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.

Academic Libraries and Mental Health: LIS Mental Health Week

This week is LIS Mental Health Week, organized by Cecily Walker and Kelly McElroy. The event involves “a week-long series of posts, Twitter chats, podcasts, and resource sharing about mental health issues for people who suffer and for their loved ones” (from a post earlier this month in which Cecily kicked things off on her blog). Folks from all across library and information science work are sharing their thoughts on mental health — using the hashtag #LISMentalHealth — to help raise awareness and push back against stigma. The posts I’ve read so far today have been inspiring and humbling, and I’m looking forward to reading more all this week.

Mental health concerns can impact all library workers regardless of where in the library we work. One tweet I saw earlier reminded us to take advantage of the employee benefits program if you have one in your library or organization. This often takes the form of work-life balance resources and can include counseling or other services that are anonymously available to all employees. My university has a program like this, and I’d guess that these services are commonly available at colleges and universities.

Of course, in academic libraries we also serve students, and undergraduates and graduate students may struggle with mental health issues during their academic careers. The university typically has one (or several) offices that work with students in crisis or otherwise address student mental health issues. Since these issues can also impact folks who interact with students — like library workers at service desks or in the classroom — it’s worthwhile to reach out to those offices to see whether they can offer information or training in handling challenging situations that may arise. At my library we’ve invited representatives from the counseling office and public safety to visit us and make a presentation, which gave all of us who work in the library a chance to ask questions and learn more about what resources are available for student mental health on our campus.

What kinds of mental health concerns have you grappled with in your academic library work, and what strategies have you used to address them? If you’d like to, please share your thoughts in the comments.

And if you’re around and online later this afternoon/evening (January 18), tune in to Twitter at 4pm Pacific/7pm Eastern time for the #LISMentalHeath Twitter chat. That link will also take you to a form that Cecily and Kelly have set up for folks to ask questions/pose discussion topics anonymously. I’d bet that they’ll Storify the chat as well, so check back to the website later this week to catch up with the chat if you have to miss it today (like I do, unfortunately).

Happy Holidays, and Thanks

With the calendar year winding down and the semester wrapped up, I wanted to take a quick moment on behalf of the ACRLog team to share our best wishes with you, our readers. Thanks for reading, commenting, tweeting, retweeting, and sharing our ACRLog posts this year. We hope everyone’s getting some time to rest and relax during the semester break. We’ve got big plans for next year here on ACRLog, so stay tuned. Happy Holidays!

Changing College, Changing Library

One of the things I like most about my job is being part of my college and university community. CUNY (the City University of New York) is a unique institution — the largest urban public university system in the U.S. — and New York City College of Technology (typically referred to as City Tech), where I work, is unique within the CUNY system. The college’s history is interesting: founded in 1946 as the New York State Institute of Applied Sciences, it was renamed New York City Community College in 1953 — the first community college in NYC. City Tech joined the CUNY system in 1964, and the Voorhees Technical Institute merged into the college in 1971 (itself an institution with roots dating back to 1881). In 1983 City Tech became a comprehensive college and began to offer 4 year degrees as well as 2 year degrees. With 10 new baccalaureate programs added in the past 15 years, in 2013 the college began to graduate more bachelors than associates students.

Like the college, the library has gone and continues to go through changes. We’ve been lucky enough to add several faculty and staff lines in the library, which has helped as student enrollment has shot up from about 12,000 to over 17,000 in the past decade. We’ve been able to make more technology available for students and have increased our information literacy efforts as well, including single session instruction and two semester length courses. It’s apparent to library workers as well as the students, faculty, and staff at the college that the library needs more space, especially as the number of students on campus continues to grow. So we’ve been gathering data to help us make that case. A new building is going up on campus and, while the library’s not slated to move to new digs, we have lots of great ideas for how we can use some of the space that will be freed up to benefit our college community.

