Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Lifting One Another Up

I was recently asked to describe my ideal job, and the first thing that came to mind was that I want to work somewhere that I can help support and promote and lift up others, but especially other library professionals. I was fortunate to work for some amazing library directors and with some truly supportive coworkers, so I know this isn't a unique perspective. I'll never forget the time my director at my immediate past job sat me down and said something like, "We've talked before about how I can help you do your job better, but today I'd like to ask you how I can help you progress in your career." It blew my mind, really. And that conversation was fortunately timed, because it was shortly after I'd started to get the inkling that I might want to be a library director myself. I confessed to that ambition and he responded along the lines of, "okay, let's get you ready to apply for those jobs," and gave me a specific lists of things I needed to cultivate. He even pulled me into meetings with vendors so I could get an idea of what to expect.

I've tried to live up to their examples as best I could, to support and build up the people who work for me and who turn to me for advice. I've always felt this was important, this is what we're supposed to do. This ideal is so much a part of my day to day that I frequently forget it's not everyone's ideal. I was abruptly reminded by a recent post from The Library Loon, "Building One Another Up." It's worth a read, but I think the most important passage is:
"It is so easy to tear people down. So easy. It is so hard to build them up, not least when that option hardly seems to be on the table."
So let's do it. Let's put this option on the table. Let's talk about ways administration can support their staff:
  • Making sure everyone has professional development opportunities, even if it means giving up our own opportunities on occasion.
  • Not taking credit for the ideas of others when things go well.
  • Taking some of the blame when things don't go well.
  • Working to and with people's strengths.
Let's talk about ways to support coworkers:
  • Offering help as often as we ask for it.
  • Being open and friendly about things when we disagree.
  • Concentrate on behaviors and not personality traits when things go wrong.
  • Sharing the spotlight.
  • Phrasing things kindly and honestly when giving feedback.

Am I always a paragon of these kinds of behaviors? No. I'll admit to that time I basically told a coworker to shut up. I'll also admit that communicating with different kinds of people within the realm of libraries was a learning curve for me. But my instincts are to be kind and supportive.

What are some ways you've built people up?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Long and Winding Road to Librarianship, by Natalie DeJonghe

Once upon a time, in a land far away, I was a high school English teacher. At the ripe old age of 22 I was convinced I had my life plan all worked out. Teach long enough to work off my fellowship, get my MA and then my PhD in literature, teach college, and live happily ever after in academia. I really enjoyed teaching and was lucky enough to have student taught in a school with a great staff and administration, so this plan seemed completely feasible.

I like to think I was a fairly decent teacher and that I did some good in the world. But that wasn’t the whole story. There was a teacher in my department that I did not get along with; we will call her Ms. PITA. She had a tendency to run students out of her class which left her with classes of 11 or 12 students while other teachers were handling classes of 35. I was not subtle about the fact that I thought this was complete and utter crap that placed an underserved burden on me and my colleagues. My colleagues told me they appreciated my willingness to say things no one else would. My principal, on the other hand, told me I wasn’t a team player. Five years of repeatedly being told I wasn’t a team player and that I had a bad attitude. Five years of listening to that while absolutely nothing was done about the fact that Ms. PITA wasn’t pulling her weight and was bullying kids out of her classes. So I left.

I moved back home and through a series of very fortunate events I ended up in librarianship. I was excited for a fresh start in a new career. Only this time, I was determined to be more of a team player. And what my principal had taught me was that being a team player meant keeping my mouth shut and my head down. So that’s what I did. I went to work, I did my job, I didn’t volunteer for things and I didn’t want to be involved. I was my own little island of librarianship. So I had a great new career plan, go to work: answer reference questions, get my MLIS, and spend the rest of my days as a librarian. 

There was, however, one small snag in my plan. One of the problems currently plaguing librarianship is that there are a whole lot of librarians and not a whole lot of full-time positions. With many libraries receiving less funding, full-time positions are decreasing in favor of having multiple part-time staff. This was the situation in my library. We had five reference librarians, one full-time and four part-time. Our full-time librarian was a middle aged guy who had no intention of leaving anytime soon so my chance of advancement was zero.

