Category Archives: Just Thinking

Use this category for raising questions and thinking out loud or reflecting on writings for which there is no real specific topic.

We’re All Ears: Learning By Listening

This post has been co-authored by Maura Smale and Jen Jarson.

The context

Jen: I started a new job at a new institution about two and a half weeks ago after 11 years at my previous institution. This new institution is rather different than my former one. That was a residential, small liberal arts college. This is a small commuter campus that’s part of a huge system. My new job has more administrative responsibilities, too. I learned new things every day in my previous position, of course, but there is something quite different about the blank slate of coming in to a new institution and a new position. So much to learn, so much to do, and so little context or history to help light the way.

Maura: I’ve been a library faculty member at my college for 9 years, three of those as director of the library. But like Jen, right now I find myself in a period of settling in to something changed. I was out on a research sabbatical for six months–most of this calendar year–beginning in early February and returning to the library just last week. I’m in the same job and institution, though the day to day rhythm of my work is vastly different than it was a few weeks ago. As I’ve been settling back in (and trying to remember where I left things in the folders and drawers in my office) I’ve been struck by the similarities to starting a new job. I still have my institutional and historical context, but there’s lots for me to learn (and relearn), too.

What are (the right) questions to ask when you’re trying to (re)learn about a job/institution?

Maura: Since I got back I’ve been arranging meetings with my colleagues to catch up on last semester and their work, and sometimes feel like the questions I’ve asked are quite similar to those I asked when I first became Chief Librarian. What have you been working on? How’re your projects, research, and other work going? Have you hit any roadblocks? Is there any support I can offer? I’m grateful to all of my colleagues, especially my colleague who served as interim director when I was out, for keeping everything running in the Spring. But because nothing is ever truly static there were a few unexpected situations and opportunities that came up while I was away. Learning about those really is like having a new job (though in the same organizational context), especially coming up to speed on new projects in the library for this academic year that hadn’t yet appeared on the horizon before I left on leave.

Jen: I, too, am trying to meet with as many of my new colleagues as I can. For me, that includes library and non-library folks at my local campus, as well as folks in the libraries at other campuses. To prepare for each meeting, I take stock of my running list of questions and choose those that seem most relevant to that person or group. As I look over this list now, I recognize that the questions are a mix of specific (such as, what assessments of student learning outcomes have been done recently?) and open-ended (for example, tell me about your work and responsibilities, how do you think students perceive the library?, what could the library be doing to better meet students’ needs?). Both types of questions provide me with useful information and open avenues for exploration. While the nature or phrasing of some lines of inquiry are likely more productive than others, just showing a sincere interest in others’ goals and challenges and seeking opportunities for alignment and collaboration feels like an important part of what makes this kind of outreach fruitful.

What should we listen for when in meetings, either individually or with committees or teams, both inside and outside the library?

Maura: Listening is important–I’m always working to improve my listening skills (and I think it’s a lifelong process, at least for me). In coming back after sabbatical I’m reminding myself to listen as much as I can: in one on one meetings, in committees, in casual conversations. I’ve been spending some time walking around the library and campus to listen, too, though since our semester hasn’t begun yet it’s still fairly quiet. Typically in conversations we focus on the topic at hand, and I’m reminding myself to listen with both ears open. I’m trying to pay extra attention, not just to the specific task being discussed but to projects and processes in the library as a whole.

Jen: Like Maura, I’m trying to listen on a number of levels. I’m listening for actionable improvements and opportunities, whether in the here-and-now or in the near or distant future. I’m also listening to uncover further questions I should be asking, those that I haven’t yet been able to fathom. I’m listening to understand priorities and goals and challenges and how the library plays a role in supporting or addressing them. I’m listening to figure out how the many moving parts of this large organization fit together and how to navigate and communicate best within and across it. I’m trying to listen for what the other person is really saying, rather than only what I expect or assume they’re telling me. I’m listening for the moments and places where our interests intersect and where we can best collaborate to advance student learning.

