Category Archives: Libraries and Community

#WeNeedDiverseBooks in Academic Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from AJ Robinson, Islamic Studies & South Asian Studies Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Some people don’t expect to see themselves in the library.” This comment from Vivek Shraya, 2015 recipient of the South Asia Book Award, was a moment of clarity at the Conference on South Asia in Madison. The conversation among book award authors addressed #WeNeedDiverseBooks, an online campaign that has highlighted issues of exclusion in mainstream literature industries. “Diverse books” generally feature characters of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQIA identities, and/or varying abilities. Many libraries with a strong focus on serving young readers have embraced the campaign with displays, booktalks, and new collection development strategies. There has yet to be significant traction for this campaign in academic libraries, so as academic librarians we must ask ourselves: do our users see themselves in the stacks?

Despite the influx of university diversity and inclusion programs, minority students at many schools continue to report feeling like outsiders. The topic of diverse books exposed a critical gap for supporting my students—a visible collection that explicitly recognizes their presence. Making diverse books prominent in academic libraries is a necessary component for welcoming all users.

At my library, I started expanding the Popular Literature (PopLit) collection with novels and other non-scholarly titles representing authors, protagonists, and themes related to South Asia. PopLit is located on the main floor next to study spaces and arranged by genre for browsability. I also noticed other gaps in the collection, including a need for representation of my other subject specialty, Islamic Studies. Working with PopLit had the benefit of collaborating with other bibliographers, reducing strain on subject-specific collection budgets, and (most importantly) placed the books on shelves more accessible for casual browsing.

The push for diversity in books speaks to wider issues in systematic exclusion, including standard selection tools such as mainstream publishers and reviewers. Booklists such as the South Asia Book Awards and blogs like Arabic Literature (in English) have been instrumental in building a core collection. I also sought out alternative publishers such as Arsenal Pulp Press, Other Press, and Seven Stories Press. In selecting books, I prioritized finding authors who speak directly from personal experiences to balance popular journalist, travel writer, or ghost-writer accounts. I also sought materials with a wide variety of genres and formats, such as graphic novels and poetry.

To reach a wider spectrum of genres, my most useful tool were lists on GoodReads. Lists like “Desi Chick Lit,” “South Asians in Contemporary YA,” “Fiction featuring Muslim Women,” and “Queer Islam,” among others, were useful for identifying novels appropriate for pleasure reading, and the user-submitted reviews helped evaluate literary and content quality. Although GoodReads is now owned by Amazon, it’s possible to change the interface to easily check availability through BetterWorldBooks or IndieBound.

In processing new titles, student workers curate books for display on the centrally located New Books Shelf. The YA novels have eye-catching covers that draw interest to the shelves even from a distance. I also found an opportunity to promote the books through collaboration with the campus Center for Diversity and Inclusion, which is housed on the second floor of the library. We arranged to display a monthly book exhibit related to their programs. New PopLit titles complemented and balanced relevant academic texts. Books circulated from the exhibit each month, and several students expressed appreciation for the display.

If students immediately recognize that the library is intended for them, they are far more likely to see the rest of the services we provide. As librarians we must be deliberate and proactive to “meet users where they are.” Building and promoting the collection has challenged perceptions of the library to open conversations and outreach on campus. While a book collection alone cannot address the deep inequalities embedded in higher education, it is an important opportunity to show users that we see and value them in the library.

Reflections on the past year

It’s been almost one year since I moved to Washington DC and began my residency position at American University. Last year, for my very first ACRLog post, I wrote a little about my job description as a Resident Librarian. Next month will mark my one year anniversary at American University.

I am glad to say that my first year has been fantastic. I have great colleagues and amazing support from the library. I have also had the opportunity to participate in symposiums, attend conferences, contribute to university service, and meet great people from outside the library and around the university.

Beyond my work at American University, I have been blessed to be able to write for ACRLog and obtain other opportunities through ACRL. While it’s been a great year, I have learned a couple of things that will make me a better librarian in the long run. I believe that even if you’ve had positive experiences, there are always new things to learn and ways to improve as a librarian.

Here are some things that I have learned the past year:

-Go outside your comfort zone. I know that for myself, I can be a bit shy. However, I know that I am also a professional and that going outside of your comfort zone and experiencing new things is vital for not only personal growth, but professional growth. For me, going outside my comfort zone means talking and interacting to people outside the library. I am currently working on a project where I have reached out to different departments in the university. Through those email exchanges and meetings, I have learned more about our students and the challenges that lie for incoming freshman.

-Participate when you can! One of the great things about my residency is that I have the opportunity to work with other departments, such as technical services or access services. I also participate in the marketing and social media groups, which has not only librarians, but other staff members from departments within the library. These are great opportunities to meet new people and learn about what others do at the library and what their interests are.

