Category Archives: Graduate Students

Experience Necessary

Check out our post on HLS today too! Nicole Helregel, ACRLog guest blogger and former HLS blogger, provides some tips for how to get involved in ALA and ACRL. See more information about the HLS/ ACRLog collaboration here

Dylan Burns is a current Master’s Candidate in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He focuses on digital publishing and initiatives for both the Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the Scholarly Commons, where he traverses the gap between analog materials and the digital future. He is the Community Manager at Hack Library School and tweets about book history, media, and memory @ForgetTheMaine. Dylan was asked to write about his most valuable experience as an LIS student.

I am extremely fortunate to attend school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (soon to be sans library) encourages and facilitates interaction between professionals and students. Partially this is out of pure economics. The campus is home to an incredibly large collection and, as a result, they need warm bodies and learning brains to keep the library functioning. Without this experience I wouldn’t be the candidate for jobs, nor the librarian, that I am today.

I work in two units at the University Library. While geographically close, literally across the hall from each other, these two jobs, one in the Scholarly Commons and the other at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, could not be more different. Before I started at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library I’m not sure I had handled a codex older than 150 years old, since I started I do it daily, if not several times a day. Now I am starring in a YouTube series watched by hundreds and publishing on blogs read by thousands. At the Scholarly Commons I work with undergraduate researchers and graduate students on implementing and designing undergraduate research journals and online exhibits.  My library encourages us to gain experience in all facets of the academic librarian job; we answer reference questions, we help patrons, we help build the collection and design online exhibits. I am so lucky to have professional librarians and bosses that respect grad students enough to give us a seat at the table. What I believe is most valuable here is not what I am gaining from these experiences but the way in which, as a student, I am contributing to the larger library and campus environment. I am not a cog in the faceless machine, but an equal colleague, albeit one who is still taking classes.

Unfortunately, this is not how it always is for library students. Even here, at the number one program, funding and experience don’t always come easy, and while I was lucky to get a position some full-time students aren’t able to. Because of the experience I have working in and out of two divisions of the library here at U of I, I will be able to compete for jobs that students without experience might not be able to. From what I’ve heard from other LIS students, the situation at Illinois is much better than most institutions, both in terms of funding and mentorship opportunities. Recently, this was discussed at length on twitter between myself and several librarians and library students, with me suggesting that a requirement for experience might be necessary to create competitive graduates.

If the LIS programs in this country continue to be held as professional, that is programs who by their very nature lead to professional employment, and if experience is required even for entry level positions, it is essential that graduates have what they need to attain employment. Thus far, at most schools, this is on the student to seek out volunteer hours or practicums for no pay, while the students like me who are taken care of funding-wise don’t have as much to worry about. As funding sources dry up, as Illinois’s current budget crisis enters its 8th month, it might be unreasonable to expect every LIS student to have a Graduate Assistantship like I have, but as long as experience is required by employers it might be unethical to graduate students who aren’t able to compete.

Ten years ago, John Berry III, then editor of Library Journal, posited that “the profession must consider making the availability of a formal practicum a requirement for the accreditation of any LIS program” (para 2). It continues to be a controversial proposition to require experience as a graduate requirement. He continued that “While many schools offer such opportunities, few make them mandatory. Yet some kind of library practice gives a new graduate an immense edge in an extremely competitive employment arena and adds substantially to the educational value of the coursework” (Berry III, 2005). My experience builds on my coursework, and my coursework builds on my experience; they are the two legs upon which my library self is built.

Whether or not we make experience mandatory in gaining the MLS will continue to be a controversial topic. While I see fostering an open and inclusive environment essential to the future of our field, I believe that it is necessary that LIS programs take into account what employers need from graduates in constructing curricula. If that means that experience is necessary, then it might be time to revisit these kinds of requirements. In the end, I want to stress how lucky I feel I am to have great mentors and great support. What I think is important for current professionals to know is that we need your help as much as you will once we graduate; mentorship is essential to a functioning model of apprenticeship. In my experience, my most fruitful times in library school have come from interactions with current academic librarians and once I am a professional, I will work to guide others on this path. I value what I have learned and I will forever value the things I have accomplished here working with current professionals in serving this campus community.

