Showing posts with label Job Skills. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Job Skills. Show all posts

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Curiosity, aka Lifelong Learning, by Margaret Henderson

My grandmother, Elizabeth Wallentiny, and the author
at her MLIS graduation in the fall of 1986.

I know when you are beginning your career in librarianship and you are full of wonderful new ideas, you don’t want to listen to the meanderings of a greying librarian. I know because I felt the same way. But luckily I had a couple of wonderful librarians in my life who I had to listen to, so I hope you can bear the history lesson.

My mother and grandmother encouraged me to be curious about everything as I was growing up and that has been important for my career as a librarian. My grandmother was also a living lesson in lifelong learning, even before it was a trendy topic in education. At 58 years old, she went back to school to get her MLS. She already had a MA in English (from a university in Paris) and worked in the university library cataloging books, but if she wanted a pay raise, she had to get her degree, so she did. Sixteen years later I graduated from the same library school. As luck would have it, when I went to work at the university my mentor was a good friend of my grandmother’s, Eva Borda. Eva was a nurse who became a medical librarian. She started in an all print world and had to learn how to search the earliest versions of what is now PubMed. She taught me to use the primitive dumb terminal we had at the university sciences library for command language searching.

The years I worked at in the university library system were exciting. The dumb terminal gave way to MEDLINE and other databases on CDs, and much better interfaces for librarians searching online, although I still had to learn the command language and field tags for multiple system. Staff were given computers and I made my first library subject pathfinders on a 286 with XYWrite.

When my husband graduated, we move to the US for his post-doctoral work. After a short detour teaching genetics, I started as library director for a science research institution. I quickly realized that my work back at the university was only slightly exciting compared to what was happening in librarianship in the 1990s. It started with finishing the catalog automation project started by the previous librarian and then dealing with the start of e-journals. There were no standards, no guarantees for future access, no pricing guides online, in many cases no IP access, just password access which was useless for an institution.

On top of that, everything else was changing. I used Gopher, joined listservs, used the first Netscape, did some work with GenBank, set up a website using HTML programming, collaborated with IT on bringing EndNote to the researchers, and signed up my institution to beta test Grateful Med. My library education only prepared me for a small portion of this. After all, some things were too new to have been in my classes, and how can 15 one-semester courses cover everything anyway? So, whenever I could, I took Continuing Education classes at the library school down the road, especially the yearly MEDLINE update classes, or at various professional meetings

I could write a whole post about work/life balance, but it is enough to note that at this point, in 1999, the best decision for my family was for me to ‘retire’ and stay home with my daughters. Because of my experience, it was fairly easy to find part-time work while my daughters were in school, so I continued to learn new computer skills, especially web site and database skills, and I learned about grant writing.

In 2004 we moved, which brought me in contact with new part-time experiences. Over the past 10 years I have working part-time for a hospital library, a school of medicine department, and an academic health sciences library. I have learned about intranets, multiple web site development programs, citation management programs, image and research data database programs, integrated curriculum instruction, systematic reviews, NCBI databases, social media, health informatics, and new interfaces for almost every database I search.

I have been lucky that some of my positions have supported continuing education and professional development with time and funding, but that has not always been the case. Much of my work has been on an hourly basis, so my continuing education has to be on my own time. Sometimes you need to learn and practice new skills on your own. And sometimes you need to look for opportunities. For instance, I was able to get a scholarship to online courses to earn a graduate certificate in biomedical informatics. And it doesn’t hurt if you find it enjoyable to read the latest news related to the subject areas you are working with. Researchers and other professionals and academics have to continue to learn and update their skills, so it only makes sense that we have to do the same in order to help them with their information needs.

When I was interviewed for my current position, I was asked about how I would cope with the change to working with data and I laughed because my whole career as a librarian has been about change. Because I have continued to learn and follow my interests, I had the basic skills necessary to take on research data management. And of course, I continue to seek out new continuing education and professional development opportunities as I move forward in my new job. I hope I never stop learning.

Margaret Henderson is Director, Research Data Management and Associate Professor at VCU Libraries, Virginia Commonwealth University. Since she graduated from SLIS at University of Western Ontario, Margaret has worked mainly in science libraries, including 7 years as library director at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. She blogs at Life, Librarianship, and Everything and posts on Twitter as @mehlibrarian.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

