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.

The Varied Life of an Academic Librarian

Earlier this week, I represented the UI Libraries and Learning Commons at an Orientation Information Fair. It’s your standard “tabling” event where we put out a variety of handouts and other materials (one might say “swag”…pens, post-its, buttons, even squishy brain-shaped stress-relief balls) and chat with incoming freshman and their families.

In the lulls between waves of people coming in, I got to talking with the volunteer at the Student Legal Services table, which is next to ours. We compared swag and strategies for engaging the orientation attendees, and more. She’s a student assistant going into her senior year, and wants to go to law school and specialize in immigration law. I told her that I have a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science, but that unlike her, I found myself in grad school after having absolutely no plan of action following my college graduation. She actually seemed pretty interested in the “library talk” parts of our conversation, and asked what it was like being a librarian.

The answer to that, of course, is that every day is different. Sometimes I’m teaching, or alone at my desk (often doing the planning for teaching), in meetings or collaborating with colleagues in the library, at an event or training session where I get to learn from people outside the library, or attending events like the Orientation Information Fair we were at that day. I’d say the variety is definitely something I like the most about this career. Here’s a quick snapshot of the various projects I’ve got going on at the moment:

  • I’m collaborating with our Learning Commons Coordinator and others to develop and manage a digital badges program which will pilot in the fall. There was a great session at ALA that helped me think through our process a little differently – if you are thinking about digital badges, here are some resources to check out from that session. Our goal at UI is to encourage and reward engagement with the Learning Commons and library resources.
  • This fall semester I’ll be teaching an online section of a one credit-hour course offered through the Libraries, called “Library Research in Context: Find the Good Stuff Fast.” I’m pretty excited about this but also a little nervous about the time commitment, since I’ve never taught a semester-long course before. I’m a bit behind on planning, but fortunately have several experienced librarian colleagues as resources and support.
  • Another new project coming up for me is that I’ll be coordinating our Personal Librarian Program, where librarians are matched with Living Learning Communities. I’m taking this on in the absence of a co-worker who is leaving soon for another position, and am currently getting introduced to her contacts. While I don’t expect the actual coordinating to be a huge time commitment, continuing the libraries’ relationship with campus partners and communicating with people in Residence Education is a great way to stay in touch with what’s happening on campus outside the library and get other perspectives on student success.
  • All new international students who are undergraduates are required to take an online course that serves as a continuing orientation to the university. A colleague and I reached out to the instructor and recently completed a mini-module on basic library information for this course. Previously, none of the modules in the course covered (or mentioned) anything about the libraries. This is part of the libraries’ ongoing efforts to improve services and resources for international students.
  • One last thing for now – I’m chairing a committee for ALA’s New Members Round Table. Although I was a member of the same committee last year, it’s my first experience chairing a committee and already I definitely feel the big difference in responsibility from “member” to “chair.”

I’ve heard of “summer slowdown,” and although it felt much slower and quieter for the first few weeks after classes let out, that is definitely not the case anymore! That seems to be true for others, as well. If anyone has similar projects going on, it would be great to hear about it and share ideas!

Something I’m thinking about right now, is that with so much variety and flexibility in my day to day, I haven’t really taken the time to think about what parts of my job I really enjoy the most. What kinds of things do I want to spend my time on, now and into the future? The legal studies student I talked with was so passionate and knew the kind of law she wanted to go into, because it fascinated her and she cared about it. Right now, I don’t think I have that clear of a vision for any particular area – rather, I’m happy to do whatever needs to be done and help the best that I can wherever it’s needed.

Now, I know our situations aren’t exactly parallel, and I do like doing a little bit of everything, but it would be an advantage to figure out where I’m more personally motivated within librarianship. What do I enjoy the most? What are my strengths? How can I leverage those two? Within this wide variety of projects going on, I’m going to try to start paying attention to what I enjoy doing the most in my job.

Summertime Space in the Library

After a long, cold winter in much of the U.S., summer is finally, definitively here. Many of us in academic libraries are taking advantage of the slower summer months to work on projects — both big and small — that may be difficult to get to during the academic year. Hopefully we’re getting the chance for some rest and relaxation as well, so that when the fall rolls around we’re rejuvenated for the start of the new semester.

