Category Archives: First Year Academic Librarian Experience

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!

Perks and Quirks of a Single Service Point

In my last post I talked a little bit about the Learning Commons that opened in August at my library, a major renovation that brought exciting changes to the first floor of the Main Library. Although I wasn’t here to see the “before,” the “after” is bright, shiny, and new. It’s an appealing place with a lot more space for students to study and work: there are plenty of computer stations and a variety of flexible study spaces, including 16 group study rooms. Another major new feature of the Learning Commons? The Service Desk.

The Service Desk is a consolidation of what were previously separate service points for circulation and reference into a single service point. During the day, there is typically a mix of people at the desk: a circulation assistant, a librarian or another library assistant, and a few student workers. The librarian staffing the instant message service is also on back-up for the Service Desk, in case it gets particularly busy.

I don’t have any insight to the development of the Learning Commons or the Service Desk, the choices made, or future plans – especially as a relatively new employee (I’ve been in this position for four months, and have been doing shifts on the Service Desk for less than two months). I can only speak from my own experience at the desk, and as with most things, I see an upside and a downside.

Good news first: I really like being out on the desk! I enjoy interacting with people, seeing how patrons use the library’s space and services, and finding out firsthand the kinds of questions people are asking. Since I haven’t done much instruction yet, right now this is how I see students the most. I think that interactions at the Service Desk can also be used to inform what I include in instruction sessions. On top of all that, every time I’m at the desk is an opportunity to get to know other people who work in the same building as me every day, but who I otherwise wouldn’t see very much if at all.

A single service point can create a better experience for library users, eliminating any question or confusion over where to ask for help. At our Service Desk, patrons can check items in and out, pick up Interlibrary Loan material, course reserves, and holds, get basic technology help, and ask anything from “where’s the elevator” to an in-depth reference question. It’s great for our users that they can know “this is where I go to ask for help in the library.”

Now here’s the downside, at least as far as I’m concerned: with a greater variety of questions and interactions handled at one desk, and fewer hours spent staffing the desk for any given individual, it can become more difficult to help patrons efficiently. So far I have been on the Service Desk about once a week for a two-hour shift, and it is more often the circulation aspect that I run into trouble with (sidenote: I personally don’t mind handling circulation transactions, where librarians previously would not have done this at the reference desk). When something less common comes up – creating a community borrower card, for example – it may have been weeks or months since I have last done that process, if ever. With less hours spent at the desk, there is less hands-on practice performing circulation processes, which leads to me getting frustrated when I can’t remember how to do something.

I must say, this is not for lack of training: I have been trained on the circulation processes that I need to know, there are opportunities for additional training sessions, and instructional documents are easily accessible online. Also, because of the variety of employees that staff the desk, no matter what comes up, there is usually someone there that can handle it. If I don’t know the answer or don’t remember how to do something, someone else will, and I can use that as a learning opportunity for myself. However, that doesn’t make those situations any less frustrating for me when they do arise.

The consolidated service desk is new for everybody, so I’m sure that time and experience will work towards smoothing out bumps in the road. But I also have to remind myself that I’m still pretty new here and have less prior knowledge about the library and collections. I’m taking things in and learning about my new environment, and to be honest, there is a lot to learn and it can be difficult to remember even simple things! The other day, somebody asked me “what floor is this call number on?” and I had to check the floorplan to be sure – that’s totally fine, but I also wish I could remember more of those little things without having to check the website or ask someone else.

While out on the desk earlier this week, I came up with a way to work through the downsides I’ve encountered. Whenever I learned something new or something came up that I felt I needed a reminder on, I jotted down a quick note – starting with the call number range on each floor.

notes

To be clear, these notes are purely for my personal gain and not intended to be a record of any kind or contribute to our Service Desk stats. I’ve found in the past that I can remember something better once I’ve written it down, so by taking some quick notes when I’m at the Service Desk, I hope that these bits of information will stick in my mind better. If I had to create a community borrower card for somebody that day, I would have taken notes on that as well.

I like the fact that I learn something new whenever I staff the desk, whether it be about our online resources, common student needs, or how to troubleshoot technology (you may notice several points about a certain scanner in my notes above). I’ll continue to take these notes for now, in addition to reviewing the instructional documents for areas where I know I could use a refresher. I’m optimistic that this will help me retain more information as I continue to learn about my library, and assist patrons more efficiently and effectively.

