All posts by Erin Miller

No Longer an FYAL

Exactly 365 days ago I was exactly ten days into my job as the Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of North Texas. Well, actually – 365 days ago from today, July 13, 2015, was a Sunday (not a Monday) and I was flying to Texas after a belated going-away party back home. How do I know that? By visiting my Facebook profile and flipping through the events of that last year until I found the photos and posts from July 13, 2014. Seeing everything all at once like that was a bit disorienting. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and miss the big picture…especially, I think, when the “big picture” involves change that is both large and small.

A year ago I was excited about becoming an academic librarian and looking forward to learning all that entails – and here I am, a year later, still excited and still looking forward to learning. I’d have to say – of all the things I enjoy about being an academic librarian this might be the absolute best. Personal development, at least at UNT, is valued and encouraged. There are opportunities to follow your interests in so many different directions – whether you want to publish original writing, participate in statewide organizations or even take classes (at a steep discount!). I will never get enough of these types of opportunities.

For example: recently I decided to pursue a degree from UNT’s Interdisciplinary Information Science PhD program and so for the last month or so I’ve been taking classes. I am absolutely loving what I’m reading, writing and thinking about in that program and am so happy to be there – and I can’t honestly say that I ever would had had the courage to pursue this dream if it weren’t for having a job where continuing education is valued and supported. In the near future I will also begin a really cool new mentoring program called “Revving up for Research” that the Career Development Group in the UNT Libraries set up for new-ish librarians like myself. With a focus on scholarship, this is yet another opportunity that makes me grateful to be an academic librarian. And these are just the new experiences I’m most grateful for at the moment – there are definitely more, too many to list.

In addition to the changes I’ve experienced, everything from moving cross-country and starting a job in a new field to adopting a new dog, some things are still the same. After a year as an academic librarian I am still passionate about the value of libraries and the important role of libraries (and librarians!) in education. And, in spite of having a decade of professional library experience that includes a year spent finding my place at UNT and getting to know academia, I still feel like a new librarian. I’m starting to wonder – at what point does one stop being a “new” academic librarian? After two years? Five years? Is it an attitude – ‘you are only as new as you feel’? If so then I hope to remain a “new” librarian with lots to learn for the rest of my life.

The New Dog. Very excited to see what's next.
The New Dog. Very excited to see what’s next.

One important lesson learned in the last 365 days that there is not enough time in any given day. All of this growth that I am so excited about does come with challenges – most obviously, being able to balance daily tasks with writing and service and learning. This has pushed me to reevaluate my time-management as well as information-management skills because organizing your files/emails/tasks goes hand-in-hand with good time management. It also led me to reflect on staying focused, which I wrote about in an earlier FYAL post. With so many opportunities available in academic librarianship who has time to waste time? Not this ERL (electronic resources librarian), that’s for sure.

This is a somewhat rambling post, I realize. It is difficult to summarize 365 days that have been so full of change, new experiences and personal growth. I am grateful to have had the chance to write for the ACRLog this year. Doing so forced me to take inventory and do some reflection that I might otherwise not have made time for. Sharing my experience has hopefully been insightful to other new academic librarians and possibly even inspirational to librarians who are considering a career in academia – and to you I say go for it – it’s a great career path that will open doors that you don’t even know exist yet.

The Old Dog and the New Dog. Looking forward to interesting, fulfilling careers.
The Old Dog and the New Dog. Looking forward to interesting, fulfilling careers as academic librarian buddies who are paid in dog food and leash time.

It Takes All Kinds

I am a huge sucker for personality tests. It started young, I think – I’ve known I was an INFJ/ENFJ since I was a kid. Over the years I’ve branched out from the Myers-Briggs and taken a wide variety of tests, usually in either a school or work setting. Most recently the Collection Management division at UNT did the True Colors personality test. In this one you are ranked in four colors which each represent personality traits: blue, green orange, gold. I was skeptical, honestly, because the assessment seemed too simple. It consists of just five rows of attributes organized into four columns that you score as most-to-least accurate personal descriptors. And, of course, I became even more skeptical because I first scored everything backwards so my results ended up being way off. But once I got things straightened out (it was funny to see my coworkers disbelieving faces when I announced I was a gold which I am certainly NOT) the results were surprisingly accurate.

