All posts by Angela Rathmel

‘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

You say you want a resolution…keep going!

Is it too late in January to talk about New Year’s Resolutions? Because, strangely, I don’t recall hearing much from friends or social media feeds about any of it, did you? January seemed to just slip into 2018 unobtrusively.  I investigated news sources citing “New Year’s Resolutions” for a more statistical snapshot, and looky there, a decline indeed!

Maybe all the obvious and tremendous work to be done in the world is too overwhelming. Is there a list even capable of containing it? The very concept of a list — resolution, checklist, done, contained, control – feels inadequate in the face of such chaos. We should learn better that our work here is never done.

In the spirit of one of those new year’s articles, I too am doing away with resolutions, preferring to work where I am with what I’ve got.  What I’ve got is a need for perpetual action.  Revolutions, if you will, marked by a sense of continuity, evolving, moving, growing.  Where what counts is not volume amassed, nor time spent, but meaningful motion.  A way to keep going through the change I wish to see in the world, and through the inevitable blocks that judgement and insecurity so often bring.  While it may frustrate me and bore you to repeatedly use these path-finding, me-centering approaches to problem-solving, repetition plays an important part in my New Year’s revolution.

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In my early library days, when introversion prevailed, I habitually avoided eye contact and small talk. Strangers, acquaintances, colleagues, it didn’t matter.  Better, I thought, just to keep my head down. Sometimes, I’d vary it by looking over at something that [hadn’t] distracted me just then, or up as if trying to remember something I’d [not really] forgotten. Always with a twinge of guilty knowing. For the sake of professional collegiality and my actual desire to make new friends, I gradually chipped away at this habit through repetition.  I still do avoid sometimes, and then I remember to begin again.  One step at a time.  That kind repetition led to other, larger personal growth in my work.  This year’s revolution takes that growth to places and relationships in my life that need work.  The revolution comes by recognizing work-life balance as in motion, arriving, and moving again.

This year both my father and mother experienced serious health events, throwing me way off balance.  This meant gathering siblings, uncomfortable conversations, and a lot of travel.  Just as in work (e.g. meetings, uncomfortable conversations, and conference travel), I’ve struggled to navigate the boundaries of our respective competing needs, expectations, and disappointments.  Moving through this new reality has meant accepting each of my parents where they are (which I’m pretty good at), and also staying regularly connected with them (which I’m not really good at).  When I slow down my thinking of the ends, and go through the process of the means, as I often do at work, I find that I’m actually quite good at connection.  For me, the focus on initiation is what unlocks the door to connection.  When I apply my strengths as an activator with individualization to this more personal context, it allows me to examine my own expectations and ask, “What is enough for me?”  That revelation clears the way for initiating those connections each time, and time again.

There remains a necessary element in this, which is more physical at its core.  This year’s resurgence of two movements, #MeToo and The Body is not an Apology,  have a hand in my thinking on this.   So, too, did seeing my father, once a tall, towering cowboy, confined to the limited view and mobility of a wheel chair.  As my own body grows old, I’m also confronted with physical realities that no longer respond to introverted solutions of my youth.  In fact, those solutions manifest all manner of outward, physical ailments.  No surprise, as New Year’s resolutions go; this requires more moving of my body. My advice for revolutionizing exercise comes down to — you guessed it — initiating.  Finding physical continuity, less in regularity than in ongoing beginnings.  Each time you stop, start again. Initiate more physical connections with friends, family, and colleagues, whether in something as small as a touch of hand in greeting or conversation, to something  as large as a constant, even pestering, persistence to schedule a meal with friends at my actual dinner table (rather than Instagram).

Straight to the soul and thighs with this Sunday #supp

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Bringing this around full circle to my library, its current strategic areas of focus share a need for acts of initiation.  It only just occurs to me, the intention for calling this a strategic focus map (not a strategic plan) carries that revolutionary quality of shifting in and out, adjusting, and constant motion.  Hidden within these focus areas, I see specific calls for my own initiation. While I often talk about better communication, collaboration, and the breaking down of silos in the library, my experience shows individual initiation more powerfully connects people and ideas together.  Initiating these kinds of connections in very real, physical space and time serves not only this strategic work, but creates relationships of trust, well being, and workplaces that continue growing.


