Category Archives: First Year Academic Librarian Experience

Thoughts for 2014 MLIS Grads from a Newbie Librarian

At my college reunion last month, I watched an energetic crop of newly minted liberal arts graduates receive their diplomas from my east coast alma mater. The University of Washington operates on a quarter system and our students graduate in June, so now that I’m back at my post I get to watch the whole thing play out a second time for the seniors and graduate students of my acquaintance.

I know that when this cohort of graduates leaves the Information School at the University of Washington and information schools around the country, a handful will find a job that is a great fit, right out of school.  A few will never end up working as professional librarians. Most of those students, however, will take a middle path. They won’t find their dream job right away. They might make sacrifices in location, schedule, salary or job description. They will experience bewildering inconsistencies–like being turned down for a part time page position one week and offered a salaried job the next. They will be expected to take on additional unpaid work or expensive training in order to get a shot at the jobs they want.

It turns out, the post-graduate school job search and subsequent first few years of work are, like just about every aspect of adult life that I’ve experienced so far, about a hundred times more difficult than I imagined. As I’ve mentioned here before, I worked for a couple of years in an academic library job that I really enjoyed, but I had a crazy schedule and no professional status.  My current position is temporary and not tenure-track, so the learning curve is far from over for me.

I don't REALLY believe this sentiment...honest!
I don’t REALLY believe this sentiment…honest!

For example: at the moment, we are working on hiring next year’s crop of graduate student assistants in the Research Commons, and I have found that I can learn a lot from their poise and professionalism. The iSchool at UW admits great students, and it seems like every year the cohort gets savvier and more competitive, but I was still surprised by the level of scrutiny that we needed to apply to these students in order to choose between many qualified applicants. It freaked me out to realize that when I must pursue the next step in my career, that scrutiny will be turned in my direction.

There’s no doubt about it; the cost of a MLIS degree is high and the job market is uncertain. I don’t want to trivialize the very real challenges that new grads face, because it certainly seems that the stakes are higher for them than ever before. It’s very important to put some significant thought into how you are going to manage the financial aspects of your librarian endeavor, particularly if you might not be able to go directly into a well-paying job. These inevitabilities are frustrating, but even in my most cynical moments, I’ve never regretted my decision to get my MLIS. I love being able to tell people “I’m a librarian!” It’s a part of my identity now, and one that I’m unreasonably proud of. I have tons of loyalty and affection for the members of my MLIS cohort as well.  They are an awesome group of people, with whom I completed two years of challenging academic work. A little bit of magical thinking, or creative self-visualization, can help you get through the moments of doubt. When I’m feeling philosophical, or dire, I like to imagine that, even if there were no libraries left to run, I’d still be a librarian in the core of my being; that I’d be helping people find reliable sources of information in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, or telling half remembered novel plots around the campfire to a group of other zombie survivors. Heck yes!

From time to time, friends have asked me whether I think they should pursue an MLIS. That’s a really hard question to answer. It seems to me that the most successful information professionals are the ones that embody a series of paradoxes. It’s important, for example, to be very invested in your work and let your commitment show; but if you’re slavishly devoted, people will take advantage of that and you’ll end up burning out. You want to have compelling interests outside of your library work; but if a prospective employer senses that this is just a ‘day job’ and that you’d rather be doing something else, you probably won’t get hired. And, in my experience, the hardest part of forming my professional persona has been figuring out how much to diversify.  I greatly enjoy multiple (and sometimes competing) aspects of the library profession. I treated my graduate course schedule like an all-you-can-eat buffet, and when I graduated, I could see myself in several types of professional environments. A few years in the field have narrowed my focus somewhat, but I still feel conflicted between competing urges to specialize and diversify my librarian skillset. That conflict has tripped me up more often than not. So, I’m not sure how well I’m doing at embodying paradoxes. At this point, I’m just finally getting a handle on embodying myself, thanks very much!

So this is it…a work in progress. When you get it all figured out, let me know. I’ll see you around the campfire.