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The point is that this was a valuable exercise in self-awareness as well as team building. I learned about what motivates and what irritates my coworkers and what different skills sets each of us possess and value. However, I learned the most not from the test results themselves but from hearing feedback and opinions of my colleagues as we analyzed ourselves and discussed in which ways we fit the different categories (colors). It would be interesting to design a personality test that is wildly inaccurate but designed to foster conversation and collaborative skill analysis – I bet that would be just as valuable as something like this. All this to say – I love categorizing people through personality tests because I think it is a fun as well as professionally valuable activity. Among other things, it can help you understand why some tasks are difficult or unpleasant while other people excel at them. That being said, I really dislike personality tests that are used to categorize people into specific careers. This is commonly done in college and high school and, while it can be interesting, these tests simplify careers to the point that the test results are pointless and even harmful because they might keep someone from following a certain career path that might be a perfect fit for them.

For example, this infographic popped up on the ALA Facebook page this week (click to view):

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My initial response was irritation that it simplifies librarians into one role – that of an Organizer. That old-fashioned idea that librarians spend all their putting books on shelves using the Dewey Decimal system and maintaining a catalog. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the largest percentage of librarians are actually ‘Helpers’ not ‘Organizers’. This is probably especially true in school and public libraries but also in academic libraries – particularly librarians in Reference & Instruction or Public Services. Some academic librarians are Persuaders – they often end up as deans or other administrators and there are definitely Thinkers in the academic library. And we definitely have and need Creatives in the academic library – to support the art students and faculty or run the music library, among other things. But then I started thinking about the other careers mentioned. Couldn’t someone become a physician out of a desire to be a help people rather than practice science? Programmers, in my experience, are often more like Builders than Organizers – they are just building digital objects or applications instead of doing carpentry. So maybe this kind of categorization is useless all around, not just for librarians? Or are librarians just especially hard to categorize because we, as I’ve heard said, “wear lots of hats” – especially, perhaps in the academic environment?

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A World with No Meetings?!

If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be: meetings.
— Dave Barry, “25 Things I Have Learned in 50 Years”

As funny as I think Dave Barry can be, and in spite of the fact that he is correct to imply that meetings are often not the most efficient way to get things done, I am one of those weird people that actually enjoys meetings. Not ALL meetings, obviously, but more than half of them. And even during un-enjoyable (i.e. unproductive) meetings I try to walk out with something that I can take with me and make useful…and I usually can (even if occasionally what I walk away with is a firm resolution to never impose a similar meeting on anyone).

Clearly, some meetings are more valuable than others but why? Reflecting on my current position in academia I feel that within the division of the library in which I work a pretty high percentage of our meetings are useful. Often they are a time to collaborate. The best meetings are those in which we get together with the intention of making decisions collectively and leave the meeting having done so…or in which the goal of the meeting is to learn something specific. The worst meetings, on the other hand, are those without a clear goal and, my personal pet peeve, those focused on brainstorming.

meeting flochart

As an example of a “good” meeting: twice a month I go to a meeting with the other members of the “Acquisitions Team” which consists of three collection development librarians (I am one of them), the Media Librarian and our Collection Assessment Librarian. We discuss areas of the collections that are important or need resources (based on data collected by our assessment librarian) and make decisions about how to curate our collection. And that is key: our goal is to make decisions; we do not just talk about ideas. There is a clear agenda for each meeting and a dedicated online space for our group to collaborate and communicate between meetings so that we are all up-to-date. These are useful meetings.

