Category Archives: First Year Academic Librarian Experience

Librarianship Doesn’t Need Professionals

Check out our post on HLS today too! Heidi Johnson, ACRLog FYAL blogger, reflects on the greatest differences between grad school and professional life in “Structuring My Time.” See more information about the HLS/ ACRLog collaboration here

Madison Sullivan is a NCSU Libraries Fellow at North Carolina State University, where she is a librarian for Research and Information Services, and External Relations. Madison received her MSLIS in from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2015 and is a 2016 American Library Association Emerging Leader. Her views are her own, not her employer’s.

I’m supposed to write about professionalism from the perspective of a new librarian. How to be taken seriously as a “new professional,” and how to “be yourself” at the same time. Here’s the deal – it’s a total mystery to me how people manage it.

a lot of professionals are crackpots

A derivative of Jenny Holzer stickers by nadja robot, licensed under a CC BY-NC 2.0

I question what is it to be a professional every single day. I’m not sure I know what professionalism means or what it looks like. Perhaps I do, but the idea of it makes me nauseous.

It makes me nauseous because what if who I am, and who I’d like to be in the workplace, doesn’t align with other people’s definition of what a professional is? It makes me nauseous when I think about the advice, or implied advice, other people have given me about how I should go about being a professional. “Keep your head down. Don’t make waves. Don’t question anyone or anything, especially not your superiors. Keep your mouth shut. Emotions don’t have a place at work. Don’t tell anyone anything personal. Remember to smile.”

In the past, this advice limited my capacity to share my humanness and individuality with my coworkers, and impaired my ability to connect with others. Fear of being perceived as “unprofessional” or naïve has led me to being silent during meetings, and timid to my coworkers and supervisors. Performing professionalism left me feeling robotic and so not myself. Whose rules were these, really?

I know the kind of work environment I want to be a part of. I know the kinds of people I want to work and collaborate with. Much of the commentary surrounding professionalism wasn’t matching up with what I had envisioned and hoped for. If this was advice for being a professional, then perhaps I didn’t want to be one.

People say, “you need to be more professional” when what they really mean to say is “you need to fall in line” or “I don’t like that tattoo” or “hey, tuck in that shirt!” Professionalism is a word people use to maintain and enforce the status quo. Professionalism doesn’t take risks; it encourages conformity. Can you simultaneously call yourself a professional and advocate for radical change? Professionalism is safe and it is boring. I’d also argue that professionalism plays a part in reinforcing the illusion of library neutrality.

I don’t want professionalism to mean putting a façade or a veneer around ourselves before we walk into work everyday. But it does. And I don’t know what we can do about that. The illusion that our lives outside of work stops the second we enter the workplace has never made sense to me. I don’t know what we can do about that, either. It’s an exhausting charade.

Maybe, I think we can love one another. I think we can comfort each other and let our coworkers know it’s safe to share and express themselves. As a new employee, I have to see vulnerability first before I’m comfortable doing the same. I think we’re capable of that. Less judgment. Fewer assumptions. Is this professionalism in practice? I’d like it to be.

For me, the most difficult thing with any new job is that almost everything is unknown at the start. It can be a solitary, unsettling time in a person’s life, even if you haven’t relocated. You have to figure out the boundaries, the culture, your users, and the people you work with. You have to figure out what is acceptable, when it’s acceptable, and around whom. You have to discern how much of yourself is appropriate to bring into this new territory. Which parts of yourself do you hide, which parts do you let people in on? Who can you trust with your worries and your anxieties as you work through starting somewhere new?

I’ll be honest with you. I finished library school in May and have been in my first position as a new librarian for six months. It’s the most exciting thing in the world, and also the most terrifying. I still don’t feel like I’ve figured everything out, and I’m not incredibly comfortable being vulnerable yet. Even though I have been given so much love and support, I’m still trying to “fit in” in some respects. As a new librarian, it can be difficult to express yourself and let your guard down when you want to be respected, valued, and have your ideas taken seriously. You want to show everyone that you can do a good job and that they made the right choice when they hired you.

