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?


Classroom Woes: What to do when class does not go as planned

As librarians and teachers, there have been times in the classroom where we have encountered testing situations. We have all had our good and not-so-good classes, but for the most part, we come out of those classrooms feeling confident that we showed and taught students the resources that will be most useful to them. We have also interacted with students and faculty of different backgrounds and different personalities.

However, what happens when you walk into a classroom and can immediately sense the tension between the students and professor? The sense of distrust and disrespect that both sides have for each other?

At that moment, what do you do?

  • Assert yourself and take control of the room, because it is obvious that the professor is not going to.
  • This type of control will be different for every librarian, but for me, it is about having a strong tone of voice that you are comfortable in, making sure that all the students feel involved in the conversation, and not letting the side conversations take over.
  • If it’s not in your personality to be strict or harsh, then don’t.
  • Put your frustration aside, because at this moment, it is not productive or useful to anyone.

Some would say that it is the professor’s responsibility to make sure that their class is respectful and attentive. However, when it is clear that it is not the case, the responsibility is on you.

So, what happens after? What do we learn? As someone who was put in this position a short time ago, here is what I did.

  • You cannot blame yourself for the atmosphere. Sometimes librarians get caught in the middle of these bad situations and we cannot do much except do our job.
  • Reflect on the situation. I keep a personal log to reflect on my library instruction sessions. I have found it useful in keeping track of what I have taught and my progress as a teacher.
  • Do not feel pressured into having more library sessions for this professor.

With everything being said, I was glad to have experienced this situation. Even though I was not happy in that moment, it allowed me think quickly on my feet. All my previous teaching experienced allowed me to quickly gauge the situation and prevent it from getting worst. Has anyone else experienced something like this? What was your reaction in the moment?






Developing a Peer Support Group

There’s been a lot written here on ACRLog about the importance of mentorship, and I echo what many others have said: there is enormous value in learning from and being supporting by experienced librarians. There’s a separate kind of mentorship, one that doesn’t necessarily fall under the traditional mentor-mentee model, that has also been hugely beneficial to me as a first-year librarian: peer support. Quetzalli wrote a few weeks ago about the value of peer-to-peer relationships, and it inspired me to reflect on my own experience as a member of a newly formed Early to Mid-Career Librarian Support Group at my library.  

Last semester, a few of my colleagues at the University of Virginia convened a group for early- to mid-career librarians to share advice, ideas, and support. The group operates autonomously and informally. We meet every few weeks for a discussion, and anyone can contribute to the agenda or propose a project.  Our first meeting was a chance to introduce ourselves and discuss our career trajectory and what we wanted to get out of the group. While some people were looking simply for camaraderie and support, others were looking for more concrete advice on how to do to do things like pursue a research agenda or how to more purposefully develop their career. These early conversations have informed the direction the group has since gone. We’ve surveyed group members about their research interests, invited senior administrators to discuss professional development, and coalesced around some bigger documentation projects that I will discuss below.

While plenty of opportunities for collaboration and support arise naturally throughout the course of my daily work, having a more formalized avenue for this kind of peer support is especially valuable. Because of the size of my organization, there are people I still haven’t met yet, particularly in departments that I don’t work with closely. This group allowed me to connect with people across areas of the library that I wouldn’t normally encounter in the course of my workday. It’s also a great way for me to avoid some of the isolation that I can sometimes experience in a small branch library. Because meetings are kept collegial and informal, I’m able to start building some of the relationships that happen more easily if you see someone in an office every day.

Finally, conversations in this group have led to projects that would be overwhelming undertakings without the support of many people. For example, one of the most consistent themes that came from our early conversations was a desire for more robust documentation, especially among newer employees of the library. As we compared our on-boarding experiences, it became clear that we had all experienced some version of the same thing: not feeling sure how to do something and asking around until being directed to email a certain person or pointed towards documentation somewhere we never would have thought to look. As a group, we decided to pool our collective knowledge and document everything we wish we had known for future new employees. Working together, we compiled information about the University, the Library, digital spaces, physical spaces, money, time, and travel, for future employees to reference during the on-boarding process. The resulting document lists basic information like where to find forms or how to get access to certain pieces of software, but it also explicitly outlines some of the library’s conventions, like when to use which communication tool, that are not immediately obvious to people who are new to the organization.

While this type of documentation is often compiled by supervisors or administrators, it was actually really useful for it to be generated by people so close to the experience of being new, because we were able to remember what we had to figure out on our own. It’s easy to forget how overwhelming it is to be brand new to an organization, and easy to forget all the things we expect people to know without explicitly telling them.  The group dynamic also really helped us flesh out this document, since we all had overlapping but not quite identical lists of things we thought needed to go into it. Whether or not documentation like this already exists at your institution, I think there is value in asking newer employees what they wish had been spelled out for them when they started and sharing it with new hires. Having a pre-formed group that you can consult with will make this process that much easier.

Creating space in your organization for peer support groups can lead to collaborative projects, like this one, that might not have happened without all of us getting together and talking through some of the challenges we’ve experienced as early career librarians. It can also make employees who work in isolation, physical or otherwise, feel less alone, and open up space for us to ask questions and bounce ideas off each that we might not yet feel comfortable discussing with mentors who are more experienced. I imagine it could also be a useful concept to apply at all levels of experience, such as first-time managers or administrators, as they navigate new challenges. Do you have a peer support group, formal or informal, at your institution?