Academic Interviews from Both Sides

Brenna and Maura were asked to write collaboratively to explore academic interviews from both sides– job applicants and administrators. HLS is also featuring this post today.

Brenna is a student at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and managing editor of Hack Library School. She has a bachelor’s in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). While working as an undergraduate at the Richard J. Daley library at UIC, she fell in love with all things library and has been there ever since. Her professional focus is academic librarianship with an interest in reference, collection development, and marketing/communications. Maura is the Chief Librarian at NYC College of Technology (City Tech) of the City University of New York, a large, public, commuter college in Brooklyn. She’s been at City Tech since 2008, first as instruction coordinator and as Chief Librarian since 2014. She’s also coordinator of ACRLog, and has been blogging there since 2009. Her research interests include undergraduate academic culture, critical information literacy and librarianship, open educational technologies, and game-based learning.

Cover Letters

Brenna:

The number one piece of advice library students receive in regards to cover letters is to find a way to stand out from the crowd. I totally get it: search committees have piles of cover letters from candidates and we all must start to blur together after a while. I try to find a couple of things that set me apart from other applicants and make sure to highlight them, but a lot of us come from similar backgrounds and it can be a daunting task. I’m also frequently advised to tailor cover letters to each individual job description. I realize why employers look for this, but it can be maddening when applying to many jobs at once. I’d love to hear some advice on how to stand out from other applicants and how to stay sane while writing multiple individualized cover letters.

Maura:

Brenna’s offered some great advice about cover letters, and I second all of it. It’s absolutely true that it’s time-consuming to tweak your cover letter to each job you apply for, but in my experience it’s also absolutely worth it. A cover letter that stands out to me connects your experience specifically with the job requirements listed in the position description. It’s also fine to highlight your relevant non-library experience here, and draw parallels between your background and the library or college. It might be helpful to make a quick list of what you find compelling about the job — pick one or two reasons from your list, and devote a few sentences in your cover letter to how your interest and experience would be beneficial if you were hired in that position.

Distance Interviews

Brenna:

Phone interviews are intimidating for me because I’m never really sure what to expect. Though I’ve yet to have a phone interview for an academic position, I’ve had a fair share for other jobs and they are always a surprise. Sometimes the interviewer mostly wants to share information about the job with me and other times they have a laundry list of questions to slog through. What kind of questions should be expected for a phone interview? Will we be interviewing with one person or several? How long should we set aside for the interview?

Everyone has different levels of comfort while speaking on the phone. Some things that have helped me feel confident include: dressing for the occasion, smiling (even though they can’t see me), finding somewhere quiet where I won’t be interrupted, and bringing a notebook to jot down notes and questions. Also, remember the names of your interviewers!

Maura:

In my library we typically have two rounds of interviews for library faculty positions, and if any of the applicants are not local we’ll do a phone interview for the first round. I’ve rarely heard anyone — candidates or search committee members — say that they love phone interviews, but with budget limitations it’s just not practical for us to bring in all first round candidates for a campus interview.

If you’re contacted for a phone interview, try to schedule it for a time when you can be on the phone in a quiet location, as Brenna suggests. Have a pen and paper ready so that you can take notes if you need to. It’s fine to ask the committee to repeat questions if you have trouble hearing them — we hold interviews in our conference room via speakerphone and not everyone can sit right next to the phone. (Years ago I did an interview on my cellphone in an alley behind the office where I was then working, so I’m very sympathetic to phone interview issues. But if I could do it over again for that interview, I’d have found a different way for sure.)

To speak more specifically to Brenna’s questions, I make sure to share as much information as possible with the candidate while scheduling the phone interview: that it will be with our full search committee (typically 5-6 librarians), and that we anticipate it lasting about 30 minutes. It’s fine to ask those questions if that information isn’t shared when you’re scheduling the interview. We do have a list of questions to go through — the same for all candidates; I also briefly introduce the job responsibilities and budget time for the candidate to ask questions at the end.

