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.

Personal Development As Professional Development

Like many of us I was dismayed by the results of the last US presidential election, and at one year in I’m even more concerned for the nation and the people who live here. One of the things I resolved to do in the aftermath was to make the time for some training that I’d long been interested in but hadn’t prioritized. Over the course of this year I’ve taken a bystander intervention workshop as well as a 5-week self-defense course, both facilitated by a local organization that focuses on violence prevention programs for marginalized communities. I also attended a one-day medical first aid training session offered by my university, and a one-day mental health first aid training held at my local public library and provided by the NYC Department of Health.

I consider these workshops to be more for my own personal than professional development: they were programs I attended on my own time rather than work time, and I’ve felt generally safer and more aware since, which I appreciate. But I definitely think these experiences have been useful for my work in the library, too. As a workshop participant I’m focused on listening to and learning the content, but I also pay attention to how the facilitators run the program. Do they lecture, use slides or handouts, or show video clips? For longer trainings, how often do they intersperse opportunities to participate in an activity (and breaks) with sitting and listening? How do they handle groups with folks who are reluctant to answer questions, or folks who take up more than their share of conversational space? I’ve learned so much about strategies for effective workshops from watching successful (and less-successful) facilitators work, strategies that I can bring to my work when I teach, lead a meeting or workshop, or give a presentation.

Most valuable, I think, is the opportunity these programs have given me to think about my community, both narrowly — family, friends, colleagues — and broadly, in my neighborhood and city. I’m more introvert than not, and talking about or working through sometimes sensitive topics with a group of people I’ve never met before is somewhat daunting to me. But for all of my hesitation I’ve appreciated the opportunity to listen to and learn from my fellow participants, diverse in age, experience, and background.

I went to these trainings because I wanted to learn strategies to deal with multiple kinds of potentially scary situations, but I’m grateful that they also provided me the chance to build empathy. The end of the semester is approaching with speed, the political situation continues to be disturbing, and everyone is stressed. I was struck last week by a Twitter thread by a social worker that reminded me how important it is, especially right now, to start with empathy. Let’s commit to being gentle with ourselves, our colleagues, our students, and our communities in this busy time of year.

Digging for Gratitude

A little over a year ago, I took a flight to Los Angeles to interview for my job at UCLA – it was the night before the election. At the time, natives and their allies were fighting to re-route Dakota Access Pipeline. I found out towards the end of my flight to LA, that the gentlemen in the aisle seat of my row was from North Dakota and thought natives were “making a big deal” out of it. I woke up the next morning to learn that my less preferred candidate won the election, and I cried in disbelief. I had no idea how I was going to get through my interview.

A year later, I am in my position at UCLA, and recent news of the Keystone Pipeline 210,000 gallon oil spill has come to light days before Thanksgiving, a holiday based upon the false notion of unity between natives and colonizers. I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but I just wanted to place this article in it’s appropriate historical context of my life as a first-year librarian. While I am beyond grateful for my job, my amazing colleagues, and the sunny skies around me, I started in this profession during, what I believe is, a grave time in global history.

I approached librarianship as a career because I loved being able to provide individuals information. However, as I mentioned in my first post, I also embraced the critical possibilities within the profession. I would be lying if I said I have been able to sustain the enthusiasm for deneutralizing the library because between moving across the country, starting a new job, and the current political climate, I am emotionally exhausted.

The good news is I have still found outlets that affirm my place in this field. So here is a list of what has kept me going. I want to share this for anyone else feeling a lack of hope and/or motivation to keep sticking with the fight:

