All posts by Maura Smale

About Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

Puzzling Over Interdisciplinary Publishing

This semester I’ve been working on an article sharing the results of the research I did while on sabbatical last year. I was interested in how undergraduates access and complete (or don’t complete) their course reading, and I interviewed students at three colleges in my urban public university to learn about their experiences. My interest in this topic is multifaceted: I’m interested both as a librarian at a library that offers (some) textbooks on reserve for students and has a robust OER initiative underway, and also as a teacher who wonders why students don’t always complete the reading in courses I’ve taught, and also as a faculty member who hears similar questions about reading completion from my colleagues on campus (and honestly? also a little bit as parent of a junior in high school who’s starting to think about college).

This topic, like most of the research that most interests me, is interdisciplinary. While it’s library and information science-relevant it’s not solely relevant to LIS; it’s educational research but I don’t have a degree (at any level) in education, and folks who work in student or academic support services might find it of interest, too. As I gather and update sources in my literature review, initially compiled almost two years ago when I prepared my sabbatical application, I’m also thinking about where to submit the article. What journal should I aim for? Where’s the best home for this work?

Interdisciplinary research is interesting if challenging. I find that it stretches my brain in lots of ways — my lack of prior knowledge of the scholars and journals outside of LIS and a few other fields can make it hard to find sources, though as a librarian with a public services background my instruction/reference skills are helpful. Even so, sometimes finding keywords to describe a topic outside of my expertise is a puzzle. We academics love our jargon, and jargon often differs between fields even when describing the same subject or topic (information literacy, anyone?). Spoiler alert: our students recognize this as a barrier, too — during my interviews I often heard that students sometimes struggled with the reading in general education courses outside their majors and felt that their instructors assumed prior knowledge of the topic that students did not have.

I’m also finding it challenging to find open access journals that fit my interdisciplinary leanings. At this point I’m tenured and not aiming for another promotion, and I’m even more committed to publishing only in open access journals. Open access coverage is highly variable between fields, still. I’ve become so spoiled by the wide range of OA journals in LIS that I’m somewhat shocked when looking for journals in other disciplines. There are lots of fantastic OA options in LIS, but that’s not always the case in other disciplines.

In recent years I’ve begun to wonder whether the journal itself isn’t somewhat of a dinosaur, at least for interdisciplinary work. I use Twitter plus uploading to my university’s institutional repository as my primary means of self-promotion, hoping that the range of scholars who I follow and am followed by will help my work get to anyone who might be interested in it, both inside and outside LIS. In my own research process I rarely read entire issues of scholarly journals anymore, or even table of contents updates, with a few exceptions (that include those journals I regularly peer review for). A journal can be and represent a disciplinary community, but must it always be? There are multiple means of discovery — our usual library databases, social media, the various search engines — for scholarly articles. Is the journal as container for research still the best model, especially if it can’t easily accommodate research that doesn’t fit neatly into disciplinary categories?

On the Mend: Falling Into and Out of Overwork

I’d meant to write this post earlier in the week. Actually I’d meant to write an entirely different post earlier in the week. But after weeks of avoiding the winter cold going around at the end of last semester, and weeks of colder than usual temperatures where I live, last week my time was up. I’m fortunate that I don’t tend to get sick all that often, and fortunate to have paid sick time, too. Which I needed last week for multiple days of bundling up in blankets with congestion, fever, coughing, and aches.

I’m mostly better this week though still playing catchup from having been out. So I want to write a bit about self care and overwork and libraries. We’ve written about the importance of self care on ACRLog in the past. Quetzalli’s post a couple of years ago highlighted both the need for self care and some of her own strategies. And Ian’s post from a bit earlier reminds us that just as we may be dealing with issues that are invisible from the outside, so too are other folks, and it’s important to practice self care and have a generous heart (a lovely term).

I am not always the best at self care. Historically, I’ve sometimes struggled to use my sick days (when I’ve had them) for anything but the very worst illness. Some of this is my own internal work mindset — I’ve worked in academia for a long time, and the siren song of just one more project/article to read/grant or conference to apply for can be tough for me to resist. I’ve tried to be much more intentional about self care in the past few years. Some of this is a natural side effect of getting older, but also because I do feel that self care is important for everyone, as much as I still sometimes struggle myself. I need to use my sick days when I’m sick, not only because it’s better for me to rest and recuperate (and keep my contagions to myself), but also because I want to be sure that my coworkers feel comfortable using their sick days, too. A sick boss is not the best boss, on multiple levels.

Last week Abby wrote about vocational awe and our professional identity as librarians, discussing Fobazi Ettarh’s terrific recent article in which she defines and explores vocational awe in libraries (a term she developed). Fobazi and Abby both point out that vocational awe can lead to overwork and burnout in libraries, and I agree. Vocational awe contributes to making it hard for me to use my sick days. I’m working on it. I’ve been thinking a bit about bibliographic emergencies — the library is not a hospital, and there are thankfully very few situations or issues that cannot wait while someone takes a sick day. Our work is important, but it’s also important to put our own masks on first before helping others.

