All posts by Maura Smale

About Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian and Department Chair, Library, at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

Digging Into My Non-Library Past

Like many academic libraries, library faculty at my college and university are required to have a second graduate degree in addition to the ML(I)S. I came to librarianship after a couple of other careers, and one of the things that attracted me to the field (and to academic librarianship specifically) was the opportunity to use some of the knowledge and skills I’d picked up in my prior work, especially in research, teaching, and instructional technology.

Those skills could be gained during graduate study in lots of different disciplines, though. My prior graduate work is in anthropology, and specifically archaeology. I spent 8 years in a graduate program to get my MA and PhD, and sometimes I find myself wondering, what does that have to do with librarianship?

Anthropology in the U.S. typically takes a four-field approach, in which cultural anthropology, archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology are all in the same department (this is not necessarily the case outside the U.S.). As an anthropology major in college and at the beginning of my graduate studies I was required to take courses in all four fields, and while I sometimes felt that a non-archaeology class was less relevant to my immediate interests, I appreciated being exposed to the full range of the discipline. Close and distant observation as well as listening to others’ experiences are important aspects of all four fields of anthropology, and the opportunity to explore ethnographic methods has been especially useful to me in both my daily practice as a librarian and in my research on how students do their academic work in the library and elsewhere.

What about archaeology? Digging up remnants of the past, cleaning and refitting what we find, using drawings and photographs to record the site — that couldn’t be more different than librarianship, right? But since I’ve become a librarian I’ve been thinking more on the similarities than the differences. To be somewhat reductive, archaeology is using what people have left behind to try to answer the question “what happened here?” It involves looking at objects – tools, garbage, etc. – as well as structures, roads, and other traces of work and life. A circle of soil that’s a different color and texture than the surrounding soil might be a post hole, where a log that held up the roof of a house once stood; broken and sawed bones could be the remains of a meal.

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I ask that question in the library, too: what happened here? What did students leave behind — books on the desk? the remains of a meal? (always a challenge for us) rearranged furniture? Two or three kickstools clustered in the stacks around an electrical outlet suggest students using them as seats while they charge their devices. Sometimes I take a picture of an unusual situation or innovative solution to a problem, like this photo taken during finals week last semester of a student who brought their own extension cord to reach an outlet and made a handy sign to warn other library users not to trip on the cord. (Access to outlets is definitely an issue in our library.)

I also ask what’s happening in the library as a whole. How do the different parts — our facilities, services, resources — work together for the benefit of our patrons? When the group study area is buzzing with conversation in the late afternoon, is there enough space on the quiet floor for those who need silence? Figuring out how students use the library often involves observing people in physical spaces in addition to the things they leave behind, but like archaeology we can use our observations to puzzle out both “what happened here?” and “how might things happen differently?”

I’m sure I’m not the only one to consider what my extra-library experience brings to my library practice. What does your additional academic experience, either undergraduate or graduate, bring to your academic library work?

In Search of First Year Academic Librarian Bloggers

A new academic year is just around the corner, and we’re looking to bring on a few new bloggers here at ACRLog. We’d like to thank Erin Miller and Lindsay O’Neill for their terrific posts this past year in our First Year Academic Librarian Experience series, and we’d 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 15. 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!

Considering Conferencing

Like many of us I was #alaleftbehind this past weekend. I spent some time sitting on the sofa scrolling through Twitter catching up on the programs and happenings at ALA Annual, and I’m grateful to folks who’re livetweeting the sessions and those who’ve posted their talks and slides for all to see. But it’s not the same as being there, of course.

Every year around this time I feel a twinge of guilt as I realize that it’s yet another year into my career in librarianship, and I still have not been to Annual. I did go to Midwinter once, just as I was finishing my MLIS. That year it was in a nearby location and, even though I hadn’t found a full-time job yet, staying with family and registering on the student rate meant that it didn’t break the bank.

But still: the guilt, it twinges, especially since I’ve been to ACRL every year since I’ve been an academic librarian save for my first year. So I took to Twitter and sought out other #alaleftbehind folks:

Most of the folks who responded were academic librarians (not a surprise, since I was specifically wondering about academic librarians), and the first point made was one that I’ve often thought too: for librarians who work at colleges and universities, ACRL is a much more valuable conference than ALA because it’s so focused on academic librarianship. I’ve always had a terrific time at ACRL and learned an enormous amount.

Which is not to say that I couldn’t see myself having an equally great/educational time at Annual. But, as the conversation quickly acknowledged, we are often under very real financial constraints when making our professional development plans. At my college we are typically not funded enough to completely cover travel to more than one cross-country conference each year, which for me this year was ACRL in Portland. There might also be other conferences we’re interested in attending — discipline-specific conferences, or perhaps other library conferences too. If the conference stars align and ALA and ACRL are both in the northeast one year, I can see myself going to both, but if not I’ll probably continue to prioritize ACRL on the years it’s held.

Work-life balance was another aspect that came up in the conversations. Several folks noted that going to lots of conferences is not only expensive in money but also in time and, depending on our family situation, we may not be able to take the time for multiple conferences. I felt this more acutely when my kid was younger (he’s a teenager now), but still, time away is definitely a consideration for me.

The cons were familiar to me, but what about the pros? I think what’s been twinging my guilt more this time around is that I’m now wrapping up my first year as Chief Librarian at my college. I think more about the whole library now than I did when I was instruction coordinator, from collections to facilities and everything in between. We’re hoping for a small renovation soon so I can definitely see myself doing lots of furniture and space planning research if I were at ALA right now. And, beyond chairs with wheels, I’m certain there’s lots I could learn from libraries outside of academia — public and special and more.