After I got the degree,I started looking for full-time jobs and was very fortunate to come across the position I now have. When I first started, I referred to myself as a “sort of” librarian. My job involves doing a lot of training for library staff and deals exclusively with e-books. I have zero contact with print books in my job and work in an office building instead of a library. I had my degree and I worked with libraries but didn’t really feel like I was a librarian and, to a certain extent, I felt like I was trespassing when trying to find my place in the field. But to be honest, this didn’t bother me a great deal at first because I was happy being my own little island.

This has changed for the better over the last two years as I inadvertently became less and less of an island, mainly through the influence of my boss and Twitter. I’ve met a lot of people, many not working in traditional library positions, and became involved in a number of projects and committees. After five years of being in the field, I finally feel like I’m a legitimate part of it. I think this is something that many people in the field struggle with, especially those coming to librarianship as a second career.

There is no short and simple checklist of what makes a librarian. No one size fits all job description or clearly marked path from start to finish. These are not bad things but they are things that can make it difficult for people to feel like they have a place where they belong in the field. It’s important to remember that just because your job doesn’t look like someone else’s idea of what librarianship is, doesn’t mean you don’t belong. 

Natalie DeJonghe is the e-book trainer/coordinator for the eRead Illinois project where she enjoys smooshing her education and librarianship backgrounds together in all manner of entertaining ways. She tweets as @InkyLibrarian.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Gender, Emotional Labor, and Anger: Some Unfocused Thoughts About Librarianship

I've tried to start this post a number of times, and it's kind of stumped me. I want to talk to you about the confluence of thinking about anger, gender, librarianship, emotional labor, and forward progression. As is often the case with topics that are important to me, my thinking is still kind of muddled and I've come to my blog with some solid ideas about questions to ask and some vague ideas about answers. I hope you'll bear with me as I work through this.

Idea #1: Gender
I've been reading and thinking and writing about gender, specifically the expression of gender in librarianship, lately. I'm co-writing an article about the role of gender in library leadership and all that research I'm consuming is making me think even more deeply about a topic that is close to my heart. I have plenty of personality traits that are seen as "female" but almost as many that are deemed "male," so it's been an interesting research project as I see things on the page that are or are not born out in my own leadership style.

Idea #2: Emotional Labor
If you're unfamiliar with the concept, let me introduce you to an idea that exploded in my mind when I first encountered it. This idea suddenly made sense of how tired I am at the end of a day when I mostly sat down. "Emotional labor" describes how we who work in service industries have to display a certain range of emotions during the course of our work life, how those emotions are part of the performance of our jobs. I'm not complaining here: I know I need to turn it on for our students, our faculty, and our staff. I want and need them to feel welcome and comfortable in the library. Some days it's easy, but some days it is hard work.

Idea #3: Anger
I've also recently been thinking about the ouvre of my writing in librarianship thus far, and how shouty I can be at times. There is so much good stuff in this field/industry, but there is also so much wrong and I - like most people I know - focus more on the negative. In the past, I might have seen that as a problem, but I'm starting to recognize that my anger can be useful because I do something with it. One of my favorite quotes about anger comes from a Buddhist philosopher/writer, Thích Nhất Hạnh, and I've been coming back to it in my mind almost daily. He says: "And if you have no compost, you have nothing to nourish the flower in you. You need the suffering, the afflictions in you." In my mind, that means, "it's okay to get angry or sad or whatever, just so long as you do something with it."

As I said above, these ideas are swirling around my head and I'm still trying to make sense of them. What I've been able to figure so far is that we are all going to have a range of emotions, and that we should expect and allow them. I've also concluded that people who work in libraries, especially people who work on the front lines, need down time - away from the front lines - on a regular basis. My other answer to the questions swirling around in my head is that this is true no matter your gender (or lack thereof). Women are going to get angry, drained, etc.  just as much as men (if you'll forgive my use of the false dichotomy of gender). I need to remember this as I work with my staff and I need to remember this as I manage myself.