No, Fair! Evolving Perspectives on Excessive Use in Research

Midterm brings its share of bustle to the library with last minute research questions to ask and copiers and printers to locate.  Library staff are also busy negotiating licenses, finalizing renewals, and troubleshooting access to the resources on which faculty and students rely. I’d like to shed some light on a subtler side of the troubleshooting task that, while not a frequent occurrence, is a growing concern for me as a librarian and researcher. The technologies that enable this bustle of research activity can at times inadvertently trigger what publishers call excessive use or excessive downloading.  This is considered a breach of contract according to the licenses for these resources.  Remedying this breach usually involves working with university IT security to identify, inform, and prevent such use, assuring publishers that the breach is cured, and publishers then unblocking the network IP or IP range necessary to restore access to content.

Recently, I’ve been contemplating researchers’ expectations when working with scholarly content and technology.  What technologies are they using?   Are they compatible across content provider platforms?  How might they trigger excessive use breaches?  What exactly is excessive use or excessive downloading in an online research environment?

What publishers think

Sometimes the publisher’s license language specifies the use of bots, link-checker, crawlers, spiders, automated software, and even indexing as excessive or unauthorized.  But more often, breaches associated with this activity are not explicitly defined, nor are they put in context of excessive use within the license. This leaves it fairly open to interpretation.

Publishers must consider the perspective of copyright holders, and typically enforce equivalent limitations for online use that they would for physical print materials uses.  It sounds reasonable, but because in reality we use print and online resources very differently, such licenses terms may give up fair use and other scholarly exceptions granted by copyright law.  Publishers take an even heavier hand when responding to excessive use breaches.  Blocking the user’s IP access, or sometimes an entire campus IP range, presumes malicious intent (which it almost never is).  This response also exaggerates the stakes involved and misunderstands what is necessary to perform digital research. Strict reinterpretation of print use restrictions in the online environment denies advances in research technology, from basic citation management software to APIs used for text and data mining.  It also ignores the very structure of the linked-data world we live in.

What most people think

When users learn that their actions violate library license agreements, their reactions are  surprised, apologetic, and most often confused.  While some may be aware of the technologies that makes excessive downloading possible, most don’t believe they constitute unethical or unlawful actions.  Breach of contract itself is kind of a boogey-man phrase that brings more readily to mind data breaches like Equifax.  If people are aware of breaches occurring in academia, attention more often goes to those involving individual student records.

According to one IT security expert I asked, the kinds of scholarly content breaches I’m talking about don’t even register on the scale of data sensitivity or security.  Unless credentials were stolen in order to download excessively, it is not security issue; it’s a copyright issue.  Publishers who treat copyright infringement as a security issue might be mitigating risk, but they are not serving or educating their customer.

What librarians think

Librarians, naturally, do approach this from the service and education mindset. Increasingly that means a not just serving end-users within the academy, but the general public who pay for the research through their tax dollars. As researchers assert the right to retain copyright of their own content and share it more widely, more diverse collaboration is possible, increasing potential for innovative research discoveries.  Libraries assert copyright exceptions and expose inequities in traditional publishing structures in order to make openness for innovation possible as well.

Aaron Swartz profileBy Fred Benenson - User: Mecredis [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll digress briefly to the story of Aaron Swartz  for illustration and comparison.  He was an advocate of openness, yet his deliberate action to hack and release scholarly content provides, I suppose, a perfect case for publishers’ insistence to treat copyright as a security issue.  In this case, the breach involved 4 million documents.  The scope in numbers (less than 3% of the Equifax breach) pales by comparison, especially considering nature of the data and the consequences (or lack of) to those responsible and to those harmed.

Rarely are scholars’ actions as deliberate or the stakes of intellectual property loss as high as  this scholarly breach (or breaches of individuals’ personal data).  In fact many legitimate uses of scholarly research technologies are being blocked even to those with “rights” to use them.  Some examples of technology uses I’ve seen publishers block include citation management software like EndNote that indexes and stores full text where available.  As early as 2006, librarians reported browser technologies that link and open an articles’ cited references, triggering such use.  What about mining text and data  to discover disciplinary concepts across time and from journal publications that span multiple publishers?  Innovating digital researchers  are developing their own programming for this, but can they use it?  Are there alternatives, and are they open or proprietary?