Shelfless Acts: Beginning a Non-Traditional Library Job

I work in a library without any books.  Yes, that’s right…no books.

What we do as librarians is difficult enough to explain to people outside our field as it is…misconceptions about shushing and horn-rimmed glasses abound…but add a non traditional job description into the mix and most people just can’t contextualize you at all; they short circuit and tune out while you ramble into the void about your daily existence.

I am an Assistant Research Commons Librarian, which means that support the daily operations of a Research Commons, a flexible library workspace which was created to support the changing needs of researchers on my campus.  We occupy one floor of one wing of a much larger academic library (and yes, it has many, many books) but within the confines of the Commons we do things a little differently.

Sometimes I worry about the difficulty of explaining what I do here to my next prospective employer.  Many of the typical duties of an academic librarian are absent from my job description.  For instance, I don’t develop, acquire, or manage any print or electronic material collection.  In fact, there is no collection associated with my library unit.  Likewise, library instruction is not a part of my job description, and my reference duties are limited.

So what DO I do all day?  I know that I’m constantly busy, but the answer is complex.  The Research Commons was designed as a collaborative study space for students.  But we provide more than just space.  We are, as my boss likes to say “a library as salon,” which creates and implements innovative programming to foster interdisciplinary collaboration between students and faculty.   We also provide support for all aspects of the research process; writing, publishing, securing funding, and finding presentation opportunities. Managing the daily operations of one of the most heavily used library spaces on campus is a big task, as is the design and implementation of original programming.

Does my position represent the future of library jobs?  I’m not sure.  Certainly it tells us some things about the direction that libraries are headed; away from monolithic service models, unbound from responsibilities to house print collections, towards flexible space design and rich programming models.  But I have significant moments of doubt about my own ability to embody a “librarian of the future” ideal.  Although it doesn’t impact my ability to do my job, I often feel that I am personally sympathetic to the more individual and contemplative modes of scholarship that are associated with traditional library models. I’m committed to the idea that library models like mine can supplement; not supplant, the tried and true models that many of my colleagues inhabit.  When I reach the next stage in my career, wherever that may be, that’s the philosophy that I’ll try to express:  I may not contain multitudes, but I sure am trying.

Special Forces Formats

My business card states that I am head of the special formats cataloging unit. It’s an odd title – one of the many unusual titles that people who work in libraries have. Even speaking to an audience of librarians, special formats is such a broad classification that it requires some explication.

Organizationally, I work in the cataloging and technical services department. Our department is organized into units, each with an area of focus – monographs and acquisitions, serials, binding, database maintenance, special collections, and special formats. The primary focus of special formats are the theses and dissertations deposited at the library. We work closely with the graduate school to both preserve and provide access to these scholarly works. The nature of both access and preservation is changing – but perhaps that’s for another time. The University of Arkansas is unusual in that it describes the theses and dissertations with “full-level” cataloging, so that our library users have the best possible access to these items. After processing, the manuscripts are sent to the binding department and bound. Here’s the result – the bound theses and dissertations from May of 2012:

tds

When I started in this position, I looked at the workflow for these items and worked with public services librarians to make the processing more efficient, while increasing access to these items in the catalog. This prompts me to share with you one of my favorite quotes from one of the titans of cataloging, Charles Ammi Cutter:

The convenience of the public is always to be set before the ease of the cataloger.1

Indeed, one could replace “cataloger” with “librarian” and you would have an excellent directive for all librarians, and a pertinent reminder for me as a first-year academic librarian – that I work to serve the patron, and their ease and convenience should be foremost in our minds in the work we do as librarians.

In addition to theses and dissertations, our unit is also responsible for a wide array of other media formats – video, microfilm, and internet resources. When I arrived, there was a sizable (but not insurmountable) backlog of microfilm and microfiche, as well as a few CD ROMS. With the “newbie” energy I had, I tackled those backlogs so that users could find those items in the catalog, and use them. Your energy and enthusiasm as a new academic librarian can be put to uses that help the user – but just because you are new doesn’t mean you need to reinvent the wheel. Take time to learn not only how things are done, but why. Work in an appropriate way to change the things that need changing – and direct your enthusiasm on projects that you might not want to do later on. Working on that backlog was perhaps not the flashiest of projects, but it’s something that helped the user and the department almost immediately. I’ve already identified some things I would like to change long-term, things I could not really do on my own. I need to build consensus to do these things – building consensus on “big” things both inside and outside the library being a major part of that “work in an appropriate way” idea I mentioned above.

