All posts by Chloe Horning

Professional Conference Lurker No More!

Hello there. My name is Chloe. Long time conference lurker, first time participant.

In the language of the internet, a ‘lurker’ is someone who observes online forums or communities without actively participating.  This is the way I have approached conferences until recently…hovering at the fringes, without much direction or purpose.

In June, I attended the Canadian Learning Commons Conference in Sherbrooke, Quebec Canada.  CLCC is a relatively small conference, attended by US and Canadian delegates who work in the specific niche of Learning Commons (or, in our case Research Commons) library spaces. Attendees are not only librarians, but also writing center directors, IT help desk coordinators, and space designers.  The smaller scale and specific focus of this conference allowed my boss (Research Commons Librarian, Lauren Ray) and I to dial in on some very specific aspects of our service model for a presentation that we delivered, and to get some very granular advice about best practices from our colleagues.

Large, student-created statue, seen in the Library at Bishop's University (our conference sponsor).
Large, student-created statue, seen in the Library at Bishop’s University (our conference sponsor)

The last time I participated in planning and delivering content for a conference, I was still an MLIS student.  But It’s really nice to feel that I have something to offer in terms of professional practice, rather than student research alone.  Another difference is that, since I am not currently job-seeking, I could allow my interactions with the other delegates to be more relaxed and natural, rather than tinged with desperation.  It was nice to know that I might have something to offer THEM (like a valuable contact, or idea for a best practice) rather than just the other way around.

With that in mind, I feel like my conference impressions bear some special weight this time around, as I was in a much more receptive state of mind to receive them.  Here are a few selections:

Pre-Conference:

I got very lucky here, because the pre-conference was directly relevant to my professional duties. The topic was “Training and Mentoring Peer Learning Assistants, Peer Tutors and Learning Commons Student Assistants,” presented by Nathalie Soini and Caleigh Minshall from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.  The presenters gave a lot of practical advice as to how to foster engagement in our student workers.  The session gave me lots of ideas, and was a good reminder of what an important job student workers have to do, and that we literally cannot function without them.

Our Presentation:

Overall, I think that Lauren and I did a great job with our presentation. Again, it was nice that our audience already understood the Research Commons concept, so that we could get right to the meat of our presentation without too much exposition.  We carried the 45 minutes we were allocated fairly well, and received positive audience feedback. In preparing the presentation, I really came to understand the value of Lauren’s mentorship. She has given lots of conference talks, and has a very structured approach.  While I am certainly capable of organizing 45 minutes worth of thoughts into a coherent presentation, Lauren’s sense of time management around the project was invaluable, as was her commitment to making the final product polished and clear. Before the conference, we were required to submit an abstract for our presentation.  We worked hard to refine this, and it expressed what we wanted to say pretty concisely. One important thing that Lauren reminded me to do, was to look frequently (whenever we added new slides, or ad-libbed new language as we practiced the presentation) back at the abstract we had written, to make sure that we were staying on track. It would be very disappointing for the audience, we reasoned,  if they made a decision to forgo a concurrent talk and attend ours, only to find that our presentation was only loosely related to what we had promised in the abstract (and who hasn’t been to a conference session like that, frankly.)

Other Presentations:

I attended a wide variety of other presentations over the course of the three day conference.  One highlight was a keynote by David Woodbury from the Hunt Library at North Carolina State University. NCSU Libraries are really innovative, and it is was great to get some ideas from their practices.

Another nice thing about this conference…probably due to its size and supportive character, was that a few presenters gave talks that included detailed information about “failures,” challenges, and things that had generally Not Gone Well at their libraries. While it requires bravery to deliver this sort of a presentation, it was so much more valuable for the audience to hear them!

For the curious, all of the presentation abstracts and many slides (including ours) from the conference can be viewed here.

Thoughts for 2014 MLIS Grads from a Newbie Librarian

At my college reunion last month, I watched an energetic crop of newly minted liberal arts graduates receive their diplomas from my east coast alma mater. The University of Washington operates on a quarter system and our students graduate in June, so now that I’m back at my post I get to watch the whole thing play out a second time for the seniors and graduate students of my acquaintance.

I know that when this cohort of graduates leaves the Information School at the University of Washington and information schools around the country, a handful will find a job that is a great fit, right out of school.  A few will never end up working as professional librarians. Most of those students, however, will take a middle path. They won’t find their dream job right away. They might make sacrifices in location, schedule, salary or job description. They will experience bewildering inconsistencies–like being turned down for a part time page position one week and offered a salaried job the next. They will be expected to take on additional unpaid work or expensive training in order to get a shot at the jobs they want.

It turns out, the post-graduate school job search and subsequent first few years of work are, like just about every aspect of adult life that I’ve experienced so far, about a hundred times more difficult than I imagined. As I’ve mentioned here before, I worked for a couple of years in an academic library job that I really enjoyed, but I had a crazy schedule and no professional status.  My current position is temporary and not tenure-track, so the learning curve is far from over for me.

I don't REALLY believe this sentiment...honest!
I don’t REALLY believe this sentiment…honest!

