Supported Vulnerability and Help-Seeking

Early in my career I was my library’s liaison to the Graduate College of Social Work. The commonly held sentiment among my colleagues was that I would have no trouble encouraging social work students to meet with me or ask for help outside of class. In fact, the trouble I might have would be in finding the time to meet with all them individually. There was an unspoken judgement that, I’ll admit ashamedly, I initially bought into. It was that these students, who were primarily women, were needy. They needed a lot of “hand-holding” and “reassurance” and I would have to “set appropriate boundaries,” to do my work well.

The more I worked with and got to know these students, the less inclined I was to buy into this characterization of them as somehow deficient, less-than, or needy. They were intelligent, motivated, and eager to do good work. Meeting with them was easily the best part of my day. I remember eventually discussing my feelings towards these wonderful students with a colleague who shared a great bit of insight: Maybe they, as individuals entering a helping profession, were more comfortable with help-seeking and more confident that the people who say they are there to help you are actually, well, happy to help you. It was the best explanation I could muster for these students’ behavior, and their openness and acceptance at the time. I was a 26-year-old new librarian. Many of these students were returning to graduate school to bolster or change careers. They trusted me when I said I was there to help them and I was so thankful that they did.

The Courage of Asking for Help

It’s a decade later and I’ve never been able to shake the early connection I felt to students in that program and social workers in general. I’ve recently joined a Relational-Cultural Theory reading group, inspired to focus on this branch of scholarship by conversations I had a few years ago with a social worker friend of mine. In our reading group (shoutouts to Alana Kumbier, Anastasia Chiu, Lalitha Nataraj, and Jo Gadsby), we’ve been focusing on The Complexity of Connection, which are a series of writings from the Stone Center’s Jean Baker Miller Training Institute that explore the concept of connection and relational activity as central to human growth and empowerment. In a chapter on Relational Resilience, which is not the kind of resilience that’s proven so problematic in libraries in recent years, Judith V. Jordan writes:

Asking for support directly…is…putting the person doing the asking most at risk–we feel most vulnerable when we let people directly know about our need.

…we live in a cultural milieu that does not respect help-seeking and that tends to scorn the vulnerability implicit in our inevitable need for support (p. 33-34).

Reading these lines was mind-blowing. It completely reframed the way I remembered those social work students operating in an academic setting and has made me rethink the ways in which I conceptualize help-seeking in students now. Those social work students, who had no qualms about sharing their research ideas, talking through their searching dilemmas, and asking for feedback on their understanding of an issue, were brave. They were making themselves vulnerable to judgement, but were willing to take that risk in an effort to forge a connection with me, and seek empowerment for themselves as students, scholars, and clinicians. They couldn’t have known that I would be supportive or that I wouldn’t judge them in silence (or in conversation). But they took that risk, and that took so much courage.

Those students were practicing what Jordan refers to as “mutual empathy,” the willingness to be open to growth through connection. Our meetings always started off with what I initially thought of as “just a talk.” They always, without fail, wanted to learn about me–my background, my day, my semester, my work–and it in turn really made me interested in them as people and students. I never realized how rare that was. To me, it was just a part of library-work, but really, I was learning from those social work students how to engage in mutual empathy and understanding. They were modelling a method of fostering connection and affirmation, and it’s a practice I continue to engage in to this day.

The Judgement in Our Questioning

We are the profession of “Ask Us,” and “Get Help Here.” We lament that reference statistics keep dropping and encourage/cajole/beg our students to come to us for help. We are anxious about library anxiety and work to actively create positive interactions with students/patrons who come to us. What I think we don’t do enough of is considering the courage and vulnerability it takes for students to come to us for help. The onus is on them to seek us out and to admit what they may see as their own shortcomings. And how do we respond? We do the reference interview, which is built on the assumption that people don’t completely understand their own (information)needs. We ask questions that seem to be value-neutral:

  • when is this assignment due?
  • when did you start?
  • what have you done?
  • where have you looked?
  • what do you need?
  • is that really what you need?
  • really?

Yet I have seen far more students than not who, in the face of these questions, look guilty and ashamed. I’ve had students apologize in response to these questions. I’ve seen their bodies hunch over and their eyes look away. I’ve heard their voices get smaller or louder and defensive. I’ve listened to stories that explain their answers to these questions that broke my heart. I’ve had to actively work to combat the judgement inherent in those seemingly innocent questions. I’ve explicitly said, “there is no judgement in this space between us right now.” How can I, who am sitting on a pile of email that I’m too afraid to respond to, in good conscience be frustrated at any student who has decided to start researching at a time that is close to the project due date?