From Student Worker to Librarian in a Few Easy Steps, by Bryn Wolanski


When I started my undergraduate degree, I was fortunate enough to get a job in the circulation department in my college’s library. That was one of the most life changing experiences that I’ve ever had. I was majoring in English and, for three years as I worked at the library, I struggled with the crazy notion of going to graduate school. Up until that point in my life, I hadn't thought that far ahead, thinking that a bachelor’s degree would be good enough for me. I wasn’t even sure what I was going to do with that degree, but I loved literature so I went with it. However. this issue of another degree kept coming up from those around me. (In particular, Jessica was one of the first to ask me about it! Yes, I was a student worker at the same library where Jessica used to work.) [Editor’s Note: I didn’t know that until I read the draft. I’m grinning now.] I ultimately decided that it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have an advanced degree, especially when I knew I’d enjoy what I was doing.  
For those of you in grad school for library science, the biggest piece of advice I can give you is to start working at a library while you’re in school. Get experience while you’re earning your degree. It puts your education into context (things are very different between the concepts you learn about and putting those concepts into practice) and can lead to learning even more about what you’ll be doing. If you can’t apply for a job in the particular field you want, you might want to consider a job in a different kind of library (hey, a job is a job and it can provide for some really interesting discussion topics!). Besides, experience is experience. Anything is better than nothing. I’ve looked at a lot of job applications and they all want you to have some sort of background in a library before they want to hire you. You might as well start somewhere and get a little time under your belt. Besides, it’s a great way to put your foot in the door and you never know what kinds of opportunities might pop up from there! More recently, I went from being a page to doing reference in less than a year just because I was at the right place at the right time (and, of course, saying I was getting my degree really helped).
Something else that I’ve learned is super important: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I don’t mean just in a classroom setting; I mean in every aspect of life. One of the only ways I got my practicum – at the Library of Congress! – was because I just asked to talk to one of the librarians there. It’s also how I got a bunch of local stores to take fliers promoting a program I’ll be hosting. You never know what an inquiry could lead to. The worst that could happen is someone says no, in which case shrug it off and move on to the next opportunity. You never know unless you try first, however, and you always owe yourself a chance.
It took me a little while to develop what librarianship meant to me. Despite having worked in multiple libraries, I found it to be more than just a job. Other students I worked with were only there because they thought it was easy. However, I liked the challenging parts of it and I still thrive on those aspects. I love researching and finding and teaching others how to do what I’m doing. I get to feel like a hero when I find just what the patron is looking for. For a while writing this I couldn’t figure out a good way to compare how I feel about librarianship, but then it sort of hit me in the face when I was looking at some of our posters at work. Librarians are heroes without their masks. Batgirl’s real-life persona is Barbara Gordon and guess what? She’s a librarian. Her character defies the stereotypical librarian ideas. She kicks but AND educates people. We all have that ability to own librarianship and make it our own, change the way people see it. Heck, even though Batgirl gets injured later on in the Batman world, she still becomes Oracle and continues to help out in a different way. Just because we’re not all active crime fighters doesn’t mean we’re still not helping others in a different way. With great librarianship comes great responsibility. Go out there and don’t be afraid to use it!

Bryn Wolanski is a recent graduate from Kent State University's Library and Information Science program. She currently works as a library reference associate for a small public library but is looking for something more permanent in a academic library. She's fresh on the Twitter scene but can be found as @TheLibrariBryn.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The ILLbrarian is In, by Andrew Shuping

You've just graduated library school and you're heading off to your first job that involves...interlibrary loan? How the heck does that work? I mean, yes, you ordered things through for yourself through interlibrary loan, but no one ever explained how you're supposed to manage it. They never even mentioned it in library school (or, if you’re lucky, they mentioned it in passing). What do you do? Have no fear, for the ILLbrarian is here! Seriously ILL work can be fun and challenging. And it requires a wide variety of skills and talents to help the department work well.

What types of skills do you need to do this job?
  • You need the skills of an expert detective because you've got to be able to track down some of the most obscure citations ever. Your patrons will come to you with the title of a book written in French and know that it was published sometime between 1825 and 1925 and the cover might have been blue, but also could have been green. And you've got to work with that. It's fun, it's challenging, sometimes requires calling on the help of other librarians to find the thing and sometimes you just have to tell your patron that "Sorry, we can't find it. If you have more information let me know and we'll try again."
  • You need technology skills. Just like everyone else entering the library field you need to know how to operate a computer, a scanner, navigate the online world, and have the ability to troubleshoot on the fly. This is becoming more and more important as interlibrary loan operations are moving to the cloud and require some careful maneuvering to make sure your department stays running. You may be running an ILL management system, such as ILLiad or Clio. These can make processing requests and keeping statistics much easier, but the amount of work you have to set it up and keep it maintained? You’ll be putting all of your talents and skills to use some days.
  • You need budgeting skills, because money is tight everywhere and you've got to be able to know how much you're spending to acquire materials. Sure there libraries and groups that will lend to you for free, but for those obscure items you’ve got to go to the Big Libraries on the block and they like to charge. So you have to watch and make sure you don’t spend too much on it all.
  • There’s also the copyright factor to consider. We typically follow the rule of five, which is you can request five articles from the same journal published within the last five years, and then after that you have to pay copyright on it. [Editor’s note: Sorry to butt in, but please understand that this is not legal advice Andrew is giving. Neither he nor I are intellectual property lawyers. Copyright law is constantly evolving.] And man...can some of those publishers *cough* scientific publishers *cough* charge a lot. Some of them can run $40 to a $100 for a 20 page article.
  • You need people and communication skills. Sure you’re working with citations all day and shipping and whatnot, but you have to be able to communicate not only with your own patrons as to their requests, such as letting them know that it’s there or you need more information, but you have to communicate with other libraries as well. Sometimes you have to send other libraries (or your own patrons) bills for materials, letting them know that you need something back, or even worse -- letting them know that you have to pay for an item. Stuff happens, it isn’t always pleasant, but you gotta put you best face on and deal with it. You also need to be able to work with vendors and tech support. Hopefully you’ll get a good vendor that will work with you and be honest. Sometimes’ve got to be nice, but firm, and let them know you won’t take crap. 
  • You need collection development skills. Five years ago this may not have been true, but more and more these days you’ve got to be able to look at a request and say “You know what, its better we go ahead and buy this one because it will benefit the collection.” And then you get to work within the confines of requesting stuff...but that’s a different story.