Learning how to “put a face on” was not something that ever came naturally to me – even after working almost a decade in customer service. As a woman, I’ve been told to think, behave, and act a certain way from a variety of sources and institutions. As a professional, we’ve been given a whole other set of rules to live by  (gendered expectations abound!). I’d like for librarians, especially those in leadership roles, to question what professionalism means and what it looks like. Are we taking a humanistic approach in helping to shape new professionals, in assisting our users, and impacting our profession for the better? Some libraries have done this well, and I feel so fortunate to work where I do.

It’s clear to me that professionalism is a performance. It is, among other things, a gendered term, attributed more often to those with a good deal of privilege. It’s a complex word. Those who successfully perform the role of The Professional are afforded more respect and responsibility in the workplace. Yet the traits I value in other human beings (vulnerability, emotional intelligence, authenticity, empathy) don’t often seem to fit into a typical professional construct.

I want library professionals to have real, open relationships with the people they work with. Is this an unprofessional idea? I want library workers and managers to recognize the humanity of their users, their coworkers, and their staff. We need library professionals who question the ethics of our institutions, and our commitment, or lack of commitment, to diversity. We need librarians who stand up for access to information, patron privacy, and intellectual freedom, even when it is hard to do. I want librarians to feel comfortable challenging “the way we’ve always done things.” Does your organization encourage performing professionalism more than it encourages questioning the status quo?

Librarianship doesn’t need more professionals. Librarianship needs people who can look critically at our field and feel compelled to bring about change. We need leadership that actively encourages this. How can we create work cultures conducive to this?

I’m a passionate and idealistic individual. Sometimes I’m overly enthusiastic when it comes to my work. To some, I may come off as completely unprofessional. I love being a librarian and I love this profession, and I’m usually not too shy about expressing it. It’s been difficult to write this blog despite my own insecurities (what if I sound GASP – unprofessional?!). I’m genuinely interested in knowing how others have approached professionalism within librarianship – feel free to share your thoughts below.

 

January 2016 Collaboration with Hack Library School

ACRLog will be kicking 2016 off in a new and exciting way! Last fall, the ACRLog administrators had a discussion about the need for more LIS student voices on the blog. During our discussion, we recognized that Hack Library School (HLS) is the premier blog for LIS student communication. We knew that we wanted to honor this while still highlighting student voices and concerns to the broad readership that ACRLog has. As a result, a rich partnership with Hack Library School was created. This month, Hack Library School and ACRLog will be cross-blogging and co-blogging. This means that HLS posts from students–posts that focus on students’ lens, perspectives, interests, and anxieties–will be featured throughout January. These important pieces will replace our regular blogging schedule. All of the posts we’ll feature are written or co-written by HLS bloggers, LIS students, or very new LIS professionals. In return, HLS will be featuring ACRLog writers and other guests throughout January. Our ACRLog team will be writing about issues that we think might be of interest to students. Occasionally a post will be published in both venues. Regardless of if you’re a student, new professional, or seasoned librarian, we encourage you to follow both blogs throughout the month.

This initiative is based off of the belief that student voices are valuable to the profession and to practicing librarians. We truly believe that if practicing librarians are not listening to LIS students, they are not listening to the future of this profession. Our collaboration is meant to be a rich and valuable cross-pollination of voices and perspectives. We’ll feature posts that are co-written by administrators and students, posts that enable new professionals to reflect on the challenges of the last year, and posts that give students space to critically examine barriers and opportunities within their LIS school experience.

On a very personal note, this topic is near and dear to my heart. I started blogging for ACRLog as a student last fall. It transformed my last year as a graduate student in so many ways. It was invaluable to share to my reflections as a student publicly with the profession and engage with professionals before I formally became one. I’m thrilled that we’re providing a space for others to do the same. I know that I was given the opportunity to blog for ACRLog as a student because of the blog’s current administrators. The same is true of this collaboration. There are many practicing librarians that make student voices a priority. Maura Smale and Jen Jarson are two of them. I can’t thank both of them enough for not only believing in students but prioritizing them.

