Category Archives: library careers

Breaking Big: Transitioning from Small to Large Academic Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Michael Rodriguez, Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Connecticut.

Navigating the transition from large to small academic library employers, or vice versa, can be challenging. Early-career librarians in particular can find themselves navigating radically new landscapes: specialized, bureaucratic, and complex.

Recently I moved from a small, career-focused, private, nonprofit institution in Florida, to a large, tier-one public research university in New England. Now six months along my new path, I am ready to share some generalizations and guidance about navigating the transition from small private to large public universities and libraries. (For the opposite path, check out Seven Keys to Switching from a Big Company to a Small One—yes, it’s a Harvard Business Review piece, but the advice applies equally to librarians.)

Scaling Size

Large public universities are vast and complex. Libraries can be six stories high and filled with millions of volumes. A hundred staff and student assistants may be working inside the building during business hours. Millions of dollars may be spent on collections and salaries. Contrast this with smaller universities, where the library may boast four staff, a $250,000 budget, and one big room lined with eighteen thousand volumes and branded “the library.” A difference of 25,000 students is another huge numerical contrast.

Imagine changing jobs from one to the other of these environments. Maybe you already have. Either way, this can be a stunning adjustment. Example 1: Walking from parking lot to office takes twenty times longer at my massive public university than it did at my small private university. Example 2: I still manage electronic resources, but my budget is fifty times larger. Example 3: I used to negotiate e-resource licenses solo; now we have attorneys who write five pages of state-mandated provisions into all new contracts.

How to thrive in a larger environment? Chunk your experience into bite-sized pieces. One hundred colleagues to get to know? Set up meetings with each of them in turn, and then allocate time each week to walk about and schmooze. Many complex projects to manage concurrently? Start using Evernote, Trello, a notepad, or other tracking tool to divide your projects into manageable tasks and triage them according to stakeholder impact. Rethink goals as forward momentum. Reassess priorities, eliminate redundancy and excess, and clean up data and processes. Like Thoreau, “simplify, simplify.”

Personalizing Bureaucracy

Small universities are intimate to the point of claustrophobic. You know a great many of the professors and students by name, you work closely with each colleague, and you run into the college president at the neighborhood bakery. In contrast, your large university is a bureaucracy, “effective through its mass rather than through its agility,” notes Peter Drucker. Generally you will need to navigate layer after layer of approval and mediation. Destroying 20-year-old papers requires permission from the state capital. Managers ask you to make appointments to see them. Implementing innovations can take way longer than they should because of the many stakeholders you must consult or persuade.

How to thrive amid bureaucracy? Accept that change is slower in complex environments and that large universities value consensus, whereas small organizations can just decide. So stay patient, but bring your enthusiasm and energy. Bureaucracy tends to sap drive from its members, so as a newcomer setting a faster pace, your drive adds value to the organization. And if you counter-interviewed your search committee as rigorously as they interviewed you, your new colleagues will appreciate you and your vitality.

This brings us to the key point: personalizing working relationships enables us to break through bureaucratic barriers. Be tough and hard-driving, on yourself above all, but be genuine, kind, and helpful too—and do not allow your frustration with the bureaucracy cause you to become frustrated with the people trapped in it. You’re new, and that fact will help you build positive relationships with even the most challenging personalities.

Broadening Scope

Isolation is a byproduct of specialization in large, complex organizations. Small-library staff may do reference, instruction, web design, budgets, resource management, etc. Large-library staff are generally hired for a specialized role. This is fine. The problem is that you can do your job without interacting much with folks outside your immediate working group. This is true for instruction librarians as much as it is for catalogers.

This hyper-specialization is ultimately pernicious. If you do not collaborate or socialize with a broad spectrum of colleagues, or understand how users engage with the services you provide, then you are isolated, not specialized. Isolation’s effects can be personal, such as loneliness and loss of motivation. Or they can be work-related. If people do not know you, they will not know to respect you. You will (A) lack control over the direction of your work, and (B) fail to exercise influence outside your cubicle walls.

