Category Archives: Administration/Leadership

Use for postings that discuss the administrative aspects of academic librarianship, including managing and leading in the field.

55 Years Old with a 33 Year Library Career

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Kathy Parsons, Associate Professor and Head, Stacks and Media Department at Iowa State University.

After reading the July 2012 Will’s World column “Your Mileage May Vary” in American Libraries, I found myself pondering library fatigue, retirement, and the value of my career. Was the librarian he described me? Did I need to retire? I sincerely hoped not but I saw a part of myself in his statements. Was library fatigue taking over? Could I rekindle the passion and joy for library work? But how do long-term librarians stay relevant, refreshed, and motivated? And if it was indeed time to make a career change what can I do with my experience? Were there others pondering the same questions?

I moderated a roundtable discussion at the 2013 National ACRL Conference in Indianapolis about issues facing long-term career librarians. I hoped that this session would be part counseling, part positive reinforcement, and part networking. It was just that and a bit more. While I used questions to guide the conversation, the answers were often elusive. Participants’ comments frequently redirected the conversation into areas I had not anticipated. The questions used were “How can librarians reinvent themselves and stay out of the rut? What other jobs can librarians do if they left the profession? How do you market your experience and skill sets for jobs outside of the library venue?”

During the discussions a couple of themes became evident. First, many of us expressed concerns about the reduction of staffing levels at our institutions. These reductions were the result of retirements, downsizing due to budget concerns, job changes, or even reallocation of staff. Coupled with this were the increasing expectations for new services while keeping the old. Rapid technological changes provided benefits but also added more stress. On top of this we needed to prove our value to our institution. Many of us sensed that we were just barely holding on; stretched thin with many responsibilities. We felt that we lost our passion and were unsure what to do. Some have thought about changing jobs but jobs are scarce. We talked about the shrinking job market and the unstable economy which was occurring at the same time of increased retirements of baby boomers. This was impacting long term employees wishing to change jobs and the younger colleague’s ability to move up. An article discussing the concept of “gray ceiling ” was mentioned that addressed the impact of delayed retirements has on younger workers.

Another theme that emerged was the generation gap. Some of us felt unappreciated by our younger (and sometimes new) colleagues especially if they were our supervisors. We thought we were seen as dinosaurs: not adaptable; technology deficient with little or with no social media skills including texting and blogging; slow learners living in the past. We realized that our chosen vocation has undergone tremendous change over the last decade or so but our longevity should count for something. We wondered if we needed to remind our younger colleagues of the advances our generation of librarians developed. Had we been so quiet about our “history” that the younger librarians do not know that we are the shoulders of change they are standing on? We developed online catalogs, integrated library management systems, and database searching; all these things and more paved the way for the support of open access, the use of social networking, cloud technology, and digitalization for library work. We wondered why the younger managers would not use our institutional memory as it could help prevent problems down the road. We recognized that there is a fine line between living in the past (refusing to adapt to changes) and sharing about the past (explanation of why something is the way it is). We, also, wondered if risk taking is hard as we age. Those of us who were middle managers felt especially conflicted by the generational gap as we may have both younger supervisees as well as younger supervisors. One person described us as being in the “bibliographic definition of hell.”

Woven throughout the conversation were ways of coping, recharging, and renewal. One way many of us “recharge” was attending conferences and workshops and volunteering with library associations. Universally we agreed that we returned to work after these activities motivated and refreshed but the feeling quickly disappeared as the normal workday intruded. We talked about the need to sustain and enlarge our professional contacts and network. Some found mentoring younger colleagues rewarding and in turn have been mentored by them. We brought to the relationship these strengths: navigating the ins and outs of serving our professional associations, assisting with research and publishing, and developing leadership skills. For us, the younger colleagues helped us hone our skills with social media and other technological advances. We concluded that this roundtable had great potential for a larger discussion and suggested that the topic be developed into a workshop or pre-conference at the 2015 National ACRL Conference in Portland. We need to continue this type of dialogue with ourselves and to include our younger colleagues. Most importantly, we walked away with new colleagues in our networks, not feeling so lost and alone, and later that night some found new dancing partners at the all-conference reception!

Responding to Change

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Paul Courant, Dean of Libraries at the University of Michigan, and John Unsworth, vice provost for Library and Technology Services at Brandeis University, speak on The Hathi Trust, Google Books, and the Future of Research. The event was the part of the BNN Symposium on the Future of the Academy sponsored by the NorthEast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP), the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), and the Boston Library Consortium (BLC).