Quite a few of the meetings I attend are with vendors. As the Electronic Resources Librarian vendor communication is a huge (HUGE) part of my job. Some of these meetings are in-person while others are webinars, usually demos of products we own but occasionally demos of products we are evaluating or trialing. Sometimes these meeting are just myself and a vendor rep, other times these meetings involve more people – often subject librarians and even faculty. These meetings are almost always useful because they are an opportunity to learn about resources that support our users. Sure, you can read about vendors and resources online or watch tutorials but the chance to ask questions and see a demonstration of the value of a particular resource to our specific users is invaluable.

And then, of course, there are committee meetings. Whether you are a member of the teaching faculty or a faculty(-equivalent) librarian you attend committee meetings! Honestly, some of these are pointless in the sense that we could get done what we get done without meeting and in probably a lot less time. I think the reason these are “necessary” is often because the tendency of many people is to not participate if they don’t have to show up somewhere and I don’t know if that will ever change. Whether the main focus of your job is teaching, working in administration, or running the library, it is really easy to put committee work on the back burner. I have to schedule time on my calendar to prepare for meetings or else I will get busy and forget because my day-to-day responsibilities are more obvious. If I don’t respond to an email about an ebook issue or complete an order form, etc the library (or at least my little part of the library) will not be functioning smoothly. If I don’t prepare for a meeting of the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee there is not an immediate problem although in the long term if committees aren’t doing the planning the university will stop functioning smoothly…therefore meetings wherein we vote on new courses are useful.

Okay, I’m backing myself into a corner defending the value of meetings so I will stop now. In each instance I mentioned the time spent in a meeting is only worthwhile if certain things happen. In my opinion, these things must include, at minimum:

  1. One or more concrete decisions being made or measurable outcome accomplished.
  2. An agenda in place and followed.
  3. Valuable information being disseminated.

I have certainly attended meetings that were not useful. My personal frustration is highest with “brainstorming meetings”. These are usually somebody fleshing out an idea while everyone else contributes minimally or not at all. The person doing the brainstorming is almost always the person who called the meeting. If you want to do collaborative brainstorming make sure you include 1, 2, and 3 from above. Have an agenda, be sure you have an objective outcome to attain and be sure that the project or program you want to brainstorm about will benefit from information that every single invitee provides.

This post has been a round-a-bout way of getting to my point: meetings can be useful but there are limits to that and requirements for any meeting that must be met in order to achieve usefulness. I absolutely love this flowchart from the Huffington Post. It doesn’t perfectly match my own opinion or what I perceive to be the needs of my department but I would like to rework it to do so. If I get that done, I will come back and update this post but I haven’t had time to get to it yet – to many meetings!

I’m wondering what works for meetings at other academic libraries. What makes your meetings useful? Are they ever useful? Would you be happy in a world with NO meetings? I wouldn’t but I recognize that I might be in the minority.

Focus and Spring Fevers

It always seems so unfair that people tend to get sick in the springtime. Just as the weeks of perfect temperatures and sunshine get underway and you want to be outside all the time just soaking in the gorgeous weather along come allergies, and sinus infections, colds and flu, etc. This year I was lucky enough to get sick twice in rapid succession so for the last week or so I have had a hard time focusing on anything more complicated than what time of day to take my next dose of decongestant and how many packages of tissues I need for any given event. And of course remembering to never forget to take hand sanitizer everywhere so as to avoid infecting others. I’m finally starting to feel human again which means now I’m realizing how quickly my task list grows when I’m not functioning at normal capacity. Basically, if you can’t focus you can’t get much done.

texastulips

I did an informal poll of my coworkers to find out what helps them focus and learned that what works for one person might not be helpful for another. For example, headphones were mentioned by several people but there was disagreement as to whether they foster concentration or create distraction. One of my colleagues mentioned that she gets distracted by new music but familiar tunes become a sort of background noise that help her focus on tasks. When she said that, I realized that I have the opposite experience. When I listen to music I know well, I start humming along and even dancing around (obviously it’s an understated nerdy seated dance only performed when nobody is looking). For me it’s often better to listen to music without lyrics.

