All posts by Veronica Arellano Douglas

You Are What is Killing Librarianship

Last week I had a conversation with a colleague at a different academic library about potential large-scale (read: scary) changes to our information literacy instruction program models. We talked through rationale, pain-points, and strategies for cultivating buy-in from our colleagues. At a certain point in our discussion, we recognized that this was going to be a tough sell, and this wonderful colleague shared an anecdote where she was once demeaned for ideas like these. You are what is killing librarianship! she was told by a former coworker. We were able to laugh off the comment in our conversation, but it’s one I’ve been continuing to mull over in the days following our talk.

It’s such a hard line to take, because what it implies is that this profession you are a part of–one that required at least one advanced degree and years of practice and experience–is fundamentally incompatible with the way in which you conceive of and are practicing it. You are not only not doing your job well, you are actively working to dismantle the profession you love. To your colleague(s) you are a threat to the professional identity they’ve constructed as a librarian. But as hurtful as this line (and line of thinking) is, it does beg the following question:

What exactly is the “essence of librarianship” and by whom is it determined?


What the ALA Has to Say

It’s natural to want to turn to our professional organizations when faced with this question. Ideally they represent us and we embody their beliefs. According to the American Library Association, “modern librarianship” is based on the following core values that “define, inform, and guide our professional practice:”

  • Access
  • Confidentiality/Privacy
  • Democracy
  • Diversity
  • Education & Lifelong Learning
  • Intellectual Freedom
  • The Public Good
  • Preservation
  • Professionalism
  • Service
  • Social Responsibility

Notice that these are “core values” and not “core tasks.” There’s no mention of staffing a reference desk, planning library orientation for first year students, soliciting book recommendations from faculty, or teaching every class an instructor requests us to teach. In last week’s ACRLog post there was a great comment by Sandra Cochrane who claims that many librarians respond to the question, “What do librarians do?” with “a list of tasks.” In many ways it’s natural: Our CVs and resumes are lists of things we do/have done; our job advertisements list duties and responsibilities, and our day-to-day is spent in practice. But those practices are rooted in deeply-held beliefs and core values, which may or may not align with those put forth by the ALA.

I’m not going to deconstruct each ALA Core Value in this post, but I will say that there are likely parts of this list that are open to interpretation based on sociopolitical contexts, problematic in light of issues of racism and oppression, and questionable in regards to their intent/founding motive. All of that is to say, it’s complicated, folks, and there are likely other values we’ve internalized as a profession that haven’t made it onto this list.

Core Values & Professional Identity Formulation

Just last week, guest writer Courtney Block expressed the centrality of advocacy to librarianship on ACRLog, and two weeks before that a group of librarians gathered at USC’s Doheny Library for the first ever conference on Identity, Agency, and Culture in Academic Libraries, where discussions on our professional values, identity formulation, and labor conditions abounded. Attending this conference reinforced for me that although I may share certain professional values with other academic librarians, the ways in which we conceptualize them may be vastly different. That being the case, how does that then impact our formulation of our professional identity and the ways in which we perform librarianship?

For example, ServiceEducation, Anti-Racism, and Social Responsibility are the heart of my own professional practice. I view these values through a feminist, relational lens, in which I am a co-educator, co-learner,  and partner with students, faculty (in and out of the library), staff, and my local community. What’s important to me is cultivating meaningful relationships at all times. This perspective has a direct impact on the ways in which I facilitate classes, approach reference, and propose the development or elimination of certain library services. Someone else in this same job role might have a different definition of each of those values (or a different set of values altogether), which would in turn make their professional practice look different from my own. This difference in practice then accounts for the difference in experience of librarianship and the difference in what we see as “the essence of the profession.”

In my mind, I am improving my professional practice by exploring alternative reference models to the reference desk, because I see the “desk” as both a physical and emotional barrier to egalitarian educational relationships, and a barrier to the core values of Education and Service. My coworker might see the reference desk as an expression of librarian visibility in an educational setting and an embodiment of the professional value of Service. Am I killing librarianship with my practice? Is he? Or are we “killing,” or to be less dramatic, contradicting, our deeply held notions of professional practice?

Is Practice All Relative? 