Personal Development As Professional Development

Like many of us I was dismayed by the results of the last US presidential election, and at one year in I’m even more concerned for the nation and the people who live here. One of the things I resolved to do in the aftermath was to make the time for some training that I’d long been interested in but hadn’t prioritized. Over the course of this year I’ve taken a bystander intervention workshop as well as a 5-week self-defense course, both facilitated by a local organization that focuses on violence prevention programs for marginalized communities. I also attended a one-day medical first aid training session offered by my university, and a one-day mental health first aid training held at my local public library and provided by the NYC Department of Health.

I consider these workshops to be more for my own personal than professional development: they were programs I attended on my own time rather than work time, and I’ve felt generally safer and more aware since, which I appreciate. But I definitely think these experiences have been useful for my work in the library, too. As a workshop participant I’m focused on listening to and learning the content, but I also pay attention to how the facilitators run the program. Do they lecture, use slides or handouts, or show video clips? For longer trainings, how often do they intersperse opportunities to participate in an activity (and breaks) with sitting and listening? How do they handle groups with folks who are reluctant to answer questions, or folks who take up more than their share of conversational space? I’ve learned so much about strategies for effective workshops from watching successful (and less-successful) facilitators work, strategies that I can bring to my work when I teach, lead a meeting or workshop, or give a presentation.

Most valuable, I think, is the opportunity these programs have given me to think about my community, both narrowly — family, friends, colleagues — and broadly, in my neighborhood and city. I’m more introvert than not, and talking about or working through sometimes sensitive topics with a group of people I’ve never met before is somewhat daunting to me. But for all of my hesitation I’ve appreciated the opportunity to listen to and learn from my fellow participants, diverse in age, experience, and background.

I went to these trainings because I wanted to learn strategies to deal with multiple kinds of potentially scary situations, but I’m grateful that they also provided me the chance to build empathy. The end of the semester is approaching with speed, the political situation continues to be disturbing, and everyone is stressed. I was struck last week by a Twitter thread by a social worker that reminded me how important it is, especially right now, to start with empathy. Let’s commit to being gentle with ourselves, our colleagues, our students, and our communities in this busy time of year.

Reflecting on Reference Services

A colleague recently invited me to speak in an LIS graduate class she teaches on information services. I was delighted to have the chance to talk with her students; it was even more of a treat since I attended the same graduate program for my MLIS, and the information services course was the very first course I took in my program (mumble-mumble) years ago.

The students in the course are varied in their career goals, and not all are aiming for academic librarianship or public services work. So while I did speak about how my coworkers at City Tech and I think about reference work in the library at our large, public, technical and professional degree granting college in New York City, I also tried to contextualize reference services not just within the organization of the library, but also within the college, university, and city.

As I’m sure is not unusual for colleges like City Tech, reference for us is not just about answering questions about staplers and printers, or helping students navigate databases and the catalog to find sources for their research projects. Reference at City Tech also involves questions about the college and university. The library is the only place on campus that is open for many hours in the evenings and weekends (and we don’t even have overnight hours). We’re also one of the few spots on campus with a person sitting at a desk that’s highly visible (our reference desk is just inside the library entrance), and that features a sign that directs folks to ask for help (ours reads “Ask a Librarian”). At our reference desk we get all the questions: about technology, logging into wifi, the learning management system, registering for classes, filling out financial aid forms, etc.

So lots of what we do at the reference desk at my college looks like answering questions though also sending students to other places on campus. And that has led to discussion among our library faculty; do we still need a traditional reference desk when traditional reference questions are not always the kinds of questions we get?

Lots of academic libraries have shifted to reference by appointment only, or personal librarians, or other models, but at this point we don’t feel that those models will best serve our students at City Tech. Most of our students have come straight from the NYC public high schools, where they may not have had a school librarian. Many are in low-income households, or are in the first generation of their families to attend college. Some have library anxiety — City Tech’s library is only two floors in the middle of a building and can seem so small and unassuming to me, but I have heard students say that they found it to be big and confusing when they first got to the college. Having a staffed reference desk can help the library feel like a welcoming place for students, especially new students.

We schedule a library faculty member at the reference desk during all hours that the library is open while classes are in session, and most hours during semester breaks. That said, we have made some changes over the past couple of years. Moving a technical support staff member to a slightly different location allowed us to reduce staffing by library faculty at the reference desk from two librarians to one. This arrangement definitely serves students better, and relieves librarians of having to spend lots of time reviewing details of our printing system with students (as I alluded to in a post last year). This change has also proved helpful in accommodating some expected and unexpected staffing shortages this semester.