In-Person Interviews

Brenna:

I’ve been advised (read: warned) time and again in library school about the full-day interview. As a new professional, the pressure to make a good first impression on a search committee can be overwhelming. I know that interviewees meet with the search committee and sometimes give a presentation, but everything else seems to vary depending on the institution. One thing that would put me at ease is having a schedule so I know what to expect. For students, I’d recommend reaching out to the career advisors at your school in preparation for your interview. They can provide you with guidance not only for the interview, but for the whole process.

One thing I’d like to know is what to expect from the presentation: what should we be conscious of as candidates? what kind of things are the search committee looking for? Also, what should we expect from the shorter interviews?

Maura:

In-person interviews at academic libraries can vary in length — I’ve seen anything from a few hours to a full day or more. The search committee should share the schedule details with you, and you should definitely ask if you have any questions. If you’re traveling from out of town, the search committee and/or college administration should be able to help with travel arrangements and/or reimbursement. Unfortunately not all colleges and universities have funding to support bringing in out of town candidates for a position — if you’re applying for positions outside your local area I’d suggest asking about travel reimbursement before scheduling the interview. And for those of us on hiring committees, it’s best for us to be up front about whether we can support travel for out-of-town candidates before we schedule interviews.

My understanding is that the most common components of an on-campus interview are a meeting with the search committee and an opportunity to make a presentation with all librarians in attendance. Other possibilities include meeting with one or more library departments or units, meeting with other offices or departments at the college or university, and lunch or dinner with the search committee or others. Interviews with individual departments or offices might focus specifically on what those departments or offices do, while the search committee may ask the typical interview questions and discuss the responsibilities listed in the job ad.

I’ve heard (and suggested) a range of presentation possibilities for job candidates. In my library we usually ask instruction librarian candidates to present on how they would teach a specific topic in our library course; for technical services and technology candidates we typically ask candidates to look at our library’s strategic plan and consider one or more goals related to their position. We do ask all candidates to give presentations, not just instruction librarians — all of our librarians will likely make a presentation at a conference or on campus at some point, and we also use the presentation as an opportunity for our entire department to meet and ask questions of the candidate.

Institutional Culture

Brenna:

It seems that a major part of the on-campus interview is to determine if the candidate is a good fit for the institutional culture. Though it’s tempting for recent grads to jump at the first job opportunity we see, it’s quite possible that we may interview somewhere and find we would not want to work there. Some things I look out for are lack of mobility and limited professional development opportunities. I want my career goals to match up with the opportunities the institution provides their employees. What do search committees look for in a candidate that tells them they will fit in? What should candidates look for to see if they are a good fit for the institution?

Maura:

Institutional culture is varied and can be difficult to get a handle on in just the time allotted for an interview (or even multiple interviews). My experience is that you can’t really know, you can only make your best guess. However, your best guess will be better if you dig into some research beforehand.

Browse through the library’s website to see how the library is organized and what services and resources the library offers. Search the internet to learn more about the librarians who work there: are they active in professional organizations? do they publish or present at conferences? Look through the college or university’s website as well, which can help you get a sense of the institution. Some sections to look out for include any policies that apply to librarians, including support for travel or professional development. If the college or university has a union that includes librarians, you might find information about contracts and salaries on their website.

During the interview you should have time to ask questions about the work culture in the library, and to see how the search committee interacts with each other. While I hope this happens infrequently, if search committee members: make disparaging comments about their colleagues or the institution, ask questions they’re not allowed to, or you experience microagressions — those are red flags that you’ll want to consider. As Brenna notes, during the interview process you may realize that you don’t want to work at that institution, and it’s okay to withdraw from the search if so.

What Questions to Ask

Brenna:

Preparing questions ahead of time is a necessity for jobs of any kind. I usually peruse the library and institution’s websites to gather as much information as I can. I also look for a strategic plan, if it’s available, as well as news stories about the institution and faculty biographies. From these sources I come up with a list of questions to ask — I usually have quite a few in case some of them are covered during the interview. I also come up with questions as the interview goes on.