As I write this post, I am chatting with a friend online about it, working out my argument and thought-process via Google Chat. I’m anticipating being critiqued for being overly equivocal and unable to come to a “correct conclusion” or “truth.” It’s ok! I can take it! Yes, there is a whiff of social constructionism to this post, but really what I’m trying to do is encourage a professional conversation about what we value about librarianship. This needs to happen locally, at our respective institutions, and nationally, via professional conferences, writing (“academic” or otherwise), conversations on social media, and other venues.

When we assume that we all not only hold the same professional values, but define them in the same way, without ever explicitly discussing them, we are setting ourselves up for professional blow-ups. As my friend on GChat put it: “We’re led to believe that if we aren’t ‘moving,’ we aren’t working.” We need to consider critical inquiry, reflection, discussion, and revision of our professional values and practices as an integral part of our work. The only thing that will ever “kill” librarianship is our inability to reflect and discuss our interpretations of our professional values and practice.

A Revised Model for First Year Seminar IL Integration

In December I wrote about possible changes to our librarians’ involvement in our college’s first year and transfer liberal arts seminar. As victims of our success, our instruction model has become unsustainable. Teaching and support of this course leaves us with little mental energy for our other teaching and librarian responsibilities, which is problematic when those of us who teach have multiple liaison departments to support, not to mention our own research interests and library projects. We could, of course, teach this seminar and nothing else, but there is so much opportunity for course-integrated instruction and embedded librarianship at the major/minor level of study, that focusing only on the first year/transfer seminar would be a huge disservice to students and the college curriculum.

We’re in a transition period. I’m planning to take a sabbatical in August, the faculty member overseeing the seminar program is changing, and we may have a visiting librarian working with us in the fall. We’ve also been working much more closely with our colleagues in the Writing Center this year, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for years now, as they are, in a word, AWESOME. It’s the perfect opportunity to try something new with our seminar involvement, and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.

Instead of assigning librarian liaisons to each of the seminars, who then teach a minimum of two classes per seminar, we’re adopting the “train the trainer” approach that our colleagues in the Writing Center were wise enough to push through last year. We’re leading workshops for both faculty and seminar peer mentors (upperclass students who take the class and provide academic and social support to new students). And we’re doing this jointly, with the Writing Center, which I am so glad is finally happening. I think it makes a lot of sense, and will hopefully encourage faculty to better interconnect our college’s four core liberal arts skills–writing, oral expression, information literacy, critical thinking–rather than viewing them as discrete concepts. Our hope is that with these workshops, and a supporting Seminar Toolkit (in a libguide, of course), faculty and peer mentors will have a better understanding of writing and information literacy as a developmental process rather than a checklist. The toolkit will contain learning activities, sample assignments, and lesson plans from the librarians, Writing Center faculty, and faculty who have taught seminar in past years. There is so much overlap between teaching writing and teaching information literacy, and I’m glad that we’re finding ways to approach our faculty peers together.

I’m particularly excited about teaching and working with the seminar peer mentors. They’re bright, engaged students who the first year and transfer students really look up to and respect. They have a lot of social capital that we aren’t using to maximum benefit, and better still, they have a relationship with the seminar students. Peer teaching and learning was a major theme of my ACRL 2017 conference, and I was able to find some well-developed examples of peer learning programs in practice.

  • Danielle Salomon, Casey Shapiro, Reed Buck, Annie Pho, and Marc Levis-Fitzgerald have an excellent conference paper on the Embedded Peer Specialists program at UCLA, which, in their words, “combines the academic context of academic librarianship with the scalability of peer learning services.”
  • Rachel Gammons, Alexander Carroll, and Lindsay Inge wrote about the Research and Teaching Fellowship at the University of Maryland, a 3-semester teacher training program for MLIS students in which fellows in their third semester provide mentorship and training to incoming junior fellows.
  • Rosan Mitola, John Watts, and Erin Rinto presented alongside student Peer Research Coaches Kameron Joyner, Jason Meza, and Katia Uriarte about the peer-assisted learning program at the UNLV Libraries and extensive Peer Research Coach training program.

One thing these presenters and writers all seemed to stress (which is something I’ll need to keep in mind) is that this peer-assisted learning/ train the trainer approach won’t really mean less work. It takes a lot of time, planning, and emotional / mental energy to empower student-teachers (because really, that’s what they are) and ensure their continued development and growth. But all of the librarians involved in these programs seem to agree that the benefits–a more empowered student cohort, wider educational reach, meaningful interaction with smaller groups of students–are substantial. I am feeling very much indebted to these colleagues who presented at ACRL 2017 and hope that I’ll be able to share successes and failures from my own attempts at figuring out a new way to involve the library in our first year and transfer seminar program.

