Category Archives: First Year Academic Librarian Experience

Getting Started with Instruction

This semester marks a significant step for me as I’m finally getting into doing instruction sessions on my own. Throughout last fall, I observed a lot of instruction sessions from several librarians and across a range of subjects. I also co-taught a handful of classes with a colleague, but it wasn’t until this month that I took on my own instruction sessions. I’m really glad I did some co-teaching already, because I was definitely nervous at the time and it’s good to have that out of the way now (for the most part).

In a short span of time I have done a handful of sessions, and not one of them the same. I started writing detailed reflections of all the instruction I have done so far – what I did, what worked, what didn’t work, what I would do differently next time, etc. – and while that is incredibly useful for me personally, I will refrain from posting the entire detailed accounts here! However, I will give a quick run-down:

  • So far I have done one-shots for two sections of Rhetoric, a course that’s required of all undergraduate students, but which can vary a lot depending on the instructor. For one section, their assignment was concept-mapping and researching potential careers based on their majors; the other section needed to find images to use for a visual analysis. Like I said, interesting stuff going on that was fun to work with!
  • I did a workshop in collaboration with TRiO, an organization that works with first-generation students. Part of the goal was to send them out into the stacks in a safe, no-pressure situation, so that they can avoid the “panic moment” later on when they really need to find something. Attendance was pretty low as expected, because it wasn’t required for a course, but some good discussion came out of it nonetheless.
  • Large groups of middle school students visit our library throughout the year to do primary research for the National History Day competition, and on one occasion I gave a 15-minute introduction. I kept it simple with just basic information and demonstrating SmartSearch – it was fun to switch gears for a bit for a much different audience than usual.
  • And most recently I gave an Express Workshop on how to use and make infographics. Express Workshops are weekly 30-minute workshops held in an open area in the Learning Commons, with a different topic and presenter every week.

I’m glad to have such a variety of classes to work with – for one thing, it keeps things interesting, and for another, I think it’s more challenging (in a good way) than if I were repeating basically the same session. However, the planning has been difficult at times.

A lot of the difficulties may come down to time management and figuring out my own process. I planned ahead as much as possible, but often felt like I was really getting prepared when time was down to the wire. I wanted to have lesson plans laid out a good deal ahead of time and prevent the stress of procrastination, but it was difficult for me to focus on future sessions when there were others to take place first – especially since these were my actual first instruction sessions ever. I think my planning problems stem in part from the fact that this is a much busier time of year than I expected it would be!

I can’t wait to get to the point where I’ve done enough instruction that I’m more confident with the whole process, from planning, to delivery, and assessment. When planning a session I consider many possible options and what would be most effective, and then still tend to question my decisions on what to include and how to conduct the session. I already feel a little more confident in my teaching abilities than I did even a month ago, and I know that the rest will take some more time and practice.

Does anyone else have similar concerns? Do you plan ahead, or do you work better under pressure? How much time does it take to plan a session?

The Sweetest Fruits are Further Up

Part of my experience as a first year academic librarian has also been my experience as a new tenure track faculty member. As a part of this tenure process for library faculty, I must go through an annual reappointment review. The review includes my direct supervisor, as well as a committee of tenured library faculty. This committee provides feedback and input in preparation for “going up” for tenure and promotion – which will happen in about four and a half years for me.

To this end, over the past week, I’ve been compiling my checklist for annual review. In thinking about what I’ve done in the half a year that is under review and submitting my 33 (!) page checklist (that includes publications and appendices), I started thinking about what made me feel good about turning in my first checklist.

Really, it’s simple – don’t go for the low-hanging fruit. I know I talked about this some in the first post I wrote here at the ACRLog, but it struck me again. Pleasure and pride in your work come not from doing “just enough” but from exceeding the expectations set for you as a first year academic librarian. A work-life balance is important to maintain (see my last post) but when you are at work, it’s important to take pride in the quality of that work.

I’ll freely admit that the first year in any new job – especially one with comparatively different duties than one’s previous jobs – is difficult. But it’s important to learn the expectations for you that will be reviewed by not only your supervisor, but also informally or formally by your peers and colleagues in the library. Talk to people, get a clear understanding of these expectations, and then exceed them.

For me, this meant passing up a few opportunities to serve and being perhaps a bit selective in what I chose to do to perform service for the profession. Right after I started in this position, there were several local and regional service opportunities I passed up, knowing that the expectation was for local, regional, or statewide service. That waiting and knowledge of expectations paid dividends when I applied for, and was accepted to, an international group working on revising the ISBN.