I’d definitely like to hear some advice on talking about salaries. It’s a touchy subject and it can be hard to determine the appropriate time to bring it up. If the salary is not listed in the job posting, when should you ask about it? I know that negotiation is generally expected once the job offer has been extended, but what should we know about making a counter-offer? Is it better to ask over the phone or via email?

Maura:

While it sounds somewhat trite, it’s absolutely true: when you’re on a job interview you are interviewing the search committee and library, too. It’s important to have questions to ask during the interview — not only will it help you learn more about the position and institution, but it also signals your interest in the job. Brenna’s given some great advice about questions, some of which may come out of your research before coming into the interview. Definitely ask about anything that’s not clear in the job ad. Other questions to ask include how often and by whom you’ll be evaluated, and what are the requirements for reappointment, promotion, and tenure (if relevant to the specific job). You might want to ask about other possible benefits, for example, funding for conference travel or opportunities for continuing education.

Salary questions are fine to ask during the interview, as far as I’m concerned, though the search committee may not be able to answer as specifically as you’d like. Library faculty at my library are in a union (with other faculty) which publishes salary ranges, so that’s a starting point. Brenna’s right that negotiation begins after an offer has been made — if you’re negotiating for a higher offer, focus on the experience you bring to the position. Follow the lead of the search committee re: negotiating via phone or email. While I definitely advocate for candidates to negotiate for a higher salary, typically salaries are a function of multiple factors, including how many/what kinds of other job searches are ongoing both within the library and across the institution, and ultimately there may not be much flexibility.

What Search Committees Are Really Looking For

Brenna:

After all the preparation, hard work, and anxiety that goes into the job search process, it seems the best thing we can do as applicants is to be genuine and hope that things work out. Though I’m an introvert, I used to pretend I was super outgoing in job interviews because I thought that was what employers were looking for. After some reflection, I realized that I may not be the first to stand up and give my opinion in a meeting, but I will take time to contemplate larger issues and put effort into seeing things from different perspectives. I have found a way to sell my introversion as an asset. The ability to play up your strengths and provide concrete examples or successes seems to be the best thing a candidate can bring to an interview.

What kind of things should candidates absolutely not say in an interview?

Maura:

One of the things that’s been most important on the search committees I’ve served on is a clear feeling from the candidate that they want this job, the position that we are offering. I’ve been on the job market enough to know that often when we’re looking for jobs, we need a job, and thus we may apply for range of jobs that are not all the same. That’s okay, but during the interview it’s important to speak convincingly about what interests you about working in *this* job at *this* place. When I’m on a search committee I also want to see that candidates understand the responsibilities for the job (and that’s where asking questions can come in). Since librarians are tenure-track faculty at my college with the same service and scholarship requirements as other faculty, we are especially interested in whether our candidates are interested in service and scholarship.

I’m also looking for a positive outlook in the candidates we interview. This is not necessarily synonymous with extroversion — introverts are positive, too. Red flags for me include disparaging comments about prior colleagues and workplaces. I acknowledge that there are real issues with toxic work environments and that there are good reasons for leaving a job in a toxic work environment. However, a focus on your hopes for this job, for your work, and for libraries is much more compelling during a job interview. Brenna’s suggestion to have a few specific examples in mind of successful work in other jobs is a great one, and will help the search committee learn more about the strengths you could bring to the position.

Mentorship & LIS Students

Check out our post on HLS today too! Sveta Stoytcheva, ACRLog Guest FYAL blogger, reflects on how the academy shapes work/life balance in “Reflections on Work/Life Balance and Academic Librarianship.” See more information about the HLS/ ACRLog collaboration here

Victoria Henry holds a Bachelors of Arts in History and a Bachelors of Music in Flute Performance from Hope College. She is entering her final semester of library school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She hopes to find a job in an academic library working with undergraduate student researchers and technology. While not in the library, Victoria enjoys spending time with her fiancé, playing her flute, and reading for fun. Victoria was asked to write about who her most valuable mentor has been and why.