Another colleague mentioned the value of white noise, which I have not yet tried but is an excellent idea. It’s the workplace equivalent of sleeping with a fan running to drown out noisy neighbors. I downloaded an app called White Noise Lite. It not only offers lots of sound choices, from box fan to rain forest, but also says users can “record and loop additional new sounds with total ease”. That is a really cool idea if there is something specific that you enjoy hearing. I’m thinking that the fountain and wind chimes on my patio would be perfect for relaxation; every time I hear these sounds I will picture myself lounging in the hammock (note: this may or may not be ideal for workplace productivity).

Another tip offered by several of my coworkers was to remove distractions. Put away your cell phone, turn off email notifications, log out of social media, etc.. You can employ a plug in like LeechBlock (for FireFox) or StayFocusd (for Chrome) that will limit the amount of time you can spend on distracting websites if that is an issue for you. Know the best time to perform certain tasks and organize your workday accordingly. Is the office noisy between 11am and 1pm? Schedule menial tasks that only require short attention span or get caught up on your emails during that time. If certain distractions are too much, you might even change the location of your desk. I recently moved to a new cubicle for reasons unrelated to concentration and was surprised to learn how much easier it was to focus in my new location – even though my former desk had been fine, this one was an improvement.

Another suggestion involved switching from a regular desk chair to a stability ball. Giving your body the ability to be positioned in a comfortable way makes it easier to keep your mind on task. A similar strategy is used successfully with students who have ADHD. I, too, find my stability ball conducive to getting things done efficiently. Something about staying physically engaged instead of slouching into my chair keeps my mind active as well. A stability ball might not be the best solution for everyone; finding a more comfortable chair that improves your posture could be just as beneficial. The key is finding what works for you, not settling for whatever dusty old seat was assigned when you got hired.

The most valuable and interesting advice came from one of our student assistants, Jessica. I was especially interested to hear from our students because their desks are in the most highly travelled area of our department, right out in the open without even cubicle walls to keep distractions at bay. Surprisingly, her first tip was not to avoid distractions but to “get comfortable with the distractions”. In other words, don’t get frustrated with them or try to pretend like they don’t exist – accept them and get over it. This fits in generally with the concept of mindfulness that has been proven in countless studies to boost productivity. Be present; focus on the here-and-now; be totally aware of where you are, what you are doing and what is going on around you. Mindfulness is a key aspect of many meditation practices but can also be as simple as taking a few seconds during a stressful time to focus on your breathing, notice your posture and get centered in your surroundings.

So, to summarize: the best tip to stay focused is to not get sick, ever. If that proves impossible, try some of these tips to get back and stay on track — especially practicing mindfulness.

Further Reading

Schilling, D. L., K. Washington, F. F. Billingsley, and J. Deitz. “Classroom Seating for Children With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Therapy Balls Versus Chairs.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy 57.5 (2003): 534-41. Web.

Shao, Ruodan, and Daniel P. Skarlicki. “The Role of Mindfulness in Predicting Individual Performance.” Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science 41.4 (2009): 195-201. ProQuest. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

 

 

 

 

Conferences Full of Academic Librarians

I never gave it much thought, but I can remember wondering briefly in the past why the majority of librarians at many conferences seemed to be from academia. And now I know; it is probably because those of us who are academic librarians are required to attend academic conferences! I was even more interested to learn than not everybody is happy about this job requirement – a realization that surprised me.

As a former high school librarian I am accustomed to feeling fortunate to be able to attend conferences. When you are the only librarian in a high school, going to a conference involves the school hiring a substitute to cover the library in addition to funding your travel expenses and registration. And I was lucky…as a librarian at a well-funded private high school there was a budget to support my professional development which typically included at least one conference per year. Many librarians at public schools are understaffed, their programs underfunded and their ability to hire a sub and spend days away at a conference is extremely limited. I would imagine that many librarians in public schools would be absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to attend multiple conferences a year.

erlpic1So, for me, going to a conference where I get to learn about trends, technologies and events that impact my chosen profession; network with other librarians and maybe even see a bit of a new city is a part of my job for which I am grateful. Most recently I went to Electronic Resources & Libraries (ER&L) in Austin and had a fabulous time. That is a seriously well-organized and enjoyable conference! And from talking to other librarians there I think that the feeling of being fortunate to be there was common. It probably helped that it was the 10th anniversary of ER&L and there were quite a few loyal attendees who were clearly proud of how far the conference has grown in a decade. I’m not sure if that sense of appreciation and gratitude will be quite as prevalent at future conferences.