I’ll close with a piece of advice one of my friends gave me several years ago: that you begin in the manner you intend to continue in. The statement is perhaps a bit convoluted in syntax, but to me it is a reminder to the bar of expectations is set by your actions early, so it’s important to set a good standard early to both set professional perceptions of yourself in the workplace, as well as compelling you to do the best work you can.

PS – In honor of “library shelfie” day yesterday, here is a photo of technical services where I work shortly after our building opened in 1968:

Image credit: University of Arkansas Mullins Library history page, http://libinfo.uark.edu/info/mullins40/

Image credit: University of Arkansas Mullins Library history page, http://libinfo.uark.edu/info/mullins40/

Navigating a New Campus

One of the challenges I’ve encountered as a new academic librarian – that I’m sure other new professionals can relate to – is navigating the campus outside the library. I don’t mean physically navigating (although we all may get lost in a new building every once in a while), but figuring out the connections between various units and departments.

This particular issue stands out for me because I haven’t had to deal with it before – or at least, not in a very long time. Although I was in my last position for only a little over a year, I already knew the library and the university very well by the time I started in that position. This was the university I attended as an undergraduate, where I worked as a student assistant in Interlibrary Loan for my four years at the school, and later went on to work part-time in Special Collections while I was in graduate school. By the time I was a full-time employee, I was already familiar with the library and many of the people who worked there.

Having gone to school there as an undergraduate gave me a lot of prior knowledge about the university, which meant I didn’t have to worry about “figuring out” the campus when I began working there in my first full-time library job. Thanks to my experience as a student there, I already had a thorough understanding of how the campus worked in so many aspects – colleges and degree programs, various units and departments, the traditions and history of the school, and the general sense of “who does what around here.” In comparison to my previous experience, it’s clear now just how helpful it is to have that knowledge of the whole campus – something I’m sure I took for granted at the time. Now that I’m in a new position at a different university, I no longer have the advantage of already knowing “how things work” and “who does what.”

Getting a sense of the campus at large is something that has to be learned and pieced together over time. Not everything is going to make sense right away, which is why it is so important to ask questions, and to ask many people. I think that is an obvious bit of advice for anyone, but it can’t be said too much. My point of “knowing your campus” and “figuring out how things work” may be coming across a bit vague – that’s because it’s different for everybody and varies depending on the academic institution, and the individual’s job and responsibilities.

My recent venture into working with International Programs is an example of what I’m talking about. There is no one at the library designated as a liaison to International Programs, so I have taken on the project of looking at how we are currently serving international students and how we might serve them better. Upon investigating the International Programs website, I discovered that it consists of several sub-units, and it was unclear who I should contact to talk about creating a connection between international students and the library.

Although I didn’t fully understanding the structure of International Programs or who I should contact, I still had to take some sort of action to get the ball rolling (in this case, starting string of emails asking the same questions to multiple people didn’t seem like the best course of action) . Fortunately, I saw that the International Students Orientation was coming up soon, and was able to get myself on the agenda for a 5-10 minute presentation. I’m really excited that I was able to talk to the students at orientation, and it was great way to start strengthening our connection with this student community – now they have at least had an introduction to the library and know that they can ask librarians for help. It was also helpful for me as a chance to meet someone from International Programs in person and have a quick conversation, the result of which was a better understanding of International Student and Scholar Services (a sub-unit of International Programs) and knowing who I should contact next.

In a situation where I wasn’t sure how to get started on something due to being unfamiliar with the organizational structure, I was able to learn more about the campus unit by literally getting my foot in the door and showing up. It takes time to learn your campus and get a better idea of the bigger picture, but it definitely helps to jump on opportunities to get involved with, collaborate with, or even just have a conversation with people outside of the library.

Serendipity Without Stacks

Timeliness, structure, and willingness to perform process-oriented tasks and maintain operations with consistency are some of the work behaviors that I associate with librarians who have experience as hourly library workers.  For those reasons, I value the years that I spent as a full-time library staff person before being offered my first librarian role.

But moving from classified to professional status has, for me at least, involved a paradigm shift that has been difficult at times to wrap my head around.   As library staff, I had some autonomy and input into decision making, but my primary role was to carry out library protocol.  I believed that a cheerful, ‘can do’ attitude was the objective that I should constantly be striving for, and sometimes I even succeeded at that goal!

