All posts by Chloe Horning

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.

Hurry up and Reflect! February’s Dynamic Duality

February, the shortest month of the year, has always seemed pretty rushed and hectic to me.  Holidays and observances like Superbowl Sunday (yay Seahawks!), Groundhog Day, Black History Month, Valentine’s Day and President’s Day jostle for our attention.  Students at my university are studying for midterms, and the Research Commons is starting to get busier and noisier at the quarter progresses.  We also have all of our largest public events of the quarter scheduled in in February; on the docket this month we have installments of our Scholars’ Studio and CoLAB programs, as well as a session in a popular speakers’ series.  A lot of people I know have February birthdays, including myself and my boss.  Oh…and I’m scheduled for jury duty next week, so there’s that.  Where’s a leap year when you need one?

Is it possible to find time for reflection in all of this chaos? At many institutions, February marks the mid-point in the academic year, so reflection is not only appropriate, but necessary. Since my position is not tenure-track, I don’t have codified avenues for evaluating and reviewing my performance so far this year.  But I can benefit from many of the tools that my tenure-eligible colleagues use.  Updating my CV, maintaining a file of thanks and kudos I have received, and beginning to plan conference proposals that illustrate my work so far, are important tasks that I need to make time and space for.

My earlier mention of Groundhog Day perhaps seems a bit silly and off-handed, but in fact, it provides an apt metaphor for my frame of mind the moment.  Our current rodent-based divination ceremony is often presumed to derive from other, more ancient festivals, like Imbolc, which celebrated the midway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox, and marked an occasion for reflection, scrying, and omen watching.  My aforementioned litany or February holidays can offer a series of fruitful starting points of small acts of contemplation; on the nature of community, on social justice, on bringing love and passion into our daily practices, on grounding oneself in the foundational values of our American institutions.

A typical February contradiction:  The view from my office is sunny and beautiful, but it's freakin' cold!

A typical February contradiction: The view from my office is sunny and beautiful, but it’s freakin’ cold!

On a more personal level, I feel grateful that I’ve settled in to my position now to the extent that my daily routines are becoming more natural and comfortable.  I know when the best times for me to arrive at and leave work are, and what times of day I am most productive.  I’ve figured out which yoga classes work best with my schedule.  Always at the back of my mind is the notion of bringing more contemplative practice into my daily work.

The time for learning the ropes of my position and department has more or less passed…it feels like the second half of my first year as a professional librarian will be a time for action.  The spectre of “imposter syndrome” is still strong… I don’t expect to ever fully rid myself of it, but I do now feel comfortable enough in my role to embrace the rare quiet moments at work as times for reflection and passivity, rather than panicking because I don’t have enough to do! I’m looking forward to the second half.

 

Serendipity Without Stacks

Timeliness, structure, and willingness to perform process-oriented tasks and maintain operations with consistency are some of the work behaviors that I associate with librarians who have experience as hourly library workers.  For those reasons, I value the years that I spent as a full-time library staff person before being offered my first librarian role.

But moving from classified to professional status has, for me at least, involved a paradigm shift that has been difficult at times to wrap my head around.   As library staff, I had some autonomy and input into decision making, but my primary role was to carry out library protocol.  I believed that a cheerful, ‘can do’ attitude was the objective that I should constantly be striving for, and sometimes I even succeeded at that goal!

As a librarian however, I’m finding that a plucky attitude and a consistent desire to do my job well are only the beginning.  I must also conceptualize some of the overarching goals and objectives that I want to define my library career.  It isn’t that I’ve never thought critically about the role and future of libraries…I certainly did in graduate school!  However, over the last couple of years, I had put those thoughts aside in order to focus on job knowledge.  Moreover, I was engaged in a search for a professional job, and I wanted to keep my options open; I believed that over-narrowing my focus would be problematic.

