All posts by onellums

Onellums’s last FYALE post, short and sweet

When I tried to reflect on my first year of academic librarianship and what I should include as advice for other new librarians in my final post here at ACRLog, platitudes such as “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” kept popping into my head. So I thought I’d start with a short list of the somewhat obvious qualities that I repeatedly found helpful at work: 

1) Maintaining a positive attitude 
2) Persistence 
3) Cooperativeness

Then I thought of some more personal advice I would give (that I learned the hard way):

1) A workplace is a political minefield. Best do your homework before putting your foot in it.
2) It is better to be flexible than cavalier. Youth and energy are not endearing to everyone.
3) Leave your desk to have human conversations every once in a while. Librarians are perhaps more prone to use email and other text-based media, but I cannot count the number of times a solution has been more forthcoming when I approached people directly. 

And because I am writing this during performance review season, here is a sprinkling of self-criticism and future goals:

1) As Susanna mentioned in her last post, I too am realizing that I might not be fit for a lifelong career in public services. I may not have the requisite gift of patience, and I am noticing that the areas of my job I find most enjoyable involve making systems and processes simpler and more efficient. When I moved to New Jersey last August I lacked the confidence to apply for systems librarian jobs, but now I am motivated to learn more programming and pursue work in that direction. 
2) I would like to publish in the professional literature. Publishing informally online is great, but I am going to try and shoot for something more rigorous and official. 
3) I would like to continue to interact and participate with this and other communities of librarians. They (we?) are wonderful. I hope some day I can be as useful to them as they currently are to me.  

Thanks for reading and commenting — I have really enjoyed writing here! If anyone wants to continue to follow my thoughts, I post weekly to my personal blog, the librarian’s commute. And it would be great to meet you in person if you are going to ALA next week!

Explaining Authority (Part 2)

After writing my previous post, our library director brought this report to my attention: “The Changing Nature of Intellectual Authority” by Peter Nicholson, presented at the 148th ARL meeting in Ottawa, Ontario, May 17-19 2006. Apparently I was “scooped” by a good three years, as the ideas in the report are similar enough to my own (albeit worded more eloquently) that I should have been aware of and acknowledged it. Better late than never, right?

One way of thinking about the problem of authority that Nicholson suggests, and which Emily described in my post’s Comments using slightly different terms, is that there are various species of information, with differing niches. For example, when you have a ‘good enough’ mentality, wikipedia is usually fine, but there are other times when you will demand and value peer-reviewed sources.

And so I have begun to think that when librarians teach information literacy, the underlying question to encourage students to ask should be “Why was this information generated?” That can be unclear, so the question becomes “Why COULD this information have been generated?” It is easy to become paranoid when searching for this answer, but I like to think that misinformation is usually caught, and when it is not, it is a source of outrage, or at least newsworthy.

Deliberate propagation of misinformation is greeted with protest rather than resignation, at least in this country. Whether we work in information professions or not, everyone is responsible for paying attention, and because of the abundance of critical minds, we can count on someone to call out untruths, mistakes, biases, and sinister influences.

As Nicholson points out, institutions suffer as a result of a breakdown in rules about authority. I do work for an institution, with all that implies. As I proceed blithely ahead, attempting to teach students information literacy and how to use the traditionally accepted, scholarly resources that the library provides, perhaps I will best serve them if I bear all of the above in mind. I should be pleased if they are skeptical of me and my message. At least, if students stop to consider where information I recommend is coming from, they can take personal responsibility and have a personal stake in the information they choose to rely on.

If I can make all this clear in my library instruction sessions, while still being relevant to the task or assignment at hand, I will consider my job well done.

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P.S. The next post will be my last as a First Year Academic Librarian here on ACRLog. Technically this should have been my final post, but the administrators kindly granted me one extra.

Explaining Authority

One thing I have found difficult in my librarian-instructor capacity is how to impress students with the idea that some sources of information are better than others. We are all comfortable with the concept that value is subjective. But does this apply to information? (My own answer varies depending on what day it is.)

Of students I have interacted with, I have met some who have not thought about source authority at all, and some who suspect there is a good source for the information they need but do not know how to find or identify it (because they have never before been expected to justify their sources?). Perhaps of the students I do not interact with, 100 percent are fully competent when it comes to finding and using information. It is possible that the majority of college students have a perfect grasp of information and how it is generated and used. Most of the students I work with at the library, however, do not.

In any case, I do not want to be heavy-handed and say “X sources are good but Y sources are bad,” first because even I do not think it is so black and white (see recent Elsevier story & the story about cancer research), and second because I do not think students will accept that message. That is the old librarian-as-gatekeeper, top-down mentality, which is no longer realistic. So I have been envisioning a fancy presentation containing the various examples I have been collecting of how you would look foolish if you relied on sources such as wikipedia for all your information. Unfortunately I have not gotten around to creating it yet, and such a thing would go out of date so fast that I am not convinced it would be worth the effort. (Although I did link to Colbert’s wikiality speech on one of our LibGuides.) Besides, when am I, the librarian, given classroom time to do something like that?