Other skills include: assessment, manual/procedure writing, and being able to manage people -- either staff or student assistants or both.

So it takes a wide variety of skills to be successful, but believe it or not...most of it you’ve already learned. You just get to combine it in new and exciting ways. 

Andrew Shuping is currently the Interlibrary Loan & Public Services Librarian at Jack Tarver Library, Mercer University Macon, GA. He has been involved in libraries for over nine years and with Interlibrary Loan for over seven years. Andrew can be found at and goes by the user name ashuping where ever he can, such as on Twitter: @ashuping.

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.

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.

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?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What I Learned Working Part-Time, by Jennifer Snoek-Brown


Two years ago, I was an out-of-work librarian. By choice. Let me tell you why -- and how that decision turned out the best one I could have ever made.

First, a little context. I’m a second-generation librarian, and I’ve been a professional librarian for over a decade. From 2008 to 2011, I worked overseas in the UAE as an academic librarian, and my husband, an English professor, and I decided to return to the United States when our contracts were up for renewal. Why? For the first time in our lives, we realized that we had the opportunity to choose where we wanted to live. Rather than following the job, we wanted to commit to a place first before the job-hunting merry-go-round. It would be like starting over, but this time, we had skills. So we picked Portland, Oregon, and moved.

It was a scary move. Exhilarating, but scary. Fortunately, we fell in love with our city. Unfortunately, we were not as well prepared as we thought for how competitive the job market is in this area, particularly for librarians and fellow academics.

I set to work on job-hunting by signing up for local library job list-servs and even Craigslist. I kept an open mind about related fields, even considering becoming a paralegal at one point! I wanted to keep my head clear and open for possibilities. After all, that’s what had gotten us here in the first place.

I applied for several part-time librarian positions, prepared for interviews, and was turned down multiple times. Those rejections did sting -- no way to sugar-coat that feeling. But with every interview, I was also networking. Finally, a few months after our move, I secured a part-time reference and instruction librarian position at a local community college. Unlike how some might feel about such a position, I didn’t feel it was beneath me in any way; on the contrary, I felt very lucky! I buckled down and went to work.

And throughout that year -- my first part-time job after almost a decade of full-time work as a librarian -- I really focused on what I was learning through this experience. I wanted another full-time position in the long-term, of course, but I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. I also didn’t want to take my job for granted, as I had been close to doing in the not-so-distant past.

So what did I learn as a part-time librarian?

  • Because of the schedule and scope of responsibilities, I did not have a lot of time while on duty to prepare for work duties like library instruction sessions. I had to be able to go in, get it done, and go home. I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist -- my worst trait -- but there was NO time for that on a part-timer’s schedule. That helped me trust my instincts, and the experience that came with those instincts.
  • Because of that re-discovered personal trust, I was mentally free to experiment. Do different things. Push my own boundaries and preconceived limitations. This included experimenting in the classroom, as well as outside the job. For example, I started a couple of library-related blogs during this period. [Editor’s Note: Both are linked below in Jennifer’s bio.]
  • When off duty, I also had more time to think about the core of what it meant to be a librarian. What unites us as a profession? What linked ME to this profession, after all these years? And I asked these questions of my fellow part-timers, as well, some of whom who (still) work additional part-time jobs to make ends meet. Why were we putting ourselves through this uncertain job market and professional turmoil? Through this reflection, I came to believe one thing that connects us all is a curiosity, an internal drive that pushes each of us forward, to ask questions, to adjust our attitude/thinking/keywords/starting point, to be flexible enough to respond to change when circumstance demands it of us. I think all librarians do this naturally, internally, perhaps without realizing it ourselves. I hadn’t realized it until, as a part-time librarian, I questioned myself.