What questions do you think are most important to ask when you start a new position or return after time away? What do you wish a new/returning colleague would ask you? What do you find most important to listen for? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Musing on Maintenance

I’ve been on sabbatical for almost six months, which has temporarily alleviated my need to use the New York City subway system with any regularity. This has come at almost exactly the same time that the subways (and the rail systems that use Penn Station) have experienced a sharply increasing wave of delays and failures. I love the subway, truly — it’s near the top of my list of reasons why I live in NYC — but I’m very grateful that I don’t need to ride it regularly right now. The subway unreliability plus hot summer temperatures are an especially awful combination, which makes this week’s news that the governor plans to allot funds for a fanciful bridge-lighting project on the city’s river crossings seem particularly ill-inspired. The subways are failing for the same reasons many other infrastructures fail: deferred and delayed maintenance. That these failures are happening at a time when the subway has hit a high in popularity and use is no surprise, too. The solution is more funding for maintenance, which the state and the city can’t seem to agree on, an impasse that leaves commuters stuck, too.

Yes, New Yorkers are obsessed with public transit (and I will admit to being more obsessed than many), but what does this have to do with libraries? As I was writing this post I remembered that I’d written about The Maintainers conference last year, thinking a bit about the conference’s discussion of maintenance as the opposite of innovation, and how to make space for both in our libraries. But this week, with cascadingly ridiculous subway news, I’m thinking about maintenance of infrastructure that can be critical and is sometimes too easily ignored.

Any organization or institution needs maintenance, including libraries. Like subways, the more popular we are in libraries, the more maintenance we have (and, I would argue, the more deferred maintenance can snowball). At the beginning of the semester our circulation desk has a rush of students checking out reserve textbooks; with the midterms and finals week rush comes more trash for our custodial staff to clean up; the more pages students print, the more often we need to repair or replace the printers. We try to allocate resources appropriately to accommodate busy times, but that can be tricky given flat or declining budgets. And with increasing popularity also comes a need for not only maintenance but expansion — we are absolutely struggling with that at the college where I work, which has seen nearly a 50% increase in enrollment in the past decade (and with expansion comes a neew for more maintenance, too).

Much of the work that we as librarians do is also about maintenance: continuing to meet the needs of our communities by offering services and resources that they need for their academic work. This work can be invisible, sometimes, because our community may not see the work as it happens (for example, in technical services). Invisibility can also be a result of the tendency of institutions to privilege the additive for planning and reporting. When we pull together our goals and targets each year, the tendency is to focus on what we’re doing that’s new. But the maintenance work for continuing services and resources is important, too, and I try to make sure that doesn’t get left out of our goals and reports.

One form of maintenance that I’ve tried to make time and space for during my sabbatical is for my professional and research self. A few times each year I update my CV and professional website, keeping track of what I’ve worked on both to share it (e.g. links to articles in my institution’s repository) and to make it easier to do my own annual report each year. Research, too, is additive: collecting new data, analyzing and interpreting it, and sharing the results. When time is short it’s easy to dump those files into a folder (bonus points for media files with unintuitive filenames!) to be dealt with later. It’s all too easy to let this kind of maintenance pile up, even for those of us who generally enjoy organizing physical or digital files. I’ve done a fair amount of professional and research file management during my leave. It’s been great to have some time to focus on this kind of maintenance, especially for the research that my colleague and I have been working on for many years.

I’m not sure how to resolve my concerns with maintenance in our libraries and for ourselves as librarians, other than to try to keep the focus on these maintenance tasks when we’re planning and reporting. How have you integrated maintenance into your work in libraries?

What does your student-centered lens on library practice look like?

Perhaps you, too, have been following some of the recent instances of student shaming and blaming. I’m referring particularly to the piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which the author suggests a fictional student is lying about a grandmother’s death as a way to get out of finals. I’m also referring to the session at the 2017 ACRL conference in which a few presenters disparagingly referred to their students as “our sweet dum-dums.” Even just a sample of the incisive commentaries on these and similar instances of student shaming (check out, for example, pieces from Acclimatrix, Jesse Stommel, Jordan Noyes, Joshua Eyler, and Veronica Arellano Douglas to name a few) illustrate how incongruous this talk is with the very real empathy, care, and respect I know we have for our students.

We could dissect the problems that are at the core of these troublesome statements further. We could discuss what happens when we talk like this and why it’s imperative that we don’t. We could reflect on the times we’ve inadvertently said regrettable things ourselves. But what I’m more interested to think about now is how we exercise our empathy, care, and respect for students, and how we can do it better still. What does it mean to keep students at the center of our library practice?