If I could fave this tweet more than once, I would, as it seems to describe exactly what I’ve wondered about going to ALA. So I’ll be keeping my eye on the conference schedule and trying to make it work soon, I hope.

If you’re a regular (or even not-so-regular) attendee at ALA, why do you go? Let us know in the comments.

The Good Kind of Contagious

I haven’t written an ACRLog post in a long time. It’s an all too typical story of the combination short-on-time + writer’s block sort: a busy late Winter/early Spring (such a wintery late Winter, too), and I’ve had conference and other presentation preparations to do as well as the usual work stuff. And since this is only my second semester as chief librarian in my library, “the usual” still includes a fair number of tasks and responsibilities that are new to me, and I’m still learning a lot. I’ve had post ideas in my head for sure — about the ACRL conference (which was terrific), for example — but I’ve been slow on the uptake and time has passed. Lucky for me, with Jen, Sarah, Erin and Lindsay on board we’ve not lacked for great stuff to read here.

One of the overarching themes that my colleagues and I have been working on this year in our library is environment. What’s the environment like in the library, for students using our resources and services as well as for our workers: library faculty, staff, and students? Enrollment at the college (and at the entire City University of New York) has grown tremendously in recent years. Which is terrific! Though of course sometimes having more people in our not-any-larger space can be a challenge. We’ve also navigated some retirements and hiring of new faculty and staff, and it’s been a more change-heavy year this year than in the recent past.

Environment encompasses both a physical component as well as a mental component. I don’t want to minimize the challenges that can come from shortcomings of the physical facilities — these are real difficulties that can impact our ability to work. But sometimes I think that the mental environment is even more important. We can feel it now in our libraries with finals upon us (or nearly so) and many students hard at work and/or stressing out. It’s why academic libraries often offer finals week stressbusters like coffee and snacks or therapy dogs, to give a little positive boost to the mental environment in the library at a time when it’s much needed.

Last week my research partner and I presented at the Connecticut Library Association Conference, capping off these busy past few months. We weren’t able to stay for the whole conference, unfortunately, but we did catch featured speaker JP Porcaro‘s presentation. JP spoke about inspiration, leadership, and the importance of a positive attitude, and one of his slides really resonated with me:

Emotions are contagious.

We all come from different places and have different reasons for being here. Everyone has a bad day occasionally, those times when it’s hard to stay positive. I want to work in an environment where we give everyone the benefit of the doubt, where the mental component of the environment is more positive than negative, even during finals week. It’s an important part of my job to help make that happen, and one that I’m still working on, especially on those mornings that start off with subway troubles or my teenage kid waking up on the wrong side of the bed. I’m redoubling my efforts here as the semester speeds to a close, reminding myself that emotions are contagious.

Don’t Write the Comments?

We had a month of especially active blogging in January and early February this year here at ACRLog. In addition to the regularly scheduled posts from Erin and Lindsay in our First Year Academic Librarian Experience series, there were also great posts about the upcoming Symposium on LIS Education from Sarah, and on better communicating our ideas to different audiences from Jennifer.

But what really pushed us over the top last month was a group of guest posts about the new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education. First we featured the open letter from a group of New Jersey information literacy librarians sharing their concerns about the new Framework replacing the old Standards. Several responses followed: Ian Beilin and Nancy Foasberg wrote in support of the Framework, then by Jacob Berg responded to both the open letter and Beilin and Foasberg’s response. Donna Witek contributed a post on the Framework and assessment, and Lori Townsend, Silvia Lu, Amy Hofer, and Korey Brunetti closed out the month with their post expanding on threshold concepts.

Since the Framework was scheduled to be discussed and voted on at Midwinter at the end of January, the timing of this flurry of posts isn’t surprising. These Framework (and related) posts tackled big topics and issues, issues that academic and other librarians have been discussing in many venues. So I have to admit that I was surprised to see that there was practically no discussion of these posts here on ACRLog. One person left a comment on the threshold concepts post sharing a citation, and there were a couple of pingbacks from other blogs around the web linking to these posts.

The absence of discussion here on ACRLog seems even more remarkable given the presence of discussion in other venues. I’m active on Twitter and there have been many, many discussions about the IL Framework as a replacement for (or supplement to) the Standards for months now. Whenever a post is published on ACRLog it’s tweeted out automatically, and these Framework posts sparked many a 140 character response. I’m not on any listservs right now (I know, I know, somewhat scandalous for a librarian), and I’m also not on Facebook, but from what I gather there was discussion of these posts on various listservs and FB too.

Even in our post-Andrew Sullivan era, I still read plenty of real live, not-dead-yet blogs — indeed, trying to keep up with my RSS reader is sometimes a challenge. But it’s been interesting to see the comments, the conversations, move elsewhere on the internet lately. Not that our ACRLog comments have been totally silent, but more often than not I login to find that the comment approval page is pretty quiet. This is despite some of the obvious advantages to blog comments over other options (though as anyone who’s ever encountered a troll can attest, there are disadvantages too). While Twitter can offer the opportunity to immediately engage with folks over a topic or issue — and there are many, many librarians on Twitter — the 140 character limit for tweets can often feel constraining when the topic or issue is large or complex. Listservs allow for longer-form responses, but of course are limited to those who subscribe to them; as a walled-garden, Facebook also suffers from audience exclusivity.

All of which has me wondering if there’s a way to combine these different media to enable interested folks to participate in the conversation using whichever platform they prefer. I know there are plugins out there that can pull media streams together, but can these be combined in a way that’s less about displaying information and more about encouraging discussion? Or is that too much work to solve a problem that’s not really a problem? Should we be concerned that different conversations about the same topics in librarianship are happening in different online places, perhaps with little crossover?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments. :)