Experiences in Collaboration

In seventh grade, my English teacher required us to read a book each month and write a report on it. Naturally, there was an approved list of titles one could choose from, and on it were the works of Agatha Christie. My suspicion is that I’d seen one of the Poirot episodes on A&E and that piqued my interest in reading the works of Christie. Her Poirot novels I read in seventh grade were my entree into the detective novel genre – one that I enjoy to the present day.

It’s a love I share with my wife and Saint Bernard, as many evenings find us at home crammed on the couch watching one or another episode of a detective show. Poirot, Sherlock (both the Cumberbatch and Jeremy Brett incarnations), and Nero Wolfe are among our favorites. Recently, however, our show of preference has been Foyle’s War, set in World War II Great Britain. Many elements make this a great program – Michael Kitchen’s acting is excellent and the intro theme is lovely – but most interesting is the collaboration between Foyle (Michael Kitchen), his driver Sam Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) and his Sergeant, Paul Milner (Anthony Howell). While Foyle is, in typical detective genre style, the “brain” behind it all, he would not be as successful without Sam and Sgt. Milner.

It was this collaboration that set my mind to thinking about collaboration for those of us that don’t investigate murders and jewel thefts, but instead work together to give access to the information held by our respective institutions. As a first-year academic librarian I’ve found collaboration both in and out of the library to be invaluable. It occurs to me that my posts here have touched on this but I’ve never really talked about the value of collaboration to me as a “first year.”

In my previous position, I worked closely and collaborated with the librarians who are now my colleagues here at the University of Arkansas. At a fundamental level, working well with others gives you a good reputation in the library community, both locally and globally. If that collaboration had not existed and been a positive one I would more than likely not have been selected for the position I am in now.

That is, admittedly, a selfish way to think about collaboration – and as members of the academy, we strive for service to that academy, as well as our respective disciplines. Most of that work is carried out in committees – to my mind a formalized collaboration. And as it’s something many of you have had experience with I will not spend any more time writing about committees. No, what I have in mind are the less formal collaborations one participates in.

For me these informal collaborations make my work richer in two very tangible ways. First, with a fellow cataloger here as well as a library specialist, I wrote an article currently under review at Cataloging & Classification Quarterly. The article details our method for handling electronic theses and dissertations, and is much richer with their contributions and ideas. Also, I don’t know if I could have written the article without their help and prodding! Second, in collaboration with Sarah Burke Cahalan of Dumbarton Oaks, I am presenting at the RBMS preconference in Las Vegas about an under researched scientific illustrator who spent most of his career in the Ozarks. This presentation and research would not have been possible without Sarah’s work with the artist’s family and her work with institutions in her area that hold work by this artist. I am immensely grateful for her work in making our research about the artist far better than that which I could have done on my own. As an aside, I will also say that our library administration really appreciates these collaborations – especially with other outside institutions.

So these collaborations are indeed valuable and helpful to the first-year librarian. What can you do to facilitate these collaborations? First, listen. Listen to the research interests and areas of your colleagues – academics love nothing better than to talk about their own research. Second, reach out. I never would have met Sarah if it weren’t for twitter. It’s important to have an active professional presence in whatever social media arena you feel comfortable in. Third, don’t be afraid of asking – the worst that could happen is that a potential collaborator could say no.

Finally, my charge to you is to start some form of collaboration next week. Identify and have lunch with a faculty member on campus about a shared research interest. Reach out to your “research hero” at another institution about that great idea you’ve had. But most of all, do it all with an upbeat attitude and a kind smile on your face!

Embedding, Flipping, and More at LOEX 2014

I was fortunate to be able to attend the LOEX Conference this year, which took place May 8-10 in Grand Rapids, MI. I have only ever heard great things about this conference, and accordingly, I had a great experience.

This was my first time attending the LOEX Conference and I only became aware of it recently (within the past year). Many readers here will likely be familiar with LOEX, but for those who aren’t, LOEX stands for Library Orientation Exchange and it is a “self-supporting, non-profit educational clearinghouse for library instruction and information literacy information.” The annual conference has earned a reputation for being particularly relevant and exciting for instruction and information literacy librarians, as attested by the many people I met who were either multiple-time attendees, or thrilled to finally get to go to the conference.