The key is to broaden the scope of your specialized work. Start by applying or acquiring expertise in areas related to your specialization. For example, if you manage eresources, then get a handle on user experience. If you teach, then study up on open educational resources. Do not try to take over other people’s jobs—rather, identify service gaps of which to take ownership. Wrangle appointments to committees and task forces beyond the scope of your immediate duties. Gently, persistently remind your supervisors of the intersections between your work and others’. Communicate openly and frequently. Be transparent with internal stakeholders. Embrace interconnectivity. You’ll thrive.

Michael Rodriguez is an Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, which has fifteen times as many students and fifty times the operating budget of Hodges University in Florida, where he formerly served as E-Learning Librarian.

The Slow Gradual Veer to Academic Librarianship

Check out our post on HLS today too! Jen Jarson, ACRLog blogger, reflects on the importance of place and work environment in “Room to Grow?” See more information about the HLS/ ACRLog collaboration here

Hailley Fargo is a second year masters student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When she’s not in school, Hailley is an avid oatmeal connoisseur, baseball scorekeeper, bike rider, and reader of memoirs. She also likes to live tweet every once and a while (check out @hailthefargoats). Hailley was asked to write about why she’s interested in academic librarianship.

When I decided to come to graduate school, my heart was not set on academic librarianship. After working summers with children at my hometown public library and then working with all sorts of people at New York Public Library as a community outreach intern, I figured my place was with the communities at your local public library. I came into my graduate program dead set on children and youth services. The classes I first took at the University of Illinois pushed me away from that end-all-be-all focus and I ended up in the world of community informatics, digital literacy, and public libraries.

My second year in graduate school provided two opportunities that helped me to make the slow, gradual veer into academic librarianship. The first was my assistantship, as a library supervisor in our residence hall libraries. My job gives me the best of all library jobs – supervision, collection development, programming, and community building. I felt like I had finally plugged back into the college life – during my office hours I felt the energy of undergrads that I realized I missed when I entered graduate school. I was able to apply all my community engagement theories into actual lived experience and I found myself fully immersed. The job has given me challenges too, such as new projects for this spring and thinking through what undergraduates actually know about the library. What I love about this job is the daily work – there’s always something to do and I actually get to be out in the libraries, meeting students (and trying to relate to them), working with the clerks I supervise, and helping students and staff find information. It’s incredibly rewarding and I kept thinking to myself, “How can I stay in this sort of environment?”

The second opportunity was taking library instruction this fall. Our main lens to look into instruction was through academic librarianship. While the class was helpful in thinking through instruction to the elementary students I work with, reading books like Maria Accardi’s Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction and the collection of critical library instruction essays compiled by Emily Drabinski and company, got me thinking through what instruction for undergraduates might look like. My final instructional design project was focused on keyword searching for freshman and sophomores living in the residence halls my libraries are at. As I turned in my final PDF of the project I asked the same sort of question when I was in the residence hall libraries, “This is fun and challenging. How can I keep doing this?”      

To me, academic librarianship seems to be about balance as you attempt to put together an intricate puzzle. You are trying to serve so many different groups across the campus. From the bright-eyed freshman to senioritis seniors to student research rockstars and then a faculty with wide-ranging and diverse interests. Of course one can’t forget about all the other people with access to the library, such as staff, other members of the institution, and sometimes even the public. I get so excited about trying to help them all and finding ways to connect these groups, not only with each other, but with other aspects of campus. Academic librarianship seems to provide this unique community engagement opportunity because you have access to a community that (sometimes) lives very close and who have a constant need for information (two to four years of coursework). I see the chance to be the spokesperson, to engage outside the library walls to help faculty understand why library instruction is, and to remind students the library is an important presence to have (and to take advantage of). Perhaps I’m being a little too idealistic and ignoring the actual reality of academic libraries. However, based on my experience at the residence hall libraries, it’s possible, it just takes time and lots of relationship building.