Historically our collections have been curriculum-driven, and they continue to be today. But as the curriculum changes to focus increasingly on baccalaureate students, how will our collections strategies need to change? As part of a large university we’re lucky to have access to many resources within the CUNY campus libraries, both by request and on-site (and the latter may not be as onerous as it sounds depending on what part of NYC you’re coming from and going to). City Tech is also home to several degree programs — Hospitality Management and Entertainment Technology, just to name two — in which the major coursework is highly hands-on and may rely less on the kinds of resources that academic libraries have traditionally offered access to.

On the other hand, with the rise in baccalaureate students we’ve also seen an expansion of opportunities for undergraduate research at City Tech. The advanced research strategies workshop we offer for our undergraduate honors research scholars (positions that pay a modest stipend to students) have slowly but surely become standing room only, and the student research poster session held at the end of each semester has overflowed the bounds of the rooms that once housed it, spilling out into hallways and lounge areas. For their specialized research with faculty mentors, these students may need access to resources and services that we haven’t always offered in our library, beyond what’s required for their coursework.

For a variety of reasons I’m not the biggest fan of conversations about the future of libraries. They too often seem to turn into techno-evangelism and can align closer with corporate interests than makes me comfortable. Our present — what’s happening right now at my library (and probably yours, too) — is much more interesting and exciting, and I’m enjoying the opportunity that my colleagues and I have to focus on meeting our students’ changing needs in real time.

Keeping Our Batteries Charged

Now that I’m in my second year as Chief Librarian, the questions about what I miss about my prior role as Instruction Coordinator come much less often. My answer is the same, though: I still miss teaching and reference, and the opportunities they offer to work with our students. I’d guess that’s common among folks with an instruction background who move to directorships — we’re no longer front of the house, actively working with patrons, to use a restaurant example (though we’re not really back of the house either, and some days it feels like we’re all over the house). We work for the students all the time, but that work can be behind the scenes and often doesn’t allow us to interact with students in the same way we did before.

It’s mid-semester, the library’s crowded, and my colleagues and I are busy, all working hard to make sure our students have what they need for their academic work. So of course that’s the best time to start on a new research project, right? In my quieter and ambitious moments at the beginning of last summer I thought “yes!” So here I am, hopping on the overcommitment train and speeding through the fall. (I’m not quite sure where this new, train-based metaphor is going — clearly I’ve exited the dining car — but it’s been a busy week so let’s keep it.)

My research continues work that I’ve done in the past to learn more about our students’ lived experiences: how, where, and when they do their academic work, and what tools they use, especially digital technologies. Which means that, among other things, I get to schedule interviews with 20 students on my campus to talk with them about what they do on a typical school day. It’s been tricky to schedule the interviews — we’re a commuter college so often our students only come to campus a few days each week, and my own schedule is typically on the meeting-heavy side.

But it’s worth the persistence (and many, many, many emails) to plan the interviews, even during one of the busiest parts of the semester (so many emails). Because it’s incredibly energizing to talk to our students. In the past week I’ve heard students praise the library’s carrels for distraction-free studying, explain how they take the (free!) Ikea shuttle bus to play basketball with their cousin after classes, show me a book from our library about electronic surveillance that they’re reading for fun, and tell me that they prefer to use a desktop computer for “real research” rather than their tablet. Our students and the work they do here at City Tech are inspiring and amazing, and just having the chance to listen to their experiences has been a surprising — and needed — source of energy for me this semester.

Keeping ourselves focused and recharged during the semester can be tough, and while there are lots of outside-of-work examples of self-care that are important, I’ve found it helpful to think on those every(work)day energizing opportunities too. What helps you recharge your batteries during the mid-semester rush? Drop us a line in the comments.

Finding Your Niche and Establishing Yourself in the Academy: What You Didn’t Learn in Graduate School

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Callie Wiygul, Social Work Librarian at the University of Southern California.

