All posts by Angela Rathmel

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 http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/13/health/mass-shootings-in-america-in-charts-and-graphs-trnd/index.html

(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

A post shared by True Rath (@truerathbrarian) on

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.

 

 

 

Silent Fireworks, HRC, and #ALAAC2017

Battling summer sinobronchitis — not allergies as it turns out — certainly puts a damper on conference travel.  It has also contributed to feeling less than celebratory leading up to the Independence Day holiday. The fact that July 4th fell on a Tuesday made celebrating all the more awkward.  This year I noticed recirculated articles advocating  silent fireworks which seemed an excellent alternative given the current mood, and certainly spares animals (and the rest of us) the anxiety.  Alternatively, quiet bursts of colorful light seem to aptly juxtapose my idyllic reminiscence of this holiday with the grief and frustration I’ve felt about the state of my country in the past year.

Similar highs and lows marked my experience of ALA Annual in Chicago the weeks prior.  I always hope, perhaps naively, that conferences will both reassure and challenge me as a professional.  These competing emotions are familiar companions to learning or undertaking anything enormous or new, and I can usually always find something new at ALA. This year there were only a few glimmers as far as programming and my usual professional networking.  I got much more out of the professional-social networking I experienced both online and  in serendipitous face-to-face meetings.

One particularly spectacular session I attended gave an overview of how libraries are supporting researchers’ text and data mining needs from both the licensing and technical ends.  While the session also had a good balance of presentation and discussion, I still left feeling like a whole pre-conference could be devoted to this topic.  The terrifyingly relevant session, Hacking the Web of Science data?…, also had me hanging on every word and  fighting the familiar existential dread.  Eamon Duede, executive director of Knowledge Lab & Metaknowledge Research Network at the University of Chicago,  analyzed particular combinations within the Web of Science haystack to discover patterns in the attention research gets versus the disruption it causes.  He found that big teams of researchers, who get a lot of attention and funding, aren’t the ones with disruptively new discoveries.  He also noted patterns that show the majority of biomedical funding goes to helping address lower-level societal suffering, rather than targeting society’s more critical ills.

On the networking side, I joined a social gathering of those interested in FOLIO development. In addition to free craft beer and grilled cheese shooters (brilliant!), I got to talk to a wide range of colleagues, from friends working very closely with FOLIO functionality, to meeting others with no idea what FOLIO is.  At an ACRL University Libraries Section social hour,  I met and talked shop with several very cool Arizonans, and got a tip on the “wild librarian party” underway in the ALA presidential suite.

On a more professional note, I had a successful discussion with one of the four big deal publishers with whom my library will be negotiating in the coming year.  I had intended to arrange this meeting in advance, but time got away from me.  So, I was impressed that I got two reps to sit down with me on the spot and have a productive discussion on some pretty complex issues.  Although it was just handshakes and elevator speeches to three other publishers,  I navigated the exhibits floor with a refreshing confidence for a change.

One of the more disappointing events, unfortunately, was the highly anticipated closing keynote by Hillary Rodham Clinton.  I decided to extend my trip and work in a visit to see my dad in southern Illinois where an extra overnight stay would be more manageable.  This meant a three-hour drive through farmland highways.  Since the weather and 55 mph roads permitted,  I had the windows down and filled up on the olfactory memories of my fourths of July spent here as a kid.  Perfectly timing my arrival back in Chicago just three minutes before the keynote start spared me the long line and still offered a pretty good seat up front.

Clinton’s keynote certainly sparked emotions, laughter, cheers, and even a bit of dancing.  Her calls to “fight to defend truth and reason, evidence and facts” were reflexively encouraging, but the rest was nothing I’d not already heard top-name speakers say to librarians before.  Given the brevity of the talk and without Q&A (but I get it), I just found it lacked the engagement and inspiration I had imagined. Call it silent fireworks, I guess just seeing the “first woman candidate of a major national party” in real life was apparently all there was to it.  I left asking myself, how did that even matter?

Looking back,  I am realizing how this naive disappointment and my subsequent desire for an quieter 4th of July is nothing noble or humble.  In fact, I suspect it illustrates my own privileged denial and fears more than anything.  What’s worse, I know it perpetuates inaction.  With the help of my social networks, I’m impatiently trying to move beyond just thinking on this.  I do see ever deeper glimpses of privilege and the problem that presents to my professional values.  For starters, though, I’m pretty sure my introverted conference fatigue on day three is privileged. I haven’t unpacked many good practical actions in response yet.  But, I must now, knowing that this spark has been ignited for some time.

 

Confessions on Owning and Honing Your Weaknesses

The month of June marks the ramp up to fiscal close in my neck of the library wood.  In the otherwise quiet summer of academia there is this corner of buzzing frenzy. Staff work though last minute orders, pay invoices, troubleshoot problems, answer questions about the various statuses of the cash flow, and pull and prepare data to estimate a new year’s allocations.  In my role, I mostly coordinate various inter-dependencies of the workflows and people that must align for these numbers to be properly reconciled. Thankfully for all I’m not responsible for the number-crunching.

