Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Letter from a New Librarian, by Charlie Bennett

A librarian friend and I had a running gag a few years ago related to presentations we gave at conferences. This was back when I was a Library Technical Associate at Georgia Tech with no faculty status at all. My friend and I would outline but not write out our presentations so the headings were just speaking prompts. A regular prompt was “Who am I?” to signify the introduction but when rehearsing these presentations with each other we would perform that question as an existential demand of the audience: “WHO AM I? WHY AM I HERE? WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?” I’m sure you had to be there for it to be really funny. [Editor’s Note: Nah. It got a chuckle from me when I first read it.] As funny as it was to us then, I never thought that I’d come to a point where I wouldn’t be able to answer those questions. I wish someone had told me that I would have to work for those answers.

I became a librarian in 2011, almost immediately after finishing my MLIS. I was lucky; I leveraged my LTA experience, my programming initiatives in the learning commons, and perhaps all those presentations, into a librarian position at Georgia Tech. I didn’t even change offices. My boss said “This is great, we’re glad you’re part of the team, and you should take the next year to understand the job.” I laughed because I thought it was a joke.

It’s not a joke. I’m two years in as an academic librarian and I still don’t know who I am, why I’m here, or what they want from me. I might not even be clear on who I meant when I wrote “they” in the last line.

But here’s the thing I realized: I don’t know the answer to those three questions because no one knows the answer. Like a university professor, or like an artist, my job has lofty ideals and very few constraints. The mission of this library is perfectly elastic: support the teaching, researching, and learning of the university. Try defining those three gerunds in a way that reduces your options.

As the Undergraduate Programming & Engagement Librarian, my job responsibilities in the past two years have included producing a weekly radio show, running a carnival-style welcome event inside the Library for freshmen, attending a class on Herman Melville, teaching a class on the high-school-to-college transition, assembling whiteboards and studio tables for a design class in the library commons, and assembling a quarter-scale plywood model of a whale skeleton (for the Melville class).

These activities were all part of my job because the job could be anything, and I kept seeking a specific role. Who am I? Why am I here? I’m an educator; I’m here to teach. I’m an academic; I’m here to explore. I’m a communicator; I’m here to share information. I’m a manager; I’m here to make other people’s missions go smoothly. I’m a librarian; I’m here to be confused by the changes in my profession and by most people’s unshakeable belief that my job is mostly concerned with the Dewey Decimal system and the vanilla smell of old books.

So I sought. I said yes to everything cool. Then I had to say yes to everything in my job description. That’s what you’re supposed to do, I know, but now I’m feeling screwed. Over-scheduled, fragmented, and devoted to projects that I never had to start, I’m out of time and energy and good vibes. I’ve put all my responsibilities and projects on a flipchart and I won’t put a new one up until I cross two off.

Photo by author.

When this semester is over, before I write any of next year’s items on the flipchart, I’m going to do a professional development exercise for myself. I’m going to sit down at a clean desk on a day without meetings, and I’m going to read my job description very carefully, and I’m going to write out the answers to three questions: who am I? Why am I here? What do they want from me?

I might know the answers by then.

Charlie Bennett is an academic librarian at the Georgia Tech Library, a co-host on Lost in the Stacks on WREK Atlanta and on Consilience with Pete & Charlie, and a little bit overwhelmed.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Dear Soon-To-Be Public Youth Services Librarian, by Angie Manfredi


Soon, so much sooner than you know, there will come a time when you look back to the summers in your life as an idyllic time full of youthful shenanigans, vacations, time spent relaxing, and enjoying lazy, hazy, crazy days. 

One of those bouts of nostalgia might hit you on a day while you are ladling 70 cups of cheap pink lemonade into Dixie cups and your sweat is streaking the glitter make-up you have caked on your face and 60 small children are eagerly waiting for you to make your reappearance. Perhaps you’ll think of those simpler times at the end of the week after you have facilitated over half a dozen programs with a total participation of almost 200 people. You might miss those unhurried days the most when you realize you can’t remember your last day off and you’ve forgotten what any other job task besides working the desk is.

Yes, your idyllic summer days are numbered the minute you decide to work as a youth services librarian in a public library. Now that you’ve made this fateful decision, your summers are no longer your own. Now they belong to the insatiable behemoth known as … SUMMER READING.

