Category Archives: First Year Academic Librarian Experience

Culture Shock! and Other Discoveries of a New Academic Librarian

Academia is weird. I did three academic library internships and worked as two years as academic library staff before becoming an academic librarian at Cal State Fullerton. But I didn’t truly realize how weird academic was until I became, well, an academic. Now that I’ve achieved a full (academic) year of librarianship, I thought that it would be fun to reflect on my challenges, frustrations, and discoveries.

First off, in academia, you don’t have coworkers. You have colleagues! After a lifetime of hourly jobs and coworkers, I’ve really had to retrain my brain to start saying colleagues. Colleagues, colleagues, colleagues. And we librarians are basically flat hierarchically. Since we are all autonomous, I’ve had to do a lot of detective work to figure out who-does-what and who can (and is also willing) to help me on projects.

Second off, where is my boss? I’m partly kidding, but the level of autonomy I have and continue to have is astonishing. I think it’s partly a function of having a brand new position in a field with which my colleagues are unfamiliar, but on my first day I was basically shown my office and left alone. Being a brand new librarian in a new and growing field has been really challenging. I’m interested and engaged in all my work because I get to choose what I work on, but I’ve also had to learn to say “no” to many requests so that my workload is not unmanageable.

That leads to my third point: I am never bored. Never ever ever. For the first time in my life, I have engaging work to fill my hours well beyond the forty-hour work week. If I screw around at work, I’m only harming myself! My work now is also largely project-based rather than daily, weekly, or one-off tasks. I’ve had to learn to become a project manager, and project management continues to be a developing skill for me. Remember how I wrote that post on time management a few months back? I followed my own tips for quite a while, but it’s become a regular struggle to dedicate the time to better manage my time. Ironic?

Fourth, working as an academic sometimes feels like I’ve betrayed my working-class roots. I’m the only person in my family to have a college degree, let alone two graduate degrees. I come from a blue-collar background. My dad was a truck driver, my mom was a secretary, and my sister is a waitress. I’ve spent years waiting tables and loading trucks. It’s hard to explain what I do as an academic librarian to my family. Academia is also a strange world where colleagues take their children on college tours (you mean you can choose where you go to college?), and who also tend to assume a commonality of life experience (I’ve had to google some of the upper-middle-class things my colleagues talk about). Naturally, as a librarian, when faced with unfamiliar situations in life I do some research to find kindred spirits. Fortunately there are wonderful books like This fine place so far from home: Voices of academics from the working class, and, Limbo: Blue-collar roots, white-collar dreams. I also really like the blog Tenure, she wrote. I also get excited about critical pedagogy and critical librarianship, which I didn’t know existed before I was a librarian.

But finally, let’s not forget about all the buzzwords (aka alphabet soup) in academic libraries. HIPs, FYE, ACRL IL Framework, Retention, Student Success, 508 Compliance, OERs, OA. I’ve had a crash course in HIPs (high impact practices) and even attended a HIPs institute this month as a librarian representative on a campus team. I subscribe to several library-related listservs but still can’t tell you what LITA or LIRT stand for, or what the difference is between INFOLIT and ili-l. However, I fondly refer to information literacy as IL, and am baffled when non-librarians don’t know what I’m talking about. QP is QuestionPoint, ILL is my favorite thing ever, OPAC is often used incorrectly here, and any day now we’re going to get an IR. Meanwhile, I’ll get back to trying to sell my colleagues on a learning object repository where we can store all of the DLOs (digital learning objects) that we’re going to create together!

What are some of the things you found surprising about being an academic librarian?

It Takes All Kinds

I am a huge sucker for personality tests. It started young, I think – I’ve known I was an INFJ/ENFJ since I was a kid. Over the years I’ve branched out from the Myers-Briggs and taken a wide variety of tests, usually in either a school or work setting. Most recently the Collection Management division at UNT did the True Colors personality test. In this one you are ranked in four colors which each represent personality traits: blue, green orange, gold. I was skeptical, honestly, because the assessment seemed too simple. It consists of just five rows of attributes organized into four columns that you score as most-to-least accurate personal descriptors. And, of course, I became even more skeptical because I first scored everything backwards so my results ended up being way off. But once I got things straightened out (it was funny to see my coworkers disbelieving faces when I announced I was a gold which I am certainly NOT) the results were surprisingly accurate.