As I’m entering my final semester of library school, I am finding myself reflecting on what the future holds and what has brought me to this point in my career. While many different professors, teachers, mentors, bosses, supervisors, and family have led me to begin library school, there is one particular person that stands above the rest as having guided, affirmed, and taught me along my journey to library school and career pursuit as a librarian.

As a history and flute performance major undergraduate student at a small liberal arts college, I knew that I enjoyed learning and researching, but found myself struggling to determine and discern the career path these very different interests would lead me. Should I be a professor or museum curator? These were just some of the many options that crossed my mind as I began to consider life beyond undergraduate education. It wasn’t until I talked to one of my history professors that I began to even consider library school. I remember that when my professor first mentioned library school as a possible career path and I chortled and told him that I was not an English major, so that clearly was not an option. However, after he explained that librarians are not always English majors and explained why he thought my interdisciplinary and research interests would fit well into an academic librarian profession, I was sold. He directed me to our campus library to sit down with a librarian and find out more about the profession.

After an initial introduction to a faculty research and instruction librarian, I was eventually given a position as a student research help desk assistant to explore the profession and determine if this was a career I should pursue. Within my first couple days on the job, I met one of the other research librarians that has had an incredible lasting impact on my current professional endeavors. My undergraduate library’s research help desk was set up as a tag-team effort. Faculty librarians sat at the desk next to a student worker and trained and guided them through the research interview process throughout their time working there. While many student employees were not interested in a career in libraries, the conversations I had turned into important questions about pursuing a career as a librarian, applying for school, open access, technology, collection development, reference, ACRL standards (and later the Framework), and other important question relevant to librarians.

Over the two years I worked there, this librarian became an incredibly important teacher, an asset, but most of all, a friend. She guided me through the application process for library school, helped me determine which school to go to, and provided guidance, support, and encouragement. When I began working at the help desk, she guided me through answering student questions, showing me the databases and how to conduct good reference interviews. As I learned more and more, this hands on assistance turned into small pointers and/or praise when a research question went well. Her approach taught me about providing good research services to student researchers—skills that continue to serve me well in my graduate assistantship position. Furthermore, she took an interest in caring about my well-being as a student and always took the time to ask how I was doing—even when we were not working together. Even now, as I am entering my final semester of library school, she continues to be a mentor and friend that supports me and is guiding me through the next portion of my career pursuits.

As I reflect back on this experience and look forward to a career in libraries, I am inspired to make the same difference and provide the same support for an upcoming librarian. I know without the love, support, friendship, and guidance of my undergraduate librarian and her willingness to answer and talk about libraries, I would not be pursuing a career as a library in the same manner that I am today.

January 2016 Collaboration with Hack Library School

ACRLog will be kicking 2016 off in a new and exciting way! Last fall, the ACRLog administrators had a discussion about the need for more LIS student voices on the blog. During our discussion, we recognized that Hack Library School (HLS) is the premier blog for LIS student communication. We knew that we wanted to honor this while still highlighting student voices and concerns to the broad readership that ACRLog has. As a result, a rich partnership with Hack Library School was created. This month, Hack Library School and ACRLog will be cross-blogging and co-blogging. This means that HLS posts from students–posts that focus on students’ lens, perspectives, interests, and anxieties–will be featured throughout January. These important pieces will replace our regular blogging schedule. All of the posts we’ll feature are written or co-written by HLS bloggers, LIS students, or very new LIS professionals. In return, HLS will be featuring ACRLog writers and other guests throughout January. Our ACRLog team will be writing about issues that we think might be of interest to students. Occasionally a post will be published in both venues. Regardless of if you’re a student, new professional, or seasoned librarian, we encourage you to follow both blogs throughout the month.

This initiative is based off of the belief that student voices are valuable to the profession and to practicing librarians. We truly believe that if practicing librarians are not listening to LIS students, they are not listening to the future of this profession. Our collaboration is meant to be a rich and valuable cross-pollination of voices and perspectives. We’ll feature posts that are co-written by administrators and students, posts that enable new professionals to reflect on the challenges of the last year, and posts that give students space to critically examine barriers and opportunities within their LIS school experience.