For example: at the moment, we are working on hiring next year’s crop of graduate student assistants in the Research Commons, and I have found that I can learn a lot from their poise and professionalism. The iSchool at UW admits great students, and it seems like every year the cohort gets savvier and more competitive, but I was still surprised by the level of scrutiny that we needed to apply to these students in order to choose between many qualified applicants. It freaked me out to realize that when I must pursue the next step in my career, that scrutiny will be turned in my direction.

There’s no doubt about it; the cost of a MLIS degree is high and the job market is uncertain. I don’t want to trivialize the very real challenges that new grads face, because it certainly seems that the stakes are higher for them than ever before. It’s very important to put some significant thought into how you are going to manage the financial aspects of your librarian endeavor, particularly if you might not be able to go directly into a well-paying job. These inevitabilities are frustrating, but even in my most cynical moments, I’ve never regretted my decision to get my MLIS. I love being able to tell people “I’m a librarian!” It’s a part of my identity now, and one that I’m unreasonably proud of. I have tons of loyalty and affection for the members of my MLIS cohort as well.  They are an awesome group of people, with whom I completed two years of challenging academic work. A little bit of magical thinking, or creative self-visualization, can help you get through the moments of doubt. When I’m feeling philosophical, or dire, I like to imagine that, even if there were no libraries left to run, I’d still be a librarian in the core of my being; that I’d be helping people find reliable sources of information in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, or telling half remembered novel plots around the campfire to a group of other zombie survivors. Heck yes!

From time to time, friends have asked me whether I think they should pursue an MLIS. That’s a really hard question to answer. It seems to me that the most successful information professionals are the ones that embody a series of paradoxes. It’s important, for example, to be very invested in your work and let your commitment show; but if you’re slavishly devoted, people will take advantage of that and you’ll end up burning out. You want to have compelling interests outside of your library work; but if a prospective employer senses that this is just a ‘day job’ and that you’d rather be doing something else, you probably won’t get hired. And, in my experience, the hardest part of forming my professional persona has been figuring out how much to diversify.  I greatly enjoy multiple (and sometimes competing) aspects of the library profession. I treated my graduate course schedule like an all-you-can-eat buffet, and when I graduated, I could see myself in several types of professional environments. A few years in the field have narrowed my focus somewhat, but I still feel conflicted between competing urges to specialize and diversify my librarian skillset. That conflict has tripped me up more often than not. So, I’m not sure how well I’m doing at embodying paradoxes. At this point, I’m just finally getting a handle on embodying myself, thanks very much!

So this is it…a work in progress. When you get it all figured out, let me know. I’ll see you around the campfire.

Professionalism–are we there yet?

Next week, I will travel to the other side of the county for my 10 year undergraduate college reunion. I’m excited and nervous about going back to my old college haunts. Part of the nervousness comes with the territory at any reunion: will I have met an acceptable number of life-milestones in order to not be shunned by my classmates? However, some angst is more specific to my situation. My undergraduate institution is an elite women’s college that employs a lot of rhetoric about preparing professional women to do important work in the world. Am I doing important work?  I would argue that yes, my work at the library plays a very important role in the life and health of the academic institution.  Ah, but am I a professional?  About that bit I am less sure.

It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since I was an undergraduate myself, and that I now serve and supervise undergrads as a professional academic librarian. Part of my management philosophy has always been to lead by example, and conversely, to work hard to follow the example of those whom I admire. But I also like to be genuine with others at work, and find areas of connection outside of the library. And I certainly don’t LOOK like the ‘professional’ that I imagined I might be at my age when I graduated from college ten years ago. (Real talk; I am currently wearing sneakers and wiping Toblerone crumbs from my desk.)

Jake the Dog looks on as a get some serious work done.
Jake the Dog looks on as I get some serious work done.

But as a new librarian, it can be difficult to ‘be professional’ because professionalism itself seems to be a moving target. Everyone I work with seems to hold themselves to different standards when it comes to how to dress for work, how much to share about one’s personal life, and how to conduct oneself on social media.

As usual, the internet can help. I’m a big fan of the Adulting Blog, which provides a host of humorous and useful aphorisms for those of us who are trying hard to behave like adults.  Numerous library blogs address these issues, and I particularly like the level of granularity that the I Need A Library Job Blog sometimes reaches…one recent post focused on the use of pronouns in thank you notes; specific but usefully so. And if, like me, you are part of or on the cusp of the millennial generation and have limited stores of self control when it comes to the internet, this list of tools at 99u can help you block offending sites and rediscover your focus.

Ultimately, I’m happy that I didn’t join a profession where I would be expected to wear a suit and heels, or never to talk about with coworkers about ‘that cute thing that my dog did yesterday.’  Likewise, it is probably to the good that library schools tend not to overemphasize workplace conduct…most of it is common-sense knowledge that is more effectively learned through communication backchannels from peers and advisors. But I believe that putting some thought into what kind of professional I want to be; actually articulating to myself my own professional standards and how I can do a better job of holding myself to them, is a good exercise for a new librarian.