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The point is that this was a valuable exercise in self-awareness as well as team building. I learned about what motivates and what irritates my coworkers and what different skills sets each of us possess and value. However, I learned the most not from the test results themselves but from hearing feedback and opinions of my colleagues as we analyzed ourselves and discussed in which ways we fit the different categories (colors). It would be interesting to design a personality test that is wildly inaccurate but designed to foster conversation and collaborative skill analysis – I bet that would be just as valuable as something like this. All this to say – I love categorizing people through personality tests because I think it is a fun as well as professionally valuable activity. Among other things, it can help you understand why some tasks are difficult or unpleasant while other people excel at them. That being said, I really dislike personality tests that are used to categorize people into specific careers. This is commonly done in college and high school and, while it can be interesting, these tests simplify careers to the point that the test results are pointless and even harmful because they might keep someone from following a certain career path that might be a perfect fit for them.

For example, this infographic popped up on the ALA Facebook page this week (click to view):

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My initial response was irritation that it simplifies librarians into one role – that of an Organizer. That old-fashioned idea that librarians spend all their putting books on shelves using the Dewey Decimal system and maintaining a catalog. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the largest percentage of librarians are actually ‘Helpers’ not ‘Organizers’. This is probably especially true in school and public libraries but also in academic libraries – particularly librarians in Reference & Instruction or Public Services. Some academic librarians are Persuaders – they often end up as deans or other administrators and there are definitely Thinkers in the academic library. And we definitely have and need Creatives in the academic library – to support the art students and faculty or run the music library, among other things. But then I started thinking about the other careers mentioned. Couldn’t someone become a physician out of a desire to be a help people rather than practice science? Programmers, in my experience, are often more like Builders than Organizers – they are just building digital objects or applications instead of doing carpentry. So maybe this kind of categorization is useless all around, not just for librarians? Or are librarians just especially hard to categorize because we, as I’ve heard said, “wear lots of hats” – especially, perhaps in the academic environment?

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Let’s Assess!

The California State University system has been considering a move to performance-based funding. Librarians here have expressed a lot of consternation about how we can show we’re worth funding, let alone why we should have to show it at all. At the same time, Cal State Fullerton is making a big push towards implementing and assessing High Impact Practices (HIPs) as part of our focus on increasing student engagement, retention, and graduation, so as a library we have to figure out how we can incorporate HIPs as well.

I think there’s a tendency for librarians to worry a lot about how we’re going to assess what we do, both because it’s not something we’ve done formally and we’re inexperienced with it, and because librarians worry that their academic freedom is going to be impinged.

As an Instructional Design Librarian, I see the push towards assessment a little more optimistically (though I’m not at all onboard with performance-based funding!). However, I am interested in being effective at what I do, whether facilitating student learning, or providing outreach at campus events. I want to know if I’m making a difference. I also feel pretty well equipped to perform assessment activities since instructional design is my specialty.

What do you want to know?

Before we should start worrying about how we’re going to assess what we do, we have to decide what we want to assess. I think that there are two paths to decide on what we want to assess. There are our campus priorities, which of course we have to support, especially with the possibility of performance-based funding. There are also our own priorities – what kind of library do we want to be? What kinds of services and collections do we want to provide? What do we want students to learn from our one-shots?

I’m an Instructional Design Librarian, so naturally my assessment focus has an instructional bent. I like to write learning objectives for every session I teach, and each learning object that I create. Learning objectives ought to be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and (sometimes) Time-bound. I write objectives for one-shots like “students will be able to give two examples of why a scholarly database is a better choice for university research than Google,” or they’ll be able to “describe the process for finding books using the Books & eBooks tab on the Pollak Library home page.” I’m not likely to demand that students write essays on how to search for books at our library so that I can formally measure their mastery, but I am likely to do an informal assessment to verify that students are learning.

Both formal and informal assessment will give us useful information on what works and what doesn’t, possibly saving us from using time and money on instructional efforts that aren’t effective. Formal assessment is just the quizzes and tests we give, or other graded assignments from which we can collect data. Informal assessment might just consist of chatting with your students to see if they “get it,” or if students are actually accomplishing a given task that they were assigned. I use a lot of informal assessment in my one-shot sessions due to limited time. However, I’m also working on a couple of assessment-related projects at my university that will yield useful data.

ID Workshops, ACRL Assessment in Action, and Badges

As this post falls under the cateogory “First Year Academic Librarian Experience,” you might assume that I’m still a new librarian. You’d be correct. That means I haven’t yet accomplished any meaningful assessment efforts, but I’m on my way. Last month I planned and delivered an instructional design workshop for librarians, wherein I introduced the concepts of Backward Design and how to write learning objectives. We definitely need to work more on writing measurable learning objectives, and I plan to deliver more workshops in the future. (FYI, I assessed my “students’” learning through Plickrs and Padlets in the class, but it was definitely informal assessment). I want to help librarians discover ways they can be as effective as possible in their work.