I went into the conference with high expectations, which were met and exceeded. The two days were full of presentations and workshops that are extremely relevant to my work, and with ideas I can incorporate by making small changes. I love coming away with new ideas that are practical, so I can actually implement them myself. Here are some things that the LOEX Conference got me thinking about:

Embedding

A few presentations focused on embedded librarianship in one way or another. “Embedded” often refers to being embedded in an online course, but these conversations also brought up ways to extend the library’s presence beyond the one-shot, without necessarily being embedded online. For example, librarians can collaborate with faculty to redesign a course or a central assignment. That sounds like it can be a huge task (to me, at least), but some possibilities for integrating information literacy outside of the one-shot could be having students do a reflection paper about their research process, introducing concept mapping to develop literature reviews, or discussing with faculty how information literacy fits in with their own disciplinary content and pedagogical goals.

Another opportunity to be more embedded comes as a solution to a common problem – when you receive a request for instruction at the very beginning of the semester, clearly not at the point-of-need. Of course, try to schedule the instruction session at a time when students will benefit more from the information, but you could also visit the classroom at the initial request for a short 5-10 minute introduction of yourself and the library. This would increase students’ familiarity with a librarian and allow you to build a relationship with students prior to the one-shot session, an important connection which I think can go a long way. If the initial classroom visit gets too time-intensive, it could be replaced by a re-usable introduction video.

Flipping

During the interactive session on the flipped classroom, my group ended up talking about student buy-in and accountability: what do you do when students come to class having not done the pre-assignment or reading? One answer is to plan ahead with faculty so that the pre-assignment can be added to their syllabus, thus adding more accountability. My first reaction to this idea was that there is no way I can have instruction sessions planned out far enough in advance to be added to a syllabus. However, I now think this could take the form of a more general statement, for example:  “At least one class session will be led by a librarian to introduce you to library resources and assist with research skills. This may require a pre-assignment.” This leads to another point that the presenters stressed as important for a successful flipped classroom: identifying faculty who will be supportive. It’s less likely that students will see value where their instructor doesn’t.

That session also served as a great reminder for me that flipping the class should not be an opportunity to cram in more information, but an opportunity to cover a topic more in depth through the use of a pre-assignment and in-class active learning. I realized that the one time I somewhat-flipped the classroom, it was because I didn’t have time to cover everything I wanted to. I sent a video tutorial for them to watch ahead of time, and it was just an add-on, rather than an enhancement.

And More

These are really just a few things that I came away with after LOEX, and it’s already my longest post here yet. Some other useful ideas I picked up had to do with active learning assessment, design recommendations for online tutorials, and reflecting on and improving teaching strategies.

I constantly had a tough time deciding which session to attend, because they all looked good. By scrolling through the conference hashtag (#loex2014) on Twitter, I could tell that was the case. One thing I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed the interactive sessions. Although I didn’t think I would want to interact very much, I ended up loving how they facilitated conversation and sharing of ideas with new people.

It was great to attend a conference for academic librarians that was so focused on instruction and information literacy, and I definitely hope to go to the LOEX Conference again sometime.

Professionalism–are we there yet?

Next week, I will travel to the other side of the county for my 10 year undergraduate college reunion. I’m excited and nervous about going back to my old college haunts. Part of the nervousness comes with the territory at any reunion: will I have met an acceptable number of life-milestones in order to not be shunned by my classmates? However, some angst is more specific to my situation. My undergraduate institution is an elite women’s college that employs a lot of rhetoric about preparing professional women to do important work in the world. Am I doing important work?  I would argue that yes, my work at the library plays a very important role in the life and health of the academic institution.  Ah, but am I a professional?  About that bit I am less sure.

It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since I was an undergraduate myself, and that I now serve and supervise undergrads as a professional academic librarian. Part of my management philosophy has always been to lead by example, and conversely, to work hard to follow the example of those whom I admire. But I also like to be genuine with others at work, and find areas of connection outside of the library. And I certainly don’t LOOK like the ‘professional’ that I imagined I might be at my age when I graduated from college ten years ago. (Real talk; I am currently wearing sneakers and wiping Toblerone crumbs from my desk.)