Summer reading is the beast that steals your free time, saps your will to live, and turns you into a non-stop programming, book-recommending, high-energy machine. Summer reading is the reason you never manage to respond to e-mails, the reason you forget what off-desk time is like, the reason you can't focus on anything except the next big event. Summer reading, my soon-to-be-sister/brother-in-arms, is the reason I once had vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce for dinner almost every night for long stretches.

I am sure you have heard the rumblings from other youth services librarians, the mutterings about their exhaustion, their overload, their frustration when a particular program doesn't work. It's hard to miss that noise when it comes to Summer Reading because it becomes such a huge part of your professional life as a youth services librarian. Perhaps you are intimidated. Perhaps you are already exhausted at the mere thought of planning such an intensive slate of programs and outreach. Perhaps you're not even sure what the benefits of all this effort is when it seems like all it causes is stress and fatigue and parents complaining about reading requirements.

But I am writing this letter to you today not to scare you off, to warn you of dire consequences, or to encourage you to seek an avenue of librarianship that won't involve the same combination of sweat and glitter make-up as Youth Services. No, instead, I am writing to tell you the exact opposite - the great secret no one ever really tells you about the monster that is Summer Reading.

It's the most fun you'll ever have. It's quite simply the most fun time to be a youth services librarian. There's nothing like summer as a youth services librarian, those days when one program after another rolls into each other in a bliss of children and teens genuinely enjoying themselves: singing, dancing, playing, engaging in model literacy practices as they learn that the library is a place just for them. THAT'S what summer is really about, all those programs, all that time spent counting minutes and pages read. THAT'S why we do it, why we work ourselves into a blur of exhaustion - because during Summer Reading we Youth Services librarians are probably at our most exhausted but we're also at our best.

So this is the letter I send to you - my future colleague, my future survivor, my future costumed superhero/ine who saves the day time and time again in summer.

Hang in there. Remember the gifts of what all this work is: the community goodwill, building in teens and children an excitement for the library as a place and for reading whatever book they want¸ and helping young patrons stem their learning loss over summer.

What we do in these summer months, all the planning and effort we put into what we do, it's worth it. It matters. You might not always hear this articulated, you might lose it in the exhaustion and the grumblings. But it's true; it's the truest thing of all.

You'll never get those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer back, my friend. But you'll be having so much fun, I promise, you won't really miss them.

Embrace the glitter make-up and, I give you permission: have the ice cream for dinner.

Angie Manfredi is the Head of Youth Services for Los Alamos County Library System in Los Alamos, NM. She has held that position for the past six years. She has survived five years of summer reading and still feels like she has so much to learn about how to survive and thrive in the next five. You can read more of her work at her blog, Fat Girl Reading, or follow her on Twitter @misskubelik

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What, Me Mentor?


I know what you're thinking, after reading the title of this post: "Uh, yeah, Jessica. You mentor. Look at the topic of your blog, doofus." (Well, maybe you didn't call me "doofus," but you get my point.) Truth is that I have a hard time thinking of myself in the role of "mentor." To be completely honest, despite the Blogger stats and low level acclaim to the contrary, there are still times when I think of Letters to a Young Librarian as me shouting into the night with nobody listening.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not looking for reassurance here. I'd still write this blog even if my stats were 1 or 2 hits per post (meaning my mother and/or my best friend read it). The idea of LtaYL being a renegade thing helps me keep my nerve up for the occasional bout of brutal honesty, which I've been told is something people like about me:

The part of being perceived as a mentor that trips me up is that I'm still in need of one (well, many) myself. I've got all my fantastic peer mentors, or as Heather McNabb would call them, "My People." I've also got the last two library directors for whom I worked who both check in on me and provide advice whenever I need. I even have a newly-minted, ACRL-assigned mentor through the auspices of the College Library Directors' Mentor Program.

Something occurred to me as I was talking with my CLDMP mentor last week. I had a brief moment that wasn't really an out of body experience; it was more that I listened to the conversation we were having with two parts of my brain simultaneously. One part was involved in the back and forth of our discussion; the other realized that my mentor was mostly validating my ideas and decisions, that she was being a sounding board instead of solely giving advice. I know that my CLDMP mentor will happily give me advice when and if I ask for it, but she's promised she won't push advice on me. In that moment of two brains, I realized that advice isn't really the main point of a mentor. The main point of a mentor, peer or otherwise, is to help talk you down and keep you out of your own personal Crazy Tree™.