I’ll be doing some major assessing for the next 14 months since I’m now the proud Librarian Team Leader of the Pollak Library Assessment in Action (AiA) Team, part of the third cohort of ACRL’s AiA program. We’re going to embed our Human Services Librarian into an online class this fall, and assess his impact on student learning. This particular Human Services class used to come in for in-person instruction, but since it’s gone totally online the instructors have done without library instruction. This is a trend at our university, so I’d like to learn how we can better serve our online students and now just let them fall off our radar.

Finally, I’m contemplating the mechanics of implementing a badges program here at our university. I recently managed to get a really simple (beta) eLearning webpage going for us on a WordPress platform. There are several WordPress plugins that can be purchased that turn your WordPress site into an LMS – like LearnDash and Sensei. With the site magically transformed into an LMS, we can award badges based on quiz and tutorial completion. How cool would it be to tally up the number of Super Searcher badge-holders? If we were able to track our badge-holding students’ retention and graduation rates, we’d have some really nice information on the library’s correlation with student success!

A World with No Meetings?!

If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be: meetings.
— Dave Barry, “25 Things I Have Learned in 50 Years”

As funny as I think Dave Barry can be, and in spite of the fact that he is correct to imply that meetings are often not the most efficient way to get things done, I am one of those weird people that actually enjoys meetings. Not ALL meetings, obviously, but more than half of them. And even during un-enjoyable (i.e. unproductive) meetings I try to walk out with something that I can take with me and make useful…and I usually can (even if occasionally what I walk away with is a firm resolution to never impose a similar meeting on anyone).

Clearly, some meetings are more valuable than others but why? Reflecting on my current position in academia I feel that within the division of the library in which I work a pretty high percentage of our meetings are useful. Often they are a time to collaborate. The best meetings are those in which we get together with the intention of making decisions collectively and leave the meeting having done so…or in which the goal of the meeting is to learn something specific. The worst meetings, on the other hand, are those without a clear goal and, my personal pet peeve, those focused on brainstorming.

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As an example of a “good” meeting: twice a month I go to a meeting with the other members of the “Acquisitions Team” which consists of three collection development librarians (I am one of them), the Media Librarian and our Collection Assessment Librarian. We discuss areas of the collections that are important or need resources (based on data collected by our assessment librarian) and make decisions about how to curate our collection. And that is key: our goal is to make decisions; we do not just talk about ideas. There is a clear agenda for each meeting and a dedicated online space for our group to collaborate and communicate between meetings so that we are all up-to-date. These are useful meetings.

Quite a few of the meetings I attend are with vendors. As the Electronic Resources Librarian vendor communication is a huge (HUGE) part of my job. Some of these meetings are in-person while others are webinars, usually demos of products we own but occasionally demos of products we are evaluating or trialing. Sometimes these meeting are just myself and a vendor rep, other times these meetings involve more people – often subject librarians and even faculty. These meetings are almost always useful because they are an opportunity to learn about resources that support our users. Sure, you can read about vendors and resources online or watch tutorials but the chance to ask questions and see a demonstration of the value of a particular resource to our specific users is invaluable.

And then, of course, there are committee meetings. Whether you are a member of the teaching faculty or a faculty(-equivalent) librarian you attend committee meetings! Honestly, some of these are pointless in the sense that we could get done what we get done without meeting and in probably a lot less time. I think the reason these are “necessary” is often because the tendency of many people is to not participate if they don’t have to show up somewhere and I don’t know if that will ever change. Whether the main focus of your job is teaching, working in administration, or running the library, it is really easy to put committee work on the back burner. I have to schedule time on my calendar to prepare for meetings or else I will get busy and forget because my day-to-day responsibilities are more obvious. If I don’t respond to an email about an ebook issue or complete an order form, etc the library (or at least my little part of the library) will not be functioning smoothly. If I don’t prepare for a meeting of the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee there is not an immediate problem although in the long term if committees aren’t doing the planning the university will stop functioning smoothly…therefore meetings wherein we vote on new courses are useful.

Okay, I’m backing myself into a corner defending the value of meetings so I will stop now. In each instance I mentioned the time spent in a meeting is only worthwhile if certain things happen. In my opinion, these things must include, at minimum:

  1. One or more concrete decisions being made or measurable outcome accomplished.
  2. An agenda in place and followed.
  3. Valuable information being disseminated.

I have certainly attended meetings that were not useful. My personal frustration is highest with “brainstorming meetings”. These are usually somebody fleshing out an idea while everyone else contributes minimally or not at all. The person doing the brainstorming is almost always the person who called the meeting. If you want to do collaborative brainstorming make sure you include 1, 2, and 3 from above. Have an agenda, be sure you have an objective outcome to attain and be sure that the project or program you want to brainstorm about will benefit from information that every single invitee provides.