You see, I’ve never had the intuitive ease with numbers accountants, or it seems an acquisitions librarian, is expected to have.  I prefer to visualize and think around things rather than operate in the linear calculus that numbers require.  My analytical mind loves to think about cause and effect, and even the many complex inversions and formulas that produce usable data and its visualization. But producing those inversions on the spot, even in simple arithmetic, doesn’t come easy for me.  It explains why I was always terrible at timed math tests, but loved algebra and geometry.  I struggle with sewing patterns that instruct from the inside out, but love cooking, where I can follow strict instructions and play with them to my taste.

When I worked in serials, calculations took on linguistic obscurity when it came to publication frequencies and title changes.  “Is twice a month semi-monthly or bi-monthly?” Does continues mean what a title it used to be? Or what it will be going forward?”

And to this day, when gardening,  “Do annuals mean I plant them every year, or that they come back every year?!”

What gets me in trouble in all of this is my strong preference to operate intuitively and efficiently. This means I am often impatient with the extra time it takes me to slowly think through cost comparisons and reports. I know that extra time is necessary for me, though, to make sure it is done right.  Understanding of my own strengths and weaknesses in this way allows me to recognize the need to rely on other tools, systems, and people.  Relying on the strengths of others is not an excuse to avoid your weaknesses. In fact, identifying and using your particular strengths can be a tool to overcome weaknesses, and it can mean talking about those vulnerabilities in more empowering ways.

This important skill is perhaps most practically applied in job interviews, where some variation of “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” is no doubt asked. The best interviewers do this using behavioral questioning or appreciative inquiry techniques, which often ask for examples that demonstrate direct personal experience with particular skill or trait.  My first ever job interview was as a senior in high school, and I had no previous work experience.  So I had to answer questions about what I find difficult when working with others using only my school experience.  Thinking of various show choirs and musicals, where I had to practice and perform with my ex-boyfriend (among other  characters), I answered:

“Sometimes I have a hard time separating my personal life from my work.”

*crickets chirping*

Surprise! I did not get the job.  Not knowing a lot about myself at 17, I failed to realize my strength as a performer was precisely the fact that I actually can and do work with others, even those with whom ‘it’s complicated’, probably better than the average person.   Even though inside it was a hormonally-charged tornado of difficult emotion, I could summon my inner Olivia Newton John and nail Grease’s  “You’re the One That I Want” number with a smile on my face. With each interview I got a little stronger at framing my skills.  When interviewing for a waitress position, in which I did have some experience, I shared my thoughts about an unreasonably disgruntled customer, but described how I worked foremost to best meet that customer’s need.

As I’ve learned more about how my own strengths help my weaknesses, I know I thrive in project management roles because there is a framework to breakdown milestones, tasks, and timelines.  I thrive on learning to use new tools because they help me be more efficient and accurate.  Perhaps most importantly, I rely the strengths of the people with whom I work.  What is painstaking for one person is often the effortless strength of another who is happy to be asked to contribute what they do best.  When dealing with numbers, as I must inevitably do in the day-to-day work of acquisitions and resource sharing, I strategize (a strength of mine) to build in the extra time to sit with, play with, and picture data (my analytic strength).  I am constantly using my learning strength not just to find new tools that can help me, but to know more about myself and others.  I also have an individual relational strength that allows me to know and connect with other people and the unique strengths they offer.

In my seventeenth year experiencing and third year overseeing the fiscal close, I’m putting my anxiety around the numbers in better perspective. I’ve come to see that working through vulnerabilities and getting help where you need it is not abnormal at all. It’s what a responsible adult person would do.

Please tell me your favorite job interview story!  What would you do over, if you could, from a position of strength?

 

 

“Just…why?”: Coming to terms with ambiguity, resilience, and acceptance

As a former electronic resources librarian, along with what I’ll call my own unique set of life experiences, I’ve found the practice of radical acceptance has served me well.  Acceptance as an ongoing practice is not optimism or permissiveness, but healthily recognizing how and when to let go, and knowing that acceptance is not the same as approval.  This practice comes in handy, especially in life’s lemon-giving moments. I’ve mentioned a few  from the technical side of library work in previous posts.  Certainly the current sociopolitical climate is not at a loss for examples of this either.

When these “Seriously?” moments occur in my job, I am reminded of another idea, comfort with ambiguity, which frequently appears as a desirable skill in job advertisements, along with its companion resilience.  Both have been on my mind since attending a recent ACRL presentation,  Resilience, Grit, and Other Lies: Academic Libraries and the Myth of Resiliency.  As ubiquitous as both ambiguity and resilience are in my field, this presentation reminded me how poorly defined, misunderstood, and problematic they are when idealized professionally.  So I was thinking about how to unpack this concept related to my own academic librarianship and how a personal practice of acceptance (without approval) might play a helpful role.