And that led me to realize that I had truly chosen my profession. I was re-energized and re-committed. All because I took a step back, slowed down, and was open to new experiences, including part-time work. Best of all, as luck (and experience?) would have it, I secured a full-time, faculty librarian position a year later at the same institution. I do not take this for granted -- being part-time has helped in that regard, as well. When opportunities come along, you take them, and be happy for the chance.

I realize that not every librarian gets to choose, or feels that part-time is a choice; rather, it is an all-too-real necessity for too many. My own husband is currently teaching part-time at two different colleges! But working part-time in this profession has helped me in so many ways. It has kept me grounded, connecting on a very personal level with the multitude of part-time librarians and academic adjuncts in related fields. It has helped me focus on mentoring and encouraging librarians new to the field. Ultimately, it has helped me recognize that common, internal drive in fellow librarians that I want to work with, the ones who are open to new experiences, the ones who live that common saying that the journey can also be the destination.

Jennifer Snoek-Brown is a faculty librarian and coordinator of library instruction at a community college library. She has two library-related blogs, Reel Librarians and Librarian for Life.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Practical Practicum Experience, by Ayanna Gaines


When I was first asked to host a practicum student for the fall semester, my first response was overwhelming positive. I’ve always thought it important to encourage new librarians and library students, and I always remember how much I learned during my own librarian internship. Then my initial shout of “Awesome!” turned into a muttered “Oh crap.” Who was I to think I had any sort of useful knowledge to pass on? What if I screwed up?

You see, as much as those of us with interns and practicum students would like to be wise mentors who are ready and able to lead and nurture, I am willing to bet that I am not the only one who is quaking inside. While a practicum student may be nervous about doing well or not screwing up, we mentors have the same fear. We want to provide the kind of experience that will benefit an intern, but we also realize that librarianship is a profession with aspects that can’t always be taught. It’s relatively simple to demonstrate a cataloging software system, but how do we teach the art of dealing with a flustered student who has a paper due in two hours?

Another unexpected experience I had, leading up to working with my student, was having friends and colleagues tease me. People, upon hearing that I had a practicum student, often wondered if I would have her fetch me coffee or clean my office. I would laugh at these suggestions -- after all, I wasn’t a Hollywood director. But I did take a great deal of time to ponder what kind of tasks I would have her do. I even took to Twitter to ask what kind of experiences others found useful during their own practicums. I got some excellent responses, and learned that what people really wanted were projects that they could list on their resume; another hint I received was to ask my intern what kind of experiences she wanted. I thought these were both solid ideas.

It turned out that my student was interested in learning about all aspects of librarianship in a community college, which, in some ways, made my job a little easier. I came up with projects like weeding a small section of the H’s and going through book donations and determining what books to keep. I talked grant-writing with her and took her to meetings. Yet there were days when I would panic when I saw her walk through the door, when I would realize that I had been so swamped with work that I hadn’t had a chance to develop a good project for her to work on that day. Some days, my planned project for the day would have to be rescheduled because an expected box of book donations hadn’t arrived. In those cases, I would punt, showing her that there were other lessons that could be learned by simply sitting on the reference desk: what to do when a line started forming, deciding whether to answer the phone or work with the patron in front of you, figuring out when it’s time to ask another colleague to consult.

By the end of her internship, my practicum student was exposed to the ebb and flow of life in a community college library. Beyond that, having an intern was a learning experience for me as well. It encouraged me to reflect on the whys and hows of librarianship. Engaging in reflective practice is something we are usually too busy to do as librarians -- we get too caught up in the day-to-day activities of our job. But taking a step back and thinking about our habits and processes can be truly enlightening.

Ayanna Gaines is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Ventura College in Ventura, California. She loves maneki nekos and cheese. Her office needs cleaning. This is the second post she’s written for Letters to a Young Librarian. The first was, “The Art of the Shmooze.” You can follow her on Twitter @PopCulLibrn

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The (Not So) Fine Line Between Relationship Building and Gossiping

"Gossiping" (source)

When a customer interaction turns into an extended conversation or worse, gossiping... Well, in the words of one of my favorite philosophers, it "gives me an uncomfortableness." 

This isn't necessarily an issue that's confined to libraries - goodness knows I've been stuck behind THAT guy, the one who wants to chat up the baristo after finishing his order, enough times - but this blog is about libraries, after all. It's odd when it happens in a library, since there are usually good intentions. For instance, I get that people don't want to seem rude when a patron (or a friend who "just dropped by") starts chatting with them. After all, we want the people in the communities we serve to like and feel comfortable around us. We want them to turn to us with questions and/or problems rather than being shy of us. 