On a very personal note, this topic is near and dear to my heart. I started blogging for ACRLog as a student last fall. It transformed my last year as a graduate student in so many ways. It was invaluable to share to my reflections as a student publicly with the profession and engage with professionals before I formally became one. I’m thrilled that we’re providing a space for others to do the same. I know that I was given the opportunity to blog for ACRLog as a student because of the blog’s current administrators. The same is true of this collaboration. There are many practicing librarians that make student voices a priority. Maura Smale and Jen Jarson are two of them. I can’t thank both of them enough for not only believing in students but prioritizing them.

We encourage you to engage with both spaces and push the boundaries of this experiment. We hope it shapes your own practice, regardless of where you are in your LIS journey.

For more information about Hack Library School, please see Micah Vandegrift’s (HLS Founder) Leadpipe article.

The Assistantship as Ethnography: A New Lens for LIS Students

“I wish to make the argument here for usability as a motive, ethnography as a practice, anthropology as a worldview”

This was the first sentence of Donna Lanclos’ recent keynote speech at UX Libs, an international conference devoted to user experience in libraries. I find Donna’s speech to be moving and eloquent while still offering concise, tangible evidence of the value of ethnography in libraries. Moreover, she engages and cites some of the most interesting work being done in our field right now in a thoughtful, nuanced way. I’ll use some of Donna’s insights as a framing for this post, which will be quoted in larger text throughout. This won’t do her keynote justice. Please, go read the full text of the speech linked above!

My last post was on what advice I would give to new LIS students and a few posts before that I talked about the need to provide LIS student feedback mechanisms and offer more peer-to-peer mentoring opportunities. Just last week, my friends and I composed a zine with advice we would offer new GSLIS students entering our program. A few of my friends put this awesome page together:

zine

I want to take a deep dive into one of the topics mentioned a lot here: pre-professional opportunities. These are few and far between and often underpaid or unpaid. One of my unconference groups at the Symposium on LIS Education coined experiences like practicums “double jeopardy” because students are often left paying for credit hours to work for free with little or no added value in having a LIS faculty advisor.

This is a structural issue that I hope students, those practicing librarianship, and those in leadership positions in LIS schools will continue to try to solve. Nevertheless, the current situation demands that LIS job applicants have meaningful, tangible experience that they can talk about fluently. Moreover, applicants will be even more successful if they can apply their experiences to other contexts, if they can look beyond their institution and connect events to trends in pedagogy, administration, technology, and even higher education. But how does this actually happen? How can students start to think about their experiences in this way?

Take Donna’s advice: apply anthropology as your worldview and make ethnography one of your regular practices. This will inherently make you a better listener and employee because you will be someone who is more in-tune with the institution. But it will also make you a better LIS professional, someone who understands the ins and outs of hierarchy, decision-making, evaluation, consensus, communication, and leadership. Someone who can think critically, engage, and see beyond the trees to improve the entire forest. Remember that as you’re taking notes for a committee meeting, reading an internal announcement, reviewing lesson plans, developing features for the IR, answering a reference question, performing outreach about preservation, or even reading a policy document you are learning. You aren’t just learning about that topic. You are learning valuable information about that institution, about what it prioritizes and disengages, about how community works, and, ultimately, about the state of and priorities of librarianship.

Once you begin to think of your pre-professional work as ethnography, as measuring the pulse of that institution and the LIS profession, the following advice might be helpful. I wish I would have had it so I could have been more intentional about my assistantship from the very beginning.

Ask questions

“Asking questions is a good way of finding things out, Big Bird taught me that in my childhood.”

Donna’s words ring true for many situations. We cannot learn unless we ask questions. We cannot clarify until we have some level of understanding. Ask your colleagues, mentors, supervisors, and other leaders within the institution about anything and everything. Try to think about these questions as higher level inquiries. What questions should you ask to better understand the complex processes of the institution? What questions should you ask to know more not only about the specific project you’re on but also about what it means for that niche of librarianship?