Things Left Unsaid

There are moments of confluence in our day-to-day lives that can impact the way we see ourselves in the world. Sometimes they are moments of revelation and other times they are just a slight shift in perception, a tweak in the way we experience life. This month, which just so happens to be Women’s History Month, a convergence of personal and professional experiences have all centered around gender, womanhood, and librarianship. The events, in no particular order, include:

  1. Reading Roma HarrisLibrarianship: The Erosion of a Woman’s Profession.
  2. Participating in a women faculty focus group at my college.
  3. Being interviewed for two different projects on intersections of gender, sexual identity, and race/ethnicity in LIS.
  4. A conversation with a dear cousin on the parallels between nursing and librarianship as “women’s professions.”
  5. Gearing up for an ACRL conference paper presentation on library instruction coordinators and gendered labor.
  6. Discussing casual sexism in academia with a handful of trusted colleagues and friends.
  7. Being called “unprofessional” by a male librarian for participating in the women’s strike.

Definitely a theme, right?

In living through these past few weeks and in writing this post, this has been the most intentional focus I’ve ever given to my identity as a latina, cis woman in highly feminized field within academia. It’s made me realize that there is so much in my professional life as an academic librarian and in my personal life that goes unsaid because to call attention to gender and intersectional gender identity on a daily basis is simply not done. It’s an academic exercise, a luxury. Something those “theoretical librarians” engage in while the “real librarians” do the “real work” in libraries.

Except it is not.

It is not navel-gazing to examine intersectional gender identity in academic libraries and academia more broadly, and here’s why.

Deeply Entrenched Patriarchal Structures in LIS

Roma Harris’ book was published in 1992, but reading it 25 years later, I’m struck by its relevance to my current work experiences. Despite being a feminized profession, we’ve somehow adopted masculine ideals in terms of what we value as a profession, how we seek to advance librarianship, and how we treat one another as librarians. Olin and Millet’s Lead Piparticle, Gendered Expectations for Leadership in Libraries, and Neigel’s LIS Leadership and Leadership Education: A Matter of Gender, thoughtfully analyze the ways in which, decades after Roma Harris critiqued librarianship for working towards a masculine ideal, LIS still models leadership–or more accurately, management/administration–as masculine labor. It’s a lose-lose set-up for women, who are viewed less positively when they perform both stereotypically masculine and feminine behaviors at work. This was abundantly clear to me after a colleague shared our library’s posters and flyers for Day Without a Woman with librarians at other institutions. I thought it was a bold move, an example of us taking action for other women in feminized professions–teaching, social work, nursing, childcare–who were not able to take the day off work. Yet we were immediately called out by a man for being “unprofessional” by not making ourselves available in service to others. It was hard to see those gendered expectations played out in front of a larger audience of our peers.

I’ve been seeing those same gendered expectations in my own research. Digging into the literature and interviewing instruction coordinators in preparation for an upcoming ACRL presentation, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that certain spaces and roles in libraries are more “for women” than others.  Teaching in libraries is ultra feminized. The relational work that instruction coordinators do and the interpersonal competencies they possess should be highly valued, but are–by virtue of being women’s work–instead simply expected, unacknowledged, and undervalued.

It’s a bummer.

As Within, So Without

Then there are the expectations that accompany being a woman in academia. I wrote a few weeks ago about the power imbalance between faculty and librarians in most academic settings, but think it’s important to stress the role that gender plays in those interactions. The service ethos in which librarianship is rooted is complicated by our gender identity and the expectations attached to women at work. My cousin, who works as an oncology nurse, doesn’t understand why something so obvious as an overwhelmingly female workforce in a structurally masculine setting–hospitals, academia–is hardly discussed. I have to agree.

In speaking with women faculty and staff I confirmed that the casual sexism I experience on a daily basis is not just unique to women in libraries, but to women in academia more broadly. It wasn’t until we gathered to explicitly address these incidents and issues that we felt less alone, more validated, and more empowered to speak up in defense of one another. Examples ranged from outright sexual harassment to more subtle power plays: being told to smile more at the reference desk or in classes, being expected to take on more of a sympathetic listening ear to students, being talked over in meetings and undermined in our work, being casually touched by male colleagues who never do the same to one another and that contribute nothing to the interaction but making us uncomfortable.