But still, it can be a problem. For one thing, if you're chatting with one customer, another customer might think you're busy and decide not to ask for help because they don't want to interrupt. A colleague of mine at another library described the ramifications of this kind of thing well by saying, "fostering and nurturing relationships need to be balanced with daily tasks and running of the the library. So if customer service for others is being effected by your community building with some, then it is detrimental overall." [Emphasis his.]

I'm not saying that you can only talk business with the people who come up to you at the circulation desk and/or the reference desk (or anywhere else in the library). It's good to work on customer relationships, and a little bit of chatting can help. But you have to find a happy medium. You should definitely work with someone up until the moment the conversation isn't about library business anymore, and feel free to give it a little more time, but not much more. Moments of laughter can help build relationships, but make sure it's not at the expense of your other duties.

One last bit of advice: even if you do chat &/or gossip, there is one thing that you should never, never, NEVER discuss. Never talk about patrons (or other library staff) where members of your community can hear you. Not only is it bad form, there is also the fact that you know they are going to walk away thinking "What will s/he say about me when I'm not around?" So, no matter how juicy the gossip, it can wait. Those parrots (species anyone?) at the top of this post might look cute gossiping, but you won't.

Many thanks to John Pappas for helping me flesh out my ideas on this topic.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

You Are Paid in Smiles, by Ryan Claringbole


So you are a new public librarian. Congratulations. Here’s a bit of clarification about what’s to come for you. That ticker tape parade? Not going to happen. Making it rain when you treat your friends to a night out after getting that huge bonus? Nope. Fame? Glory? No and no. Now is the time to ask yourself why you have chosen to enter into this profession. Actually, that questions should have been asked before you entered it, but better late than never. 

Sure, you literally get paid in dollars, and while it is not a large amount (especially considering the amount of education needed to land the job) it is usually enough to live on. But in reality, this is a profession where you are paid in smiles. And nods. Mumbled thank you-s. And those are from the people that will actually acknowledge what you’ve done. This is not taking into account the people that do not say thank you, that curse the heavens that you dare charge them a $.35 late fee for that item and ask when did the library begin having a policy that charges for items not returned on time. The grumps. The frumps. Screaming children, neglectful parents, people that smell, people that revel in your suffering (so it seems). This is, after all, public service. 

Is it worth it? 

Oh, yes. Yes indeed. 

You now have the opportunity to help everyone that walks through that door and help solve so many problems. You can be a mentor for children and teens, show various worlds to people, and more. Imagine being the first person to hand over a Dr. Seuss book to a child, or having a wicked Halloween-themed job fair for teens, teaching them the best practices interviewing for their first job. Helping someone use a keyboard and mouse for the first time so they can go on to apply to their next job online, or maybe even publish their first novel via self-publishing. The joy, the sheer joy on someone’s face when you find the book they want to read! I’ve seen eyes glisten with tears when you help them track their ancestors using library resources. They shake your hand, look you in the eye, and thank you repeatedly for your help…after finding that book that their child needed for their book report, along with a list of other helpful sources. 

Now, that’s not to say it’s all grand. It’s not all terrible either. Whatever else librarianship is, it’s definitely a job for those that enjoy helping others. No, you usually do not get to read on the job and the library is not a peaceful and relaxing place (the #1 and #2 answers I’ve heard in interviews when asking someone why he/she wants to work in the library). It can be a raucous environment, dirty, making you unkempt to the point of verklempt. But when you see those smiles, or even maybe just one smile if it’s a particularly off day, you will go home happy. I promise. It’s knowing that, bit by bit, you are helping your community be better and happier. And in my opinion, that is priceless. 

This may be new to you or maybe you knew it all along. That’s not necessarily the point. You will have to remind yourself why you are doing the job every day, and why you need to keep pouring time and energy into it. It’s not easy. Things do not fall into your lap and not everything will go your way. You might excuse yourself to your coworkers, go into the restroom and splash some cold water on your face. You might lie awake in bed, unable to fall asleep as you figure out the last minute planning for that program. You might see your library’s infrastructure change due to funding, or lament the direction the system is going as the importance of the latest fad comes into play. What is the library about to you? Is it books? Information? Computers? To you, from here on out, it is about helping those that come into your building any damn way you can. Smiles of gratitude aren’t handed out haphazardly, so do everything in your power to earn them. If you receive a genuine smile of thanks, it has that funny way of making you smile, too.

Ryan is a Digital Services Librarian at the Chesapeake Public Library System, and is always looking to learn more from others. Please contact and/or share your thoughts with him on Twitter @librarianry.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Could I Show You the Wine List?, Or, How Waitressing Made Me a Better Librarian

Like a lot of people, I was not born with a silver spoon. The relevant ramification of that fact is that I had to work while attending graduate school. Waiting tables was the most profitable job that had a flexible schedule, and since I had prior experience, that's what I did.