The theme of the day was institutional responses to technological change: how do we keep libraries relevant in supporting research? How can emerging technologies enable new kinds of research using traditional materials? How can we take advantage of changing technologies while preserving our values and services? This event was a great opportunity for thinking about these questions from a big-picture perspective.

Courant had a few central messages to his talk, which I summarize and comment on below. His words, paraphrased, are in italics, and my thoughts and questions follow.

  • Technology is a set of mechanisms that get you from input to output. Libraries produce value by making things reusable and sharing them; that’s a technology. We’re all using technology; there’s no such thing as a “technophobe.” Hardware and software, devices and databases, are all tools that function within this technology. Books are a technology: they move ideas along, from authorial input to reader output.
  • In a disrupted world, build things to see what works. Don’t wait for all the ducks to line up in a row. Dedicate time and energy for new initiatives, but don’t require that they be perfect, or have buy-in from an entire organization. Create and support spaces that enable experimental projects. (Is the Harvard Library Lab still operational? Are there others?) Learn from the things that don’t work.
  • The old system doesn’t tell you what to build. What do we do because we’ve always done it? Are there traditions (services, functions, processes) that we preserve for their own sake? What is worth preserving and what can we leave behind?
  • Look to purposes, not to things, although things can be the only way to some purposes. Is a traditional reference desk the only way to provide drop-in research help? What are other ways that we can provide time-of-need assistance? Must we be in the physical space of the library to provide this kind of help? Or does having a physical service desk in the centralized public space of the reading room encourage patrons to use librarians’ services? Does the presence of a reference desk enable user interactions that wouldn’t happen otherwise?
  • The library isn’t there for itself; it’s there to enable scholarship and learning. This is one of the “no-brainers” that I forget sometimes, especially with collection development. Creating an ideal collection with its own integrity can be very rewarding, but so can assembling connections to materials that enable and enrich research, teaching, and learning.
  • Preserve outcomes, not business models. Use the language of learning outcomes to help shape the direction of new projects. What do we want users to be able to do as a result of this service or product? What do users want to be able to do? How can we meet those needs using the resources we have?

Teaching Workload and New Librarians

The following story is true. However, the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Meredith, an acquaintance of mine from library school, is an extraordinarily bright person with an amazing attitude. The moment I met her, I knew she would make an amazing librarian. Despite the small number of jobs available to academic librarians in this economy and despite being limited geographically, Meredith was hired fresh out of library school as a full-time adjunct instruction librarian at a medium-sized public university. In her first semester Meredith somehow taught over 40 instruction sessions, which included several two-week intensive information literacy course sequences for introductory general education courses.

On the Friday before spring semester classes began, Meredith was informed by her administrators that no temporary staff were to be hired to fill in for a librarian going on sabbatical. Instead, Meredith was now expected to take on 50% of her colleague’s workload, without any additions to her salary. Previously, Meredith had provided her superiors with a thorough account of her work hours—complete with professional standards from the ACRL Standards of Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators—in order to demonstrate that she had a full workload.  Despite this, they believed that she was under-worked and that this addition to her current duties would bring her up to full-time.

To make a long story short, Meredith decided to fight this by arguing that if she was forced to take on 50% more work, the quality of education that she provides would severely deteriorate. She told me, “I cannot roll over and become part of the cycle that is perpetuating the corporatization of higher education.” In the end, Meredith was able to prevent the increase to her workload.

This situation is the result of an unfortunate combination of massive budget cuts and administrators questioning the value of teaching information competency in higher education.  While Meredith’s situation is extreme, I have a feeling that her situation may not be an isolated incident. In this economic climate of dramatic budget cuts, librarians—particularly new, adjunct, and temporary librarians—are especially vulnerable. And the time available for some of us to provide effective instruction in information competency is getting compacted with additional duties and tasks.

I don’t want to make this a “librarians vs. them” kind of a thing because I realize there are a lot of complicated factors at play. But I would like to know: how do we successfully determine and prove what a feasible teaching workload is and how can new librarians like Meredith effectively share and demonstrate workload concerns with their administrators?

Do You Have The Tao In Your Toolkit?

In his blog post, The Tao of Librarianship, Andy Burkhardt reminds us how we can apply the ancient wisdom of Taoism to library policies and services. Burkhardt addresses library food policies, space design, planned abandonment of outdated formats and services, and adapting to change through the lens of Taoist philosophy, which he summarizes as, “instead of struggling against everything all the time, Taoism states that humans should try to see how things actually are and live in harmony with them.”