There was an acknowledgement of our shared experiences and a desire to work to support one another to change it.

An Airing of Grievances?

I’m not entirely certain what the intent of this post is as I attempt to wrap it up. I don’t want this to be finger-wagging or an airing of grievances, but I do think that some cathartic purging is always needed when discussing events and ideas that impact us in such a deeply personal ways. In some ways I’m just trying to open a conversation. I searched for “gender” in ACRLog before beginning to write and was surprised to find so little that addressed gender identity, sexism, and LIS explicitly. Roma Harris would argue that it’s an intentional if not conscious effort to separate librarianship from “women’s work” by not talking about gender.

I’m heartened by the good, feminist research being done by my academic librarian colleagues and hope that this much-needed introspection continues in our profession. We are a discipline, a profession, a field of primarily women, and the way that gender plays out in our work is worth analyzing, discussing, pulling apart, and putting back together. It’s the only way we’ll create a feminist, inclusive practice of librarianship, which is perhaps the larger point I’m trying to make, but maybe just dancing around.

Microaggressions, Faculty, and Academic Librarians: a study in intersectionality

I’ve been a follower of LISMicroaggressions on Tumblr for a while now, and even managed to pick up a zine or two in person at various library conferences. Their posts are a much needed reminder that as liberal and well-meaning as we all think/hope/claim/want our libraries to be, the day-to-day experiences of library workers can be fraught with all the -isms. There’s a strong desire, particularly in our current political climate, to make our academic library spaces welcoming and inclusive to students, faculty, and staff at our institutions. What I appreciate about LISMicroaggressions is that it is a mirror for the profession, one that–to continue this forced metaphor–provides a forum to critically reflect on our own prejudices and biases as well as the everyday (however unintended) acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. that occur in our workplaces among colleagues.

At the 2016 Conference on Inclusion and Diversity in Library and Information Science (CIDLIS), I learned about another microaggression project spearheaded by Joy Doan and Ahmed Alwan at California State University, Northridge: Microaggressions & Academic Libraries. Joy and Ahmed are specifically examining microaggressions against academic librarians by non-library faculty or “teaching faculty.” Their project is rooted in the widely held belief that collaboration between librarians and faculty essential to the integration of the academic library into a campus community. Yet the goal of their project is to investigate the “dissatisfaction” academic librarians feel “about mistreatment by some teaching faculty.”

Joy’s presentation at CIDLIS was, to me, oddly reassuring in the same way that I find LISMicroaggressions is a comfort. Both projects are validating. They take comments or moments in my professional practice that are so fleeting that I question what exactly just happened, and yet so present as to feel oh-so-heavy. The discrepancies in age, educational attainment, gender, and scholarly background between librarians and non-librarian faculty are real, but are rarely acknowledged in the “collaboration literature.” If we can’t honestly discuss the impact of these aspects of librarian identity on our relationships with our faculty colleagues, how can we begin to include the intersectional identities of our librarians of color or those who identify as somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum and the impact those identities have on collaboration?  If we want to take it a step further, why not look into the labor practices and classification of librarians in academia?

So much of practice-based LIS writing implores librarians to partner with faculty, but in doing so, puts all of the responsibility on the librarian. If we just do enough outreach, learn enough about faculty teaching and research, get that second master’s degree in a subject area, say yes to just one more class, and provide enough free snacks, then BLAMMO! COLLABORATION WILL HAPPEN! Instead of writing about the duty librarians have to fight for a seat at the faculty table (despite often being classified as faculty), we should be digging into the aspects of our identities that make our position within academic so tenuous.

That’s a large part of the reason I’m so drawn to both LISMicroaggressions and Microaggressions & Academic Libraries. I feel as though taken together, these two projects are investigating the culture of academic libraries and the prejudices that make library work so emotional-labor-intensive. I know based on her presentation at CIDLIS that Joy and Ahmed have plans to analyze the data they’ve gathered according to different demographic characteristics and identities of librarians. I’m curious to learn about how our intersectional identities as librarians impact our interactions with non-library faculty. I think our profession would be well-served by building on LIS intersectionality research like Fobazi Ettarh’s excellent article, Making a New Table: Intersectional LibrarianshipIf you have recommendations for additional reading–articles, blogs, websites, books–please share in the comments!