Little did I realize, going into it, that not only would I be making money on which to live and with which to pay for graduate school, but that I'd also be learning to be a better librarian. Don't believe me? Look at the skills I gained by waitressing:

I can...
  • Juggle multiple simultaneous projects. At different points in my career as a waitress, I was responsible for anywhere between three and fourteen tables at the same time. I quickly learned to write EVERYTHING down so I could truly keep track, to make quick decisions about priorities ("Table 413 probably needs a coffee refill, but 412's food is up now, so..."), and to be able to shift between different modes at a moment's notice. Sounds a lot like what a librarian at a small college library does, doesn't it?
  • Tailor my approach to the needs of the customer. With a customer who had never been to my restaurant, but who was obviously there for a special occasion, I acted one way. With a family of regulars who had been coming to that restaurant longer than I'd been alive, I acted another. And so on. Similarly, with a first generation college student in his/her first semester of college, I act one way. With a graduate student who just needs help refining a search strategy, I act another. And so on.
  • Leave it at the door. Any stress from outside of the restaurant needed to stay out of the restaurant, otherwise it would interfere with how much money I made from tips. Likewise, a bad day at the restaurant needed to stay at the restaurant if I was going to get homework done. The same philosophy applies with libraries, since patrons, students especially, don't care if my commute was stressful - they just care about finding that errant source that eludes them.
  • Ask for help when I need it. Anybody who's ever worked in a restaurant has been "in the weeds" at one point or another, so overwhelmed and lost and behind that you can barely breathe let alone keep track of what you're supposed to be doing. The only way to dig out from under all of that is to ask your fellow servers and/or your managers for help. I've had the same thing happen in libraries whenever I have too many projects going at once, and my colleagues came to my rescue.
  • Focus on the customer. I've talked before about what customer service really means, but whether you call them patrons or customers or members of your community, they are still the reason we all have jobs. I don't work in a book mausoleum; I work in a library. The people who come into my building need to be the underlying reason for everything I do.
  • Appear calm, even when I'm not. I think of this as "waitress face," because that's where I learned to keep internal turmoil off of my face and out of my body language. This is probably the most important thing I learned while working in restaurants, and it has served me well while facing angry administrators, trustees, faculty, and students. I might feel like scratching someone's eyes out, but it doesn't show. Besides, it serves no purpose to get angry back when someone is screaming at you. (Full disclosure: I can't always manage this, but I'm up to 95% of the time. Practice makes perfect.)
I explained all of the above when I was interviewing for what turned out to be my first professional librarian position, and I know that it was part of what got me that job. Looking back now, I know why it worked that way.

How about you? Have you ever waited tables? What other pre-library jobs, that might not seem to fit, did you have that you know helped you do your library job better? (Or, for the library science students reading this, what jobs do you think will help you once you join the profession?)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

I Know That I Don't Know


As I've already mentioned, I'm about to start a new job, and I'm thrilled about it. This really is a dream job for me, for this stage of my career. The institution is exactly the kind of place where I want to be: a small, liberal arts college with a long tradition of serving populations - first generation college students and minority students - with whom I like to work. It's even in the Mid-Atlantic, a part of the country that I've long adored, ever since I got my undergraduate degree at a college about three hours from here. And being the director of the library is exactly what I want to be.

At the risk of sounding sappy, I've been working towards this for my entire career. I didn't see it early on, and if you'd asked me back then I would have told you I never wanted to be a director, but the variety of work experiences and further education/training I've sought have prepared me for this moment. It astonished me when I first realized it, but thing is I do usually know what I'm talking about when it comes to small academic libraries.

Most importantly, though, I have come to realize that as much as I do know, there is still so much that I don't. For instance, I need to learn about the culture and specifics of my new institution. I need to figure out how to adopt my approach - pop culture based, high touch, and relentlessly cheerful/cheerfully relentless - to my new environment. I'm action oriented, and definitely raring to go, but I need to hold that instinct in check long enough to get the lay of the land.

The thing is, I know I'm going to make some mistakes. It's a bit cliché, but if you're not making mistakes then you're not taking risks, and taking risks is how you grow. However, since I don't want to be sitting in the corner with a figurative dunce cap on my head, since I intend to succeed at this new endeavor, I need to make sure that they are smart mistakes and worthwhile risks. The only way I can hope to do that is to admit that I know that I don't know everything.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Frenemies in the Stacks: How Relationships Define Library Work, by Morgan Sohl


