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.

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.

On Being a New Liaison

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Abby Flanigan, Research Librarian for Music and Performing Arts at the University of Virginia.

Last January, I joined the University of Virginia Libraries as the Research Librarian for Music and Performing Arts. This is my first professional position after graduating from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with my MSLS in May 2016, and I’ve found myself in an entirely new (to me) area of the profession: liaison librarianship. In graduate school, I heeded the advice I’ve seen echoed in every corner of the Internet about LIS programs, which is to get as much work experience as you can, and cobbled together a variety of internships in preservation, digital scholarship, cataloging, and reference services. Despite this list of jobs on my resume, I remember feeling instantly panicked when the first question in my interview was to describe my past experience as a liaison, because, of course, I didn’t have any. Luckily, I managed to collect myself and describe some other capacities in which I had worked with faculty, and ended up getting the job. Now that I’ve been here a few months I wanted to share some of my observations about what makes being a liaison both challenging and exciting as a new professional.

No two liaison positions look exactly alike. Because each academic department has different needs and histories with the library, each liaison I know works differently with their departments. Some are busy all semester teaching classes or doing research consultations with undergraduate students, while other collaborate on grants or do collection development for foreign-language sources. Similarly, liaisons are organized differently at many libraries, so it can also be difficult to directly compare positions or responsibilities with colleagues at peer institutions. At UVA, subject liaison responsibilities are decoupled from collection development, general reference, and first-year teaching responsibilities, so my day-to-day work looks very different than liaisons at other institutions whose responsibilities are split across a variety of areas. This was challenging when I first started because, not knowing exactly what I was supposed to do, my instinct was to model my strategy for engagement on my colleagues’, but it didn’t always transfer or apply.

This brings me to my second point: it takes time to be an effective liaison. Getting comfortable in any new position takes a while, of course, but the liaison model seems to benefit in particular from institutional knowledge. Part of the job is knowing faculty and students in the departments, including their research interests, information needs, and communication habits. Gathering this information can take many meetings, emails, and chance encounters; much of it is tacit knowledge that is built up over time and not necessarily passed on from a predecessor. Many liaisons also rely on the “ripple effect.” By working with a faculty member one semester, they may have more interest the next semester based on word-of-mouth between colleagues. This means that as a new liaison, I am working on laying groundwork for richer collaborations in the future. Building up relationships and projects is a longer process than I was expecting, but I think that’s a good thing because it means this is a job that I can grow into.

Finally, as I build these relationships, I’ve learned just how important communication skills are to this position. Being a liaison requires reaching out cold to people in your departments, and, more importantly, once you are meeting with them, articulating your role and value. It can be intimidating to present yourself as a resource to experts in their respective fields, especially without an advanced degree in the discipline for which you are a liaison, but over the past nine months, I’ve gotten more comfortable and confident doing so. In the beginning, I struggled to define exactly how I could help, and erred on the side of suggesting every possible way in which they might use the library’s resources. Now I try to reach out when I have a specific idea to suggest or information to communicate. After a few successful collaborations, I also have a clearer idea myself about what I bring to the table, so I’m able to more confidently offer my services.

“Liaison” is term which means very little to anyone outside of libraries (I know this from the blank stares I get from friends and family when I try to explain what I do) but can be a source of anxiety for people in them as we rethink and reorganize subject expertise in academic libraries. Being a good liaison or having a strong liaison program seems to be an ever-moving target. Stepping into a role of this nebulous nature as a new librarian can be stressful — it’s hard to know whether you’re doing it right! — but I’m learning to be more comfortable with figuring it out as I go.

Seeking First Year Academic Librarian Bloggers

With the new academic year coming up soon (or perhaps, for some of you, already begun!), we’re looking to bring on a few new bloggers here at ACRLog. We’d like to thank Dylan Burns and Lily Troia for their terrific posts this past year in our First Year Academic Librarian Experience series. We’d also like to encourage new academic librarians — those who are just beginning in their first position at an academic library — to blog with us during their first year.

If you’re interested in applying to be a FYAL blogger here at ACRLog, please use the ACRLog Tip Page to contact us by September 9. Along with your contact info, please send:

– a sample blog post
– a brief note describing your job and your interest in blogging at ACRLog

Please send any questions to msmale@citytech.cuny.edu. We’re looking forward to hearing from you!