It seems in the everyday ambiguity, as well as ambivalent with the same root, often describe something squishier.  For example, ambivalent is often misused to describe someone who is passively undecided or not invested in a particular outcome, rather than actually feeling multiple different ways about a thing. Similarly, ambiguity is often synonymous with an amorphous state of confusion than specific set of circumstances that make a solution unclear.

While inexactness and its synonyms might reflect this murky spirit, isn’t ambiguity really only inexact because it can’t be just one thing?  The fact that it can still be exactly many things is what I find interesting and overlooked in the experience of ambiguity.  Recognizing the possibility of multiple interpretations as specific, distinct avenues for action is especially important for efficiency and service in e-resources management.

Here’s a very basic example working with and a technical problem solving of e-resource access, which I repeatedly encountered when working with publishers’ technical support:

Me: Hi, My name is [me] from [my institution]. We have a current subscription to [your journal] but we’re not able access content online.

Tech Support:  What’s your institution’s [subscriber number, IP address, and other details]?

Me: *gives details*

Tech Support:  OK, it should be working now.

And that was it.  No explanation, no assurance it would not happen again, no way to plan workflow to prevent this very regular disruption.  Good problem solvers who thrive on the details of the problems and the solutions will no doubt feel frustrated and confused by this.  But the situation is no more a mystery than it is comfortable.  There likely is an exact cause for this problem. It’s just the cause is likely multiplicitous, complex, and in most cases less important than the fact that the problem is now fixed. So we move on.  In responding to the given ambiguous situation, we must accept the priorities of the current moment rather than the past or future.  This mindfulness of the present moment is a key part of the practice of acceptance.

Change may the new normal, but comfortable with ambiguity?

I think these tendencies show up in e-resources librarianship in particular because positions of this type developed from those which focused on the exacting and predictable realm of attention to detail.  Certainly the evolution of libraries content and services necessitates characterizing those details as now really messy and inexact.  But position descriptions mistakenly place this ambiguity in the context of a personal quality when it is really a quality of the environment.  To use such a problematic word, and to prefer people who are comfortable in that state, doesn’t say anything about how people should actually respond in these situations.  Expecting comfort in ambiguity falsely sets people up to stay in that state longer than may be necessary.

And this is where the problem of resilience comes in.  As the ACRL presentation I mentioned notes, research shows resilience often normalizes oppression of marginalized groups.  Systemically, I wonder how resilience hinders innovation, preventing us from answering the question “what can we stop doing?”.


So since, as a colleague once reminded me, the privileged have to be uncomfortable to recognize oppression, it is useful to discard a preference for comfort in the face of ambiguity.  Resilience or grit may help us more than comfort, as long as it is focused in the direction of action.  It should not be the normal or preferred quality of an individual professionally.

The idea of resilience as oppression also reminded me of another “What fresh h*!! is this?” experience working as an elementary music teacher.  At one of the two inner-city schools I was assigned, the music room was the stage in the gym’s auditorium. A burlap-like stage curtain was the only barrier between my music classes and the screaming, sneaker-squeaking, ball-bouncing, whistle-blowing activity of PE.  I often preface my sharing of this experience with disbelief that this was a reality to describe – it seemed so obviously nonsensical and in need of a solution.  So, I once spent a week’s planning periods reworking the entire school schedule so that all teachers still got their planning period during elective classes, but in a way that PE and music didn’t overlap.  Working out those complexities was frustrating and certainly not comfortable.  At the same time, I was driven to resist normalizing the resilience expected of the situation.  I knew this was more than a personal preference of the [should-be librarian] music teacher than the institution was leading me to believe.  Before leaving this job, I don’t think I ever gave these alternatives to my principal, but succeeded in getting a new curtain for the stage. When I noted to the principal that the change didn’t block sound as I’d hoped, I’ll never forget her response.

“Why do you care, since you won’t be here any longer?”

On one hand her response demonstrated everything that’s wrong with institutional resiliency.  At the same time I can also see it as an honest statement of my own realm of control.  When work and life inevitably boil down to “Just…what? Why is this normal?”, a practice of acceptance means neither normalizing nor pursuing crazy to find resolution.

The circus has left town

Image CC BY 2.0 with attribution:  matthew_pennell “The circus has left town”

If there is a proactive path through ambiguity or resilience, then I believe the skill we’re really after is how to recognize, reassess, and negotiate our power to influence and control.  This requires a constant give and take of our experience of that control as anxiety or relief.  It means exactly both action and letting go and not necessarily having to choose between the two.  When requiring choice, it means knowing how not to wrestle very long in the choosing.