Jake the Dog looks on as a get some serious work done.
Jake the Dog looks on as I get some serious work done.

But as a new librarian, it can be difficult to ‘be professional’ because professionalism itself seems to be a moving target. Everyone I work with seems to hold themselves to different standards when it comes to how to dress for work, how much to share about one’s personal life, and how to conduct oneself on social media.

As usual, the internet can help. I’m a big fan of the Adulting Blog, which provides a host of humorous and useful aphorisms for those of us who are trying hard to behave like adults.  Numerous library blogs address these issues, and I particularly like the level of granularity that the I Need A Library Job Blog sometimes reaches…one recent post focused on the use of pronouns in thank you notes; specific but usefully so. And if, like me, you are part of or on the cusp of the millennial generation and have limited stores of self control when it comes to the internet, this list of tools at 99u can help you block offending sites and rediscover your focus.

Ultimately, I’m happy that I didn’t join a profession where I would be expected to wear a suit and heels, or never to talk about with coworkers about ‘that cute thing that my dog did yesterday.’  Likewise, it is probably to the good that library schools tend not to overemphasize workplace conduct…most of it is common-sense knowledge that is more effectively learned through communication backchannels from peers and advisors. But I believe that putting some thought into what kind of professional I want to be; actually articulating to myself my own professional standards and how I can do a better job of holding myself to them, is a good exercise for a new librarian.

The Urge to Do Everything

This week marks eight months into my first professional librarian position (man, does time fly, or what?) and as I get closer to the one-year mark, I’m thinking about what I’ve accomplished so far and starting to form goals for next year. Reflecting and goal-setting are good practices in general, but I’m making a conscious effort to do so after coming to the realization that I cannot, in fact, do *everything*.

I try to get involved in as many different kinds of projects as I can, and I seek out a lot of professional development opportunities (like this one – guest blogging for ACRLog’s First Year Academic Librarian Experience!). Luckily, the flexibility of my job allows me to contribute to a variety of projects and initiatives, explore new ideas, and collaborate with many different people. However, because I have varied interests and love to do a little bit of everything, I can easily end up taking on too much at once.

A perfect example would be from earlier this year, when I learned the hard way that if you submit a conference proposal, you have to actually have the time to follow through with it. I submitted a proposal for a poster session, not expecting anything to come of it, and then to my surprise it actually got accepted. I’m not at all saying that’s a bad thing – I had a rewarding conference experience and enjoyed talking with other attendees about my poster – but having to prepare for that in the midst of an already busy time of year made for some very stressful moments.

It’s hard for me to pass up an opportunity when it comes along, which is why I apply for just about every scholarship, award, or professional development program I can find. If there’s a scholarship granting travel funds for a conference, you can bet I’m trying to get it. I’m also on the lookout for other programs that I might be able to participate in (like ACRL Immersion). It’s especially tempting to not let all of these great opportunities slip by because so many are available to “new or early-career librarians” (hey, that’s me!). If you think that I must have spent a lot of time writing application essays and personal statements in the last eight months…well, you’d be right.

Not always the best approach.
Not always the best approach.

That need to *do all the things* can have great payoffs. I’m now looking forward to the LOEX Conference next month (which I wouldn’t be going to at all without the conference scholarship), and the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians this summer. But of course, I have also spent time writing a handful of unsuccessful application essays. It’s always disappointing news to not get a scholarship or not get into a great program, but what can be more frustrating for me at times is knowing that I put time, effort, and energy into an application packet only for it to not work out.

What this all comes down to is that time is valuable, and there’s not enough of it to do everything that comes along or anything that strikes my fancy. While reflecting on the past year and planning ahead for the next one, I’m thinking I should make sure my professional development activities are aligned with my goals, rather than acting on the urge to do any- and everything possible.

Of course, I say all of this now just as I’ve spotted another travel award for a conference that I’m just dying to get started on!

On that note, this post in Library Journal helpfully reminded me that there are more ways to engage in professional development than attending conferences and leadership institutes, publishing, presenting, and performing committee work. I get a lot out of following social media and blogs, which are beneficial without requiring money, travel, and a major time commitment.