-Prioritize conferences. As a new librarian, I was excited about all the conferences and all the great locations they would be held at. However, these conferences cost money and with airfare, hotel, and food, it can get expensive! I am lucky enough to have professional development funds through my position. I also know that not everyone has funds through their place of employment and so they cannot attend many (if any) conferences that are not in their area. I would suggest looking within your own place of employment and finding workshops or small symposiums taking place. I have found these events very informative, especially since they relate to that specific environment. As I have been fortunate enough to attend a couple of conferences this past year, I have learned the immense talent that the librarianship profession has. One of my  favorite parts of conferences is meeting new people and finding out what everyone is working on.

In terms of prioritizing conferences, it is going to be different for everyone. Personally, I like to go to conferences that have an emphasis in my own interests and my future career plans.

-Rejection is not the end of the world. Like my residency position ACRLog post, I also wrote one about rejection. While it hurts for a little while, you must learn from it and continue. It might have been the first time, but it won’t be the last time. So, how do we move forward? Over the course of a year, I have focused on a couple things. First, working with people on proposals is helpful. It allows you to not only write, but learn from others and different styles. Second, write for yourself. When I do this, I do not write about work. I write about my life, my dreams, and anything that pops into my head. What is important is that you move forward and try again.

-Volunteer. When I arrived in DC, I promised myself that I would take the time to volunteer. Specifically, I wanted to work with English as a Second Language speakers (ESL). However, I wanted to wait until I got settled in DC.  A couple months ago, I started co-teaching ESL classes once a week. It’s very rewarding when a student who struggled at the beginning, begins to improve every week. Although this is separate than my library work, this experience has shaped how I teach. The ESL program that I am part of is very informal. Teachers have the freedom to either use the ESL book that has been provided with lesson plans or use their own content and design it their way.

I have been using a mix of two, but most importantly, I have learned how to better improvise. During the classes, students will begin to ask questions that cause myself and the co-teacher to further explain a topic. For example, we had a lesson about food and it turned out that a lot of students were unfamiliar with breakfast food vocabulary. So, after the break, the other co-teacher and I decided to do an activity to familiarize the students with that vocabulary.

I think that any instruction experience can serve to improve your teaching and having a diverse set of students will only help you improve and better understand different ways of learning and comprehension.

Finally, I always like to remember that my residency position and my colleagues are the reason that I have had great opportunities over the past year. I am also glad to say that I will continue with ACRLog for another year and look forward to writing more about my residency and the projects I am participating in, as well as collaboration within and outside of the library.

Changing College, Changing Library

One of the things I like most about my job is being part of my college and university community. CUNY (the City University of New York) is a unique institution — the largest urban public university system in the U.S. — and New York City College of Technology (typically referred to as City Tech), where I work, is unique within the CUNY system. The college’s history is interesting: founded in 1946 as the New York State Institute of Applied Sciences, it was renamed New York City Community College in 1953 — the first community college in NYC. City Tech joined the CUNY system in 1964, and the Voorhees Technical Institute merged into the college in 1971 (itself an institution with roots dating back to 1881). In 1983 City Tech became a comprehensive college and began to offer 4 year degrees as well as 2 year degrees. With 10 new baccalaureate programs added in the past 15 years, in 2013 the college began to graduate more bachelors than associates students.

Like the college, the library has gone and continues to go through changes. We’ve been lucky enough to add several faculty and staff lines in the library, which has helped as student enrollment has shot up from about 12,000 to over 17,000 in the past decade. We’ve been able to make more technology available for students and have increased our information literacy efforts as well, including single session instruction and two semester length courses. It’s apparent to library workers as well as the students, faculty, and staff at the college that the library needs more space, especially as the number of students on campus continues to grow. So we’ve been gathering data to help us make that case. A new building is going up on campus and, while the library’s not slated to move to new digs, we have lots of great ideas for how we can use some of the space that will be freed up to benefit our college community.

Historically our collections have been curriculum-driven, and they continue to be today. But as the curriculum changes to focus increasingly on baccalaureate students, how will our collections strategies need to change? As part of a large university we’re lucky to have access to many resources within the CUNY campus libraries, both by request and on-site (and the latter may not be as onerous as it sounds depending on what part of NYC you’re coming from and going to). City Tech is also home to several degree programs — Hospitality Management and Entertainment Technology, just to name two — in which the major coursework is highly hands-on and may rely less on the kinds of resources that academic libraries have traditionally offered access to.

On the other hand, with the rise in baccalaureate students we’ve also seen an expansion of opportunities for undergraduate research at City Tech. The advanced research strategies workshop we offer for our undergraduate honors research scholars (positions that pay a modest stipend to students) have slowly but surely become standing room only, and the student research poster session held at the end of each semester has overflowed the bounds of the rooms that once housed it, spilling out into hallways and lounge areas. For their specialized research with faculty mentors, these students may need access to resources and services that we haven’t always offered in our library, beyond what’s required for their coursework.