I think it’s worth checking in with the significant history and usage of the term “student-centered” in pedagogical contexts. There, we might see the concept phrased as “student-centered learning,” particularly when contrasted against “teacher-centered learning.” We might sometimes see it called “student-centered teaching” or “learner-centered education.” While these terms might indicate slightly different philosophical orientations, they are essentially variations of the same.

Maryellen Weimer says that learner-centered education is about learning skills for learning, alongside content. It requires learners to reflect on the what and the how of their learning. It invites students as collaborators and leaders of their learning. Learner-centered education, or student-centered education, changes the balance of power and control. “The goal of learner-centered teaching,” Weimer writes, “is the development of students as autonomous, self-directed, and self-regulating learners” (p. 10). In the learner-centered environment, learners have a lot of responsibility and, as Phyllis Blumberg asserts, the instructor’s role “shift[s] . . . from givers of information to facilitators of student learning or creators of an environment for learning” (p. xix).

When we talk about student-centered, then, we’re talking about engaging students in high-impact practices and with skills and resources that contribute to their learning and help them continue to learn. We’re talking about helping students succeed and continue to be successful. We’re talking about empowering our students to be active agents in their own learning.

Student-centered is a guiding principle by which we chart our path. Student-centered is an attitude or a disposition, a way of working.

A student-centered way of working means practicing empathy for students. It means inviting students to co-construct meaningful learning experiences and environments. It also means challenging our students to think deeply, critically. It means challenging them to challenge their assumptions and themselves, and to go further.

A student-centered lens on our library practice means enhancing the role of assessment in our decision-making and improvement, asking what kind of impact we are having (or not having) on student learning and success. It means enhancing student voices in our decision-making, inviting their input in formal and informal ways. This way of working means cultivating an attitude of flexibility, innovation, and improvement. It means collaborating across a library, across an institution.

What does your student-centered lens on library practice look like? I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.

You Are What is Killing Librarianship

Last week I had a conversation with a colleague at a different academic library about potential large-scale (read: scary) changes to our information literacy instruction program models. We talked through rationale, pain-points, and strategies for cultivating buy-in from our colleagues. At a certain point in our discussion, we recognized that this was going to be a tough sell, and this wonderful colleague shared an anecdote where she was once demeaned for ideas like these. You are what is killing librarianship! she was told by a former coworker. We were able to laugh off the comment in our conversation, but it’s one I’ve been continuing to mull over in the days following our talk.

It’s such a hard line to take, because what it implies is that this profession you are a part of–one that required at least one advanced degree and years of practice and experience–is fundamentally incompatible with the way in which you conceive of and are practicing it. You are not only not doing your job well, you are actively working to dismantle the profession you love. To your colleague(s) you are a threat to the professional identity they’ve constructed as a librarian. But as hurtful as this line (and line of thinking) is, it does beg the following question:

What exactly is the “essence of librarianship” and by whom is it determined?


What the ALA Has to Say

It’s natural to want to turn to our professional organizations when faced with this question. Ideally they represent us and we embody their beliefs. According to the American Library Association, “modern librarianship” is based on the following core values that “define, inform, and guide our professional practice:”

  • Access
  • Confidentiality/Privacy
  • Democracy
  • Diversity
  • Education & Lifelong Learning
  • Intellectual Freedom
  • The Public Good
  • Preservation
  • Professionalism
  • Service
  • Social Responsibility

Notice that these are “core values” and not “core tasks.” There’s no mention of staffing a reference desk, planning library orientation for first year students, soliciting book recommendations from faculty, or teaching every class an instructor requests us to teach. In last week’s ACRLog post there was a great comment by Sandra Cochrane who claims that many librarians respond to the question, “What do librarians do?” with “a list of tasks.” In many ways it’s natural: Our CVs and resumes are lists of things we do/have done; our job advertisements list duties and responsibilities, and our day-to-day is spent in practice. But those practices are rooted in deeply-held beliefs and core values, which may or may not align with those put forth by the ALA.

I’m not going to deconstruct each ALA Core Value in this post, but I will say that there are likely parts of this list that are open to interpretation based on sociopolitical contexts, problematic in light of issues of racism and oppression, and questionable in regards to their intent/founding motive. All of that is to say, it’s complicated, folks, and there are likely other values we’ve internalized as a profession that haven’t made it onto this list.

