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.

Making strategy more transparent

I’m not one to make new year’s resolutions, per se. Still, I have been trying to work on something resolution-esque in the past few months, or maybe even for a year now, although it didn’t begin with any formal shape or label. However, it’s mid-February. It’s the end of week four of the semester and things are feeling rather hectic. My resolve seems weak and my desire for hibernation and Girl Scout cookies is strong. So right about now feels like a good time to check in for a kind of status report and a little refocusing and reinvigoration.

My “resolution” centers around the notion of strategy. I’ve been trying to work on better communicating with others the strategy behind what I’m doing and thinking. That is to say not just the items I cross off each day’s to do list, but how those items intersect in service of a larger plan or aim. For example, not just the classes I’m teaching today or next week or this month, but how selected classes connect as part of a scaffolded information literacy instruction plan for anchor, or core, courses in academic majors. Or that the assessment project I’m working on now is part of a larger plan for assessment that contributes to our multi-faceted understanding of students’ information literacy learning and outcomes. I’m not trying to blow smoke here. I’m just saying that what I see as strategy isn’t always apparent to others. How could it be if I didn’t tell anyone about what I’m thinking? I’m trying to work on this in large part by just talking about it more.

By talking about it more, I mean I’m trying to clarify my strategy for myself and articulate it more clearly for others. I’m trying to communicate in different ways–both abstract concepts and concrete examples, both words and graphics–to make stronger connections. I’m trying to be more transparent about what I’m thinking and how I’m connecting the dots. But I’m also trying to carefully listen to what others have to say to see how my thinking and my work is part of a still larger whole. This librarian-led scaffolded information literacy instruction plan for a series of anchor courses in the psychology major that I mentioned a moment ago, for example, is only part of still more expansive information literacy teaching and learning for psychology students. So when I meet with psychology faculty, I talk about students’ development across that series of courses, but I ask about where and how they are also teaching information literacy in those courses and others, as well. We talk together about assignment design and course goals and students’ needs. It’s not about some great reveal, as if by magic, at the end. Talking about it along the way makes the individual steps and component parts more connected, more meaningful, more collaborative, and, therefore more successful.


R-chie overlapping structure arc diagram by Daniel Lai, Jeff Proctor, Jing Yun and Irmtraud Meyer” by dullhunk is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I’ve been focusing on strategy directly with students, too, in the classroom and during research consultations. When I ask students to experiment with a research question in a database, for example, I frame our discussion of their approaches as “best practices for search strategies.” We talk not only about which words they typed in, but why they picked the words they did and what impact their choices had on search results. We add things like “identify major concept words” and “use synonyms for major concepts words” to our list of strategies. I think this metacognitive approach helps students turn a concrete experience into a framework for future application. I am increasingly talking with students about what their strategies are, how they are (and should be) developing strategies, and how strategies can give them agency over their research processes and learning. When we talk about strategies for organizing, reading, or synthesizing sources, students are (mostly, not all–let’s be real) interested. I try to be transparent about my strategies, too: why we’re doing what we’re the classroom. Students seem eager for a framework that helps them decode, maneuver, manage, and direct their work. They are engaged in these conversations. Never have I seen them take more notes than when we talk about strategy.

It’s well and good to intend to work on strategy and think about the big picture–indeed, it’s an attitude or habit of mind–but the reality is that it takes practice, requires space, and demands reflection. Part of my “resolution” is also to get better at strategic thinking and work. My attempts to make time and space have so far included three approaches.