However, there is still some tension in managing information services in relation to everything else that my colleagues and I want librarians and the library to do with our campus community. I’m not quite sure how things will change for us in the future — while we are interested in doing more course-integrated instruction and other information services work with City Tech students, faculty, and staff, it’s unclear whether we’ll need to shift reference, too.

Crossing the Bridge: Library School to Library Job

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Nisha Mody, Health & Life Sciences Librarian at the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In the summer of 2016, I decided to start applying for librarian jobs. I wouldn’t graduate until May 2017 at the earliest, but a Health & Life Sciences Librarian position at UCLA immediately sparked my interest. Before getting my MLIS, I was a speech-language pathologist. And I love the sun. These two experiences convinced me that I was qualified for this position. I figured this would get me to start updating my resume and website (which now needs more updating). And it worked, I got the job! I was shocked and overjoyed.

Since I was applying to jobs on an earlier timeline, I also ended up starting my position before I finished my MLIS. Thankfully, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has an online learning option to complete an MLIS. So I moved out to La La Land in March 2017 to start my first real librarian job. I have been in my position for a little over 6 months now, and while it took me awhile to understand the myriad of UCLA acronyms, I am finally starting to feel that I have a decent grasp of how things work. However, this grasp has been very (or not very) informed by my experience in my MLIS classes and while working at the Communications Library. I was also able to chronicle several of my experiences and reflections while writing for Hack Library School. Similar to Abby, I took the advice to get as much library experience as possible. I tried my best given that this is my third career, I am in my mid-30s, and I honestly just wanted to get this show on the road.

Now that I have gotten that first library job, I am starting to see what I did learn in library school and working in a library – these lessons have helped me tremendously. However, I realized that there were some learning opportunities I missed. Yet one of the most enlightening aspects of my experience has nothing to do with library school. Rather, I see how the skills I obtained in my previous careers in IT consulting, IT recruiting, and speech-language pathology are transferring to library-land. I’ll outline each of these a bit right here:

What did I learn?

While working at the Communications Library, I gained knowledge about the importance of positive patron interactions (and how to communicate in not-so-positive interactions), outreach, library organization, the integrated library system, interlibrary loan, and the myriad of possibilities to be more critical in all of these areas (and more).

In library classes, I learned the value of intellectual freedom and how this related to control. I learned how various medium of books (print, electronic, and everything in between) are perceived and used. While I don’t ever see myself working in technical services, I gained knowledge about cataloging and metadata which have helped me understand how resources are categorized. My involvement in University of Illinois’ local Progressive Librarian’s Guild chapter allowed me to advocate for issues seemingly outside my immediate library space. I was also able to integrate experiences from library school to my work in a library through an independent study by starting a Human Library chapter.

All of these lessons (and probably more) were essential to how I view the library today. They have given me the framework for my work today and in the future, especially to never remain neutral as a librarian.

What did I miss?

One of the things I loved about my program was that there was a lot of freedom in the classes you could take. However, the downside of this is that I chose to take classes that looked oh so dreamy. As a result, some of the practical classes fell by the wayside. I wish I took classes around collection development and the administration and management of libraries. I never felt the urge to be a collection development librarian, but I do have to start making these decisions within my current role. I know I can learn this on the job, however, having a better foundation would have been helpful.

I am only now really seeing Ranganathan’s fifth law, “The library is a growing organism” in action. But, in my opinion, it is critical to really understand how different functions within a library relate to each other to see this organism in action. After being in less fulfilling careers, I was resolved to take the classes I was passionate about. And while I am happy I was able to do this, I forgot that I am also passionate about the library itself. This required me to have a grounded understanding in all of the different areas of librarianship whether I was to focus upon them or not.

What have I been able to transfer?

While I am thrilled to not directly be working in corporate culture (because, let’s be real, it is always integrated in our work), I did learn valuable skills regarding project management organizational structure, processes, and workflows, that I can infuse into my work today. I also dealt with various stakeholders in these positions; I see how these interpersonal skills have been beneficial when I interact with vendors now. These experiences have also given me critical thinking skills to analyze and navigate through a stakeholder’s motives and desires.

My work as a speech-language pathologist has first and foremost amplified my empathy. Invisible disabilities are real, and I have learned to never assume anything about a colleague and/or patron. While working in the schools, I learned about a lot of economic, family, and social obstacles that many of my students faced. Everyone has a story, and this has been important for me to keep in mind as a librarian. Additionally, being a speech-language pathologist requires one to create tangible goals for patients/students/clients to measure progress. This has easily translated into learning outcomes for library instruction. I realized that I have always been a teacher of sorts, and while the setting is different, the skills are transferable.

I am truly looking forward to contributing to this blog, and I hope that my skills and knowledge are ever-increasing – building upon the past and supporting a growing organism.