I graduated from Library School ready to take on the world in my new life as a professional librarian. I got a job 2 ½ months after graduating and I was doing awesome. I was great at my job, patrons and coworkers respected me, my bosses appreciated me, and everything was going according to my master plan. Then reality set in, I was good at my job but I didn’t have the relationships with my coworkers that I thought I had. They respected me but they didn’t really know or trust me.  When I figured this out, I was crushed, but I came realize (after a lot of brooding) that if I didn’t have the trust and faith of my coworkers then I didn’t have anything. If you’re in a similar situation, or know someone who is, here are my tips for fixing your relationships at work even if it’s your own fault.
  1. Figure out what your goals are:
    • Start with 1-2 goals. Any more than that and you are bound to be overwhelmed. Personal change is hard, so let yourself be successful and start small.
    • Focus on yourself: with any personal change, it has to be something you can control. If your goal requires that someone else change their behavior, then it won’t work.
  2. Identify situations where the you can practice your goals:
    • Examples might include meetings, one on one situations, or office drop-bys.
    • Figure out what triggers you. I found out that lack of sleep, stress, busyness, lack of caffeine, and generally not paying attention were the times I messed up.
  3. Apologize and tell people you are trying to change:
    • But first: Never apologize if you don’t mean it. People will pick up on your insincerity. To change you have to mean it.
    • Tell them about your goals and explain you want to have a better relationship.
  4. Gather your allies and request accountability:
    • Find coworkers that you have a good relationship or a trusted supervisor/mentor.
    • Ask them to tell you when you aren’t meeting your goals.
    • Give them permission to be really honest with you and then don’t bite their heads off when they do it.
  5. You will screw up again, and again:
    • Any goal that requires change is hard. Behaviors (good and bad) are built off of life experiences so failure is inevitable.
    • Talk to your allies and try again.
  6. Make new goals and repeat the steps.

Finally, I offer this exchange between James Spader and Jane Lynch from Lynch’s memoir Happy Accidents which helps me on days when I don’t feel particularly like changing:
James Spader and I had some really lovely talks, and I found him to be extremely smart and deeply thoughtful. Though I never saw him be anything but courteous to everyone on that set, I could sense that he was not a man who suffered fools. Almost as if explaining what I was thinking, he offered this: ‘A long time ago I asked myself, do I want to be right or do I want to be kind? I opted for kind.’ This little piece of wisdom reverberated through my occasionally bitchy self. (p. 218)
I have never regretted trying to change, only the times when I didn’t.

Morgan Sohl is the Reference Librarian at the Driftwood Public Library in Lincoln City, Oregon. Say hi on Google +.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I Got a Job! Now What?

"Moose" is a Creative Commons licensed photo by Sean Biehle.

The whole point of pursuing the MLIS is to get a job in a library, right? But what do you do when that finally happens? What's the next step? This question was the crux of an email I received last week. I responded, but figured that there are probably others out there who might have the same questions (I know I did when I was a newbrarian), so I'm sharing my response - slightly edited - with you all. 

Before I do that, though, I want to fill in a few details. My correspondent has been working in academic libraries prior to now, but always as a clerk/assistant/paraprofessional. The new job is at a small academic library where my correspondent will be responsible for (among other things) instruction, instructional technology, managing student workers, and working with faculty.

Now that you have an idea of where this started, here is how I responded:

The first thing you need to know is that your new library director and coworkers are aware of what experiences you do and don't have. So long as you didn't misrepresent your qualifications and/or background, you'll be fine. I've worked with brand new librarians before, and I expected a longer ramp up with them than with a more experienced individual. I can't imagine it will be much different for you. And if it is different, run.

My second piece of advice is to ask your new director for regular meetings, just so you can check in with each other. Ideally, I suggest weekly. Bi-weekly is okay if weekly won't work. Sometimes the hardest thing about a new job is understanding expectations and learning to read the situation, and regular meetings will alleviate a lot of that stress. Additionally, I suggest you take notes during these meetings, then type them up, and email the notes to your director, just to make sure you are both on the same page. (Closing in on a decade since I got my MLIS, I still do this after my monthly meetings with my director. It allows me to clarify any confusion immediately and to make sure I didn't miss anything.)

Third, ask to shadow other librarians (or even professors) to get a sense of how people teach there. [There are other skills where shadowing can help, too, such as handling the reference desk or collection development.] Don't be afraid to steal/borrow ideas and approaches to mix in with your own approach. Also, and I can't stress this enough, look both inside and outside of library science literature to learn how to handle info lit & instructional tech.

Fourth, don't be afraid to ask for help. It's one of the hardest skills to learn - figuring out when enough is enough and getting assistance - but it's more important than almost any skill you'll need to acquire as a newbrarian.

Finally, you'll have an advantage in your first year or so that you should use. You'll be able to see thing that others won't, and you need to realize that perspective is sometimes just as powerful as experience. Sometimes us oldbrarians have well thought out reasons for doing what we do, but sometimes it's because we never realized there were other possibilities. (I'd channel these observations through your director until you get the lay of the land.)