For a variety of reasons I’m not the biggest fan of conversations about the future of libraries. They too often seem to turn into techno-evangelism and can align closer with corporate interests than makes me comfortable. Our present — what’s happening right now at my library (and probably yours, too) — is much more interesting and exciting, and I’m enjoying the opportunity that my colleagues and I have to focus on meeting our students’ changing needs in real time.

The Assistantship as Ethnography: A New Lens for LIS Students

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

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

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

zine

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

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

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

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

Ask questions

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

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

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

Take advantage of tools

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

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

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

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

Take advantage of every opportunity to learn 

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

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

Reflection doesn’t have to be lonely

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

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

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

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

Put it all together

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

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

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

But don’t internalize it

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

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

I am not my job

Advice for mentors, supervisors, and leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mixed messages, missed opportunities? Writing it better

At the Bucknell Digital Scholarship Conference a few months ago, Zeynep Tufekci gave a great keynote presentation.  Tufekci, who grew up in Turkey’s media-controlled environment,  researches how technology impacts social and political change.  She described how the accessibility of social media enhanced the scale and visibility of, for example, the Gezi Park protests.  In her talk, Tufekci also advocated for academics to “research out loud,” to make their scholarship visible and accessible for a wider, public audience.  Rather than restrict academic thought to slow, inaccessible, peer-reviewed channels, she said, academics should bring complex ideas into the public sphere for wider dissemination and consumption.  Through her “public” writing (in venues like Medium and the New York Times, for example), Tufekci said she is “doing her research thinking out in the open” and trying to “inject ideas of power, of equity, of justice” to effect change.  There’s a lot of public demand for it, she told us, if you make it accessible and approachable.  We just, she said with a chuckle, have to “write it better.”

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Steven Pinker explored the various reasons why academic writing generally “stinks.”  Is it because academics dress up their meaningless prattle in fancy language in order to hide its insignificance?  Is it unavoidable because the subject matter is just that complicated?  No, Pinker said to these and other commonly held hypotheses.  Instead, he said, academic writing is dense and sometimes unintelligible because it’s difficult for experts to step outside themselves (and outside their expert ways of knowing) to imagine their subject from a reader’s perspective.  “The curse of knowledge is a major reason that good scholars write bad prose,” he said.  “It simply doesn’t occur to them that their readers don’t know what they know—that those readers haven’t mastered the patois or can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention or have no way to visualize an event that to the writer is as clear as day.  And so they don’t bother to explain the jargon or spell out the logic or supply the necessary detail.”

Tufekci and Pinker, then, are on the same page.  The ideas of the academy can and should be accessible to a wider audience, they’re urging.  To reach readers, academics should write better.  In order to write better, academics must know their readers and think like their readers.  Sure, you might be thinking, I could have told you that.  We library folks are rather accustomed to trying to think like our “readers,” our users, aren’t we?  So what message might there be in this for us?  Is it that we should continually hone our communications whether in instruction, marketing, web design, systems, cataloging, or advocacy?  Yes.  Is it that we should stop worrying that if we make things too simple for our users we’ll create our own much-feared obsolescence?  Probably.  Is it that we should reflect on whether we’re truly thinking like our audience or trying to make them think (or work) like us?  That, too.

Just the other day, I was chatting with a friend who is a faculty member at my institution.  We were both expressing frustration about recent instances of not being heard.  Perhaps you know the feeling, too.  During class, for example, a student might ask a question that we just that minute finished answering.  Or in a meeting, we might make a suggestion that seems to fall on deaf ears.  Then just a few minutes later, we hear the very same thing from a colleague across the table and this time the group responds with enthusiasm.  If you’re like me, these can be discouraging disconnects, to say the least.  Why weren’t we heard?, we wonder.  Why couldn’t they hear us?  These are perhaps not so different from those larger scale disconnects, too.  When we might, let’s say, advocate with our administration for additional funding for a new initiative or collections or a redesign of library space and our well-researched, much needed proposal isn’t approved.  Perhaps these are all opportunities we might take to reconsider our audience and “write it better.”

So what does “writing it better” mean exactly?  While it likely varies for each of us, I expect there’s some common ground.  “Writing it better” is certainly about clarity and precision of ideas and language.  But I think it’s also about building and establishing our credibility and making emotional connections to our audience, while thinking strategically.  I think it’s about our relationships and values–to the ideas themselves and to our audience.  It’s about an openness and generosity of mind and heart that helps us to consider others’ perspectives.  What does “write it better” mean to you?