  1. Visual organization. I’m a big fan of lists and post-its and paper. I write everything down to keep track of ideas and tasks big and small. I regularly organize and reorganize these notes. I’ve started grouping them by theme or project in a chart, rather than just simple lists. The visual layout has been a helpful reminder of how small items are part of a larger whole. It helps me think about connections.
  2. Scheduling time for strategic thinking. I’m not doing so well on this one, to be honest. It’s rather easy to lose the thread of this practice when you’re suffering from email/instruction/meeting/life overload. As a case in point, I jotted down about three (probably more interesting) ideas for this blog post that I was excited about, but they all required more big picture thinking and research than I could make happen before this deadline. I’ve been trying to schedule time in my calendar for strategy, just like I schedule meetings. But then I catch up with email instead or I schedule in a student who needs last-minute help or I cross a few other little things off my to do list. Even though I blocked two hours in my schedule to work on reviewing results of recent assessment projects to find connecting themes across them, I let the other stuff in. Those things were more pressing, but also just more easily accomplished. Of course, the pace of the semester doesn’t always permit open blocks of time to devote to the bigger picture. But I also need to work on sticking to it.
  3. Research, presentation, and publication. The motivation of an approaching conference presentation or a writing commitment forces my hand to think and reflect more strategically and meaningfully, not just in passing, about the big picture of my daily work. I’ve been seeking more opportunities for this kind of structure because it’s been so helpful for processing, interpreting, and meaning-making.

How do you motivate your strategic thinking? How do you make room in your daily and weekly schedule? Or perhaps, how do you use small chunks of time for big picture thinking and work? I’m eager to hear your strategies in the comments…

Peer Mentoring in the Profession


I talk a lot about peer mentoring and my network in some of my other ACRLog posts (see “Don’t Underestimate Your Peers” in my tips for LIS students post). The last few months of being a new librarian, publishing my first peer-reviewed article, and presenting at conferences—all of which I couldn’t have done without the support of my peers—have convinced me that this topic deserves its own post.

I presented with a few of my closest friends last month at ALISE. Our panel was about three different student-led initiatives and how LIS schools can more systematically involve students in decision-making. When we received questions from the audience, we would sometimes ask each other to answer a specific question because of that person’s unique perspective or experience. We fed off of each other’s energy. I had somehow forgotten how much they always challenge me, both professionally and personally. It was invigorating to hear their answers—answers that provided a critical lens and held that students were qualified stakeholders that deserved a spot at the table. The panel brought me back to the energy that keeps me going as a librarian.

Right after the panel, a collaboration I facilitated with a peer, Dylan Burns, went live. The ACRLog team had composed a list of questions for Hack Library School and ACRLog writers to address. We had no idea what the posts would look like and if we’d receive provocative, coherent posts from the prompts we created. Almost everyone that wrote for the collaboration was one of my peers and—full disclosure—several of the people posting were my friends. I was awed by the quality of every post. This collaboration pushed me to question my work/life balance, how I treated (and continue to treat) accepting my current job as the “finish line,” and the complexity of my professional identity. Most importantly, the posts made me really consider how much I try to create space for others on this blog and in other places that I have privilege and opportunity. One post in particular made me question how we reward (and, often, condemn) vulnerability and honesty within LIS. The collaboration and the conversation and comments it created took me on a rollercoaster of ups and downs, through joy and even disappointment. But I never stopped thinking. Every post made me think.

That’s what my peer mentors do. They make me think. They challenge me. They teach me. And I, in turn, become a better librarian, teacher, friend, and writer through mentoring them. If someone were to ask me what I like most about being a librarian, I don’t think I would say that it’s working with faculty or students. I don’t think that I would even say that it’s that I get to learn something new every day. I love those things about librarianship. But to be brutally honest, it’s the community that keeps me coming back day after day. My accomplishments are my peers’ and vice versa. Every success is something we’ve worked through together, through the literature or Twitter or personal relationships; every failure is something we can debate and contemplate further.

I thought about my peer mentor relationships a lot when I was writing an article for In the Library with the Leadpipe last October. I respected my reviewers so much that I was afraid to send them a very rough first draft of my article. I asked a few of my closest peers to read the draft and give me feedback. Some of their feedback was harsh but every piece of it was helpful. All of their notes and suggestions helped me restructure the article, find my unique voice, and make my argument more coherent. I sent a revised first draft to reviewers and one of them, an expert in critical open education whom I deeply admire, said “I am grateful that this was written and that it will be published, and I am honored to have been asked to be a small part of it!” I don’t say this to boast about myself or my writing. The draft that she read would have never existed if my peers hadn’t read a much less refined version of it and still seen enough potential to suggest improvements. Moreover, I would have never even submitted an idea to Leadpipe if I didn’t have the encouragement and support of my peers. That comment is as much theirs as it is mine.

