Category Archives: First Year Academic Librarian Experience

New Growth

April has arrived, and with it the first week of Spring quarter here at the University of Washington. The blossoms are blooming on the lovely old cherry trees that line our quad. Throngs of people; UW students, locals, and tourists alike, have been mobbing our campus for a glimpse at this spring ritual. It’s a chance to have a picnic, spend time with family and friends, and yes, take a ‘selfie’, surrounded by the promise of new growth, renewal and ephemeral beauty. Spring promises to be a very busy time in the Research Commons as well.  It’s also a pretty exciting time for me, because I’m starting to see a lot of projects that were in their infancy when I took my position back in September finally begin to take shape and come to fruition.

Cherry blossoms on the UW campus
Cherry blossoms on the UW campus, with Odegaard Undergraduate Library in the Background.

A renovation project to one of our study spaces is finally underway, after months of talks with the vendors and other stakeholders.  A presentation proposal which my boss and I submitted many weeks ago was accepted to a conference.  A partnership with a campus organization that was begun in Fall quarter is now blossoming into a more permanent programming opportunity.  A planning group that I lead is finally making significant headway on creating a new program model that the Research Commons will debut next fall.

All of this is nice, but I’ve only been in my position for half a year. So most of these projects had already been dreamed up or set in motion before I took them on. It’s great to feel that you are getting somewhere with the projects that were laid out for you by others, but it’s an even greater feeling to see a project that you initiated through from start to finish.

One of the cool things about working in the Research Commons, is that we work with a team of up to four graduate student assistants, three of whom are in UW’s MLIS program. I want to give them a shoutout here, since my  last column focused on our terrific undergrad assistants! We’ve been lucky enough to attract a great group of grad students, who bring a lot of valuable skills to their work here. We strive to give these students some freedom with the projects that they work on, and we want them to develop their own ideas too. So, part of my job is to help nurture some of these projects, which is exciting and inspiring.

But even with this great atmosphere of creativity around me, I’ve struggled to find inspiration for projects that will fit the scope of my position and the amount of time that I have to devote to them.  This failure of creativity on my part is distressing  to me, because I tend to think of myself as an ‘idea person.’ I’m hoping that some upcoming conference travel will provide some of that inspiration.  Of course I want to spend time on passion projects and make my mark within my institution, but I’m driven to be a “team player” too, and at times I feel stymied by fears that I’ll end up spending way too much time working on something that will turn out not to be a good fit for the Research Commons.

So, over the next few weeks, I plan to try to shake up my routine; read outside of my usual blogs and publications, meet with folks that I don’t ordinarily see around campus; take some time to think and reflect.  I want to incubate the projects that I’ll be bringing to life this time next year.  I want to think big about what’s next, and enjoy this energetic and creative time while it lasts. Because let’s not forget the dual nature of those cherry blossoms; they are fleeting, and when they’re gone, they’re gone until next year!

 

On users, now and future

Almost every morning I come in the west side of the building, the original entrance for Mullins Library. On the way to my office, I pass a travelling exhibition that is here for the spring semester – a display of books from the Remnant Trust. As a part of my service activities for the library, I volunteer to lend a hand when needed with the collection. There are several times during the week that patrons can request to see and handle the books, which is always a delight for me.

As I am a cataloger, my office is in an area that is generally off-limits to most library patrons: technical services. The term off-limits makes me cringe a bit, but there is very little of interest to most patrons in the technical services area – lots of cubicles, dot-matrix printers, and the occasional typewriter (including the one in my office). Oh, and several shelves full of bibliographies and cataloging reference books. The utilitarian look of this area is in contrast to the more welcoming look of the patron-centered areas, and so we see very few patrons amidst our technological antiquities.

Working with the patrons who request to see the Remnant Trust materials has been a welcome change for me. These patrons are a reminder to me that everyone in the library, even we metadata wizards in technical services, works to serve the needs of our users. For me, it’s an easy point to forget about, or neglect; so working with patrons from time to time has been a welcome change and reminder of the service-centric nature of our profession. Indeed, as a cataloger, working with and listening to patrons makes my work better as the metadata I create and use can be better tailored to our patrons based on their feedback.

Of course, the reference librarians and staff are the first point of contact for many library patrons. Their mastery of the resources in their libraries and collections makes them well-suited to serve users. Those of us behind the scenes serve users with the work we do in describing resources, acquiring new items, and providing access to items in our collections. However, librarians are also charged with the responsibility of providing for future patrons – collecting and preserving those things that might have significance for those that come after us. This can take many forms, but the books in the Remnant Trust exhibit would not exist if it were not for forward-thinking collectors and librarians.

In this spirit, I would like to leave you with a quote about the Boston Athenaeum, one that highlights our place in the continuum of the printed and written word:

I decided to make a last stop at the Boston Athenaeum, one of America’s great book places and home of a magnificent research library that itself has been a work in progress since 1807.