  • Multiple students have approached me with a research question that focuses upon a marginalized population.
  • The UCLA Medical Education Committee held a retreat to discuss diversity, inclusion and equity in medical education. This included speakers that used words such as “racism”, “oppression”, and “microaggressions”.
  • I have been able to collaborate with amazing South Asian women librarians for an upcoming chapter in Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS. On top of it, my co-authors and I were able to share our experiences about being South Asian women in librarianship in a panel at a symposium at UCLA. And even better, I was able to meet and listen to the other incredible authors that will be included in this book!
  • My colleagues and I were able to create an in-person and virtual exhibit to highlight Immigrants in the Sciences in response to the DACA reversal and the White nationalist march in Charlottesville.
  • UCLA’s Powell Library held a successful Conversation Cafe for International Education Week.
  • I attended a fulfilling professional development opportunity about systematic reviews.
  • I have shared tears and memories with several other LIS students through the ARL IRDW and Spectrum Scholar program.
  • I was able to visit Seattle for the first time and attend my first (of many) Medical Library Association conference.
  • I gained a mentor and friend.
  • Every time I teach, I learn something new about active learning, teaching methodology, and how to teach to specific audiences. Most importantly, I feel like I am truly in my element.
  • I met the Librarian of Congress! #swoon
  • I inherited two precious cats (librarian status achieved).
  • I’m way less clueless about being a librarian than I was when I started in April!
  • And now I am able to share my first-year experiences through ACRLog!

This is not an exhaustive list, however, it proves that in less than 8 months of working in my position, I have been blessed to create, pursue, attend, and feel a part of unique opportunities within my profession, especially at my institution. So while I might feel disillusioned and hopeless because of the world and its inequities, I have to admit that there have been several upsides.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you too can discover these golden nuggets amongst the rubble around us.

Reflecting on Reference Services

A colleague recently invited me to speak in an LIS graduate class she teaches on information services. I was delighted to have the chance to talk with her students; it was even more of a treat since I attended the same graduate program for my MLIS, and the information services course was the very first course I took in my program (mumble-mumble) years ago.

The students in the course are varied in their career goals, and not all are aiming for academic librarianship or public services work. So while I did speak about how my coworkers at City Tech and I think about reference work in the library at our large, public, technical and professional degree granting college in New York City, I also tried to contextualize reference services not just within the organization of the library, but also within the college, university, and city.

As I’m sure is not unusual for colleges like City Tech, reference for us is not just about answering questions about staplers and printers, or helping students navigate databases and the catalog to find sources for their research projects. Reference at City Tech also involves questions about the college and university. The library is the only place on campus that is open for many hours in the evenings and weekends (and we don’t even have overnight hours). We’re also one of the few spots on campus with a person sitting at a desk that’s highly visible (our reference desk is just inside the library entrance), and that features a sign that directs folks to ask for help (ours reads “Ask a Librarian”). At our reference desk we get all the questions: about technology, logging into wifi, the learning management system, registering for classes, filling out financial aid forms, etc.

So lots of what we do at the reference desk at my college looks like answering questions though also sending students to other places on campus. And that has led to discussion among our library faculty; do we still need a traditional reference desk when traditional reference questions are not always the kinds of questions we get?

Lots of academic libraries have shifted to reference by appointment only, or personal librarians, or other models, but at this point we don’t feel that those models will best serve our students at City Tech. Most of our students have come straight from the NYC public high schools, where they may not have had a school librarian. Many are in low-income households, or are in the first generation of their families to attend college. Some have library anxiety — City Tech’s library is only two floors in the middle of a building and can seem so small and unassuming to me, but I have heard students say that they found it to be big and confusing when they first got to the college. Having a staffed reference desk can help the library feel like a welcoming place for students, especially new students.

We schedule a library faculty member at the reference desk during all hours that the library is open while classes are in session, and most hours during semester breaks. That said, we have made some changes over the past couple of years. Moving a technical support staff member to a slightly different location allowed us to reduce staffing by library faculty at the reference desk from two librarians to one. This arrangement definitely serves students better, and relieves librarians of having to spend lots of time reviewing details of our printing system with students (as I alluded to in a post last year). This change has also proved helpful in accommodating some expected and unexpected staffing shortages this semester.

However, there is still some tension in managing information services in relation to everything else that my colleagues and I want librarians and the library to do with our campus community. I’m not quite sure how things will change for us in the future — while we are interested in doing more course-integrated instruction and other information services work with City Tech students, faculty, and staff, it’s unclear whether we’ll need to shift reference, too.

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?