Supported Vulnerability

Jordan advocates for a model of connection that encourages “supported vulnerability.” We all need help and support to grow and be our best selves. As librarians, I think we need to stop advocating for two very different ideals that are in direct conflict with one another: the notion of the independent, information literate researcher/student and the researcher/student who feels supported in the vulnerability necessary to seek help. By holding up the independent individual as our ideal we are implicitly saying that the help-seeker is dependent, weaker, and not quite fully developed. There is no way to full-development in this model unless what you want is a researcher who is so afraid of appearing wrong or vulnerable that they just persist in their ignorance without bothering to learn from the people around them.

So what does that mean for our reference practice? One of my reading group buddies talked about a time when they had a 30 minute conversation with a student about their research. There was no “help” involved, no bestowing of knowledge from librarian to student, but it wasn’t really about that. It was about fostering a connection. Now the librarian knows what the student is working on and feels invested in them as a person and interested in their research. It’s the beginning of a foundation on which to build a relationship.

I don’t just want students to come to me when they have a problem or need help. I don’t want them to feel like they have to put themselves out there without me having to do the same. I want to get to know them as people and foster a connection that will help both of us grow and learn. I’ve seen students eager for even the slightest kernel of connection and relatability during a one-on-one. It’s both heartening to know they want this and depressing to think it’s so rare.

I don’t think this focus on connection and mutuality is a part of the model of research support and reference we currently adhere to collectively, as a profession, but I do think it’s one that we could easily shift towards. I know that I am writing about vulnerability from a position of privilege. I am tenured. I read as white to others (despite my best efforts to the contrary). I am a femme ciswoman. But I do think that there is a place for this kind of supported vulnerability in our profession if those of us with privilege could be courageous enough to support the vulnerability of our peers and characterize it as an asset and a strength, not a liability.


‘To Meet or Not to Meet?’ That is NOT the question.

A day in the life of a librarian involves a lot of meetings, am I right?  Particularly, as the type-casting goes, academic librarians.  We all complain about this. We all wish we had more time and fewer meetings.  So why haven’t we solved this?  What would we measure in order to do so?  I’ve been grappling with these questions as I work on a chapter about how meetings contribute to an organization’s knowledge management.  There is so much about this that seems impossible to pare down, especially given the various ways we may experience meetings.

An article about what Google has learned from its research on effective teams came across my feed recently.  When Googling  it again (ha!) in order to pull into this post, I noticed Business Insider covered the topic in 2016 and 2015 as well.  Each one builds a little on the last.  The resulting info graphic shows psychological safety as the quality most indicative of effective teams.  Think about that phrase for a minute —  psychological safety.

Top Five Qualities of Effective Teams

This isn’t one of those, “Well of course! That goes without saying, doesn’t it.” kind of things, right?  Especially if reversed to imagine what might be wrong with teams that lack this, it’s no wonder the prevailing attitude about meetings is so fraught and our cats and shushing memes so prevalent.

What’s interesting to me about the image is its constructive approach to the qualities of effectiveness that build from psychological safety.  One of the things I argue in my chapter is that knowledge management assessments, particularly those involving meetings and teams, must similarly be more constructive.  I got to thinking how one measures the quality of psychological safety, specifically, and how that is constructed within meetings in the real (not just academic, not just Google) world.

That means examining how people behave in meetings. How does a meeting actually operate to ensure this quality?

The best example I can think of for a meeting almost completely structured to ensure psychological safety is a 12-step meeting.  You can image how safety manifests through the principle of anonymity, in how members introduce themselves (My name is…and I am a…), even how the space is set up (usually in a circle) and how  sharing takes place (usually turn-taking and no ‘cross talk’). While the 12-step approach may seem over the top in the context of a typical library meeting, I think as librarians, we take for granted the sense of security that simple organizing patterns like these can provide.

My husband shared that his team uses a checklist at every meeting called norms of collaboration, which I think is attributed to Bill Baker’s Seven Norms of Collaborative Work. How the checklist and norms were described sounded similar to a facilitation tool I’ve used called Plus/Delta.  At the end of every meeting you assess what went well (plus) and what could be improved (delta).  In this case, what is being assessed is more constructed to specific norms, rather than what I’ve experienced — mainly just accomplishing the agenda or staying on task.

According to Amy C. Edmondson (Harvard Business School), to whom Google credits the concept of psychological safety, there are three indicators of this quality in teams (and by extension here, meetings):

#1: Frame the work [of the team/meeting] as a learning problem, not an execution problem.  I  work in a mostly strengths-based organization where collectively the Learner strength dominates and the Executing domain does not (it ranks only 3rd of 4).  This should set my organization up fairly well in meeting this one.  Of course, we may need to look at how we frame the work.