A Reference Redo

Our reference desk is in an odd spot. Rather than describe the situation, I created the following hasty floor plan:

floorplan drawing of the SMCM Library's reference desk and circulation desk

When students enter the library they don’t see an actual person until they are well past the stairs to the second floor. The circulation desk dwarfs the reference desk, and the reference desk is obscured by a giant statue of a naked discus thrower. We’ve cut down on our reference desk hours due to staffing challenges, and historically reference shifts have been lower on the priority list for our librarians (falling behind teaching classes, college service work, and meetings). This has left us all feeling generally dissatisfied about our traditional reference set up. Stats are down (not surprisingly), students tend to go to the circulation desk first, some bypass circ and reference all together and just come straight to our offices for help (which are just around the corner from the reference desk), and reference shifts are inconsistently covered. The librarians have a good rapport with students and faculty, and hold multiple reference appointments (some scheduled, some impromptu) with both groups throughout the academic year, but they tend to happen in our offices rather than at the reference desk.

Instead of continuing on with business as usual, our library director gathered us together to discuss reference services at our library. It was an informal meeting, but I thought her discussion questions did a great job at getting to the core of why we provide reference services, what reference means to each of us, and how we could potentially be doing it differently. Here are the questions that guided our sharing:

  1. What is the purpose of reference services in the library?
  2. What are your frustrations with reference services? With the reference desk?
  3. If consultations with individual librarians are more popular, would an “office hour” or “by appointment” model work?
  4. What are our users’ requirements for research help?
  5. If the reference desk went away today, what would students do? What would faculty do? What would librarians do? 
  6. How can we improve reference? Can we?

The discussion was extremely productive, in large part because of the leading question: What is the purpose of reference? I would imagine that the answer would vary depending on the library and school, as we all serve unique populations. For our library reference service is about education, collaboration, listening, and sharing. There is (and will always be, I think) a transactional aspect to reference; students will always need help printing, finding their way to the stacks, or assistance with the new scanner. But reference presents a unique opportunity for librarians to build meaningful relationships with students. I get to know students much better one-on-one, while listening to their tales of research woe or triumph, than I do in the classroom. Sometimes a reference appointment isn’t even about locating information. I’ve met with students who just need to talk out an idea with someone who isn’t their instructor or research advisor. Reference services are a highly relational activity, but the model of reference we’ve been operating under until this point is a very transactional one.

One model I’ve been intrigued by recently is the notion recreating the reference desk into a  “beta space.” In the In the Library with the Lead Pipe article, Beta Spaces as a Model for Recontextualizing Reference Services in Libraries, Madelynn Dickerson proposes a beta space model for reference services that would replace a traditional reference desk/area with a collaborative research space. According to Dickerson, a “beta space is a prototyping space, but one that focuses more on ideas than technology.” It’s like a research incubator in the heart of the library. In this space  students and faculty could gather to work on research projects together, student work could be shared and displayed, and librarians could collaborate with students and faculty, offering one-on-one or small group research assistance. It’s essentially a learning and sharing lab that sits in a public space. What I love most about Dickerson’s idea is the openness and inclusivity it brings to reference services.  By creating a space that is warm and comfortable we’re setting the stage for collaboration rather than consultations or transactions. We’re saying, “Come in and stay a while.” Here’s a rough sketch of what this might look like:

Example drawing of a beta reference space

An artist and interior designer I am clearly not, but I think this gets the idea across. The space is built for discussion and collaboration. Where does the librarian sit, you might ask? My question would be: Does it matter? I ask that in all sincerity. Do we need to be at a desk with an air of place/authority, or can we float around a larger space instead? I like the idea of being visible, accessible, and sitting in a comfy sofa chair with a cup of coffee and my laptop, ready to dig into a complex research question with a student during an “office hour” or some equivalent to that in this space. I could see myself meeting with a professor’s undergraduate research group in the private collaboration space, going over the intricacies of their literature review strategy. I envision a lunchtime reception showcasing research from an environmental studies class project. I could also see a group of dedicated library peer mentors who could staff this space and provide much needed research help on evenings and weekends when librarians are unavailable.

As we begin the spring semester (tomorrow!) we’re going to study our reference services more closely, review alternative models to “the desk,” and talk to our students and faculty about how they prefer to gain assistance for their research. Of course I’d love to hear what model of reference you’ve adopted at your library in recent years.