There, I not only turned up the three elegantly printed volumes on a remote shelf in a basement storeroom, but found them in remarkably pristine condition, with pages that had remained uncut, and presumably unread, after all this time. As I was signing the books out at the front desk – the Athenaeum did not yet use a scanning device to record loans to its members, although that quaint practice was about to change as well – I confirmed by the blank cards tucked inside the rear pastedowns my assumption that they were, in fact, leaving the library for the first time. “Eighty-one years,” I said aloud, shaking my head with amused gratitude. “You wonder who they bought these books for anyway.” James P. Feeney, the silver-haired circulation librarian who was checking me out, paused momentarily and fastened his unblinking eyes on mine. “We got them for you, Mr. Basbanes,” he replied evenly, and resumed his work.

There, I not only turned up the three elegantly printed volumes on a remote shelf in a basement storeroom, but found them in remarkably pristine condition, with pages that had remained uncut, and presumably unread, after all this time. As I was signing the books out at the front desk – the Athenaeum did not yet use a scanning device to record loans to its members, although that quaint practice was about to change as well – I confirmed by the blank cards tucked inside the rear pastedowns my assumption that they were, in fact, leaving the library for the first time. “Eighty-one years,” I said aloud, shaking my head with amused gratitude. “You wonder who they bought these books for anyway.” James P. Feeney, the silver-haired circulation librarian who was checking me out, paused momentarily and fastened his unblinking eyes on mine. “We got them for you, Mr. Basbanes,” he replied evenly, and resumed his work.

What Feeney did not say – what he did not have to say – was that the books had been set aside by his predecessors for the better part of a century on the off chance that one day somebody in need might want to see them. Fortunately, the fact that nobody had requested the titles before me was not considered sufficient grounds for discarding them, a practice employed by so many other libraries in these days of reduced storage space, stretched operating budgets, and shifting paradigms. It was as if the collective hands of Aristophanes of Byzantium, Petrarch, Robert Cotton, Christina of Sweden, Thomas Jefferson, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg – every temporary custodian of the world’s gathered wisdom – had reached out through the swirling eddy of the ages and places in my hands the precious gift of a book. It was an act of faith fulfilled, and we, their heirs, owe no less a compact to the readers of the third millennium.1

It is this faith that we take part in as librarians in any and all parts of the library: reference, administration, technical services, inter-library loan, and many others. The faith that we will do our utmost to serve our patrons both now and in centuries hence.

  1. Basbanes, Nicholas A. Patience & Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture. New York: HarperCollins, 2001, p. 8-9. []

Tactics for Organization: Making Progress

I started my job as the Undergraduate Services Resident Librarian back in August, and I remember often not knowing what to do with my time during the day. I think that’s normal when you start in a new position, especially a newly created one like mine. For at least the first month or two I had to get used to a new work environment, meet a ton of people, learn as much as possible, and generally begin to shape what my job was going to be. However, I wasn’t sure what to do with the “down time” between scheduled meetings and training.

Fast forward six months and I found myself in the complete opposite situation. Instead of having time on my hands that I wasn’t sure what to do with, I felt like I had so much going on and not nearly enough time to keep up. February was a particularly hectic month and while things have settled down a bit now, I have to constantly work towards staying organized and on track with the variety of projects going on at any given moment.

This week is spring break for students on my campus, so it’s quiet and empty around here and I will hopefully be able to get a lot more work done. Here are some things I’m keeping in mind to make sure I’m actually making progress:

  1. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Everything needs to get done, but something needs to get done first. When I have a list of things to do, I want to jump into them all. This can end up in doing a little bit here and a little bit there, when that time could be better spent focusing on one priority.
  2. Fill your to-do list with specific, actionable items. Instead of “work on X project” or “plan session Y,” I’m thinking in terms of things like “write first draft for X project” and “email instructor about session Y.” Setting smaller, measurable to-do items helps me take on the larger goal.

These may seem obvious, but a reminder doesn’t hurt. Being mindful of those practices has certainly helped me recently.

Getting organized is key to staying on top of things. I’ve tried out several tools in an effort be more organized and to consolidate my many notes and to-do lists, but have yet to find the *one perfect thing* that works for me. Therefore, my notes are scattered throughout many places. Since I’ve found benefits to all of them, I thought I would share:

  1. A friend recommended Workflowy and I fell in love with it immediately. Workflowy is great for list-making and brainstorming, and is very simple and easy to use. I think the best part is that you can collapse or expand any bullet point on the list, allowing you to either see the larger picture or focus on just one point.
  2. I’ve heard Evernote is a great note-taking tool that you can do a lot with, and decided to give it a try. I haven’t delved into any neat tips and tricks, but the Evernote iPad app is now my favorite way to take notes during conference sessions – and now at least most of my conference notes are all in one place.
  3. Sometimes good old Microsoft Outlook is my best friend in organizing. It took me a while to discover the Tasks and To-Do List within Outlook, and now I use them all the time. Flagging emails, setting reminders, creating custom categories…I can get really into this stuff, but the important thing is that is actually helps.
  4. A pen and notepad can be the easiest route to go, especially when I’m dashing off to a meeting and just need something to write on. However, I now have about five notepads in rotation, and have grabbed the wrong one in situations where I need to reference previous notes.