#2: Acknowledge your own fallibility.  Libraries’ predominantly female profession probably overdoes this when it comes to apologizing or non-threatening leadership styles.  Although, I think this indicator intends a more authentic approach to one’s owning mistakes.  I personally am a big fan of both vulnerability research and reality-based leadership, which kind of book-end this concept  in my mind.  But, neither have hit the mainstream of library meeting effectiveness.

#3: Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.  OK. Indicator three, check.  Our profession is built on modelling curiosity and asking questions.  In addition to a curious, questioning, and service profession, we are also an organizing profession. So the kinds of structures illustrated in the meetings above should come somewhat naturally as well.   Yet, who hasn’t resisted (or at least felt silly in) facilitation tools like ice-breakers and ground rules?

Surely our organizing talents mean that meetings have an agenda, documented decisions, and assigned action items, right?   Aren’t these the very frames our work need in meetings, making them more than just people in a room talking?

When I asked my husband how one would foster the collaborative norms approach, he replied, “You don’t foster it; it’s required.”  Admittedly it helps to have it codified as a professional standard of practice, as it is in his case.  These kinds of specific norms are not codified in the library profession, if looking to ALA or ACRL for example.   More often such  norms are left to professional discretion.

Section 3. Governing Procedures. Each Community of Practice shall establish written procedures related to its function and governance that shall be adopted by the membership of the group. A current copy shall be provided to the Executive Director. (

The 12-step meeting structure, which has been codified and working for these groups for over 80 years, has another interesting tradition of operating by the principle of “attraction, not promotion”.  This tends to be the approach of adopting new norms in academia as well.  This has its perks, don’t get me wrong.  If you said I must always abide by Roberts Rules of Order (adopted in many an academic governance meeting), I’d certainly run screaming from the building. But must we rebuke all  meeting structure as confining our academic freedoms?

I can’t say that structure is the end all be all for ensuring a foundation of psychological safety. I can’t really say the teams and meetings using it always get psychological safety right.  But I can say those meetings that have foundation of information organizing structures in place are the more attractive in this respect, and its members who use them attract my respect.

This brings to mind one final kind of meeting with something to say on the matter.   I sat in on a choir rehearsal where the director was teaching 5-7th graders, who had only just met to sing together three days ago, about the importance of what they were creating together. “Excellence,” she said, “the excellence and hard work that you bring as you sing together has the power to touch someone in the audience and change lives”.  I had nearly forgotten this truth from my past musical experiences.  This reminder of how our actions can impact others set me up to experience that concert, and even my library meetings, in new ways.  Perhaps it really is just a matter of paying closer attention to our craft — the organizing and the service — with each other.

See also: Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383. doi:10.2307/2666999

Responding to Communities in Crisis

Charlottesville and the University of Virginia have been in the news a lot recently. In Summer 2017, a series of white supremacist rallies took place in Charlottesville, culminating in the August 2017 Unite the Right rally which erupted in violence between counter-protestors and the white supremacists. In 2014, UVA was the focal point of a conversation about sexual assault on campuses after an article in Rolling Stone detailed, and later retracted, a story titled “A Rape on Campus.” A few years before, UVA’s president was forced out by the board and later reinstated, resulting in national conversations about the future of higher education centered around the scandal at UVA. While it wasn’t specific to our institution, some also viewed the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath as a community crisis, since it was traumatizing for many people and resulted in local conflicts.

In light of this recent string of traumas, and our lack of clarity about what to do when they occur, my colleagues and I wanted to start a conversation with other academic librarians about how we can respond when our communities are in crisis. A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to travel to Knoxville, Tennessee for the Library Collective Conference, where we facilitated a roundtable discussion centered on crisis response in libraries informed by our own experiences as librarians at UVA.  I’ve been in Charlottesville for 14 months, so I was only personally present for the events of August 2017. I am very grateful to the colleagues I worked with on this session, Maggie Nunley, Paula Archey, Erin Pappas, and Jeremy Boggs, who were able to speak about their experiences at UVA during each of these events.

While Charlottesville has been the locus of a lot of national attention, campuses all over the country are dealing with crises in their local communities and the impacts of national events. We wanted to make this session an opportunity for people to talk about whatever type of incident they feel most impacted by or worried about, so we organized participants by type of institution and asked each group to choose a type of scenario they wanted to discuss.  We asked participants to consider a series of discussion questions related to their incident, taking into account institutional, personal, and collegial levels of response. After discussing and writing down their ideas, each group arranged their thoughts in an incident response matrix. An example of the matrix, which we filled out using August 12th as an example, is pictured below.