I’d like to be clear here: peer mentoring is so much more than giving feedback. I recently read a powerful book about faith and doubt by Rachel Held Evans called Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. The book, which was actually suggested to me by an LIS peer I know through Twitter, begins every chapter with a salient quote. The opening quote for Chapter 30 (pg. 206) was:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.

– Henri Nouwen

This is what peer mentoring looks like, especially in times of transition. My first year of librarianship has consisted of my peer mentors mostly listening and empathizing. It is a lot more complex than coming up with a list of suggestions.

The only experience that I have to draw from is my own. But I wonder if this side of peer mentoring—providing comfort and compassion for others in times of transition—is as foundational for, say, a new library director or librarians new to middle management. In a recent post, entitled “Lost in Librarianship: Where I Wonder Where and If I Still Belong,” Michelle reflects on the challenges of being a new library administrator. She writes,

Now, I have found a few like-minded peers. Thank goodness. I mean, I’d be nuts already without them. But, is there more to library administration than a handful of friends that I trust? Again, where is the community?

A recent “Inside Higher Education” post on Why Mentor Matches Fail calls for faculty to move away from a guru-mentor model to a network-mentor model, which is very similar to what I describe above. The guru-mentor model relies on chemistry and the mentor having enough free time to advise the mentee (para 6). The network-mentor model recognizes that there common needs that all new faculty have: “professional development, emotional support, intellectual community, role models, safe space, accountability for what really matters, sponsorship, access to opportunities, and substantive feedback” (para 11) and that these needs should be met through a variety of mentors and a “network of support” (para 12). This echoes Michelle’s point: where does one find a variety of mentors and colleagues? I also wonder, when does a relationship go beyond a trusted friendship to a peer mentorship? Are they the same? What does true “community” look like?

The first answer that comes to my mind is Twitter. Some of the mentors I have access to through Twitter are “gurus,” but many are peers. Not everyone has access to the peer mentor network that I’ve built. I had the great privilege of attending an active LIS school in-person and having a graduate assistantship that encouraged peer to peer learning at the reference desk and through project work. So the question becomes, how can we use new means to build networks or make our current “network-mentor model” more rich? How can we continue to actively invite others into our network in a meaningful way, particularly when we know that they need access?

I don’t have all of the answers. I’d like to leave you with something that I do know, though. My favorite line of the “Inside Higher Education” piece is: “Let’s face it: mentoring is time-intensive, invisible and unrewarded labor” (para 7). My friend Elizabeth Lieutenant also tweeted about this recently. Peer mentoring is often hurling an unbelievable amount of emotional, uncompensated, invisible labor into the abyss, all while hoping that you’re helping your colleague as much as they’ve helped you. But it is, truly, the most rewarding, fulfilling, and engaging thing that I do.

Thank you to my many peer mentors who inspired this post and who continue to invest in me.

dinosaur from zine- you'll find that your GSLIS friends are your best mentors

My page from the Hello GSLIS Zine, created collaboratively on May 15, 2015

Librarianship Doesn’t Need Professionals

Check out our post on HLS today too! Heidi Johnson, ACRLog FYAL blogger, reflects on the greatest differences between grad school and professional life in “Structuring My Time.” See more information about the HLS/ ACRLog collaboration here

Madison Sullivan is a NCSU Libraries Fellow at North Carolina State University, where she is a librarian for Research and Information Services, and External Relations. Madison received her MSLIS in from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2015 and is a 2016 American Library Association Emerging Leader. Her views are her own, not her employer’s.

