technologies (e.g., he’s the reason his company invested in sub-Atlantic telecommunication wiring in the late 1980s/early 90s).  I learned that efficiency in purpose and product is key to building strong relationships, and therefore, a lasting, professional reputation.  To that end, I am constantly seeking the most efficient way of serving my patrons, which means long hours testing new software, trying new search methodologies, or reading about peers’ discoveries.   

Do you have a mentor? How have they influenced you?

I am extremely fortunate to have four mentors, across academic, corporate, and federal librarianship.  Marrying the practical with interpersonal aspects of our field is the lesson I continue to learn.  By serving not only our patrons, but each other and the broader profession, we improve all three.  My first mentor taught me to ask the question behind the question, in pursuit of thoroughly understanding a patron’s query and motivation for their request. Practically, learning to create effective and efficient search strings, tailoring deliverables to clients, engaging students, and teaching young researchers how to best use the tools at their disposal, emboldened me to eschew the trivialities that hinder service. 

What do you wish you had done earlier or more often?

This is too easy: I wish I had pursued my library degree earlier.  Whether you believe you are born with specific purpose/fate, or with the combination of traits needed to succeed at a given profession, I have never felt more fitted to a role than that of librarian.  Looking back, there was no other way to achieve my current position, so I do not regret my path.  To be a librarian now, when citation indices, open access publishing, and mass digitization are making access wider and (potentially) more equitable, makes me appreciate my own place in the profession, especially after hearing “stone age” stories from more experienced colleagues.      

How and where do you find inspiration?

My colleagues in the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives.  Their dedication to service and professional development means I am never far from learning something new.  Best of all, they love to share their expertise in intimate seminars or consultations.  I joked before coming to the Smithsonian Institution that it was the big leagues for librarians, but being here, it’s clear this is a daily all-star game.       

To what values are you committed?

Universal access permeates every professional action I take.  The stewardship of knowledge, curation of data, and presentation of information is a trust that must be honored.  Government service has always been my goal, and to do so while working in a non-partisan environment means I can serve the public and my patrons faithfully. 

How do you balance your work and home life?

 I use the commute home on the Metro to unwind the spring in my mind, usually by rating music (in iTunes) or reading.  I’m very color-oriented and use my Outlook calendar to make sure I underpromise on delivery dates and overdeliver on quality and deadlines.  I also make extensive use of Tasks and alarms.  For an overthinker, this was a hard discipline to achieve, but it has made compartmentalizing work much easier.  I have found I’m more productive working from home, while still using Outlook and Tasks to make sure I put work away at 5 pm each night.  Lastly, my home office is in a loft, meaning I can keep an eye and ear on my daughter (i.e., peace of mind), as well as listen to my wife teach virtually, while working.      

What are some challenges that today’s information professionals will face? And tomorrow’s?

The exorbitant cost of scholarly publishing means librarians are often more like Tantalus than Prometheus, forever reaching for timely papers or books but unable to afford them.  We strain our consortiums through interlibrary loan requests, even as digital resources could alleviate backlogs of demand if licenses weren’t so often limited to one or three consecutive users.  The open access movement is integral to providing even adequate access.  I’m not so naïve as to think costs for for-profit publishing services are insignificant, but it will take buy-in from authors, non-profits, and governments to counter the conventional wisdom of the scholarly publishing model.  The Berlin declaration of open access, and the subsequent Belgian declaration, are models for publicly financed research to be made accessible without publishers merely selling other people’s writing (i.e., labor).  

How can the library remain important to the community?

The purpose of our profession is to illuminate information, in all its facets and, and as we see with our peers’ pursuit of improvement, emerging services and products will make the library indispensable.  Passionate and sustained advocacy will make sure the public sees the library as such.  Continued support for the IMLS and regional library associations are necessary to make sure that we continually develop our knowledge and skills.   

What websites, apps, podcasts, or other resources would you recommend to explore?

 I can’t recommend Zotero enough.  Coming from Endnote, Zotero contains all the features I desire, especially the ability to create tags and automatically retrieve PDFs of articles (based on DOIs or URLs).  Integration with web browsers and word processors makes it easy to quickly retrieve article metadata and embed citations in documents, all while retaining the ability to change citation styles on the fly.    

What is a book you like that you have to defend liking and what is a book you dislike that you have to defend disliking?

While I know the series is immensely popular, I still find myself defending Robert Jordan’s (and Brandon Sanderson’s) Wheel of Time series.  The most common complaint is the length of the books and  series itself, yet that’s one of the most attractive features.  Four million words?  Sign me up!

I loathe A Separate Peace, both the novel and the 1972 movie adaptation.  It lacks any sense of authenticity and, though attempting to present powerful and transformative themes, still manages to utterly lack in sincerity.  This book, along with The Scarlet Letter, is why I chose to focus on modern British fiction during my undergraduate degree.           

Special thanks to the Kent State University iSchool Alumni Network for coordinating these profiles. Learn more about the Alumni Network on their Facebook page and group. Students are welcome to join and participate.