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.

Taming Tenure as a Newbrarian

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Dylan Burns, Digital Scholarship Librarian at Utah State University.

This month I’ll end my first “year” at Utah State University, only about 3 months in real human time. That is when my tenure calendar, which trudged on before I was a glint in the eye of my search committee, ends the first year. Given the short amount of time I’ve been in Logan I believe I’ve done well in my position as Digital Scholarship Librarian, but the tenure dossier and meeting I schedule in few weeks still makes me think about the tenure process and what it means for librarians.

How am I approaching tenure?

A common refrain amongst faculty librarians is the “failed academic” route to our success. Many of us dreamed of being on campus albeit as research or teaching faculty rather than where we landed in the library. This doesn’t mean that the library wasn’t ultimately the spot in academia that fit my interests and goals the best; In fact, I will say that I should have been shooting for librarianship for a longer time that I actually was. We all hear stories from kids in library school (I can say that now right? Since I’m library #adulting?) where they knew from a young age that librarianship was their be-all end-all, but I wasn’t one of them.

What this means is that in my prior grad school life, I had a completely different set of research interests and projects which may or may not fit in my life as a librarian (depending on how much you squint). In my previous program I presented and published on gendered bananas in advertising and American diplomacy as well as the end of the world in country music. While the end products of my research, strange discussions of cultural politics of bananas aside, fit well in many humanities departments across the country, these aren’t the research projects that librarians need to make themselves better and improve the larger discipline.

What I do think these prior flights of fancy in scholarship give me is a larger context for the work I ultimately am doing as an academic librarian. In my meetings with faculty I can share these experiences with them and draw from my own previous life as a researcher to better design a digital scholarship unit at Utah State which confronts problems and assuages fears.

In a larger context though, I find that academic librarianship allows us to see the larger picture of both the University but the entire scholarly world. Scholars on campus are brilliantly narrow in their pursuits, a necessity of the current state of academia. Librarians, on the other hand, are interdisciplinary to their core.

This leads to a potential pitfall that all of us face. With the new brand of freedom granted by not having to take classes or read assigned texts I’m left with the burden of this freedom. I guide my own path, with the guidance of experienced librarians and my committee. I chose what to read and what skills to learn. This is a great freedom but also a deep frustration: What I am going to do now? In a lot of ways we are experts in gaining expertise. We guide researchers to their own information needs and goals. How do we do this for ourselves?

With my short year concluding I felt a lot of pressure to hit the ground running. I think that is a burden that all first year librarians feel. We see colleagues doing great work and we judge ourselves against what they’ve been able to do in years rather than weeks. Remembering that we’re new and these connections and projects take time to develop is key to early success. Sometimes we come to our jobs with projects in mind, I have some on the backburner, but when confronted with new environments and new colleagues it is imperative that we jettison those projects if new ones come along. I have taken every single opportunity to work with my new friends and colleagues on projects essential to the future of our library.

What I idealized as the Baudelairian scholar or poet in the tower who worked on scholarship as a singular and lonely force is ultimately the wrong approach. Librarianship is one where we can all work on projects together to further the field. Being open to collaborations and being interested in forming these connections has been one of the most important things I’ve learned thus far.

Furthermore, after decades of school, I think I tend to view most of interactions as competitions. Competitions for grads or grants or for articles or conferences or graduate assistantships and jobs. It is easy to carry this competitive edge into the job and tenure does not discourage that kind of thinking. But I remind myself every day that I am in competition only with myself and any opportunity to cooperate and collaborate carries everyone forward together.

In some ways tenure in library circles mirror current debates about accreditation for library schools, in that these are larger discussions over the professionalization of our occupation. How do we as academic librarians view our status at the university? There are some librarians who believe that we are second class citizens at the university, and I think this, unfortunately, might be more reality than fiction at some schools. What tenure and faculty status allows is a gravitas to our work and our status at the university.