I’m supposed to write about professionalism from the perspective of a new librarian. How to be taken seriously as a “new professional,” and how to “be yourself” at the same time. Here’s the deal – it’s a total mystery to me how people manage it.

a lot of professionals are crackpots

A derivative of Jenny Holzer stickers by nadja robot, licensed under a CC BY-NC 2.0

I question what is it to be a professional every single day. I’m not sure I know what professionalism means or what it looks like. Perhaps I do, but the idea of it makes me nauseous.

It makes me nauseous because what if who I am, and who I’d like to be in the workplace, doesn’t align with other people’s definition of what a professional is? It makes me nauseous when I think about the advice, or implied advice, other people have given me about how I should go about being a professional. “Keep your head down. Don’t make waves. Don’t question anyone or anything, especially not your superiors. Keep your mouth shut. Emotions don’t have a place at work. Don’t tell anyone anything personal. Remember to smile.”

In the past, this advice limited my capacity to share my humanness and individuality with my coworkers, and impaired my ability to connect with others. Fear of being perceived as “unprofessional” or naïve has led me to being silent during meetings, and timid to my coworkers and supervisors. Performing professionalism left me feeling robotic and so not myself. Whose rules were these, really?

I know the kind of work environment I want to be a part of. I know the kinds of people I want to work and collaborate with. Much of the commentary surrounding professionalism wasn’t matching up with what I had envisioned and hoped for. If this was advice for being a professional, then perhaps I didn’t want to be one.

People say, “you need to be more professional” when what they really mean to say is “you need to fall in line” or “I don’t like that tattoo” or “hey, tuck in that shirt!” Professionalism is a word people use to maintain and enforce the status quo. Professionalism doesn’t take risks; it encourages conformity. Can you simultaneously call yourself a professional and advocate for radical change? Professionalism is safe and it is boring. I’d also argue that professionalism plays a part in reinforcing the illusion of library neutrality.

I don’t want professionalism to mean putting a façade or a veneer around ourselves before we walk into work everyday. But it does. And I don’t know what we can do about that. The illusion that our lives outside of work stops the second we enter the workplace has never made sense to me. I don’t know what we can do about that, either. It’s an exhausting charade.

Maybe, I think we can love one another. I think we can comfort each other and let our coworkers know it’s safe to share and express themselves. As a new employee, I have to see vulnerability first before I’m comfortable doing the same. I think we’re capable of that. Less judgment. Fewer assumptions. Is this professionalism in practice? I’d like it to be.

For me, the most difficult thing with any new job is that almost everything is unknown at the start. It can be a solitary, unsettling time in a person’s life, even if you haven’t relocated. You have to figure out the boundaries, the culture, your users, and the people you work with. You have to figure out what is acceptable, when it’s acceptable, and around whom. You have to discern how much of yourself is appropriate to bring into this new territory. Which parts of yourself do you hide, which parts do you let people in on? Who can you trust with your worries and your anxieties as you work through starting somewhere new?

I’ll be honest with you. I finished library school in May and have been in my first position as a new librarian for six months. It’s the most exciting thing in the world, and also the most terrifying. I still don’t feel like I’ve figured everything out, and I’m not incredibly comfortable being vulnerable yet. Even though I have been given so much love and support, I’m still trying to “fit in” in some respects. As a new librarian, it can be difficult to express yourself and let your guard down when you want to be respected, valued, and have your ideas taken seriously. You want to show everyone that you can do a good job and that they made the right choice when they hired you.

Learning how to “put a face on” was not something that ever came naturally to me – even after working almost a decade in customer service. As a woman, I’ve been told to think, behave, and act a certain way from a variety of sources and institutions. As a professional, we’ve been given a whole other set of rules to live by  (gendered expectations abound!). I’d like for librarians, especially those in leadership roles, to question what professionalism means and what it looks like. Are we taking a humanistic approach in helping to shape new professionals, in assisting our users, and impacting our profession for the better? Some libraries have done this well, and I feel so fortunate to work where I do.