Core Values & Professional Identity Formulation

Just last week, guest writer Courtney Block expressed the centrality of advocacy to librarianship on ACRLog, and two weeks before that a group of librarians gathered at USC’s Doheny Library for the first ever conference on Identity, Agency, and Culture in Academic Libraries, where discussions on our professional values, identity formulation, and labor conditions abounded. Attending this conference reinforced for me that although I may share certain professional values with other academic librarians, the ways in which we conceptualize them may be vastly different. That being the case, how does that then impact our formulation of our professional identity and the ways in which we perform librarianship?

For example, ServiceEducation, Anti-Racism, and Social Responsibility are the heart of my own professional practice. I view these values through a feminist, relational lens, in which I am a co-educator, co-learner,  and partner with students, faculty (in and out of the library), staff, and my local community. What’s important to me is cultivating meaningful relationships at all times. This perspective has a direct impact on the ways in which I facilitate classes, approach reference, and propose the development or elimination of certain library services. Someone else in this same job role might have a different definition of each of those values (or a different set of values altogether), which would in turn make their professional practice look different from my own. This difference in practice then accounts for the difference in experience of librarianship and the difference in what we see as “the essence of the profession.”

In my mind, I am improving my professional practice by exploring alternative reference models to the reference desk, because I see the “desk” as both a physical and emotional barrier to egalitarian educational relationships, and a barrier to the core values of Education and Service. My coworker might see the reference desk as an expression of librarian visibility in an educational setting and an embodiment of the professional value of Service. Am I killing librarianship with my practice? Is he? Or are we “killing,” or to be less dramatic, contradicting, our deeply held notions of professional practice?

Is Practice All Relative? 

As I write this post, I am chatting with a friend online about it, working out my argument and thought-process via Google Chat. I’m anticipating being critiqued for being overly equivocal and unable to come to a “correct conclusion” or “truth.” It’s ok! I can take it! Yes, there is a whiff of social constructionism to this post, but really what I’m trying to do is encourage a professional conversation about what we value about librarianship. This needs to happen locally, at our respective institutions, and nationally, via professional conferences, writing (“academic” or otherwise), conversations on social media, and other venues.

When we assume that we all not only hold the same professional values, but define them in the same way, without ever explicitly discussing them, we are setting ourselves up for professional blow-ups. As my friend on GChat put it: “We’re led to believe that if we aren’t ‘moving,’ we aren’t working.” We need to consider critical inquiry, reflection, discussion, and revision of our professional values and practices as an integral part of our work. The only thing that will ever “kill” librarianship is our inability to reflect and discuss our interpretations of our professional values and practice.

Out of Office (For the Semester)

This semester I’m on sabbatical from the library. At my university librarians are faculty and eligible for research leaves, and I’m grateful to have been granted one for the spring and early summer. I’m using the time to work on a few writing projects with collaborators and I’ve also started a new research project. I’ll be interviewing students at my urban, public, commuter university on their practices around their course reading, hoping to learn about the ways they get access to their course materials and fit reading into their schedules. So far it’s been fascinating to speak with students about their reading, and I’m looking forward to analyzing the interview data as well.

While I knew that the routine of sabbatical would be different than my usual library director routine, I’ve been a bit surprised at how different it is. My usual schedule in the library is heavy on meetings; on sabbatical most of my meetings are with…myself. (Full disclosure: also sometimes with my cats.) I haven’t had this much autonomy over my own time since graduate school and it’s taken a bit of getting used to. The first couple of weeks were odd — I hadn’t realized how much I relied on the predictability of my usual schedule to frame my days. Now that I’m in the interview stage of my project I have a bit less flexibility, and I’m getting more settled into my new routines.

It’s been interesting to work on library (and higher ed)-related research and writing full-time while not physically working in the library (or at the college). Most of my research interests focus on practice, and the distinction between my own library practice and research is not usually as separate as it as been this semester. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about that. I appreciate the uninterrupted time for reading and writing and thinking, but it feels somewhat strange not to be in the library at all.

Once my student interviews finish I’ll be buckling down for transcription, analysis, and writing, and continuing work on my other projects too. My plan is to schedule worksessions in libraries around the city, public libraries as well as those at the colleges in my university. In addition to the self-imposition of a new routine to structure my days, I’m also looking forward to the opportunities to visit lots of different libraries and to experience them the way patrons do.

I’m curious to hear from other librarians who’ve taken sabbatical leaves. How’d it go? What did you find surprising (or frustrating)? Drop me a line in the comments.