Seven months ago, I started a new job as a social work librarian in a city thousands of miles from home fresh out of graduate school. Since then, I’ve been trying to find my niche within my new (and MUCH larger) university and the wider community of academic librarians. I’ve also been working to turn my MLIS project to something that will establish me within the academy. During graduate school I worked in a public library, and before that I worked for nearly a decade in the corporate sector. This journey from the corporate to public to academic world has uniquely positioned me as a flexible communicator, perceptive learner, and ambitious librarian. But are these traits and my MLIS portfolio enough to establish me within the highly competitive and often individualistic world of academia?

For months (years!) of uncertainty, I have struggled to claim a place within the community of academic professionals. There is no set path to this goal. There’s not even a defined starting line, nor is there a finish line and Jumbotron to announce “You can stop running now, Callie, you’ve made it!” I have also learned that librarians must fight to convey our value to our institutions, subject faculty, and even students. Even more, I have learned that we also must convey our value to each other–our colleagues in librarianship. The struggle is real, y’all!

Publication, programming, service, leadership: all of these are common ways through which librarians establish themselves on campus and within the larger library community. But how do you become an established librarian before you have discovered your niche within the profession?

It’s not like there’s not enough for a first-year librarian to worry about already: burnout, imposter syndrome, and navigating the idiosyncratic politics within academia. This doesn’t include the challenges of serving as the liaison to a body of approximately 1,200 graduate students and 100 faculty at four academic centers in Southern California. But when I feel overwhelmed I try to remember that my incredibly successful colleagues were all new librarians once, too! Shocking, right?! It’s a borderline platitude, but this sentiment gets lost in the chaos that is venturing out and making a dent in the universe (just watched the new Steve Jobs biopic, sorry!). Instead of seeing barriers, I choose to view this experience as it is: a) my job, and b) a huge opportunity.

I am a big fan of asking questions and soliciting advice from veteran and rookie colleagues alike. I began venturing forth from my comfort zone on Day One and met with colleagues over lunch. I asked for feedback on my manuscript draft, posited questions about the underpinnings of reference and instruction programs at my institution, volunteered to join campus committees, and vetted ideas about programs and events to colleagues both within and outside of my liaison area.

Of course, none of this was carried out without anxiety! I’m almost always terrified when anyone—even closest friends and family—reads my words or hears my ideas. But this going-out-on-a-limb experience has unequivocally made me a better writer and thinker. Reaching out to fellow instruction librarians and asking them if I could observe their instruction sessions has introduced me to lesson plans and teaching styles that have definitely made me a better educator. I apply for (what seems like) countless leadership programs, calls for proposals, and grants because I am hungry to explore my interests in leadership, programming, and instruction not only to establish myself as a professional, but to become a better librarian as well. And, honestly, I’ve been turned down more times that I care to admit. But, hey…it’s par for the course in academia.

So how do I find a niche to call my own and the academic bona fides to give weight to my name? In everything I do, I consistently ask myself “Is this marketing tool/program idea/reference answer/FAQ submission helping people? Do I truly feel compelled to do it? Is it only because it is a hot topic on Twitter?” These questions often help me parse out the crucial from the superfluous. They also provide insight into potential career interests and goals.

It’s easy to fall down the proverbial rabbit hole of following others. So many librarians are superstars at what they do and have become “library famous” for their achievements. I’ve learned that as a new librarian, you can get caught in the vacuum of trying to follow every Twitter chat, read every article mentioned in said Twitter chat, while blogging about being a librarian, applying for grants, and developing new ideas. The Digital Age can be just as dizzying and disheartening as it can be nurturing and inspiring. Here is where I believe perspective can bring things into focus.

Instead of guiding my work with the intent on being a superstar, I guide my work by focusing on my growth as a librarian. I must find ways to design programs and ideas that will help faculty and students attain their research goals. At the same time, I must develop the confidence to create my own ideas and take advantage of my own abilities. That is MY goal. It has to be, because if my actions are simply founded on the desire to be library famous or earn the respect of the academy, they won’t be meaningful. I’d rather cultivate my niche and excel at it in a way that is both personally fulfilling and helpful to my students, colleagues, and university. Finding a niche and establishing myself won’t happen overnight, but it will if I stay focused on the bigger things and keep my fears and ego in check.