We encourage you to engage with both spaces and push the boundaries of this experiment. We hope it shapes your own practice, regardless of where you are in your LIS journey.

For more information about Hack Library School, please see Micah Vandegrift’s (HLS Founder) Leadpipe article.

Stating Your Case: The Annual Review

This year marks my first year as a professional librarian and, as such, January 2016 is the due date of my first full performance review packet. Librarians at my university are considered faculty and are on a continuing appointment track, which is similar to tenure but different in structure. While this is the first full performance review I’ve ever encountered as a librarian, it is *not* the first time I’ve had to do a performance review. I was reviewed countless times during my former career in the corporate sector, and the outcomes of these reviews helped determine whether I received a raise, promotion, or additional opportunities within the company. I’ve always felt moderately confident going into these previous performance reviews because their expectations were clearly delineated and set. There were clear rubrics that determined an average score from an above average score. But my upcoming performance review as a faculty member has my head spinning.

First, I should explain that my university bases librarian performance on whether or not we meet the ever-amorphous “excellence in librarianship” and “impact” benchmarks as opposed to metrics or other formulas. So what determines excellence in librarianship? You tell me. Please!

Many of my colleagues at other universities have clear cut standards to which they are evaluated: thirty percent of their time is dedicated to service, thirty percent is dedicated to teaching, and thirty percent is dedicated to research, and so on. However, my employer has not established a standard for “excellence in librarianship.” There is no definitive standard for delineating what excellence could be for a reference and instruction librarian versus what is deemed excellence for a technical services librarian, for example. Some may argue that the lack of clear standards is a huge check in the plus column for librarians. We aren’t relegated to metrics, and we can showcase our efforts and tell our stories any way we want (at least theoretically). While numeric formulas may seem confining or even archaic, I have discovered that articulating and justifying my intangible, behind-the-scenes efforts, in addition to my standard job responsibilities, is difficult. It’s up to the librarian to strategically align their performance with the mission and vision of both the library and the university, which is what we should be doing anyway, but this lack of explanation does tangle the process.

My full performance review will be a partial year review. When it is submitted, I will have been with my university for ten months. The first six months of this job were spent becoming acculturated to my first academic job at a large R1 university in a major metropolitan area. This entailed a lot of instruction shadowing, meeting with students and faculty, and traveling to the other academic centers where I was assigned as liaison. Listening and observing was a huge part of my day-to-day work life. I kept a daily log of my activities, and submitted monthly activity reports to my reporting officer. These meticulous notes show lots of progress, including relationship building with colleagues, faculty, students, and stakeholders at my institution. In other words, I may not have loads of fancy workshops and sexy publications under my belt – yet – but I have laid significant ground work for future projects and programs that will potentially have a large impact of my daily work. But how do I showcase these in an annual review under the banner of “excellence in librarianship”? Are these considered “soft skills” even though this is what it takes to make a real impact?

Here are a few thoughts I’m using to guide my writing. I do not presume a one-size fits-all approach, but merely offer suggestions:

1. Soft skills have serious value. In fact, I posit that instructional academic librarianship as a whole is moving toward a more backstage model. Meaning, we – especially new librarians – may not have loads of workshops, programs, or events on our year-end activities report, but we are constantly working on the more understated areas of librarianship, such as cultivating relationships with community stakeholders, for future benefit. Based on both mine and my colleagues’ experiences (both at my institution and outside of it), our roles are changing. We spend more time working with faculty and colleagues on large, months-and-years spanning projects that fall outside realm of a brief bullet point or narrative paragraph. Mention these long-term planning events and relationship building in your review packet. Don’t be reticent to sell your soft skills.

2. Connect your activities to the strategic mission and vision of your library and institution. Obviously this should be incorporated into both short-term and long-term goal planning, but it also needs to be explicitly stated, especially in a performance review dossier. For example, I know my reporting officer understands how I connect my goals to the mission and vision of the libraries and the unique needs of my liaison department, but does my Dean know that? Or the Provost? How can I make it clear to them?