As a first year faculty member, I have been attending workshops and classes with new teaching faculty, and I must pause and take heart that while I’m not a doctor I have the same role in the larger university machine. This is a hard thing for faculty librarians, including myself, to fully cure. But there are opportunities to find common minds in these interactions and I am thankful that faculty status allows me this kind of in with new professors. I research and they research. I teach and they teach. Even in my short time at Utah State some of my most rewarding experiences have been with working with faculty members as equals in the university’s mission.

Lingering Lockout Questions

It’s been a week since the faculty — including library faculty — at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus returned to the Fall semester. Just before the semester began, they were locked out by the university administration when their contract expired and before they could vote on a new contract. I know many of the librarians at LIU, some were formerly at my own university (City University of New York), and I count them as both colleagues and friends. I also live and work very close to the campus; I walk right by it on my way home each day.

While news of the lockout was initially slow to break, after the first few days both mainstream and education news began to run coverage of the lockout. If you weren’t following the lockout as it happened, you can catch up on the websites of my local paper, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and our own Barbara Fister’s great piece on Inside Higher Ed. And for a thoughtful discussion of the end of the lockout and future concerns, I recommend Emily Drabinski’s interview in Jacobin Magazine. Emily is both a librarian and the secretary of the faculty union (and, full disclosure, a friend); her Twitter updates were instrumental in getting the media attention that the lockout deserved.

I’m so relieved for the librarians, other faculty, and students that the lockout is over, that I no longer see police fences to corral protesters when I walk home past LIU’s campus. But I’m left with lots of questions, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’d been a member of CUNY’s faculty union when I was Instruction Coordinator, the only union job I’ve ever had. As a Chief Librarian I’m now on the management side, since mine is a title that’s excluded from the union. CUNY has had its own lengthy contract negotiation process, settled only this past summer after the old contract expired in 2010. But I realized over the past few weeks that I know little about unions, the history of labor, and the impact on librarians and libraries. I care very much about library workers — at my place of work and libraries generally — and it’s clear I have work to do to learn more.

I’m also left with questions like “what’s next?” Certainly LIU’s faculty and administration go back to the bargaining table to begin contract negotiations again. But what’s next for academic libraries? For higher education more generally, at institutions with and without a union? When faculty are replaced (even temporarily) and students walk out, is the college still doing the work of a college?

Just Add Water: Resolutions for the New Semester

I’m firmly in the midcareer stage of librarianship, but every fall I’m still a little bit surprised by how quickly the campus and library go from quiet intersession to full and busy when classes begin. Our semester started last week at the college where I work. It’s like an instant soup mix: just add water and stir to reconstitute our campus community into a buzz of activity.

Folks in higher education are lucky that we can celebrate two New Years each year if we’d like to: in January and the start of the new academic year in the fall. On the first day of classes I erased my summer whiteboard to-do list and replaced it with our library goals for this year and my other upcoming library and research tasks, a little ritual that both helps me keep track of my schedule and gets me excited about all of the great work we have planned for the year.

All of which has me thinking about resolutions. I don’t make too big of a deal about New Years’ resolutions, though I do try to do a bit of reflection as a new academic year begins (and in January too), considering what I’d like to accomplish during the year and whether I should make any changes to get there. I was reminded that it’s resolution time again by a post last week on the Prof Hacker blog that suggests we ask ourselves “What do we want to make room for this fall?” (It’s a great post — feel free to head over to Prof Hacker to read it, I can wait here.)

Thinking about the resolutions I’ve made in the past, many involve making room in the ways that the Prof Hacker post discusses: for reading, taking breaks, writing, and long-term planning, among others. All are activities that are kind of nebulous and squishy. Typically nothing will immediately go wrong if I don’t do them, and there are plenty of tasks like paperwork to complete and requisitions to approve that have to happen by a specific deadline. It’s easy to let the deadline-driven stuff crowd out the nebulous stuff, a classic problem of short-term vs. long-term gain.

So this year my one resolution is both modest and sweeping: to make room for the squishy stuff on as many workdays as I can. Sometimes that will mean doing one pomodoro of writing before work, and other times it might look like catching up on my reading over lunch, or taking a break, even if only to walk around the block.

