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.

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.

Working on Wikipedia Redux

Last weekend I had a great time participating in the Wikipedia Art+Feminism editathon, an annual event to increase the representation and coverage of women in the arts on Wikipedia. You may remember Art+Feminism co-organizer Siân Evans’s guest post last December — Why GLAM Wiki — which well-explains the editathon’s aims and accomplishments.

I’m a huge fan of Wikipedia — for my (and my family’s) own use as well as in teaching undergrads and graduate students. I also think working on Wikipedia is a perfect fit for academic librarians, with our research skills and our ability to access paywalled academic literature (though the latter I hope will someday become unnecessary as open access continues to gain ground). But I confess that I’m not as active in editing and adding content to Wikipedia as I’d like to be.

Indeed, last weekend I found myself thinking about the last editathon I attended two years ago, which I wrote about on my very infrequently updated professional blog. That semester I participated in the editathon in part because I was co-teaching a graduate class on interactive technology and pedagogy with Michael Mandiberg, another Art+Feminism co-organizer. We included a couple of Wikipedia assignments for our students in our grad course, and I wanted to put myself in my students’ shoes by doing a bit of editing and adding content, too.

This semester I’m teaching the course again (though solo this time), and again students are working on a Wikipedia assignment. We’re also spending more time in the course reading and talking about Wikipedia as a community as well as a collaboratively-created resource. Again I find myself thinking, as I did two years ago, about undergraduate work on Wikipedia, especially in the context of single- (or 2-3) session instruction as opposed to an entire semester of work on a Wikipedia assignment. I know my grad students — many of whom are teaching right now or will be soon — are also thinking about this. How can we incorporate Wikipedia content creation into instruction in smaller ways than spending a whole semester on an article or series of articles?

This year the editathon I attended was at Interference Archive, a volunteer-run archive in Brooklyn, NY that focuses on social movements. Editathon co-organizers Nora Almeida and Jen Hoyer went through the archives before last weekend to pull particularly relevant files for us to work on if we were looking for inspiration. My background is not in the arts, so I especially appreciated these efforts and was glad to be able to jump into finding info about an artist whose work I found in one of the files. And it strikes me that this might be a good way for students to jump into Wikipedia editing, too — beginning with archival or historical materials and synthesizing them with sources we can find online.

I’m happy to see that the edits I made last weekend — creating a stub for the Australian artist Arlene TextaQueen, are still live as I type this. And even more pleasantly surprising? The edits I made 2 years ago are still live, too.

More Than Just Meetings: Thinking about Service to the Institution

Today was a Friday full of meetings for me that mostly took place outside of the library. I started out in the morning at the monthly(-ish) meeting of my college’s General Education Committee, along with other faculty and administrators from departments across the college. The college where I work is just beginning our preparation for an accreditation visit in a couple of years, so today we worked in small groups to consider the General Education course offerings for our students (among other tasks). After a brief stop in my office to answer a bit of email and grab my backpack, I hopped the subway to travel to my university’s central office for a training session on the new procedures for Chairs of the Faculty Student Disciplinary Committee on each campus. Lucky for me (and my fellow midday subway commuters), the second meeting came with lunch.

In my time as an academic librarian, both as Instruction Coordinator and as Chief Librarian, I’ve done and continue to do a fair amount of academic service work outside of the library. I’ve blogged previously about my work directing a major grant-funded project at my college. Though my current service load is not nearly as heavy as it was then, it’s definitely the case that college and university service commitments can take me out of the library for chunks of time. And it can sometimes be challenging to balance service responsibilities with library work.

Despite the time management challenges (and I readily confess that I’m looking forward to a meeting-free weekend), there’s much to value in college and university service for academic librarians. In joining a couple of college and university committees fairly soon after I started at City Tech I was able to learn a lot about how the college and university work. Many of the committees outside the library involve decisions and processes that involve or affect the library. For example, at my college all proposals for new courses and programs go through our College Council (like a Faculty Senate) Curriculum Committee. While there is a form within the proposal package that each library subject specialist completes, it’s also useful for library faculty to see the inner workings of the curriculum process and to help evaluate proposals. Beyond curriculum and collections, college service can help familiarize library faculty with the processes that affect students in their careers at the college. At our Reference and Circulation Desks we field lots of questions from students that don’t technically have to do with library services and resources — especially for new students who might not be sure where to go to ask a question, our service desks can be a first stop.

College service especially can be an opportunity to meet faculty and staff in departments and offices outside of the library. My college does a great job in orienting new faculty, which usually results in a strong cohort of folks who’ve been hired around the same time. But service commitments can offer the chance to meet faculty in all departments and at all ranks — from untenured Assistant Professors to tenured Professors with a deep institutional memory. This can be useful in our library work as we consult or partner with faculty around library services and resources. And, if you’re in a tenure-track or promotable position, committee work can introduce you to some of the folks who may be on the evaluation committees when you put in for tenure or promotion. In my personal experience it’s a relief to walk into that promotion interview and see a few familiar faces around the table.

What kinds of extra-library service are you expected (or do you sign up) to do at your job? What have you learned in your college service that’s useful for your library work and career? Drop us a line in the comments.