How about you? How do you allow for the mess of human emotions in your working life?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Worrying About My Post-PhD Life, by Abigail Phillips


At the moment, I’m in the final months of working on my dissertation. This means writing and crying and writing (and if we’re being honest, whining sessions while drinking with fellow doctoral students). When I entered the PhD program, I had the lofty goal of becoming LIS faculty. Now, I’m uncertain. But why else would you get a PhD if not going tenure-tracked? Why don’t you want to work in academia? A not-to-be-named faculty member has asked me this question recently. Unfortunately, I’ve had a few eye-opening experiences while presenting and attending academic conferences. I’ve also had a few eye-opening experiences while living and breathing academia for the past three years. Articles like this one by Oliver Lee about leaving a self-proclaimed “best” tenure-track faculty job, or this one by Claire Shaw and Lucy Ward about the high rate of mental illness among academics, haven’t exactly encouraged me to seek out faculty positions for post-PhD life.

Instead, I’m wondering how or even if I can go back to public libraries. While working on my PhD, I’ve applied to a few librarian positions without much luck. Maybe I talked about my research too much. Maybe my local library system is tired of doctoral students abandoning positions once they graduate. There are a lot of other possible maybes. I honestly don’t know. Before entering the doc program, I worked for six years in a small, rural public library system in Southwest Georgia. First as a library assistant while I worked my MLIS and then as a librarian. I miss you, public library work. I miss you so much. But how can I express this to public library directors? How can I convince you that although I’m probably overqualified and definitely overeducated I still want to work in a library? What do PhD holders offer public and academic libraries? How do we apply to librarian positions?

Here’s where the “selling the PhD” part comes in. I think.

First, we’re trained researchers. We can construct, plan, and carry out an entire project essentially by ourselves (this is also called a dissertation). Often this research involves interviewing people, statistics, community assessments, marketing, and management (aka handling participants and doctoral committees). While academic librarians are known to conduct research, research by librarians is undervalued in public libraries. This is disappointing, because public libraries NEED research. They need more researchers researching them (this is me), but public librarians also need to be conducting research themselves. A recent post on this blog highlights the importance of research for public libraries. Research can mean many different things within the context of public libraries. A few examples: A lot of the wonderful work EveryLibrary does is research-based. Carrying out community assessments is a type of research. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is research, which more libraries should know about and use (http://www.esri.com/what-is-gis).

Second, we are AMAZING at project management. We did complete a dissertation. Our levels of amazingness may vary, but at the very least we successfully defended our dissertation, which means we convinced a small group of people we can manage a project and write about it.

Third, we are trained instructors. We’ve taught and maybe even developed courses while working on our PhDs. Through teaching, we’ve learned the delicate balance of classroom management, lesson planning, evaluation, and incorporating technology into education.

Fourth, we are skilled presenters and great at self-marketing. Okay. Maybe. Maybe not. However, we have presented our research, our passion for libraries, and ourselves during conferences, class sessions, informal meetings, professional networking and weird conversations in bars.

Some final thoughts:

Librarians with PhDs have so much to offer the practitioner world of librarianship. We just have to figure out how to promote our degree as an advantage not a disadvantage. It sounds weird to say that having a doctorate opens a lot of doors, because it closes almost as many. I wonder if there are other LIS PhDers like me out there. We have experience in the field, working as librarians, but then we veered towards academia, and then veered (or are in the process of veering) away. This is another situation when I honestly don’t know the answer. For the most part, everyone around me still seems to be striving for a tenure-track position at a Research I (R1) university. I would love to hear from those who aren’t going that direction or who aren’t sure if they are!

Abigail Phillips is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the School of Information at Florida State University. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on rural librarians as a source of support for rural cyberbullied young adults. She will defend her dissertation this spring, which means she will be graduating very, very soon and job-hunting in the meantime! You can find her on Twitter (@abigailleigh), her blog (abigailleighphillips.com), and Tumblr (www.abigaillphillips.tumblr.com/).

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Building Bridges and Closing Gaps: Faculty/Library Communication


Earlier this month, I was on the agenda of a faculty chairs meeting (the library is considered academic affairs but not faculty at my current institution). My goal was to talk about database changes that have been a long while coming, but that we've finally put into effect. I especially needed to ask all the chairs to please follow up with the faculty in their departments, particularly with their adjuncts, to make sure everyone was on the same page. (We've all got faculty at our institutions that use the same assignments again and again, and I know there are some that point students towards specific databases we no longer have.) While I was at the meeting, we also spoke about collection development, both acquisitions and deacquisitions. In general, it felt like a good conversation and I left there feeling like I put another few bricks in the bridge I've been trying to build since I started.

