Interview with Michael J. White

Michael White is the librarian for research services in the Engineering & Science Library at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He has worked with patent information since 1991. He was the engineering, patents and trademarks librarian at the University of Maine from 1995-1998 and a librarian in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office from 1998-2005. Michael has taken over from another instructor teaching our patent searching class. Since the baton was passed, he has taught the course a number of times and is in a position to reflect on the experience. He agreed to do an interview here, to give people more of a sense of him as an instructor and an idea of what they can expect in his class.

Michael, want to tell readers a bit about yourself to start off?

I was introduced to patent information in the early 1990s when I was a graduate student in the University of Michigan’s School of Library and Information Studies. As part of my program, I had a half-time intern position in the Engineering Library, which was (and still is) a member of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Patent and Trademark Depository Library Program (PTDLP). (Several years ago PTDLP was renamed the Patent and Trademark Resource Center Program.)

Working and studying at Michigan was a great experience, and by the time I began my job search I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in science and engineering librarianship and to continue developing my knowledge of patents.

My first professional position was science librarian at Loyola University Chicago. Loyola fostered a very collegial, professional, and supportive environment. It was a great place to start my career and allowed me to deepen my knowledge of science information resources. However, I did not have many opportunities to use or improve my patent knowledge. Fortunately, in early 1995 I became the engineering librarian at the University of Maine at Orono, which had recently (1994) been designated a PTDL. I was glad to be returning to my home state.

Building and promoting the PTDL services at the University of Maine was a terrific experience. I regularly attended the annual PTDLP training conference in Washington, D.C. I also became active in the Engineering Libraries Division of the American Society for Engineering Education. I’ve presented several papers on patent information at ASEE conferences. ASEE is the organization I’ve been most active in. I’ve served as chair, program chair, secretary/treasurer, and director and on numerous committees and working groups. In 2017, I received ELD’s Homer I. Bernhardt Distinguished Service Award.

After working at the University of Maine for a couple of years, I was selected for a fellowship librarian position at the USPTO. The fellowship program allows librarians from PTDLs to work for up to two years in the PTDLP Office. At the end of my fellowship, I was fortunate to secure a full-time position in the PTDLP. I worked at the USPTO from 1998 through 2005. During that time I visited numerous PTDLs across the U.S. and conducted dozens of workshops for inventors, entrepreneurs, librarians, and patent professionals. I also joined the Special Libraries Association (SLA) and Patent Information Users Group (PIUG). I’ve conducted a number of patent workshops at SLA conferences and moderated panels at PIUG conferences.

In 2004, I decided it was time for a change. I very much wanted to return to an academic library. My wife, who is also a librarian, wanted to return to her home province of Ontario. We were very fortunate to find positions at Queen’s University in Kingston that suited our interests and backgrounds perfectly. At Queen’s, I have continued to focus on patents and IP information as core parts of my professional practice and research.

Thanks for sharing your background. Can I ask you to describe the patent searching class for those who might be considering taking it?

“Patent Searching for Librarians” was originally created by Martin Wallace, the former engineering, patent and trademark librarian at the University of Maine at Orono. In 2016, Martin moved to a new position and I volunteered to teach the course. I’ve retained the basic structure of the course and added more international content for the benefit of librarians outside of the U.S.

The course is designed as an introduction to patent information for librarians working in all types of environments and with all types of users. Librarians and librarians-in-training who have taken the course hail from academic, public, government, law and corporate settings. The course is specifically aimed at librarians with little or no experience working with patent information. However, parts of the course may be of interest to librarians with more advanced knowledge who are interested in a refresher or looking to improve their knowledge in a specific area such as classification searching.

The course is not an introduction to patent law or intellectual property issues in general. Both topics are far too complex for a short four-week online course.

The course consists of four weekly modules, each (except Module 1) building on the previous module. All modules include learning activities and assessment activities. However, none of the activities are graded. The first half of each week is devoted to the learning activity and the second half focuses on the assessment activity.

Module 1 focuses on the legal and ethical issues librarians encounter when helping users conduct patent research. Students are assigned readings and activities focusing on determining a patron’s information needs when it comes to patents, and what kinds of help we–as librarians, not attorneys–are able to provide. Most importantly, students learn how to avoid committing “unauthorized practice of law” when helping users research patent information. Students can expect to spend 4-5 hours on this module.

In Module 2, students learn about the format and organization of patent documents, and how to identify different parts of a patent. This module will take 2-3 hours to complete.

In Module 3, students explore and compare two open access patent databases. Students with access to a commercial patent database (Derwent, SciFinder) through their places of work may select it as one of their options. This module takes 3-4 hours.

Finally, the fourth module covers patent classification systems. Using patent classification is often the most difficult aspect of patent searching for our users to grasp, so I feel it deserves an entire module dedicated to it. Students learn about the two major patent classification systems in use today, the International Patent Classification (IPC) and the relatively new Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) systems, and how to conduct a patent search using a step-by-step method inspired by the USPTO’s “Seven-Step Search Strategy”. This module will take 3-4 hours to complete.

Finally, throughout the course I provide references and links to other sources of patent information and training.

Sounds like a very solid course. You’ve taught it for us a few times now. What has your experience been like teaching it? You can tell us about some things that have happened in class, or some things that surprised you.

Over the past twenty years I’ve taught countless face-to-face classes and seminars; and I’ve conducted a fair number of live webinars. But teaching an online, asynchronous course was a new experience for me.

I was concerned that without the real-time interaction of a live class or webinar, students would find the material dry or boring. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. Only a few students have commented on the amount of reading required. Most seem very pleased with the content and learning activities. It is a fun challenge coming up with fresh, timely examples to use in the course. Fortunately, patent information and tools are always evolving, so it’s not too hard.

Given the reported high drop-out rates in online courses, I was curious whether students would complete the class. So far, however, only a couple of students have failed to complete the class.

The range of personalities is interesting. Some students are content to work their way through the material without many, if any, questions or comments. Other students do like to engage in feedback, which I try to provide as much as I can.

It sounds like it’s been a good experience. I want to thank you for the interview. It’s been good hearing about the class and your experience with it.

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure working with Library Juice on this course and the many students who have taken it. I’ve learned much about teaching and learning in online courses. I look forward to teaching it again in the near future and perhaps developing new courses on IP research.

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