My role as an acquisitions librarian means I must balance the needs of publishers supplying the content we license with needs of users who access that content for their research and study.  That balance falls somewhere between stoic realism and OAnarchy for me.  But I’m still a teacher at heart, so educating all sides remains my goal. In the traditional, profit-based publishing system, where flat library budgets mean buying power decreases each year,  I must follow open access developments carefully, just as I must work to negotiate the best deal within these existing structures.  There is always room in this to educate publishers, librarians, and users.

Learning more about the tools researchers use, wish they had, or wish they could use without being blocked from access is my next goal. In my troubleshooting experience so far,  tools like EndNote, Papers on Mac, Abstraktr, RedCap, WGET are just a few.  So tell me…

What digital research
(or reference citation management)
technologies are your researchers using?  



Words, Censor, and Professionalism when WTF?!

That quaint blog post I published last month squeaked out just before Nazi rioters marched, threatened, and violently harmed counter protesters (killing one) in Charlottesville, VA. This post comes at the heels of the “worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history” (1)  at a Las Vegas music festival.  My first ever post for ACRLog was indirectly a response to the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting – the previous “worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history”.   Not to mention plenty of crazy sh*% that happened in between, including a deadly shooting in the heart of my own downtown.

Zohra Saulat’s HLS/ACLog Collaboration post last week on professional uses of twitter made me think about the scope and purpose of blog writing as well. Granted, the relevance of academic blog posts may  have already been questionable, but with all that’s  happening in the world, the practice seems suuuuper unimportant by comparison.   

Trying to get myself back to normal work after such events requires a bit of music therapy. This usually settles my brain enough to keep me focused and driven to stay on task. It also helps all the feels inside have space and language to work through what doesn’t make any sense.  Somewhat atypically as therapy goes, I recently started listening to Kendrick Lamar’s (probably NSFW) Be Humble .  The takeaway message to sit down and be humble in a way characterizes my go-to response to tragedy and the shame-spiraling need to do something while realizing I don’t have the first clue what or how.  When I first heard the radio version of Be Humble, the rhythm was what really grabbed me. The refrains’ driving hol’ ups, against beats of censured silence counter-intuitively push and pull the lyrics’  directive to sit downbe humble.  The full uncensored version of this single, as you may expect, has a much harder message to hear.  I can’t yet decide if that is just the how the language raises my white, Christian lady eyebrows, or if it challenges me to a serious musical-linguistic study of what changes when the word b!%@# replaces silence, and vis versa – that’s another post altogether.  I continue to force myself to listen to the uncensored version because I’m a stubborn, analytical sort by nature and because I know I need to test and question those eyebrows.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
-Winston Churchill

So what does this have to do with libraries?  My leadership responsibilities in the libraries concern people and how they work  – not just at work, or the work they do, but how they think and relate and cooperate within the work and with others. The events that shape our lives, not just at work, matter a great deal in this respect and challenge the notion that there are strict dividing lines between our work and private lives.  At times, not so fraught as these, some may question the need for this or that professional development training, or why we are addressing such heavy-feeling topics like emotional intelligence, active shooter training, microaggression, and privilege.  These events have an unfortunate way of focusing our attention to them.

When the career test I took some pre-internet years ago showed only librarian, I thought I’d overestimated the amount of weight I could lift — you know, handling books. I had no idea I would be handling license negotiations or learning code, let alone dealing with bullying in the workplace, accident reports, the senseless death of colleagues, or facing and challenging my own racism and other phobias.  However, if there is any truth to what I have learned through 17 years in academia, I know it has come by deeply considering how events, both horribly tragic and enormously joyful, have actively shaped my professional and personal paths.  As it turns out, a wholly different kind of heavy-lifting is required in my day-to-day work and leadership.

I continue writing amidst these greater, weightier issues as a matter of development.  Writing helps me think before I talk and think more quickly as I talk, which enables me to respond better within moments, not just after the fact.  Fundamentally, though, I do not blog because I think my words matter significantly to these events or that a wider audience will be changed by any words I offer.  I mostly do it because of how I am changed by it.  As small, removed, and privileged my development is against the experience of gun violence, police brutality, rape culture, and systemic oppression, not changing – letting guilt and privilege stop my changing — is no longer an option for me.