How about you? What other recommendations would you give a brand new librarian?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

On the Job Learning: We're Not Egg-laying, Wool-bearing, Milk-giving Sows, by Dale Askey


What's an egg-laying wool-bearing milk-giving sow and what's it got to do with libraries? It's German in origin: eierlegende Wollmilchsau. Germans toss this out octosyllabic gem whenever someone expresses the desire to have their cake and eat it, too, bitte schön. This mythical beast might seem familiar to anyone who has ever seen something like this under “required qualifications” for a librarian job:
  • expert in all traditional library work: reference, instruction, liaison, cataloguing;
  • expert with CSS, XSLT, HTML, XML, RDA, LOD etc.;
  • ability to code in common scripting languages, e.g.- Python, PHP;
  • demonstrated experience leading software implementation projects;
  • systems administration skills in Solaris/Linux/Windows environments;
  • ability to juggle while chewing gum, standing on one foot, and singing the national anthem of your ancestral forebears.

OK, fine, I threw that last one in just to enhance the absurdity, but all too often one sees such lists as part of advertisements for librarian jobs that are otherwise geared toward early-career librarians. Given that library schools aren't producing enough graduates with those hard technical skills to sate the demand, how does one get those skills? At this point one could also ask why libraries persist in thinking that it's OK to ask someone to be a typical “traditional” librarian, and a programmer and/or systems administrator to boot, as if those weren't, oh, separate career tracks. Sure, such librarians exist, but they are few and already have good jobs, so why would they lateral out to your library when it's clear to them they'll be flying solo with no support from a skilled team. But I digress.

So what to do when a job posting asks for the kitchen sink, and you've only got a random assortment of kitchen gadgets on your CV? For starters, accept the fact that you're not going to have everything they want. I know that many people giving job advice will say you're wasting the search committee's time if you apply and lack the required qualifications. That may be the case for an MLS degree—you either have it or you don't—but for other qualifications it is often a bit squishier. As a Canadian colleague recently aptly put it on Twitter: “I never understood postings requiring specific skills. I have never known how to do something before it was my job.” Exactly.

The trick becomes getting yourself in the door in the first place. The tactic I've used and that I'd endorse could be called “skill parlaying.” Rather than using a hypothetical example, here's how it actually went down for me. I made my first Web page in 1995 doing hand-coding on a greenscreen terminal (simultaneously enriching my ability to appreciate irony) while working as a library paraprofessional. Spent about a year doing that with progressively better tools on larger chunks of the site, and became proficient at hand-coded HTML (note for you young-uns: this was pre-WYSIWYG editors and CSS), and then applied for a job in an IT department at the institution's medical school. They hired me because I knew how to make Web pages—which used to be a marketable skill, however briefly—but I knew nothing about much of what they did. I was sure for a couple of months that they would discover my ignorance and fire me, although I had been open about my limitations. Far from it. They trained me, took me under their wings, and filled my head with copious knowledge, at least some of which is still useful 15 years on.

Not long after that, I got my first librarian job, and as I've moved around I generally trot out my steadily expanding IT skills to land a job, and then once in the job do what I said I could do and use the security and resources offered by that employment to build more skills. Colleagues taught me things, I went to seminars and training sessions, I taught myself still other things, and generally tinkered, hacked, and experimented when and where I could.

Fast forward a number of years, and I'm now in an IT leadership position, and the brutal truth is that I don't qualify—on a straight reading of the required qualifications—for some early career IT librarian jobs. On the one hand, that's a reflection of inherent limitations: no person can do everything, and in my case programming is my personal kryptonite. On the other, it's a reflection of how desperate many libraries are for technically proficient staff (so they want it all, and now, and in one salary), but also to no small degree of how little many library managers understand about what is reasonable to expect when offering an entry- or mid-level IT position. Far wiser is for employers to skip the laundry list of acronyms and IT skills du jour, and focus instead on aptitude and potential. We're hiring a couple of IT librarians at the moment, and I sincerely hope that that last bit came through in the postings.

The key advice here is just get yourself in the door. Don't misrepresent what you can do, but if you mostly meet the job requirements, throw your name in the hat. Tout what you can do, and how you want to grow and develop. A smart employer will also be considering your intangibles, and someone may well open the door. That's step one.

Step two is to become a habitual boundary-pusher. Get involved in projects, seek out talented colleagues, go to conferences where you are challenged not reaffirmed, and always push one step beyond what you know. Expert with HTML and CSS? Fine, now tackle XSLT. Bored with Windows? Ditch it, and wade into a Linux distro. Learn the joys and benefits of working from the command line. Install stuff on servers, pound on it until it breaks, and then figure out how to fix it. This can all be done for little real cost. Best time to start: yesterday.

The final step is to remember, once you've achieved status in a library, how little you knew about the job you're doing when you walked in the door. Let's start extending some ladders instead of building barricades.

Dale Askey is the Associate University Librarian, Library and Learning Technologies at McMaster University Library. He tweets @daskey and blogs at Bibliobrary.