Do you have any new academic year resolutions? We’d love to hear about them in the comments. And best wishes for a great semester, too!

Shifting Gears for Summer in the Library

At my workplace — the City University of New York — our semesters run later than many others, and finals just ended for us yesterday. Today the library’s practically a ghost town, nearly empty of students during our short intersession before summer classes begin next Thursday.

As I imagine many of us do, I’ve been looking forward to this summer slowdown (though not the hot & humid weather that’s accompanied it this year). The summertime can offer mental, physical, and temporal space for us to work on library or research projects that can be tough to schedule during the academic year, or even just the opportunity to take a day to clean our offices and organize files (surely I’m not the only person who’s really looking forward to that day?).

I’ve had an unusually busy semester and am getting ready for a week of research leave coming up soon, so it’s not quite time for me to hit those summer projects yet. But I’ve already started thinking about how to organize my time this summer. Every year I’m surprised at how challenging it can be to schedule project work over the summer when it seems like it should be the exact opposite, since there are fewer meetings and other commitments. My fellow ACRLoggers (and others in higher ed) have written about this in the past, and today I find myself revisiting these posts for tips and suggestions:

And as we go into a long holiday weekend in the U.S., I hope everyone has a chance for rest, relaxation, and whatever forms of self-care you prefer, in order to start the summer off right.

Maintaining in Academic Libraries

The spring conference season is in full swing, and one weekend earlier this month it seemed like there were conferences of interest to me all over the place, judging from the hashtags in my Twitter timeline: #PLA2016, #SAA2016 (Society of American Archaeologists), #OAH2016 (Organization of American Historians), #DifferentGames2016, and #AERA16 (American Educational Research Association), just to name (more than) a few.

But of all of those great-looking events, most of my conference envy (and associated hashtag-following) was reserved for #maintainers, hashtag for The Maintainers: A Conference, at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. From the description on the conference website:

Many groups and individuals today celebrate “innovation.” The notion is influential not only in engineering and business, but also in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. For example, “innovation” has become a staple of analysis in popular histories – such as Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

This conference takes a different approach, one whose conceptual starting point was a playful proposal for a counter-volume to Isaacson’s that could be titled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time.

From the tweets I caught this conference looked fascinating, and you can read more about it in the shared conference notes doc (with many links to full papers) as well as in the essay Hail the Maintainers published in Aeon by conference organizers Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell the day before the conference. And since the conference I’ve been mulling over this tension of maintenance vs. innovation, and how it might be expressed in academic libraries.

Like our transit infrastructure, libraries require maintenance work to function, work that touches every part of our libraries: facilities, resources, services (in alphabetical order, not necessarily order of importance). This maintenance work, while crucial, sometimes seems easy to forget, especially as annual reporting season rolls around each year. Do we report the maintenance work we do? If we don’t report it, administrators, faculty, staff, and students outside the library might not know it’s happening, so I would argue that yes, we should report it.

But maintenance can’t be the only thing happening in academic libraries — as technology, access to information, and higher education more generally go through changes, libraries do as well. One danger of focusing only on maintenance is that it might prevent us from trying something new that could bring real benefits to us as workers or to the communities we serve. Adding new (or making changes to existing) facilities, resources, and services can also bring new requirements for maintenance. Perhaps there’s legacy maintenance that’s no longer needed, allowing us to balance between continuing and new efforts within the constraints of our time and budgets?

I bristle when I read the phrase “do more with less” because I want to resist the overwork and burnout that can happen to all of us, especially when necessary maintenance work can seem invisible or underappreciated. And I think that innovation as a buzzword can sometimes be used to encourage us to do more with less, to believe that innovation alone will overcome the limitations of funding and time. But I also don’t think that flat or declining budgets mean that we shouldn’t change — I think it’s worth our efforts to figure out if there is maintenance work that we can stop doing that can allow us to try something new (which, if successful, will of course require maintenance of its own).

Is maintenance the opposite of innovation in academic libraries? Can we do both? Must we do both? To be honest, I’m still puzzling through my thoughts about this, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.