In the library where I work we’re having a somewhat busier summer than usual. We’ve got a couple of librarians retiring, some new staff coming on board, as well as a major upgrade to the ILS used by all of the colleges within our university system. All of this has meant lots of activity for our librarians, making it in many ways more similar to the full swing of the semester than to the typical summer.

Student use of the library, on the other hand, has been characteristic of the slower summer. While summer classes are offered, there are far fewer classes and students than the rest of the year. The college has fairly high enrollment (17,000 students) for the size of our campus, and during the academic year we struggle to accommodate them in the library. (Luckily, a new building is under construction on our campus which will relieve the congestion when it opens in a few years.) A full, busy college library is a much better problem to have than an empty one, though it does bring challenges. With a colleague I’ve been engaged in a qualitative study of students’ academic culture — including library use — and have identified many of our students’ frustrations with the library that we’re beginning to address.

But as I walked through the very lightly populated library last week, I wondered what lessons we can learn from studying the library during these times of less heavy use, like the summer. What affordances might the summer provide?

During our primetime hours in the academic year we field many student complaints about noise levels in the library. One of our two floors is designated as a quiet individual study floor, but it can be a challenge to maintain quiet when the library is crowded. In the summertime that floor is not just quiet but silent. Students are spread more evenly over the quiet floor as well, and we haven’t had any complaints about the areas of the floor that are often problematic during the academic year. Our other floor, which has areas for group study and individual study, is also quieter during the summer, with more of the groups working together talking in low voices. Again, this is our goal for the academic year, too, but when the library fills up it can be difficult to maintain.

A related topic is student use of computers in the library. We have two small computer labs plus computers adjacent to the reference desk for students to use, and during the semester they are nearly always occupied. One challenge is that some students are clearly using the computers for non-academic reasons, often watching YouTube, shopping, or playing games. Perhaps they have some time to occupy between classes, or are taking a break from their studies. While we have no desire to prohibit activities or websites at our student computers, when we’re busy and there’s a line to print or use the computers for other academic reasons, it can be difficult to reconcile. We do have time management software on our computers and can adjust the settings to reduce session length during the busy periods. But our summer use is instructive — there are plenty of computers both for students who want to work on their assignments and for those who want to watch the occasional World Cup match.

I wonder whether the summertime lack of crowds has offered a window into preferred student library use, as students may be less likely to have to change their behavior based on the presence of others? And, if so, what can this teach us about extending the possibilities for students to find their ideal academic workspace in the library throughout the academic year? I’m already thinking about clearer and more visible signage, and perhaps increasing the number of walk-throughs by librarians, staff, and security to encourage students to keep their voices down in the quiet areas.

Does your library feel different in the summer than during the academic year? Have you gained useful insights from observing your library during the slower summer months?

Musings on Outreach as Instruction

Last week, librarians from many branches of our university gathered for a Teaching Librarians Retreat. The retreat was organized and hosted by a few wonderful colleagues, who I cannot thank enough for their efforts and a fantastic event. The goal for the retreat was to promote a community of sharing, peer support, and ongoing learning among UI librarians who teach, and was a chance to reflect on the year and find colleagues with similar interests and concerns about teaching. Making dedicated time for sharing and reflection is especially important in an institution as large and with as many librarians as ours.

We broke out into discussion groups for part of the retreat, and my group gathered to talk about “outreach as instruction.” What struck me first as we each shared our thoughts is that “outreach” can mean so many different things. We had people contributing to the conversation from perspectives of social media, events and programming, marketing, digital badges, special collections, working with student organizations, and outreach to faculty vs. students vs. the community.