The next day, I took a moment to read the Library Journal piece about a recently published study, "Bridging the Librarian-Faculty Gap in the Academic Library." I have to admit I haven't yet read the actual study, but that report coming so soon after my attending the meeting of faculty chairs seemed too good a coincidence not to write about it right away.

You see, none of the findings I saw surprised me. It's more like they showed me I'm on the right path with building that bridge I mentioned above. Of particular interest to me, though, was the disparity between how faculty and librarians perceive our relationships and how we communicate. 98% of librarians think we could communicate better with our faculty counterparts, whereas only 45% of faculty see a need for improvement. I don't take this as comfort, as in "we're doing a better job than we think." No, I see this as a further call to action, a reason to try harder.

We librarians know all we do to support the communities we serve, and wish people realized it. We made so many things seamless and painless. They don't see a need for communication because they don't know what all we are doing and can do. In some ways I like that our faculty and students and staff take these resources for granted. It means that what we've done works. But in the same way it is good to know they've grown accustomed to what we can do, it's uncomfortable being undervalued.

And yet, I think the onus is on us, as librarians. I know we're all busy - trust me, I know. But faculty and staff and students are busy, too. But if it's important to us, and I believe communicating and building relationships is central to our jobs, we need to make the time. I haven't seen many think pieces about the lack of relevancy of STEM going around. I have thoughts about why people pick on libraries so much (gender being primary among them), but if we proceed from the place of knowing we are important to the academy even when the academy doesn't, it's obvious we need to communicate that to our constituents. Besides, it can only help improve our relationships with members of our community. Librarians need to be the one building the bridges as much as possible.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Interview: Maura Smale

Maura's Cats. The catloaf on the left is Caramel. The upside down on the right is Gummy.


Maura Smale

Current job?

Chief Librarian, New York City College of Technology (City Tech), City University of New York

How long have you been in the field?

I finished my MLIS in 2007 and got my first full-time position as Coordinator of Library Instruction at City Tech in 2008 (which seems simultaneously like it was ages ago and just yesterday).

How Do You Work?

What is your office/workspace like?

I have a low tolerance for clutter so my office is fairly well-organized. A couple of shelves and file cabinets are for storage and I keep a vertical file organizer on my desk for current projects. I’m a standing desk convert -- I use a nifty desktop model that raises/lowers to move between sitting and standing and stand on an anti-fatigue mat. I’ve been slow about getting stuff hung up on my walls (though writing this made me focus on it, thanks Jessica!), with the exception of a big whiteboard that I can’t live without. When I became Chief Librarian last year we were also in the midst of some rearranging in the archives and I snagged an old wooden wardrobe that I love -- it has a mirror inside and space for four (!) umbrellas or canes.

How do you organize your days?
As much as I hate to admit it, I rely heavily on Google calendar for work. My colleagues and I use gcal to share our reference, instruction, and meeting schedules, which makes it easier to plan meetings. I typically put my commitments during work hours into the shared calendar so folks know where I am if they need me.

What do you spend most of your time doing?
During the semester I have lots and lots of meetings, both library meetings (which I’m often the one scheduling) and college/university faculty/administrative meetings. I also spend lots of time reading/responding to email, much more than when I was instruction coordinator. Depending on the time of year I might be planning the library’s budget and goals (and associated reporting) with colleagues or working on annual evaluations. I also chair the library’s appointments committee (in academic departments this group typically reviews and votes on annual reappointments, tenure, and promotions, and also serves as the search committee) which was very busy this past year as we recruited and hired to replace several retired library faculty.

What is a typical day like for you?
I usually have between 2-5 hrs of meetings each day during the semester, most of which are at City Tech with the occasional trip to another CUNY campus. I’m much more useful (and sane) if I don’t fill my *entire* day with meetings, so to the extent that I can make that happen, I do. My between-meeting interstices are usually filled with email, though I also try to carve out some time each day for professional reading (most often over lunch). When I’m my best me I get into the library a bit early to work on research and writing before the day kicks in -- writing is much much easier for me in the morning.