At any rate, if you are new to academia you might be surprised to find out that going to conferences is required or, if not actually mandatory, it is at least strongly encouraged. You hopefully won’t be surprised that “attendance” really means “participation” because (not surprising!) the institution you work for is probably not going to support you spending a bunch of time out of town on a workday unless you are…working. If you do feel surprised to learn that conferences ? vacations…well, here is your reality check: conferences are great but if they are relaxing or easy then you aren’t doing it right.

So I thought I would write a bit about the conference experience of an academic librarian: things I love, things people complain about and maybe even a couple ideas for making the most of your time. My first tip would have to be: stay positive, don’t let people groaning about “having to go to a conference” bring you down. They are missing out!

First, a few things that are undeniably not-so-great.

1. You might have to pay for the conference yourself.
What?? Pay to WORK? Well…maybe. It depends on where you go and what your university’s budget is. Is there an amazing information-related conference in Maui this year? Expect some out-of-pocket. It might also depend on whether or not you got a presentation proposal accepted at the conference. It probably also depends on how many conferences you plan to attend. If you are going to several you are more likely to have to pony up some cash. And probably also pay someone under the table to do your work while you are away from your desk. (NO, just kidding, that is a terrible idea and you need to stop going to so many conferences!).

2. Preparing for a conference is time-consuming.
Whether you are doing a half-day workshop, a poster session, or serving on committees or in some other capacity there will be work involved to get ready for the conference. Do not put this off. Take it from me, who learned this recently from experience: finishing up a presentation at the last minute makes the days leading up to a trip much more stressful and unpleasant than they should be.

3. Attending a conference is time-consuming.
This seems too obvious. Maybe what I should say is that attending a conference is going to feel like it took up more of your time than it actually did. One day at a conference is not an 8-hour day; if you are doing it right it starts early and involves evening events (meetings, vendor dinners, networking events, etc). If you are an introvert you will find this much more exhausting than a typical workday. Expect to be tired; expect to be busy; expect to go back to your room at the end of the day and still have to type up your notes, respond to emails and prepare for the next day. Embrace the schedule and the busy-ness; it is worth it!

4. Coming back from a conference is always challenging.
This relates to number 3. When you come back you will have all the work you missed waiting for you. I recently spent three workdays at a conference and, over a week later, am still not caught up. How does three days away result in seven days of work overload? I don’t know, it just does.

So those are a few of the challenges. There are many more, I’m sure, but as I stated earlier try to stay positive. Plan conferences wisely and submit proposals early so that your institution is more likely to support your attendance financially. Carefully select the sessions and events you want to attend before you go to the conference but be flexible. I almost always tweak my schedule once the conference is underway but it really helps to have a plan first. Talk to your colleagues that are also attending. I did not realize until the second day of ER&L that I was not supposed to go to the same sessions as my coworkers. This is not a big deal but if I’d known beforehand I would have altered my schedule a bit.

Finally, I just want to say that the benefits of going to conferences far outweigh the challenges. I am always inspired to see the new ideas and technologies. One thing that is different now that I am in a larger library than I used to be is how much more contact I have with vendors and conferences are a great way to get to meet people that I’ve been emailing and talking to on the phone. I love that conferences give me an opportunity to meet people in my field that I wouldn’t otherwise get to know. When I was a high school librarian this was valuable because in that role I spent all of my time being the ONLY librarian and it was so nice to spend time with people who understood the challenges and rewards of my job. In the position I’m in now, it affords me an opportunity to make connections and to learn from others.

Even though it feels like I just got back from one conference — I still have a few notes to type up from ER&L — I am already gearing up for my next conference which is coming up in just a few weeks!