This post has been a round-a-bout way of getting to my point: meetings can be useful but there are limits to that and requirements for any meeting that must be met in order to achieve usefulness. I absolutely love this flowchart from the Huffington Post. It doesn’t perfectly match my own opinion or what I perceive to be the needs of my department but I would like to rework it to do so. If I get that done, I will come back and update this post but I haven’t had time to get to it yet – to many meetings!

I’m wondering what works for meetings at other academic libraries. What makes your meetings useful? Are they ever useful? Would you be happy in a world with NO meetings? I wouldn’t but I recognize that I might be in the minority.

Going National at ACRL

I had the great privilege to attend ACRL last month in Portland – my first national conference! ACRL veterans had given me the scare that ACRL conferences are intimidatingly large and difficult to get around, but I planned out what I wanted to see in advance and found the conference very approachable, especially after attending the first-timers presentation.

I was excited about my impending trip to Portland for ACRL 2015 for months in advance, and Portland was truly a fantastic location for a conference. The public transportation was incredible, and drivers so friendly to walkers and cyclists – a complete departure from my home in Orange County.

What I got out of ACRL 2015

The biggest takeaways I had from attending ACRL were from networking and learning about what librarians were doing at other institutions. The very first presentation I intended was about online embedded librarianship, which is a project that I’m working on at my institution since only a couple of librarians have done online work with students. I learned a lot from audience participants and from chatting with librarians sitting near me. I also really enjoyed the poster sessions – I attended all of them, and chatted with many of the presenters.

I also made friends with many librarians from my area of southern California! I had lunch with a librarian that works only 40 miles away from me, but, amusingly, we met in person for the first time in Portland. I also got to reconnect with colleagues from previous places I’ve worked. It was great to see familiar faces!

While planning out the events I wanted to see at ACRL, I crammed my schedule full of vendor lunches and social hours, but pared those back and I’m really grateful I did. I had much less free time than I thought I would, and social opportunities and other events cropped up organically. Deciding that I wouldn’t overextend myself also meant that I briefly felt guilty about skipping Jad Abumrad’s keynote for a nap, but the nap was totally worth it.

What I would do differently next time

However, I did not attend any workshops or roundtables, or the Unconference – and I wish that I had. I was indecisive about attending the workshops and didn’t sign up before they all filled, but after the fact I realized that my work would really have benefitted from spending several hours developing a concept or a project. The roundtables probably would’ve been another great opportunity to learn from what other librarians are doing.

Next time I’m also definitely going to propose a presentation or roundtable (this year I was barely starting out as a librarian when the due date came!). A colleague and I were lucky to have a poster accepted for the virtual conference, but I would love to gather librarians interested in the same topics I am in one place to share and hear ideas.

What else should I attend as an Instructional Design Librarian?

I’m now pretty close to finishing out my first year as a new Instructional Design Librarian! While I got a lot out of attending ACRL, I wish that I had seen more presentations that were more directly relevant to what I do at work. Early in the academic year, I received the advice from a senior librarian to attend conferences where there are “people that do what you do,” but I don’t think there are that many librarians that do what I do, at least to the same extent.

I recently learned about the DevLearn conference, held in Las Vegas each year. It targets instructional designers and e-learning developers, not librarians – but it sounds right up my alley! I was intrigued by last year’s presentations that were focused on advanced aspects of Articulate Storyline functionality, or tutorial navigation design. While somewhat local, it’s really pricey! But perhaps it’s something to keep in mind.

Librarians at ACRL recommended that I attend Internet Librarian, or LOEX – but Internet Librarian doesn’t seem quite relevant to what I do. LOEX, though, has a lot of potential, and sounds like a great, small-ish, conference to attend as an instruction librarian.

Wrap-Up and Up Next

I stayed in Portland an extra day for sightseeing. I rented a bicycle for 24 hours and got a lot of use out of it, especially since the weather was sunny and perfect! I also ate wonderful food while I was in Portland (who knew a pickled beet and horseradish sandwich would be pretty tasty) and had the best toasted hazelnut latte of my life from a hipster coffee shop. I highly recommend taking time to sight-see after conferences, alone or with library friends. On my solo adventures on Saturday I ran into many a librarian, and then I went on a lazy bike tour with a friend on Sunday.

Alas, it seems like that day of sightseeing was the last day of not worrying about work for a while! In June, I’ll be attending the 2015 Institute on High-Impact Practices and Student Success in Madison, Wisconsin, as part of a university team; then I’ll be in San Francisco for ALA, where a colleague and I will be presenting a poster in-person. Previously I had been looking forward to my summer being slow so that I could tackle big projects, but I’m already anxious that I won’t have much free time at work, especially since I’ll be taking three weeks off work in July for vacation, and then my first tenure-track portfolio will be due mid-September. But I’m still looking forward to finishing out my first year as a real librarian!