What are you reading right now?
I’m greedy when it comes to reading and I’ve constantly got more checked out/set aside than I really have time for. For fiction I’ve just finished Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon -- she’s amazing, one of my favorite authors -- and Kelly Link’s terrific new book of short stories Get In Trouble. For non-work-related nonfiction I’m (finally!) reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, and for work-related nonfiction I’m halfway through both Critical Journeys edited by Robert Schroeder and The Librarian Stereotype edited by Nicole Pagowsky and Miriam Rigby. Thanks to Megan, I’ve just checked out Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction, so that’s up next. 

What's the best professional advice you've ever received?
That it’s okay to say “I’ll have to think about that -- can I get back to you?” rather than say yes (or no) to something right away. When I’m presented with something new, I tend to need some time to explore all of the angles, but I’m also generally inclined to say yes to things which can sometimes result in overcommitting myself. Letting myself take that time has been helpful.

What have you found yourself doing at work that you never expected?
I learned so much from our former Chief Librarian, but I don’t know that I truly realized how much time I’d spend in meetings as an administrator. I actually like a productive meeting, meetings where discussion and decisions happen, so I’m okay with this. Still, it was a surprise.

Inside the Library Studio

What is your favorite word?
This and the next question were really hard for me to come up with answers to! I don’t know that it’s my favorite but I think a lot about the word “liminal” -- the in-betweenness that I think can describe the academic library, our undergraduates as they make their ways through college, and sometimes me as someone who was an anthropologist/archaeologist and web producer before becoming a librarian.

What is your least favorite word?
Ontology”, because I can never seem to remember its exact definition (and it seems like I should).

What profession other than your own would you love to attempt?
Serious answer: I spent much of my childhood thinking I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon -- I still find skeletal structure and bones to be fascinating. Perhaps-less-serious answer: radio DJ (I had a radio show in college).

What profession would you never want to attempt?
Anything in/related to financial services.

Everything Else

What superpower do you wish you had?
Is having a time-turner a superpower? Do all academics wish for more time? (Don’t answer that.) [Editor’s note: My own answer to this question - the ability to create and reabsorb clones of myself - is basically a wish for more time.]

What are you most proud of in your career?
I’m proud that I’m doing work as a librarian and researcher to support CUNY students in their academic endeavors. I’ve tended to be most interested in research that I can directly apply in my job, which I find really gratifying.

If you're willing to share, tell about a mistake you made on the job.
My internal review mechanism is turned way up which means that I tend to jump right in to analyze situations that seem like they didn’t go well, or at least that’s the reason I’m going to give for saying that I’m having trouble picking a specific mistake to share. When I was Coordinator of Library Instruction I did a lot of teaching, so many of my mistakes happened in the classroom. Most of the cringeworthy moments involved my teaching or demonstrating something that the course professor disagreed with. If it was around a requirement in the class of course I would defer to the instructor, but I did sometimes directly engage, with mixed results. I do think it’s worth speaking up if the course instructor says something incorrect about the library or research, though I acknowledge the difficulties librarians can face in doing that.

When you aren't at work, what are you likely doing?
Spending time with my spouse, our teenage son, and our two silly/stupid but lovable cats. Doing nerdy things: visiting science/natural history museums, watching (mostly) scifi movies and TV, playing board and videogames, reading. I love to walk in the city, though that’s more of a Fall/Spring activity than in the summer heat.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Rachel Fleming and Baharak Yousefi.

Maura Smale is on Twitter as @mauraweb. This is the first time she's written for Letters to a Young Librarian, and I hope it's not the last.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Stretched Too Thin: Not a Real Post

I'm feeling stretched too thin lately. I took the positive step of telling someone who is heading up a project that I admire a lot that I have to bow out for a while, and told someone else "no" outright. But the blog post I was writing for today isn't quite ready and I really needed to get a good night's rest last night, so here I am on a Tuesday morning without a solid blog post.