As an example, on the reference desk alone you might have access to librarians who do not directly supervise you but have a great deal of knowledge to share with you. Go beyond asking them about your specific reference question. Absorb what they have to say about their department, their position, and their needs within the library. Diversify who you talk to. It’s often less about always asking the right question and more about being interested, willing, and eager to listen.

Take advantage of tools

I often think about ethnography as being embedded in the interworkings of a group of people in order to better understand things like need and motive, but that might just be part of the picture. David Green, the coordinator of the ERIAL project, once stated that the use of ethnography in libraries “puts a human face on real issues experienced in the real world and creates empathy, motivating us to address the issues instead of just talking about them” (see the entire interview). I think that tools—or artifacts—can also be a valuable means of learning more about an institution’s culture when combined with the questions and observance I have already described. The community’s tools aren’t necessarily valuable alone; however, they help to paint a larger picture of the community when combined with other information.

I use the word “tools” very broadly here. These are artifacts, modes of communication, and recording mechanisms. I will share a few specific examples here from my institution that might help illustrate my point. One is a listserv called LibNews. This listserv, while sometimes irrelevant and overwhelming (as many listservs are), contains an unbelievable amount of valuable information if you’re hoping to learn more about my institution. Hiring plans, departmental restructures, updates on initiatives in discovery, budget restructuring plans, professional development opportunities, and other cross-departmental communication all pass through this listserv. Reading these announcements will enable you to be more conversant about initiatives and specific names but it will also give you important context. This context could help you relate your institution to movements in scholarly communication, reference, technical services, digital services, and other areas.

The other type of tools you might pay attention to are assessment tools. You probably use these tools daily to record how many people attended your workshop or how many hours you spent on a specific project. Some tools are more specific than others. At my institution, we use a reference transaction tracking software called Desk Tracker. The questions that Desk Tracker asks you about a given reference transaction are formulated by our assessment librarian and team. You could easily just fill out the form and not think twice about it. But think about what questions are being asked about each transaction and why those questions are important. Why ask about subject area or referral made? What does that have to do with the institution’s hierarchy and subject liaison model? Why use a READ scale? How does that assist the library in documenting perceived value to the greater community? Why do they have to document and construct an argument for their value in the first place?

Now, don’t take this too literally. You can’t spend hours reading into every simple form your institution has made. At the same time, these tools, forms, and messages aren’t made in a vacuum. They have inherent value and meaning. Once you interrogate and think critically about the systems around you, you will have a more informed view of the community you’re in. 

Take advantage of every opportunity to learn 

Go to library conversations of any size. These could be everything from large strategic planning events to small committee meetings. If the event announcement is publicized somewhere you were able to see it, you are probably allowed to attend. These events will sometimes give you information about a development (recent LibQual survey feedback collected from users, for example) or even allow you to engage with others about a specific topic (strategic planning on how the library should be involved with transformative learning, for example). If you’re able to attend these events, they will sometimes give you information that is even more useful than the skills you are learning while working at your institution. Don’t get me wrong, skills are important. But being able to think and learn in a forward, progressive, critical way and converse with different stakeholders constructively is just as important.

Another great opportunity to take advantage of is job talks. Academic libraries often make these open to graduate hourlies and assistants. These talks are usually focused on the specific area or niche that the candidate will be working in, which means that you’ll be able to take a deep dive into that area and become more knowledgeable about something that isn’t necessarily your specialty. It also means that you will inherently be able to prepare for your own job talks by observing what works well and what doesn’t, especially as candidates utilize different presentation styles and field the audience’s questions or concerns differently.

Reflection doesn’t have to be lonely

“It requires reflection, the backing away from assumptions, it involves being uncomfortable with what is revealed.”