It’s clear to me that professionalism is a performance. It is, among other things, a gendered term, attributed more often to those with a good deal of privilege. It’s a complex word. Those who successfully perform the role of The Professional are afforded more respect and responsibility in the workplace. Yet the traits I value in other human beings (vulnerability, emotional intelligence, authenticity, empathy) don’t often seem to fit into a typical professional construct.

I want library professionals to have real, open relationships with the people they work with. Is this an unprofessional idea? I want library workers and managers to recognize the humanity of their users, their coworkers, and their staff. We need library professionals who question the ethics of our institutions, and our commitment, or lack of commitment, to diversity. We need librarians who stand up for access to information, patron privacy, and intellectual freedom, even when it is hard to do. I want librarians to feel comfortable challenging “the way we’ve always done things.” Does your organization encourage performing professionalism more than it encourages questioning the status quo?

Librarianship doesn’t need more professionals. Librarianship needs people who can look critically at our field and feel compelled to bring about change. We need leadership that actively encourages this. How can we create work cultures conducive to this?

I’m a passionate and idealistic individual. Sometimes I’m overly enthusiastic when it comes to my work. To some, I may come off as completely unprofessional. I love being a librarian and I love this profession, and I’m usually not too shy about expressing it. It’s been difficult to write this blog despite my own insecurities (what if I sound GASP – unprofessional?!). I’m genuinely interested in knowing how others have approached professionalism within librarianship – feel free to share your thoughts below.


Generosity at work

It seems to me that the interconnectedness of our work makes us library folk frequent collaborators. It often takes a number of people working together, for example, to select, acquire, receive, catalog, and provide access to resources. Or, for instance, how does a librarian have access to students for in-class instruction if not through collaboration with faculty? We are often skilled at working cooperatively and fostering partnerships within our libraries, across our campuses, and beyond.

The characteristics and quality of our many collaborations, however, can sometimes be disappointing–as is the case in all work environments, no doubt. It’s frustrating when work that is connected and should be collaborative is instead disjointed and siloed. It’s challenging to work with a difficult or defensive colleague or supervisor. And it’s depressing to recognize when we ourselves have been the source of a problem.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year and a half or so working with a faculty member at my institution on a fairly intensive teaching and research project. The course of our deepening and developing partnership has provided me an occasion to give a lot of thought to our collaboration and, by extension, the nature of collaboration more generally. This particular faculty member has been an especially generous collaborator. By generous, I don’t mean she has been nice or easy to work with, although she certainly has been those things. What stands out most to me is that she has never been territorial or defensive. She has had no tendency toward one-upsmanship. Instead, she has been at ease with and even eager for sharing ideas, work, and credit. She was as keen to hear my ideas as she was to share her own and just as likely to advance my interests as she was hers or, better yet, find common ground between them.

Indeed, when I reflect on the many people I’ve worked with, I feel grateful for all the generosity I can so easily call to mind. These people and moments were characterized by, much like my recent faculty partner, a ready willingness to share ideas, information, communication, and credit, an inclination to recognize the potential and the contributions of others. These were people who were accountable and took responsibility for their fair share of both work and mistakes. Rather than trying to stake personal claims, they sought to support and advance those around them such that everyone benefitted–individually and together.

As far back as elementary school, I’ve prided myself on being a good teammate or colleague, yet I now recognize how one-sided a collaborator I often have been. I cringe to recall the moments when I was certainly eager to help others, but not work with them. I see now how I was often resistant to others’ contributions and reluctant to hear criticisms. I was more than happy to give, but not to actually join forces. I wasn’t ill-intentioned, just perhaps (too) focused on self-reliance or proving myself.

A search for recommendations on how to be more generous at work turns up articles like this one and this one. The short version of their suggestions includes things like: be thoughtful, work hard, communicate readily, collaborate better, share credit, create positive working environments, and so on. While these things can be easy to know, they are often hard to do.