I’m always trying to improve my personal organizational system, but maybe this is what works for me – a combination of many systems. Feel free to share what works for you, and any interesting tips or tools. I’m wishing you all a very productive rest of the week!

Working With Undergraduate Student Employees: An Appreciation

At my library we are celebrating “student appreciation week” this week, and it’s got me thinking about the wonderful students I work with, and all of the ways that my own position has evolved and adapted to meet the challenges of supervising them.

I am the junior member of a two-woman librarian staff in my library unit.  My job description includes hiring, training and supervising the 5-6 person undergraduate staff that works for us.  So I assumed that when I was hired, I would act as a kind of “bad-cop” or “vice-principal”; that is, that my job would involve a lot of nagging people to do their job, and taking corrective action if/when they did not.  I know it sounds strange, but I didn’t really think about the upsides!

I’m happy to report that supervising students is quite different than I expected.  Our crew is a self-selected bunch of high achievers, who applied for jobs with us because they are constantly studying in the Research Commons anyway.  In addition to taking great pride in their work for the library, they are also a deeply hilarious, bright, and inquisitive group of people.  I really enjoy conducting interviews, managing trainings, and writing recommendations, and I find that these activities offer unexpected rewards in the form of opportunities to reflect on my work, notice issues in the workflow, or discover new ways to articulate our mission.

As is common in many libraries today, the Research Commons Help Desk is staffed by student employees the majority of the time. We rely on our students completely to be our public face.  This makes sense in an area like the Research Commons, where we do not have a print collection, and reference interactions are limited. Help Desk interactions typically consist of equipment checkout and directional questions. However, the Research Commons is very busy, particularly now, as winter quarter draws to a close. The traffic doesn’t slow down on weekends and evenings, when most of the librarians go home. It is therefore essential that our student staff be prepared to exercise sound judgement in a variety of situations.

As their supervisor, I find that modeling, encouraging, and rewarding the behavior that is expected of our students is a big job. For example, a student that I supervise was recently called upon to assist emergency personnel in a crisis situation that occurred in our facility during our evening hours.  It was a tremendous relief to realize that the student was prepared to act appropriately in that situation. Coping with the trauma of that event and supporting that student and the rest of the team thought the uncertainty that it caused has been difficult, but it has also provided an opportunity for our staff to come together as a group.

Ultimately, I am very grateful for the contributions of our student staff.  Incredibly, a couple of them have even expressed an interest in librarianship as a profession.  Does that make me a role-model?!  It’s an identity that feels weird to me, but I’m starting to get used to it.

On Being A Faculty

This clip from Spies Like Us is a great introduction to my topic for this post:

The line at the end – we’re not doctors – brings me back to my first post here in October where I touched on the idea of feeling a bit out of place with the wider faculty – something like a pretender. Still, being librarians in the wider academic community of campus is an important part of our roles.

Indeed, making use of these collegial connections is important to our success as members of the academic and library communities. My mentor and I attended a faculty lunch this past Friday where I knew several of the more senior faculty members there from across many colleges on campus. These connections not only give one an opportunity to be a representative for the library and share pertinent tools and services the library might provide to teaching faculty and students, but these connections can also foster cooperative research across the colleges. Beyond these immediate benefits, being more “plugged in” to the wider campus makes the librarians more visible in general, and keeps subject specialist librarians aware of current trends in research not only on the local campus, but within their wider respective disciplines.

Moreover, being a faculty – a whole faculty – creates a sense of community for all the involved parties – faculty, staff, students, and administration. This faculty community is responsible for the teaching and learning aspects of campus life, and so should come together not only to talk about the pedagogical aspects of that life, but also the scholarship aspects as well. Teaching faculty have many formal and informal opportunities to be a larger community, but librarians can be left out of this process if we don’t make sure we take part.

So my challenge to you, fellow academic librarians, is this: make an effort this week to be a bit more plugged in. Have lunch with someone on campus whose research you admire (an academic’s favorite conversation topic is their research). Reach out to someone in your discipline, or to another discipline entirely. Your effort will help the library be an even more integral part of campus and academic life. Perhaps a more immediate reward is being able to attend one of the most exciting events on campus: commencement. To my mind, commencement is a time of reflection and a time of beginnings. Being able to attend these as a member of the wider campus faculty is an honor, and a joy – to come together with one collective voice and express joy and pride in our graduates. It is with this collective faculty voice in mind that I want to close with this photo:

Commencement in the Greek Theater at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 1933. Image from Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville
Commencement in the Greek Theater at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 1933. Image credit: Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.