This outlines our imagined ideal response. The actions we actually took are highlighted.

We created this matrix after reflecting on our own response to the rallies in August 2017. Of all the events we discussed, this was the one we felt the most prepared for. The Library, in collaboration with the University, was planning to host a day of reflection and conversation on the day of the rallies, with speakers, discussions, film screenings, and a community potluck. Around noon, the governor called a state of emergency and the events had to be canceled, although the Library was kept open. While we had prepared an institutional pedagogical response, it became clear that we were not prepared on other levels. For example, we weren’t clear on our gun policy and there was confusion about whether or not weapons were allowed inside building on campus. Since then, we’ve clarified our policy, and signs have been posted outside buildings to clarify that guns are not allowed in our libraries. While it’s obviously impossible to prepare for every possibility, in hindsight, it may have been helpful to consider these different levels of response prior to that weekend’s events in order to fill some of the gaps.

We also asked participants to consider the constraints that might prevent them from achieving the ideal scenario outlined in their response matrix.  It will probably be no surprise to hear that participants had a lot of constraints to share, ranging from the constraints most libraries face all the time, like lack of resources, to more complicated problems of emotional labor, legal issues, power imbalances, and fear. Conversations like this one can be hard to have, because constraints vary so widely by institution and individual person, but it was interesting to hear the roadblocks that different people experience in trying to align their personal values with their professional responses. As each group reported out about their chosen scenarios, responses, and constraints, we asked them to also share actionable takeaways their group had generated.  The conversation constellated around a few key needs, which I hope library administrators may take into consideration as they think through these same issues:

  • To feel empowered to respond by administration without fear of retribution or judgement.
  • Proactive policies and procedures for crisis response.
  • Frequent trainings for library staff.
  • Space to reflect on and share experiences.

While there are no right answers to a lot of the questions we discussed, this session made it clear that many of us feel unprepared in the face of crisis and that there’s a lot of interest in starting these types of conversations. I appreciate everyone who shared their insights with us and hope it will be part of an ongoing conversation about how we can support our communities and colleagues while practicing self care during times of crisis.

Puzzling Over Interdisciplinary Publishing

This semester I’ve been working on an article sharing the results of the research I did while on sabbatical last year. I was interested in how undergraduates access and complete (or don’t complete) their course reading, and I interviewed students at three colleges in my urban public university to learn about their experiences. My interest in this topic is multifaceted: I’m interested both as a librarian at a library that offers (some) textbooks on reserve for students and has a robust OER initiative underway, and also as a teacher who wonders why students don’t always complete the reading in courses I’ve taught, and also as a faculty member who hears similar questions about reading completion from my colleagues on campus (and honestly? also a little bit as parent of a junior in high school who’s starting to think about college).

This topic, like most of the research that most interests me, is interdisciplinary. While it’s library and information science-relevant it’s not solely relevant to LIS; it’s educational research but I don’t have a degree (at any level) in education, and folks who work in student or academic support services might find it of interest, too. As I gather and update sources in my literature review, initially compiled almost two years ago when I prepared my sabbatical application, I’m also thinking about where to submit the article. What journal should I aim for? Where’s the best home for this work?

Interdisciplinary research is interesting if challenging. I find that it stretches my brain in lots of ways — my lack of prior knowledge of the scholars and journals outside of LIS and a few other fields can make it hard to find sources, though as a librarian with a public services background my instruction/reference skills are helpful. Even so, sometimes finding keywords to describe a topic outside of my expertise is a puzzle. We academics love our jargon, and jargon often differs between fields even when describing the same subject or topic (information literacy, anyone?). Spoiler alert: our students recognize this as a barrier, too — during my interviews I often heard that students sometimes struggled with the reading in general education courses outside their majors and felt that their instructors assumed prior knowledge of the topic that students did not have.

I’m also finding it challenging to find open access journals that fit my interdisciplinary leanings. At this point I’m tenured and not aiming for another promotion, and I’m even more committed to publishing only in open access journals. Open access coverage is highly variable between fields, still. I’ve become so spoiled by the wide range of OA journals in LIS that I’m somewhat shocked when looking for journals in other disciplines. There are lots of fantastic OA options in LIS, but that’s not always the case in other disciplines.