To be clear, I’m not talking about being nice here. I’m by no means against niceness or kindness. What I’m talking about, though, is developing and contributing to an environment of thick collegiality such that we can work effectively together in a “shared endeavor to create something rich in meaning.” Generosity, I think, helps makes this possible.

So how to become a more generous collaborator, leader, colleague, supervisor, supervisee, mentor, and/or teacher? Some research suggests that, perhaps like most things, practicing makes it easier. And my personal experience suggests the same. The more I practice generosity–that is, the more I cultivate the mindset and habits of a generous colleague or leader–the easier it is. And the more generosity I see around me and receive in return. It seems to me that respect and trust are at the core of this attitude and practice. Being generous both requires and helps promote trust and respect.

I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here. I do think I’m better at this than I used to be, perhaps because of time, age, worldview, and because I’ve worked at it, too. I also know I can be better at it still. But the practice of promoting generous behaviors and attitude–the work of it and the reflection on it–has had a significant impact on my work relationships, quality, engagement, and satisfaction.

It would be naive to ignore the roles gender and other types of power and privilege, or lack thereof, can play in collaborative work and the work environment generally. Some might say, for example, that generosity is expected of women, and not men. Or some might say that to be “generous” actually means to be weak or timid or taken advantage of. There are challenging and troublesome expectations and stereotypes wrapped up in this conversation for sure. It’s reasonable to worry how this might reinforce divides, rather than challenge them. It seems to me, though, that generosity can help to subvert stereotyped expectations and structural inequalities by acknowledging others’ capabilities and accomplishments, by making space for voices otherwise unrecognized. I think practicing generosity at work opens communication, creates respect, and transforms our perspectives and practices for the better. Generosity can promote opportunities and engagement for us all.

Your thoughts? Drop us a line in the comments…

Keeping Our Batteries Charged

Now that I’m in my second year as Chief Librarian, the questions about what I miss about my prior role as Instruction Coordinator come much less often. My answer is the same, though: I still miss teaching and reference, and the opportunities they offer to work with our students. I’d guess that’s common among folks with an instruction background who move to directorships — we’re no longer front of the house, actively working with patrons, to use a restaurant example (though we’re not really back of the house either, and some days it feels like we’re all over the house). We work for the students all the time, but that work can be behind the scenes and often doesn’t allow us to interact with students in the same way we did before.

It’s mid-semester, the library’s crowded, and my colleagues and I are busy, all working hard to make sure our students have what they need for their academic work. So of course that’s the best time to start on a new research project, right? In my quieter and ambitious moments at the beginning of last summer I thought “yes!” So here I am, hopping on the overcommitment train and speeding through the fall. (I’m not quite sure where this new, train-based metaphor is going — clearly I’ve exited the dining car — but it’s been a busy week so let’s keep it.)

My research continues work that I’ve done in the past to learn more about our students’ lived experiences: how, where, and when they do their academic work, and what tools they use, especially digital technologies. Which means that, among other things, I get to schedule interviews with 20 students on my campus to talk with them about what they do on a typical school day. It’s been tricky to schedule the interviews — we’re a commuter college so often our students only come to campus a few days each week, and my own schedule is typically on the meeting-heavy side.

But it’s worth the persistence (and many, many, many emails) to plan the interviews, even during one of the busiest parts of the semester (so many emails). Because it’s incredibly energizing to talk to our students. In the past week I’ve heard students praise the library’s carrels for distraction-free studying, explain how they take the (free!) Ikea shuttle bus to play basketball with their cousin after classes, show me a book from our library about electronic surveillance that they’re reading for fun, and tell me that they prefer to use a desktop computer for “real research” rather than their tablet. Our students and the work they do here at City Tech are inspiring and amazing, and just having the chance to listen to their experiences has been a surprising — and needed — source of energy for me this semester.

Keeping ourselves focused and recharged during the semester can be tough, and while there are lots of outside-of-work examples of self-care that are important, I’ve found it helpful to think on those every(work)day energizing opportunities too. What helps you recharge your batteries during the mid-semester rush? Drop us a line in the comments.