My take on “outreach as instruction” and why it matters has to do with the limitations of one-shot sessions and ways we can expand the impact of instruction beyond traditional methods. One-shot sessions are valuable as point-of-need instruction for academic coursework, but relying solely on them is limiting: only a fraction of students receive library instruction, and a number of them may not be particularly interested in the General Education required course that brought them into the library. This is where I think outreach can be powerful – in the many possibilities to connect with students outside of a classroom setting, while still teaching something. Here are a few ideas on how to go about doing that:

  1. Connect over something interest-based, rather than academics-based. For example, I’ve heard of academic libraries having knitting sessions (which is also closely tied with stress-relief activities during finals week), but it could be something else. The draw to participate is something of general interest that can also be connected to research and resources available at the library.
  2. Communicate with student organizations, and let the student leaders know how the library can support their group and members. This can lead to tailored teaching opportunities for students who are involved and invested in a group that may not get this attention and instruction otherwise.
  3. Use the collection creatively. We’ve found ways to do this by using images from the Iowa Digital Library on buttons, postcards, and Valentine cards. Those are all short and simple activities that can naturally lead to learning something new about a variety of resources. (You can see the Valentine’s activities here.)

Those are just a few ideas, which clearly come from my perspective as an Undergraduate Services Librarian (and barely crack the surface of our group discussion at the Teaching Librarians Retreat). For you, “outreach as instruction” could mean building on relationships with faculty, an emphasis on social media, or something else. Outreach itself is a broad concept with multiple definitions, but that also means there are so many variations and opportunities for librarians to engage with their users and community.

When I hear “outreach as instruction,” I think of how we can connect with undergraduates in ways other than in the classroom for a one-shot session, and incorporate what I like to call “nuggets of information literacy.” What does it mean for you and your library?

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!

Fitting In Reading

It seems like every year one of my New Year’s resolutions is to read more. Read more? But I’m a librarian, I read all the time, right?

Over the 7 years that I’ve been a librarian I’ve heard that misconception all too often upon meeting new people. “Oh, you’re a librarian? You must read all the time/love to read/spend your days reading!” Of course the context of that statement ultimately determines my response (and I am always polite, even when slightly exasperated), but in truth the answers are no, yes, no. Of course I love to read, as I always have, even before I was a librarian. But the amount of long-form, focused reading that I typically do during my workday is very, very small. Not that other forms of reading don’t matter — I can usually keep up with my work-related RSS feed and the newspaper, and like most office workers I read many many MANY emails each day. But sit down in my office with a book? Not often.

While I’ve found blogs and other online sources to be useful in keeping up with the academic librarianship and higher education more generally, lots of scholarly research and practical information is published in books and journal articles, too. Reading a book about information literacy, or the latest issue of C&RL, or a book about student retention that specifically addresses commuter colleges is totally, 100% relevant to my job as Coordinator of Library Instruction at a non-residential college.

So why is there a stack of books and articles 8 inches high on my desk? And a book due back to ILL tomorrow that I haven’t even cracked open?

Reading, and especially reading in print, is tricky in an office environment. To me it has the appearance of being simultaneously uninterruptible and leisure-like, which I realize are somewhat at odds. The focus that someone reading a long-form text brings to the task, perhaps taking notes as they read, sometimes makes it seem almost rude to bother them. But that’s contrasted with the popular image of a professor with their feet up on their desk, surrounded by books, just waiting for students to stop in with questions. I’ve exaggerated both of these scenes, but I think there’s a grain of truth in each.

If I’m reading at work, will folks not stop in because I seem focused and they don’t want to interrupt me? Or, on the flip side, if folks do stop in will I lose track of the thread of the reading? And, perhaps the core of the issue, is reading “work” in the same way that other office-bound tasks we may do at our jobs are “work”? Or does reading at my desk make it seem like I’m not working, especially if there are other tasks that need doing on my to-do list? Alternatively, I could bring work-related reading home to tackle on evenings and weekends, but then I’m shortchanging my opportunities for leisure reading (which I never feel I have enough of anyway).

Keeping up with the scholarly and practical literature in my field is professional development, and as such it’s an important and worthwhile undertaking. So maybe it’s as simple as that — reading for professional development is a work-related task like any other, and I should add it to my to-do list for each day.

Do you read books and articles while at work? How do you find the time and space to keep up with longer form professional reading?