Another more colloquial way of stating this is the expression, “go with the flow.” Going with the flow is more commonly associated with surfers and hippies than librarians. Traditionally as a profession we tend toward rules, policies, standards. We prefer to “get things under (bibliographic) control.” A tweet at a program at ACRL 2011 put it this way: “Control freak streak runs in the profession. Sadly, yes. #lettinggo #acrl2011.”

Burkhardt is right to suggest that Taoist principles could help us more effectively deal with the change in our world and in our libraries. In addition to the areas that Andy brings up, Taoist ideas can also be useful when it comes to collaboration within and outside the academic library. In their ACRL 2011 program, Letting Go: Giving Up Control to Improve First-year Information Literacy Programs, librarians Meghan Sitar, Cindy Fisher, Michele Ostrow, of the University of Texas Libraries explain the difficulties they faced and the concepts they had to embrace in order to give up control and collaborate with other faculty and professionals on campus.

One of the more beautiful metaphors in Taoism is the admonition that we should be like water, fluid and responsive (Tao 8). Is your library frozen like a glacier or flowing like a mountain stream? Are you part of the ice jam or part of the break up? Have you come to terms with your inner control freak? As a profession, how can we become less controlling, and what should we let go? Can the principles of Taoism help us?

There are many translations of the Tao Te Ching. An interesting one is The Tao of Leadership by John Heider.

The What Versus The Why

When the topic of conversation turns to change, it’s not uncommon to hear an academic librarian say something along the lines of “before we change we need to really understand why we do what we do – what is it that defines what we are all about”. Others might describe that as having the ability to articulate the library’s core values. It might even be something found in a mission statement.

I recently heard a library presenter run through a list of these potential “why we do what we do” possibilities. For this presenter one emerged as the most clear rationale for the why of an academic library – or perhaps any library. The word used to describe the “why” was “connection” as in “we connect the user / client / customer / community member with information / content”. That was this presenter’s answer to the “why do we do what we do” question. I think there is much more to this than just connecting people with information, and that the act of “connection” is not actually a “why” but a “what” – and yes there is a distinction.

In a previous library position the actual mission statement, something along the lines of “This library exists to connect the students, faculty and staff with the information they need to succeed.” Not bad. But now I realize that this act of connection is not the “why” of an academic library. Rather, it is just one “what” of the many things we do for our communities. The “why” and the “what” are different. Let me explain using the Golden Circle framework advanced by Simon Sinek. The Golden Circle has three concentric circles. The farthest circle outward is the “what”, the middle circle is the “how” and the innermost circle is the “why”.

WHAT = the results we get
HOW = what we do in order to get the results (think process)
WHY = our beliefs, cause, purpose

Connecting people with information is a good thing, and an important function for any library. What makes it a “what” rather than a “why”, according to Sinek, is that it is a result – not a cause or purpose. Do you come to work everyday to make sure people connect with information? If that’s our cause or purpose, why should anyone care about academic libraries when they can get connected with information anywhere, at any time. The “how” of connecting people with information is all the things we do behind the scenes to make it work: developing budgets; having acquisitions workflows; processing materials; setting up loan policies. You get the idea. But it all starts with the “why – or rather it should start there. In his book Start With Why, Sinek provides examples of inspired leaders and organizations that succeeded where others failed because they had a much clearer vision of “why” and started their work by being able to understand and articulate first from the center of the Golden Circle.

According to Sinek, the absence of a “why” is a problem that often leaves us uninspired about our work. Most of us academic librarians understand the “what” and the “how”. The hard part is the “why”. We may have failed to spend time thinking about the “why”, and that is where we should begin. The “how” and the “what” should flow from the “why”. What would a “why” sound like for an academic library? Here’s a possibility: “We believe our library transforms its users from one state of knowledge to a higher state of knowledge.” How about: “We believe our library prepares community members to succeed as citizens, employees and scholars”. Those, to me, speak more to having a real purpose for why we should exist. Those statements are about believing that our work is going to make a difference – but only if we pursue our cause with great passion. It is not merely a result of our activity. It is a reason to perform the activity whether the result is connecting someone with a piece of information, helping them publish a scholarly article or getting a job.

I am still thinking about these ideas and what it means to develop a “why” statement or position for an academic library. If this post helps you to have a better sense of the difference between the “why”, “how” and “what” that is a start. Sinek’s web site has more information if you are interested in exploring this further, but feel free to share your “why” statement as a comment.