Category Archives: First Year Academic Librarian Experience

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.

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?