In recent years I’ve begun to wonder whether the journal itself isn’t somewhat of a dinosaur, at least for interdisciplinary work. I use Twitter plus uploading to my university’s institutional repository as my primary means of self-promotion, hoping that the range of scholars who I follow and am followed by will help my work get to anyone who might be interested in it, both inside and outside LIS. In my own research process I rarely read entire issues of scholarly journals anymore, or even table of contents updates, with a few exceptions (that include those journals I regularly peer review for). A journal can be and represent a disciplinary community, but must it always be? There are multiple means of discovery — our usual library databases, social media, the various search engines — for scholarly articles. Is the journal as container for research still the best model, especially if it can’t easily accommodate research that doesn’t fit neatly into disciplinary categories?

Librarianship and Project Management Skills

I am almost a year into my tenure as a Health & Life Sciences Librarian at UCLA, so I’m starting to get a hang of things. I have a better understanding of our resources, I am able to dissect a research question more efficiently, and I am figuring out how my library actually works. My guess is that all of these, and more, will become even easier while providing more challenges along the way.

This is also about the time where I reflect on the coulda, woulda, shouldas from library school. While I did work at a library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I didn’t work there enough to truly understand how the library worked as a system and how individuals were serving this system. And while I stick by the benefits of laziness, especially in graduate school, there is one class I wish I took in my program: Administration & Management of Libraries and Information Centers (I especially wish I could have taken it with the amazing instructor Melissa Wong!)

First, I will first explain why I didn’t take it:

  1. I wanted to graduate ASAP. So I took enough classes to meet the minimum credit requirement.
  2. I wasn’t sure if I needed this class given my experience in the corporate world.
  3. I was (and still am) interested in reference and instruction, so I was afraid this would veer away from that focus.
  4. I wasn’t even thinking about being a manager in library school – my brain wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I was just trying to learn as much as I could about my interests as well as the mushy stuff (theory, library history, etc.) that I wouldn’t necessarily learn on the job.

Now, I shall debunk the above (hindsight is always 20/20):

  1. Yes, I did want to graduate ASAP, and I did enjoy all the classes I took, but there are one or two I could have done without.
  2. Experience in the corporate world ? libraries. Also, the individuals working in the corporate world are different than those working in libraries, especially when it comes to project management. I will expand on this more later.
  3. Understanding how libraries are administered and managed is the oxygen to navigating a library system. I didn’t really connect this before, but if I’m going to do reference or instruction or collections or whatever, these functions rely upon a larger structure which is essential to understand and critique.
  4. I did enjoy the mushy stuff. However, I think it would have benefited me to be a little more practical and learn the nuts and bolts about the administration of libraries. After all, if we think about the world and how socioeconomics, identity, and global politics affect us today, our place in the world starts becoming a little more situated as opposed to feeling independent or out of context. My point is, structure matters.

I want to talk about project management and librarians a little here. Keep in mind, this is based upon my less than two years experience working part-time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and less than one year at UCLA. These are large academic research libraries. My experience is limited, however, I do think I’m onto something here. And that is: Most people do not initially go into librarianship to lead or manage.

I think many of us have had pretty library fantasies that are indeed wonderful. And I fully support this because this is where we came from. But we need to go back to Ranganathan’s fifth law of library science: a library is a growing organism. Libraries are different today than they were 10 years ago and 10 years before that and so on. Technology has accelerated the capabilities and possibilities for libraries, however, it is difficult to keep up. Because of this, project management skills are necessary. My first foray with project management was when I dove into my first job out of college as an IT consultant. I was slammed with project management methodology and project managers that were successful implementers. While there were, and still are, many things I despised about the corporate world, project management is a great skill for any individual to have within any type of organization.

I have noticed that many librarians (myself included) can get bogged down in the details of tasks instead of zooming out, looking at the landscape of a project, sketching out a timeline, determining project phases, corresponding tasks, and project members. However, those that work in corporations, especially consultancies, go into these fields to be project managers. I don’t think it’s bad that this isn’t the first priority of many librarians, but I do think it’s bad to ignore its importance.

When I go to conferences, I haven’t see many papers or lightning talks about project management specifically, and I wonder how librarianship could evolve if this was a focus. I have seen plenty about specific projects, but not as much about the tools they used to manage and implement them. The Project Management Institute has a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. This is a certification that helps people make the big bucks and in companies. Is there an equivalent for libraries? Can there be one? Also, how can this be harmonized with leadership institutes and meeting the needs of marginalized populations? Is there a way that library science graduate programs can include this in curriculum?

It’s very possible that taking Administration & Management in Libraries and Information Centers would not have given me project management expertise. However, I do think it would have led me there earlier if I did take the course. Either way, I am glad I have been able to process and integrate my different career experiences to my work today. So far, my career in librarianship has been very rewarding, and I am confident that learning and building upon project management skills will make me a stronger librarian.

Have you had experience with project management programs? What are your thoughts about integrating these concepts with librarianship?