Category Archives: First Year Academic Librarian Experience

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.

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!