One different action I have taken to be more than just a seated, humble thinker and writer has been becoming an facilitator for the ACTive bystander training for sexual violence prevention (2).  This month I co-facilitated my first session with about 20-30 freshmen.  I am not an instruction librarian, remember, and confess I couldn’t help but agree with an initial reaction to my embarking on this challenge.

“That is some heavy material for a librarian.”

Determining how best to reach out meaningfully to serve others, especially in the face of violence and injustice, I think requires an openness to seeking out a common denominator.  That common denominator, interestingly, is not common to every single person.  So, while Lady Gaga points to kindness — and I’m all about that — as librarian, I am about questioning.  By remembering to question myself, I stay humble and kind in responding to painful tragedies that leave me without words.  Amidst my growing awareness of injustices in everyday work and life, this questioning is also the necessary preventative to a more damaging temptation to shut down myself or others.

(1) CNN charts the Deadliest mass shootings in modern US history (1949 to present) at

(2) This training was adapted from Bringing in the Bystander, a program developed by the Prevention Innovations Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, and One Act, a program developed by Student Wellness at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


Relationship Priorities from the Forest to the Library

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I just returned from my annual family vacation in Colorado.  Amidst the forest bathing and a slower daily pace, I always experience a deep dive into relationship building on these trips.  Riding in a compact Fit for the eight hours it takes to get there, and living for a week in a different “home”,  does test and stretch patience.  The physicality of hiking and even adjusting to new altitudes requires a certain reckoning of oneself.  This year we were battling swimmers ear in high altitude and an overall slack in physical fitness. Both required accepting limitations in ways we weren’t used to and spending a greater amount of time in quiet inactivity.  With each year, however, I always discover new strengths and unique differences in myself, between fathering and mothering, wifery and husbandry, sibling to sibling, and among hikers who want to push on versus those who want to rest. 😉

This thinking on relationships helpfully segues my mind to the arrival of August and the start of a new school year. As the students return and faculty prepare course syllabi, my more isolated, internal, summertime work turns externally, patron-oriented.  As my library is also discussing its strategic priorities for the next two years, words like collaboration, partnership, engagement, and development abound.  In every practical discussion around seeing our own work in these priorities, the actionable path forward always points to relationship building.  Just me?  Perhaps.  As one of my favorite quotes suggests, I have come to believe relationships are key to how we accomplish real goals.

“If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to far GO TOGETHER.”

– African Proverb

I didn’t always think this way.  I usually preferred fast and alone.  Both personally and professionally, my default is still often internally-focused and analytical.  One of the stories I tell about my path to librarianship — besides it being the only result of my junior high career test — is that in my first job as an elementary school music teacher, I was much more interested in discussion music theory than singing songs.  Now, it’s true, I justifiably lacked the necessary accompanist skills.  Moreover, I know preference for the analytical side to just about everything was to blame.  “What a great match for librarianship!” I thought at the time, conceiving the profession as solely concerned with how things ought to be organized.    Working in libraries quickly taught me that the most efficient and organized ways involved learning from others.  My favorite analytical question soon became “Who?” rather than “How?” or “Why”.  Eventually learning to build relationships with vendors became the best way to get what was needed on both sides of a negotiation.  Understanding vendors’ relationships within their own organization helped alleviate undue aggravation and reduced miscommunication.   My first aha moment as a new leader (and still a magnificent daily challenge) is what comes from just listening to others.

Taking an analytical approach to building relationships made it easier for me in some ways.  But, like too much process thinking,  it has sometimes kept human connection at a safe distance.  I often got by using my analytical side to figure out how I respond to others and circumstances rather than in relationship together with them.  Let’s be fair. The relationship business is messy and time-consuming.  I’ve learned that can be OK, and how analysis is just one step of many to decluttering it.  Working through problems, successes, new ideas, and ultimately changing with others creates bonds.  As bonds suggest, I believe stronger relationships and work/life places result.

Thankfully, I can continue analyzing to my heart (or brain?)’s content with ACRLog and in my research.  My analytical passion now focuses on seeking ways in which technical services can get beyond mere transactions to richer, more interpersonal communication and sense-making.  It’s proven to be messy, challenging, and very worth it.