Reflection and metacognition are essential to not only retaining information but also being able to apply that information in a different context. Reflection often means making sense of prior experiences and pre-conceived notions about a topic once those have been challenged or reconstructed through new experiences. This is what your pre-professional experience is all about. It’s challenging to read the literature in class, see it in action in your position, and then engage with others about in a thoughtful way either through Twitter chats, blogging, or professional research. But remember that this reflection will make your observations richer, your understanding more developed and insightful. Reflection will help you go beyond observation and dive into creating your own unique stance and philosophy of librarianship.

“I want to emphasize the importance of sharing, of collective thinking, of not thinking of ourselves as special snowflakes, of not allowing the tendency to silo distract us from what we can reveal, confront, solve together, as a team.”

I believe that reflection is best done with others. I hope that this shines through in other posts where I try to convey the importance of working through new knowledge with colleagues, especially peers and those going through similar pre-professional experiences. It’s quite simple, really. Other people help us see the value in adopting new perspectives. They push us to think about our experiences in a new and complicated ways we hadn’t previously considered. In short, your reflection will be much more valuable to you, and the world, when shared.

Put it all together

“And for it to be useful, you should be embedded enough to know enough to be able to interpret the meaning of questions, and deploy them effectively…  You have to ask questions of lots of people and then interpret what they say, in the context of all of the other information you have gathered.”

This might be the most valuable piece of the puzzle. You have to piece everything you learn together. By “everything you have learned,” I mean absolutely everything. This goes beyond your practicum or internship or assistantship and includes your class discussions, assignments, Twitter feed, the library blogs you follow, the conferences you attend. It will shape your perspective, your research, and possibly even what type of institution you want to work at.

This mindset of making connections, even when they are complicated, will serve you throughout your career as you try to understand users, relate to colleagues, and even convey your perspective to others.

But don’t internalize it

Now that I have spent a great deal of time trying to convince you to become a more embedded observer of your institution’s culture, I’d like to offer a warning. Don’t internalize it. I know it’s difficult, but don’t take the politics or the conflict home with you. Becoming more attune to the beliefs and values of your institution will obviously meant that you know and understand more. Don’t conflate “knowing more” with having to feel responsible or helpless or frustrated.

Honestly, this has been the most difficult part for me. When we feel connected and passionate about our work, it is even more of a challenge to let something go. Yet, as you observe, think about how you could improve the institution or even how you could improve the profession but remember that right now you are also just creating a foundation for your work as a professional. You don’t own all of your institution’s problems. Jacob Berg’s tweet says all you need to know:

I am not my job

Advice for mentors, supervisors, and leaders

I’d like to be clear here: I believe that having an insightful, open mentor can make all of the difference for LIS students attempting to get the most out of their experience. While this is a different context, some of Donna’s assertions are uncannily true here too:

“If the only people who can comprehend what we are doing are the people who already know the secret passwords, who already have the map, the keys to the kingdom, we have failed.”

This, I think, is the key to good mentoring, teaching, and supervising. Transparency helps students understand why things are the way they are, even if they are not—and will never be—perfect. “Protecting” students from the truth is a Band-Aid solution. Even if you are able to hide bureaucracy or conflicts from students right now, you do them a disservice by not preparing them to navigate and understand these hurdles in their professional life, which is just around the corner. I understand that sometimes students can’t know absolutely everything about an institution. But (ask yourself) what can the strengths and weaknesses of your organization teach the student you’re supervising?

“What do I mean by a pedagogy of questions? It’s teaching through asking. Not by telling.”

Often we think that mentoring means telling LIS students how to do something or even how to think about something. I think good mentoring actually means pushing students to come to their own understanding about a topic or project. Mentoring is, of course, an extension of teaching. Teaching critically is about giving students the space and autonomy to construct their own understanding from their lived experiences. It’s about empowering them as creators of and contributors to knowledge. It’s about recognizing and identifying systems of oppression and opposing them. Mentors should use this framework to realize and act on the value of giving students the autonomy to identify and challenge power structures and develop their own individual voice and professional practice.

Thanks to Lisa Hinchliffe for inspiring this post and Donna Lanclos for giving me the vocabulary and passion to see it through.