Someone who protects her tweets (otherwise I'd share it here with you) told me, in the stream of a conversation on Twitter in response to Heather McNabb's post, that I was one of Her People. The idea of being seen as a mentor felt awkward and uncomfortable, but now that I've started thinking of it as a Talking People Out of Crazy Trees Service™, I'm cool with it.

So yeah... Me mentor.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Finding “Your People”, by Heather McNabb


I’ll start this with the honest assertion that I still feel like I’m a new librarian. While I can logically list accomplishments and successes I’ve had as a library director, I have only been a librarian and a director for three years (yes, I jumped in at the deep end). I am constantly learning and growing as a professional, and I still need TONS of advice and support.

I feel that we should all admit to needing those things regularly, though. Our profession isn’t one built on competition but on collaboration. We work together to advance libraries and to help those people we serve. The key phrase in that sentence being, “we work together.” To be able to do that, I have learned that I need people. Specifically, I need other librarians, and so do you.

Thinking of trying out a new program or adding a new library service? Have an outrageous idea that you’re afraid to take to your supervisor until you’ve fleshed it out? Or are you writing something that needs edited? You need people. More specifically, you need Your People (capitalized because they are that important).
Your People, (or if you want to be “professional” you can call them your Personal Learning Network), are people that you can count on to support, guide, and advise you. They will let you bounce ideas off them. They’ll walk you through how they started that same new program/service at their library. Sometimes Your People will have years more experience than you. Sometimes they’ll be other new librarians or library students. Inspiration and support can come from any level.

Your People do not have to live where you live. Reach out! Join Twitter and search for librarians. There’s A LOT of us out there! I have found many of My People via Twitter. I formed relationships with them online and recently got the chance to meet several of them at ALA. Meeting in person did cement them as My People even further, but it isn’t necessary for successful interaction.

To find regional people or ones in your state look at who is interacting on state listservs or talk to someone at a conference. I know that can be a scary idea, but it’s something that could pay off in ways you can never imagine! Two of My People are ones I met at the Indiana Librarian’s Leadership Academy last year. The three of us collaborate and talk so much about libraries that we’ve scheduled an overnight at one of our homes so we can better tackle all the world’s library problems. (Okay, maybe not ALL but we do have big ideas!)

Other than in-person meetings you can use Google Hangouts to connect. Google Docs is an excellent resource when you want someone to edit something or if you’re working to write something together. Of course you can always use that old-fashioned thing called a telephone and ring someone up for a chat, but sometimes it’s easier to accommodate schedules by emailing or using another tool.

One of the most important pieces of advice that I can give you about finding Your People is to NOT only look for those librarians that work in the same type of library as you. In my opinion one of the biggest problems we, as a profession, all sometimes have is not communicating across the library types. I have several academic librarians and school librarians in My People. I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from getting out of my public library corner.

So start looking today for Your People because they’re the ones who will help you when you didn’t even realize you needed help. They’re the ones who will support you when you try new things. They’re the ones who will remind you of your awesomeness when you get in a funk or doubt yourself (because that WILL happen, and it’s ok). They will be more than your mentors or collaborators. They will become your friends. They’re YOUR PEOPLE.

Heather McNabb is Director at Poseyville Carnegie Public Library in Poseyville, Indiana. She tweets at @HeatherLibrary and is always looking to expand her people. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On Being "The Man," Seven Months Later

I've been a director since the beginning of February and I have a confession to make: there are still times when I have full blown Impostor Syndrome when on the job. In some ways, this is a dangerous confession to make, given that my blog is publicly accessible and all. On the other hand, since those moments are fewer and farther between, with only seven months on the job, it's not as bad as it might sound.

A lot has changed in the intervening months. I don't know everything there is to know, but I do have a good handle on the things I need to learn. Even better, I've managed to learn quite a few of the things I need to know. Best part of all? There has been a handful of moments when I *felt* like a library director. The first time that happened I was having a conversation with my college's physical plant director. We were talking about something to do with the library's side door, and then - almost like an out of body experience - I heard myself citing ADA regulations. And then I got a jolt of pride because I'd known exactly what I was talking about, and it felt good.

It felt good, but it also feels weird. In some ways, I still think of myself as that upstart kid (if a 30-year-old can be considered a kid) who just got her MLIS. The thing is, I'm not that kid. Tons to do and learn yet. Regardless, I still stand by what I wrote in my EDUCAUSE Review piece, even though I haven't been able to follow all the advice I received. I've made lots of mistakes, but I've had even more accomplishments. Impostor syndrome aside, I know I do the best I can in every moment of every day, and that's all I can expect of myself.