3. Marketing, marketing, marketing. Does that word conjure four-letter imagery for you? I get it, I really do. There are power structures and privilege inherent in traditional corporate marketing practices. I also understand that, for many of us, the term connotes with other corporate lingo such as customer service, traffic forecast, year-end results. They word is faulty, but, quite frankly, it is important to harness its power for our own use as librarians. Subvert the traditional use, and harness its power to your advantage.

Think of it less as marketing, and more as conveying value: it is vital to convey our value to everyone – stakeholders, faulty, students, colleagues. And we convey this through marketing, whether we like it or not. The way you market yourself as a librarian could not be more important than during the full performance review. The action verbs you use to tell your story, the way your weave your story, how you present your reference/instruction/tutorial statistics (table, narrative, chart?), the structure of your reports – it’s all important. It makes you unique. I may be biased – my undergraduate degree is in marketing and I worked as a brand manager at an advertising agency prior to graduate school – but it’s important. Subvert and harness.

4. Clear and concise vs. verbose and extensive. I love a good, long narrative, but my full performance review is not the place to extol the minutiae of my daily activities. Rather, I choose to focus on an activity-impact model. I’m choosing a few points to tell my story. It’s the written equivalent of an elevator pitch: tell the story in two pages or less.

5. Get as much trusted and honest feedback as you feel comfortable with. I don’t trust a thing that I write until several trusted colleagues, mentors, or friends have proofread it.

Good luck and happy writing to every librarian writing their performance review in the throes of year-end chaos.

En/Countering a Cliché

One of the tools I use for my instruction sessions is a cartoon of a librarian sitting at the reference desk with her “Librarian” sign sticking out of the trash, replaced by a sign that says “Search Engine.” I use this as an attention grabber, both to insert a bit of self-deprecating humor as well as to make students think about what librarians actually do. Of course, it is also a chance to talk about the services that UNLV Libraries provides.

So it’s cute; librarians aren’t necessary anymore because now we have Google – it’s a cliché about librarianship, which many people might actually believe. In the age of ebooks and Google and remote access to databases and journals that are so user-friendly, with the pace of change in technology, do we really need actual people to help us find information? Clichés are clichés often because they contain some truth, and the truth in this case is disconcerting when this is your life’s work.

It seems that the library world does see changes in technology and in the public’s perceptions as a serious threat, or there wouldn’t be a need to continually re-invent ourselves and our profession, or talk so much about the future of libraries. Even some librarians believe outright that librarianship is dying. With all the marketing campaigns and headlines touting the benefits that we will see with the “Future of Libraries,” the library world is tacitly acknowledging the truth that the traditional services of libraries are becoming obsolete, at least to a certain extent.

So as I enter this profession full force – teaching instruction sessions, meeting with faculty and students, learning the collections, etc. – I find myself experiencing some doubts about my professional identity, especially as I realize that no, my services are not absolutely essential in order for professors to teach their classes effectively. Did I choose a career path that is still necessary and important today, one that will continue to be necessary and important in the future?

I know what you’re thinking…yet another blog post on the death of librarianship or its counterpart the “Future of Libraries.”

My contribution to this conversation – which I believe is unique– is that I think that we should embrace the “death of librarianship.” I think we should confront it head-on, rather than whisper about it amongst ourselves every time those outside the library world bring it up, or bemoan the decline in reference services, for example. In order to really educate others about librarianship, we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room. We should even have a sense of humor about it, for this is a way to cope with a painful reality. To the belief that librarianship is a dying profession, we should be able to say, “Yes, it is,” because librarianship in the traditional or historic sense is dying.

Then we should follow up that “Yes” with an “and.” I think acknowledgement and recognition that there is truth to this stereotype is the best first step towards devising a solution. Yes, librarianship as it has traditionally been practiced is dying, and actually it is in the process of reinventing itself into something else. Libraries/librarianship is emerging and will continue to emerge as a profession, a space, and a type of service that are still essential for society and for academia. What will this look like exactly? One thing is certain: we’re outgrowing many of the traditional aspects of librarianship, and things are going to look quite different.