New Growth

April has arrived, and with it the first week of Spring quarter here at the University of Washington. The blossoms are blooming on the lovely old cherry trees that line our quad. Throngs of people; UW students, locals, and tourists alike, have been mobbing our campus for a glimpse at this spring ritual. It’s a chance to have a picnic, spend time with family and friends, and yes, take a ‘selfie’, surrounded by the promise of new growth, renewal and ephemeral beauty. Spring promises to be a very busy time in the Research Commons as well.  It’s also a pretty exciting time for me, because I’m starting to see a lot of projects that were in their infancy when I took my position back in September finally begin to take shape and come to fruition.

Cherry blossoms on the UW campus
Cherry blossoms on the UW campus, with Odegaard Undergraduate Library in the Background.

A renovation project to one of our study spaces is finally underway, after months of talks with the vendors and other stakeholders.  A presentation proposal which my boss and I submitted many weeks ago was accepted to a conference.  A partnership with a campus organization that was begun in Fall quarter is now blossoming into a more permanent programming opportunity.  A planning group that I lead is finally making significant headway on creating a new program model that the Research Commons will debut next fall.

All of this is nice, but I’ve only been in my position for half a year. So most of these projects had already been dreamed up or set in motion before I took them on. It’s great to feel that you are getting somewhere with the projects that were laid out for you by others, but it’s an even greater feeling to see a project that you initiated through from start to finish.

One of the cool things about working in the Research Commons, is that we work with a team of up to four graduate student assistants, three of whom are in UW’s MLIS program. I want to give them a shoutout here, since my  last column focused on our terrific undergrad assistants! We’ve been lucky enough to attract a great group of grad students, who bring a lot of valuable skills to their work here. We strive to give these students some freedom with the projects that they work on, and we want them to develop their own ideas too. So, part of my job is to help nurture some of these projects, which is exciting and inspiring.

But even with this great atmosphere of creativity around me, I’ve struggled to find inspiration for projects that will fit the scope of my position and the amount of time that I have to devote to them.  This failure of creativity on my part is distressing  to me, because I tend to think of myself as an ‘idea person.’ I’m hoping that some upcoming conference travel will provide some of that inspiration.  Of course I want to spend time on passion projects and make my mark within my institution, but I’m driven to be a “team player” too, and at times I feel stymied by fears that I’ll end up spending way too much time working on something that will turn out not to be a good fit for the Research Commons.

So, over the next few weeks, I plan to try to shake up my routine; read outside of my usual blogs and publications, meet with folks that I don’t ordinarily see around campus; take some time to think and reflect.  I want to incubate the projects that I’ll be bringing to life this time next year.  I want to think big about what’s next, and enjoy this energetic and creative time while it lasts. Because let’s not forget the dual nature of those cherry blossoms; they are fleeting, and when they’re gone, they’re gone until next year!

 

Working With Undergraduate Student Employees: An Appreciation

At my library we are celebrating “student appreciation week” this week, and it’s got me thinking about the wonderful students I work with, and all of the ways that my own position has evolved and adapted to meet the challenges of supervising them.

I am the junior member of a two-woman librarian staff in my library unit.  My job description includes hiring, training and supervising the 5-6 person undergraduate staff that works for us.  So I assumed that when I was hired, I would act as a kind of “bad-cop” or “vice-principal”; that is, that my job would involve a lot of nagging people to do their job, and taking corrective action if/when they did not.  I know it sounds strange, but I didn’t really think about the upsides!

I’m happy to report that supervising students is quite different than I expected.  Our crew is a self-selected bunch of high achievers, who applied for jobs with us because they are constantly studying in the Research Commons anyway.  In addition to taking great pride in their work for the library, they are also a deeply hilarious, bright, and inquisitive group of people.  I really enjoy conducting interviews, managing trainings, and writing recommendations, and I find that these activities offer unexpected rewards in the form of opportunities to reflect on my work, notice issues in the workflow, or discover new ways to articulate our mission.

As is common in many libraries today, the Research Commons Help Desk is staffed by student employees the majority of the time. We rely on our students completely to be our public face.  This makes sense in an area like the Research Commons, where we do not have a print collection, and reference interactions are limited. Help Desk interactions typically consist of equipment checkout and directional questions. However, the Research Commons is very busy, particularly now, as winter quarter draws to a close. The traffic doesn’t slow down on weekends and evenings, when most of the librarians go home. It is therefore essential that our student staff be prepared to exercise sound judgement in a variety of situations.

As their supervisor, I find that modeling, encouraging, and rewarding the behavior that is expected of our students is a big job. For example, a student that I supervise was recently called upon to assist emergency personnel in a crisis situation that occurred in our facility during our evening hours.  It was a tremendous relief to realize that the student was prepared to act appropriately in that situation. Coping with the trauma of that event and supporting that student and the rest of the team thought the uncertainty that it caused has been difficult, but it has also provided an opportunity for our staff to come together as a group.

Ultimately, I am very grateful for the contributions of our student staff.  Incredibly, a couple of them have even expressed an interest in librarianship as a profession.  Does that make me a role-model?!  It’s an identity that feels weird to me, but I’m starting to get used to it.