Another reflection that comes to mind is that it’s important to adjust to change, and to accommodate new opportunities. Though not in my job description exactly, I’ve been working on a digital project of early Arkansas history, the Colonial Arkansas Post Ancestry digital collection. It has been an exciting opportunity for me to hone my skills in CONTENTdm, and to gain some interesting knowledge not only of early Arkansas history, but also the history of the colonial Americas. Being open to this change and the new opportunity it represented has not only made me a more effective professional, but also has provided me with an opportunity to collaborate and work outside the library and serve the needs of a very wide community – one beyond the library here, and even beyond the state of Arkansas.

Putting the user – faculty, staff, student, and even worldwide users – first helps me be centered in my daily work as a new academic librarian. Keeping the user first in any work that a librarian does is something we should all strive for.

  1. Charles A. Cutter, W.P. Cutter, Worthington Chauncey Ford, Philip Lee Phillips, and Oscar George Theodore Sonneck. 1904. Rules for a dictionary catalog. Washington [D.C.]: G.P.O., p. 5 []

Jumping In

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Ariana Santiago, Undergraduate Services Resident Librarian at the University of Iowa.

How did I get here? I find myself wondering this sometimes. I moved from Florida to Iowa for my first academic librarian position, to someplace I never imagined I would be, and in a career field that just a few years ago I hadn’t thought of as an option for myself. Of course, I know how I got here, it’s just amazing to think how much has changed recently.

I didn’t exactly do my research on the librarian job market before deciding to get an MLIS degree, but at some point during graduate school I became well aware of the fact that jobs are scarce and the competition to get one would likely be tough. With that information in mind, I did what I could to get the most out of my time as a student so that I could hopefully be well prepared for the job search and life after graduation.

I wasn’t always a perfect student or academic over-achiever, but I fortunately was able to get a good deal of valuable experience working in an academic library. I started as a full-time student with no other job, then got a part-time job in Special Collections while in school, then a full-time job in Interlibrary Loan, then also began taking classes towards a second master’s degree (the fate of my involvement in the second master’s program is yet to be decided!). Those various work experiences were instrumental in complementing my education, and combined with the support of my mentors and previous coworkers, that has all led me to where I am now – three months into my new job as an Undergraduate Services Resident Librarian at the University of Iowa.

I started in August, just in time for the rush of the Fall semester. My first day on the job was just two weeks before students would be in their first day of class. It was also two weeks before the opening of the new Learning Commons in the Main Library. This meant that in addition to being the “new kid” and everything that goes along with that, there was an additional element of excitement and energy at the time for everyone. The library was abuzz about the major renovations, students trickled in (and then appeared en masse), and the entire campus was gearing up for the coming academic year.

As for the Learning Commons and newly consolidated Service Desk that would open with the start of Fall classes, all units involved were diligently preparing, but no one knew exactly what to expect when the changes would be put into motion. Rather than panic, dread, or apprehension, the attitude I picked up from the people around me was a positive one: jump right in, but be ready to be flexible and adapt. And jump right in I did – namely, to various first-year student orientation events, representing the Library along with a colleague. It was intimidating at first, seeing as I wasn’t fully oriented myself, but I kept in mind that “roll with the punches” attitude.

Although librarians and library staff were intoning that mantra in anticipation of the unknowns of the changing Service Desk, it can be applied to so much more. Talking to students about the library that I was still learning about myself. Getting in front of a class and giving instruction for the first time. Attending events in the community. Meeting people and making friends outside of work. The list goes on. The first step is often the hardest one to make, but it will be made all the easier by maintaining open-mindedness and adaptability. It definitely helped me keep a positive attitude through adjustments to my all new surroundings and environment: work, home, people, even the weather (yes, I am about to go through my first real winter, and I truly enjoyed the first snowfall earlier this week).

Jump right in, but be ready to be flexible and adapt. Three months in and that is one of my main takeaways so far. So, I can reflect incredulously on how I got here and the effort it took, and I can think forward to what will come next. Either way, I’m glad “here” is where I ended up, because I think it”s a pretty great place to be.