I won’t rehash all the ways in which libraries are growing and changing; there are plenty of places to read about those. Data services is one area in academic librarianship in which lots of changes and growth are happening, and I’m getting to witness and participate in those changes at UNLV Libraries on the Data Team. What I do want to focus on, though, is the need for all libraries, academic and public (and special, too), to connect with their communities. This is one aspect of librarianship that is timeless. Yet now it is more important than ever that libraries fulfill this need to provide a common space that is centered on knowledge, really in order to help equip people with the knowledge that they need to make their lives better. We need to fight for this enduring truth about libraries even as we reinvent ourselves. It is a truth that, if upheld, will secure our future.

With growing inequalities in the US, the racial tensions that are making the news every day, and the many other oppressive systems around the globe, libraries, as free public spaces, are necessary. I recently had a conversation via email with my Political Science professor from my MA program about the importance of libraries, and he actually put it a lot better than I could have myself, so I include his quote here with his permission:

“I think the stronger case for libraries is to be developed in a social argument. In some way, the defense of libraries is like the defense of public space, that is, like the defense of a commons or commonwealth. In other words, both the library and the librarian find their strongest defense in the guardianship of a commonwealth of knowledge, produced by a diverse collectivity, and for the sharing and intergenerational transmission of that knowledge.” – Richard Gilman-Opalsky

A public space, a commons, which is centered on knowledge – what could be more important and vital to a society than that? Realizing this, I can then ask how it applies to me and my situation here at UNLV. UNLV Libraries may be focused on helping students get the grade, but it supports students in other ways as well. With its extended hours, UNLV Libraries provides common spaces for students to go when they have nowhere else to go. The Libraries provides some of the most popular spaces on campus. The Lied Library building was even open on Veterans Day and will be open for most of Winter Break. In providing this common space, the Libraries encourages the pursuit of knowledge by all students equally, including those who do not have access to computers at home or those who have no other place to go that is free from distraction.

Besides this, there are other steps I can take to make sure that my services support and fulfill this crucial mission of libraries. In my instruction sessions and research consultations, I can ask: am I operating under this kind of ethos that I espouse as a librarian? I can engage in self-reflective practices and examine my assumptions that I make about students, and even professors from cultures other than my own, to make sure that I am a part of creating this kind of environment in which all are equally free to pursue, create, and disseminate knowledge. My beliefs about other people affect how I approach the class and engage students and others, and hidden biases and prejudice seep through, often in very subtle ways. I like to think that I am self-aware and free from prejudice, but I know that neither of those things is completely possible. I can deliberately work to challenge those assumptions that I make, through self-reflection, dialogue with, and mentorship by, colleagues, and quite simply, additional practice – through my actions towards others. I’ll conclude with a quote from Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

“Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all). Faith in people is an a priori requirement for dialogue […]” (p. 90).

I strive to have faith, faith in my students and other users as well as in myself – that we are capable and worthy human beings – both for its own sake and because it is a requirement for the ethos of social justice – and critical librarianship – to inform and infuse my practice.

If we simply cater to the elite and the privileged, if we simply conform to the status quo, allowing the systematic oppression that surrounds us, we will surely lose our relevance and our importance faster than the changes in technology that threaten traditional librarianship. On the other hand, if we fight to make our profession socially just, which is necessary for ensuring that all can participate in this commonwealth of knowledge, and if we treat others with the dignity that is rightfully theirs, we will secure a future and thrive. Libraries will become vital again.

Finding Your Niche and Establishing Yourself in the Academy: What You Didn’t Learn in Graduate School

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Callie Wiygul, Social Work Librarian at the University of Southern California.