Now, though, it is time for me to think deeply about the paradigms around which I wish to structure my career.  In some library roles, professionals are anchored by a collection or a narrowly focused user group, and their career objectives flow naturally from those starting points.   My position is a little different.  As I mentioned in a previous post, my job is newly created and intentionally flexible.  Moreover, I work in a non-traditional academic library environment, which is fairly young (the UW Library Research Commons is only 3 years old).

No doubt there are many library paradigms that I will come to explore, ponder, and perhaps even subvert (!) over the course of my career.  The one that I have been thinking about a lot lately, however, it that of the “serendipity of the stacks.”  I’m not sure where I first encountered this term, but a little quick research turns up an article by Michael Hoeflich [1] which captures succinctly the spirit of the idiom; that of the fortuitous nature of research and the intellectual thrill of making an important research discovery that can only be achieved through deep relationships with library collections.

This is a well worn idea, sure, but it’s in idea that I like and I identify with (full disclosure: I spent my graduate school years as a student curatorial assistant in my library’s rare book collection).

The Research Commons is bookless, and our focus is on providing space and technology to promote collaboration.  But from that collaboration, intellectual serendipity can surely arise.  I have personally seen it happen, particularly at the programs and events that we host in my library, such as our Scholars’ Studio series, which invites graduate students from across disciplines to present ‘lightning talks’ on a given topic.

Programming like this gets at the human aspect of “serendipity without stacks” and mark the library as a place where spontaneous learning and collaboration can happen.   It’s a good start.  But I am also interested in new modes of serendipity that could be discovered in the realm of digital scholarship.  What could this interest mean for the future of my library career?  I’m not sure yet, but I trust that the answers will come to me; through serendipity or otherwise.

1. Hoeflich, Michael H. “Serendipity in the Stacks, Fortuity in the Archives.” Law Libr. J. 99 (2007): 813.

Shelfless Acts: Beginning a Non-Traditional Library Job

I work in a library without any books.  Yes, that’s right…no books.

What we do as librarians is difficult enough to explain to people outside our field as it is…misconceptions about shushing and horn-rimmed glasses abound…but add a non traditional job description into the mix and most people just can’t contextualize you at all; they short circuit and tune out while you ramble into the void about your daily existence.

I am an Assistant Research Commons Librarian, which means that support the daily operations of a Research Commons, a flexible library workspace which was created to support the changing needs of researchers on my campus.  We occupy one floor of one wing of a much larger academic library (and yes, it has many, many books) but within the confines of the Commons we do things a little differently.

Sometimes I worry about the difficulty of explaining what I do here to my next prospective employer.  Many of the typical duties of an academic librarian are absent from my job description.  For instance, I don’t develop, acquire, or manage any print or electronic material collection.  In fact, there is no collection associated with my library unit.  Likewise, library instruction is not a part of my job description, and my reference duties are limited.

So what DO I do all day?  I know that I’m constantly busy, but the answer is complex.  The Research Commons was designed as a collaborative study space for students.  But we provide more than just space.  We are, as my boss likes to say “a library as salon,” which creates and implements innovative programming to foster interdisciplinary collaboration between students and faculty.   We also provide support for all aspects of the research process; writing, publishing, securing funding, and finding presentation opportunities. Managing the daily operations of one of the most heavily used library spaces on campus is a big task, as is the design and implementation of original programming.

Does my position represent the future of library jobs?  I’m not sure.  Certainly it tells us some things about the direction that libraries are headed; away from monolithic service models, unbound from responsibilities to house print collections, towards flexible space design and rich programming models.  But I have significant moments of doubt about my own ability to embody a “librarian of the future” ideal.  Although it doesn’t impact my ability to do my job, I often feel that I am personally sympathetic to the more individual and contemplative modes of scholarship that are associated with traditional library models. I’m committed to the idea that library models like mine can supplement; not supplant, the tried and true models that many of my colleagues inhabit.  When I reach the next stage in my career, wherever that may be, that’s the philosophy that I’ll try to express:  I may not contain multitudes, but I sure am trying.