So I do not really know what to do, except briefly repeat the same old message about how it is generally a good thing to use sources from the college’s library, about how these are the sources instructors expect students to use, and unless I am questioned not be too specific about if and why they are ‘better.’ I am not so far down the libraryland rabbit hole that I imagine I will get a round of applause if I say “You should use the library because the library is on your side. The college library wants to provide you with high quality sources for your research. Our agenda is clearly stated. We do our best to provide an additional level of editorial process by reading reviews and making informed decisions for what should be added to the collection, and beyond that we are trying to make as much of it as possible accessible from home.”

Big fricking woop. Now I’ll go back to answering questions about how to cite web sites.

The Hardest Part of Being a Librarian

As the spring semester heads to a close, the amount of traffic at the library reference desk is picking up significantly. Students are needing last-minute help with papers and projects, trying to remember what their professors expect, and figuring out how they are going to complete everything by the due dates. Usually, students are lovely people to work with. Usually I really enjoy helping them, and usually I think they find my assistance very valuable.

Occasionally, though, I am reminded what the hardest part of being a librarian is for me. It’s not working with technology, it’s not having to constantly think on my feet, and it’s not the myriad other job duties: it’s working with difficult patrons. By “difficult,” I mean people who come to the library with chips on their shoulders, who are stressed because they are failing a class or have not gotten enough sleep, or who simply enjoy being in a power position and abusing whoever is sitting at the service desk. It is easy to blame superficial reasons for why people behave this way –- it’s the Millennials, the google mentality, etc. etc. — but I am sure there are studies linking stress and aggression and rudeness. The trick for the librarian is not to take it personally and not to redirect it at others.

I would not have become a librarian if I did not enjoy public services, but it is easy to forget how challenging it can be on the front lines every day. Librarians tend to be an introspective bunch, and the ability to remain calm and patient in every single situation is HARD, particularly if someone is deliberately trying to offend or antagonize you.

My point in writing this is not to complain about patrons but to give myself and all of us out there staffing service desks a little pep talk as the spring deluge hits the library. These are things I find helpful to remember:

1) No matter how rude or disrespectful a patron gets, there are always alternatives to losing your cool. If you feel yourself getting angry, take a step back, take a deep breath, and disengage yourself from the situation. Then figure out how to respond professionally.

2) Diffuse. Assist. Try and ignore tone. Focus on the problem that relates to the library, and do not feel responsible for the patron’s other problems. Be sympathetic, but do not join the student in badmouthing an assignment or instructor. Lead them in the direction of taking responsibility for themselves.

3) Go for a walk whenever you get a break. Listen to the birds. Listen to some music. Stare at something pretty. Whatever works.

4) If all else fails, call security. The presence of security personnel usually sobers people up. More importantly, keep in mind that you are not just one individual in a given situation — there are other people to back you up and support you.

Good luck, everybody!

5 Things I Didn’t Realize I’d Be Working on…

… When I Decided to Become a Librarian
(The alternate title for this was: Thank Goodness I Went to Syracuse’s iSchool)

For some time now there has been talk of how the roles of librarians are changing, and recently I find myself working on a variety of projects that I imagine are a bit removed from what librarians of yore might have been up to. Perhaps the fact that I find these projects 100 percent relevant to the academic library where I work, and am happy to take them on in my capacity as a reference and instruction librarian, further reflects the changes in the profession. So I thought I’d share some of those projects and see if anybody’s with me:

1. Authentication
Students log into programs (i.e. for course management, registration, email, etc.) run by their school, and then they need a separate authentication to access library resources? This actively discourages them from using the library. A single login is a usability priority. Once users are authenticated as enrolled, active students, they should be able to access all of the services the college provides to them — including all of the library resources and services.

2. Mobile Platforms
A few weeks ago I had my first patron complain about how she couldn’t connect to library databases with her Blackberry. (Our authentication system doesn’t allow it. See #1.) So now I am learning about mobile platforms. Luckily there are lots of librarians already working on this.

3. Course Management Systems
Online students may never come to the physical library building, but they can still benefit from the library’s array of online resources. Putting these online resources seamlessly into their classrooms is the next step. Students no longer have to go to the library for the materials needed for their classes — the library can come to them. We can put reserve materials, information literacy activities, catalog and database search boxes, etc. DIRECTLY into their class spaces. This is why instructional design is so important to me right now.

4. Unofficial Student Technical Support
Daily, I find myself solving common technical problems of students that are not just limited to printing and word processing. Even if I am not officially tech support, I am an adult sitting at a desk in a public space surrounded by computers, so guess what? I am going to answer a variety of computer questions. I know some librarians resent this, and I am never happy when a technical problem interrupts a research question, but most technical problems are things I have encountered myself and can solve quickly, or are ultimately relevant to my own computer use.

5. Making and Editing Videos
If we do not get to work with our students in person, we need to provide online help. And ultimately how would be best to do this? With fun and exciting video tutorials, naturally! Maybe I should have gone to film school after all. There is a lot of relatively inexpensive software available now to make and edit your own videos for the purpose of training. It is true that these can take a lot of time and thought, but when done well they can be extremely effective, provide help 24/7, and replace the need for repeated explanations of simple instructions from librarians.

I am sure there are plenty of other examples, but these are what I have for now. Please feel free to chime in!