As a librarian however, I’m finding that a plucky attitude and a consistent desire to do my job well are only the beginning.  I must also conceptualize some of the overarching goals and objectives that I want to define my library career.  It isn’t that I’ve never thought critically about the role and future of libraries…I certainly did in graduate school!  However, over the last couple of years, I had put those thoughts aside in order to focus on job knowledge.  Moreover, I was engaged in a search for a professional job, and I wanted to keep my options open; I believed that over-narrowing my focus would be problematic.

Now, though, it is time for me to think deeply about the paradigms around which I wish to structure my career.  In some library roles, professionals are anchored by a collection or a narrowly focused user group, and their career objectives flow naturally from those starting points.   My position is a little different.  As I mentioned in a previous post, my job is newly created and intentionally flexible.  Moreover, I work in a non-traditional academic library environment, which is fairly young (the UW Library Research Commons is only 3 years old).

No doubt there are many library paradigms that I will come to explore, ponder, and perhaps even subvert (!) over the course of my career.  The one that I have been thinking about a lot lately, however, it that of the “serendipity of the stacks.”  I’m not sure where I first encountered this term, but a little quick research turns up an article by Michael Hoeflich [1] which captures succinctly the spirit of the idiom; that of the fortuitous nature of research and the intellectual thrill of making an important research discovery that can only be achieved through deep relationships with library collections.

This is a well worn idea, sure, but it’s in idea that I like and I identify with (full disclosure: I spent my graduate school years as a student curatorial assistant in my library’s rare book collection).

The Research Commons is bookless, and our focus is on providing space and technology to promote collaboration.  But from that collaboration, intellectual serendipity can surely arise.  I have personally seen it happen, particularly at the programs and events that we host in my library, such as our Scholars’ Studio series, which invites graduate students from across disciplines to present ‘lightning talks’ on a given topic.

Programming like this gets at the human aspect of “serendipity without stacks” and mark the library as a place where spontaneous learning and collaboration can happen.   It’s a good start.  But I am also interested in new modes of serendipity that could be discovered in the realm of digital scholarship.  What could this interest mean for the future of my library career?  I’m not sure yet, but I trust that the answers will come to me; through serendipity or otherwise.

1. Hoeflich, Michael H. “Serendipity in the Stacks, Fortuity in the Archives.” Law Libr. J. 99 (2007): 813.

New Academic Librarian In The Desert

It’s amusing and convenient that this post goes up on Christmas day. First, happy holidays, intrepid readers. As you read this, I am in one of my favorite places on earth – Marfa, Texas. This small west Texas town is home to major installations by some of the most significant abstract and minimal artists of the twentieth century.  Here’s an image my wife made on our last trip to Marfa, so you can get an idea of the place:

Repetition

As a faculty member and new academic librarian, I have a very generous two weeks of vacation at the holidays, which was quite a change from my previous position. It is a time to reflect, rest, and renew – and a time for me to think about the importance of not working.

We live in an always-on, always connected society, and work in places that are increasingly more connected with each passing day. No, I am not really talking about personal social media, but email, cell phones, and voicemail. If we so desire, we can be well and truly just a phone call or a message away from our workplace, even if we are half a world distant. I cannot say that this is without benefits, especially if someone is in a position (say systems) that requires one to be always on-call.

But it’s not an entirely positive thing, either. Always being “on” or connected to work through email, etc., means we never leave work behind, and that we can never truly let work go and relax. This connection to work can be true at vacation time, evenings during the workweek, or the weekend. In a fit of aversion to our connected society, I once participated in a discussion (and semi-experiment) about the benefits of being “disconnected.” Indeed, the virtues of being less virtually connected, and more physically engaged were extolled in a recent article in the New York Times.

For me, this means I rarely have my work email “on” on my smartphone. I do have my calendar on, but keep my email off. When I am not at work in my office or in meetings, I am unavailable via email. I made this clear to my colleagues, and that if there was a true emergency, there are other ways of contacting me. I do setup my out of office assistant in Outlook when I am on vacation, and block off the time on my work calendar.

Overall, this helps me to disconnect from work every evening, and disconnect on vacation.  If you’d like more strategies for disconnecting over your vacation, I’d suggest the book The Tyranny of E-mail by John Freeman. If being “always on” is a challenge for you, he has some great thoughts and strategies on the topic that are fairly easy to try. I know some of his strategies have certainly made my work/life balance far better!

Have a safe, relaxing, and disconnected (or engaged) holiday!