Seven months ago, I started a new job as a social work librarian in a city thousands of miles from home fresh out of graduate school. Since then, I’ve been trying to find my niche within my new (and MUCH larger) university and the wider community of academic librarians. I’ve also been working to turn my MLIS project to something that will establish me within the academy. During graduate school I worked in a public library, and before that I worked for nearly a decade in the corporate sector. This journey from the corporate to public to academic world has uniquely positioned me as a flexible communicator, perceptive learner, and ambitious librarian. But are these traits and my MLIS portfolio enough to establish me within the highly competitive and often individualistic world of academia?

For months (years!) of uncertainty, I have struggled to claim a place within the community of academic professionals. There is no set path to this goal. There’s not even a defined starting line, nor is there a finish line and Jumbotron to announce “You can stop running now, Callie, you’ve made it!” I have also learned that librarians must fight to convey our value to our institutions, subject faculty, and even students. Even more, I have learned that we also must convey our value to each other–our colleagues in librarianship. The struggle is real, y’all!

Publication, programming, service, leadership: all of these are common ways through which librarians establish themselves on campus and within the larger library community. But how do you become an established librarian before you have discovered your niche within the profession?

It’s not like there’s not enough for a first-year librarian to worry about already: burnout, imposter syndrome, and navigating the idiosyncratic politics within academia. This doesn’t include the challenges of serving as the liaison to a body of approximately 1,200 graduate students and 100 faculty at four academic centers in Southern California. But when I feel overwhelmed I try to remember that my incredibly successful colleagues were all new librarians once, too! Shocking, right?! It’s a borderline platitude, but this sentiment gets lost in the chaos that is venturing out and making a dent in the universe (just watched the new Steve Jobs biopic, sorry!). Instead of seeing barriers, I choose to view this experience as it is: a) my job, and b) a huge opportunity.

I am a big fan of asking questions and soliciting advice from veteran and rookie colleagues alike. I began venturing forth from my comfort zone on Day One and met with colleagues over lunch. I asked for feedback on my manuscript draft, posited questions about the underpinnings of reference and instruction programs at my institution, volunteered to join campus committees, and vetted ideas about programs and events to colleagues both within and outside of my liaison area.

Of course, none of this was carried out without anxiety! I’m almost always terrified when anyone—even closest friends and family—reads my words or hears my ideas. But this going-out-on-a-limb experience has unequivocally made me a better writer and thinker. Reaching out to fellow instruction librarians and asking them if I could observe their instruction sessions has introduced me to lesson plans and teaching styles that have definitely made me a better educator. I apply for (what seems like) countless leadership programs, calls for proposals, and grants because I am hungry to explore my interests in leadership, programming, and instruction not only to establish myself as a professional, but to become a better librarian as well. And, honestly, I’ve been turned down more times that I care to admit. But, hey…it’s par for the course in academia.

So how do I find a niche to call my own and the academic bona fides to give weight to my name? In everything I do, I consistently ask myself “Is this marketing tool/program idea/reference answer/FAQ submission helping people? Do I truly feel compelled to do it? Is it only because it is a hot topic on Twitter?” These questions often help me parse out the crucial from the superfluous. They also provide insight into potential career interests and goals.

It’s easy to fall down the proverbial rabbit hole of following others. So many librarians are superstars at what they do and have become “library famous” for their achievements. I’ve learned that as a new librarian, you can get caught in the vacuum of trying to follow every Twitter chat, read every article mentioned in said Twitter chat, while blogging about being a librarian, applying for grants, and developing new ideas. The Digital Age can be just as dizzying and disheartening as it can be nurturing and inspiring. Here is where I believe perspective can bring things into focus.

Instead of guiding my work with the intent on being a superstar, I guide my work by focusing on my growth as a librarian. I must find ways to design programs and ideas that will help faculty and students attain their research goals. At the same time, I must develop the confidence to create my own ideas and take advantage of my own abilities. That is MY goal. It has to be, because if my actions are simply founded on the desire to be library famous or earn the respect of the academy, they won’t be meaningful. I’d rather cultivate my niche and excel at it in a way that is both personally fulfilling and helpful to my students, colleagues, and university. Finding a niche and establishing myself won’t happen overnight, but it will if I stay focused on the bigger things and keep my fears and ego in check.