Even Stretch Armstrong, that supposedly unbreakable stretchy toy, can break, so you're going to have to deal with an apology again instead of a post. And a reminder that you have to take care of yourself if you want to avoid burn out.

Have a great week, y'all.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Just For Fun: It's Dark Out and We're Wearing Sunglasses

I've been writing these monthly "just for fun" posts for a long time now. This one will make the 48th in the series. In all that time, in all those posts, I can't believe I've never written about The Blues Brothers - so disbelieving was I that I combed through my backlog of posts twice to make sure. I love this movie so much that I know it practically by heart. If I've had a bad day, nothing is more guaranteed to cheer me up than a screening of this flick. Even writing about Jake and Elwood has me grinning. It's about time I wrote about their "mission from god," so here are some reasons why I love this movie:

Quotable, deadpan dialogue:
Case in point, the moment from which I took the title of this post...

Star-Studded Cavalcade of Cameos: 
Among the cameos we see Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Paul Reubens, and my favorite cameo: Twiggy.

Carrie Fisher:
Fisher's turn as Jake's jilted ex-fiance is pitch-perfect. Just the right amount of destructive force, and oh that lip gloss.

The Music:
So much great soul and rhythm & blues that I don't even want to pick a favorite song based on music alone. Instead, I'll pick my favorite for the cinematography aspects. Cab Calloway and those moves... wow.

I'm assuming you love this movie, too, if you've made it this far down the post. So tell me, what's your favorite thing about this movie?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

They're Back: Giving Students the Respect They Deserve


For me, the first few weeks of a semester are kind of like a party. Yes, I'm busy - crazily so, this year, with hiring and training two new part time library associates on top of all the other beginning of the year stuff. But still, it's a great time. Seeing all those smiling and familiar faces gives me a glow. And then there are the new students - our incoming class is exceptionally polite and eager and grateful this year. What do I mean by that? Well, I had an uncomfortable moment where a young woman was so grateful that she impulsively hugged me after I figured out what was going wrong when she tried to print using a library computer. It was uncomfortable, but seeing how relieved she was made me smile. Whatever else might frustrate me in my career, I can honestly say I love working with students. Are they perfect? Nah. They graffitti and have to be told - repeatedly sometimes - to be quiet in the quiet areas of the library. Is it fun when they lose their cool because they procrastinated and something isn't going perfectly? Nah. Was it a laugh riot when I had to fail a student for plagiarizing in my freshmen seminar? Not even. I had a stomach ache for days over that one. But taken as a whole, I truly find joy in working with our students.

That's why I find it so disheartening to look around at the so-called periodicals of record in higher education (which sometimes come across as upscale click bait lately), to see so many articles this time of year that bemoan the quality or attention span or even scent of our students. I was thinking this just the other day when I saw this tweet:

So glad to know that I'm not the only one who's lost patience with the practice. As grandiose as it might sound, we in education are involved with shaping the future, and I think we lose sight of that. Budget cuts and accreditation standards and crappy job markets in academia are deeply troubling, I'll admit. There are a lot of things I'd like to change about academia in general and academic librarianship in particular - I do tend to write shouty fist-shaking posts, in case you hadn't noticed. But I'm tired of us always blaming the students.

I'd like to suggest that we stop focusing on the problems and start working on the solutions. Maybe it's because I've predominantly worked at schools with big populations of First In Family Students, but I know a lot of the problems cited in those whinging articles mentioned above are really just cultural in nature. We all got into education for a reason, so let's educate - even if it's explaining the importance of getting the text books or showing someone how to write an email to a professor. We have a chance to make a difference in the lives of our students. Little things like making a goofy joke to help someone smile when they are stressed and big things like teaching student workers, who've never had a job before, how to be an employee... these are important teaching opportunities that the authors of those articles are missing.

In academia, we constantly get to learn and teach. We get to grow while helping our students do the same. I'm not blind to the problems in our industry, so I'd like to think I'm not being overly simplistic when I say: let's be grateful for the opportunities our careers afford us and find ways to help our students if we aren't satisfied with their performances. They give us a reason to go to work, and they are (usually) grateful for the learning. So let's get with the teaching, and respect our students along the way.