That's my advice for you this week: no matter at which stage of your career you might be - just starting your first day of grad school, just starting your first job, about to retire, or anywhere in between - know that you really are doing the best you can.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

First Thursday's Just For Fun: Pasties and a G-String

Okay, yes I am doing two months in a row about music.

Wait... what's that? You thought this post was going to be about strippers or burlesque or something with a title like that? Shame on you for not having an encyclopedic memory of songs by Tom Waits - the subject of my just for fun post for this month. (I'll admit I don't have an encyclopedic memory myself, but my Tom Waits station on Pandora gets played more than any other I've created. So no, I'm not an authority, but I do have a deep and enduring passion for his music.)


"Pasties and a G-String", the source of the title of this post, is one of my favorite cuts from TW's third album, Small Change.

"Step Right Up," (also from Small Change) TW's clever condemnation of Madison Avenue's tactics, is beyond brilliant. The music is fab, but this ditty also includes one of my favorite song lyrics of any song ever: "The large print giveth and the small print taketh away."

This is actually the second time this song has appeared on my blog, I love it that much. Even more, though, I love that the real video for "God's Away on Business" (from the 2002 album, Blood Money) is even weirder than the Cookie Monster/Tom Waits mashup I posted previously. Dancing with emus? Really?

As a finally share, here's "Jersey Girl." TW wrote this song with and about his future wife, and it's one of my favorite sappy, sentimental songs. It gets me every time.

Are these my favorites of his work? I don't know. Most days I'd cite "God's Away on Business" as a favorite, but sometimes I would probably name "Tom Traubert's Blues" or "Nighthawks at the Diner" or even "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" as my favorite, or any of a dozen others depending on which ones I've heard recently, instead of the some of the songs above. There's just something about that too-many-cigarettes-and-too-much-whiskey sounding voice that always, ALWAYS works for me.

p.s. I love his acting, too. He's my favorite thing about Queens Logic (which I own on DVD because of TW) and I finally gave in and saw The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, despite the Heath Ledger sadness, when I found out Tom Waits was among the cast.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Me, Too!: On Agendas in Libraries, Especially Mine

If you haven't yet read Chris Bourg's fantastic post, "Agendas: Everyone has one " and Barbara Fister's response, "Admitting Our Agendas," please do. The TL;DR synopsis of both posts is that both of these women are coming clean about having a driving force, an agenda behind their work in libraries. In Chris' case, she claims "a feminist and queer agenda for libraries [that] is a unapologeticly activist agenda, rooted in values of democracy, inclusion, and equality." And Barbara's push is reflected in her statement that, "We shouldn’t help students 'prove' something that is contrary to the evidence. We should help them find information and encourage them to form opinions based on the evidence."

While I am also a feminist who pushes students to deal with all the information they gather, not just the information that supports the opinion they had coming into their research, my own agenda is slightly different. And here's a hint:


It's the reason I teach information literacy skills the way I do and the thing that drives me to make the library as appealing and inviting as I can. I want to get members of my community into my building, literally or figuratively, where I have a better chance of achieving my agenda. Why would this be behind everything I do as a librarian when I work at a college, and why would I admit it? Shouldn't I be focused on purely academic skills? Nope, nuh-uh, and not even, because my agenda is tied to knowing the truth about my students, even when the faculty members don't agree with me (which is thankfully less and less often as time goes by).

What I know is this: even at elite colleges and universities, most students will not go onto be professional academics. The majority of undergraduates are pursuing higher education because of the promise of better jobs. I've said it so many times in work conversations that I've lost track, but I'm putting it here because it is a (slightly pompous but) perfect way to capture my agenda: our education system is churning out a generation of Spartans, but what we need is Athenians. We need people who can think for themselves, not people who march lock step because it's what they were told to do. We need people who actually take the time to learn the stance of someone who's running for political office, not people who support the candidate who seems like s/he would be a good drinking buddy. To put it bluntly, my agenda is that I want to help graduate critical thinkers who are, therefore, well informed voters.

We've all got agendas when we think about it. For some of us, it's something that pushed us to pursue this career field in the first place. I applaud Chris and Barbara for coming clean with theirs, and have added mine to the list.

What's yours?