I haven’t firmly settled on academic librarianship. But it’s calling to me. As I start my job search, I seem to more drawn to the job descriptions I’m seeing at colleges across the United States. Reading through those job descriptions are exciting and I’m going to apply to some of them. Two years ago, I would have never suspected that academic libraries would have been on my librarianship path. Now, I feel the opportunity is available to me and I feel my experiences this spring will help to decide what I decide to pursue next.  

Thank you to the ARCLog and Hack Library School for the opportunity to write this post.

Academic Interviews from Both Sides

Brenna and Maura were asked to write collaboratively to explore academic interviews from both sides– job applicants and administrators. HLS is also featuring this post today.

Brenna is a student at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and managing editor of Hack Library School. She has a bachelor’s in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). While working as an undergraduate at the Richard J. Daley library at UIC, she fell in love with all things library and has been there ever since. Her professional focus is academic librarianship with an interest in reference, collection development, and marketing/communications. Maura is the Chief Librarian at NYC College of Technology (City Tech) of the City University of New York, a large, public, commuter college in Brooklyn. She’s been at City Tech since 2008, first as instruction coordinator and as Chief Librarian since 2014. She’s also coordinator of ACRLog, and has been blogging there since 2009. Her research interests include undergraduate academic culture, critical information literacy and librarianship, open educational technologies, and game-based learning.

Cover Letters

Brenna:

The number one piece of advice library students receive in regards to cover letters is to find a way to stand out from the crowd. I totally get it: search committees have piles of cover letters from candidates and we all must start to blur together after a while. I try to find a couple of things that set me apart from other applicants and make sure to highlight them, but a lot of us come from similar backgrounds and it can be a daunting task. I’m also frequently advised to tailor cover letters to each individual job description. I realize why employers look for this, but it can be maddening when applying to many jobs at once. I’d love to hear some advice on how to stand out from other applicants and how to stay sane while writing multiple individualized cover letters.

Maura:

Brenna’s offered some great advice about cover letters, and I second all of it. It’s absolutely true that it’s time-consuming to tweak your cover letter to each job you apply for, but in my experience it’s also absolutely worth it. A cover letter that stands out to me connects your experience specifically with the job requirements listed in the position description. It’s also fine to highlight your relevant non-library experience here, and draw parallels between your background and the library or college. It might be helpful to make a quick list of what you find compelling about the job — pick one or two reasons from your list, and devote a few sentences in your cover letter to how your interest and experience would be beneficial if you were hired in that position.

Distance Interviews

Brenna:

Phone interviews are intimidating for me because I’m never really sure what to expect. Though I’ve yet to have a phone interview for an academic position, I’ve had a fair share for other jobs and they are always a surprise. Sometimes the interviewer mostly wants to share information about the job with me and other times they have a laundry list of questions to slog through. What kind of questions should be expected for a phone interview? Will we be interviewing with one person or several? How long should we set aside for the interview?

Everyone has different levels of comfort while speaking on the phone. Some things that have helped me feel confident include: dressing for the occasion, smiling (even though they can’t see me), finding somewhere quiet where I won’t be interrupted, and bringing a notebook to jot down notes and questions. Also, remember the names of your interviewers!

Maura:

In my library we typically have two rounds of interviews for library faculty positions, and if any of the applicants are not local we’ll do a phone interview for the first round. I’ve rarely heard anyone — candidates or search committee members — say that they love phone interviews, but with budget limitations it’s just not practical for us to bring in all first round candidates for a campus interview.

If you’re contacted for a phone interview, try to schedule it for a time when you can be on the phone in a quiet location, as Brenna suggests. Have a pen and paper ready so that you can take notes if you need to. It’s fine to ask the committee to repeat questions if you have trouble hearing them — we hold interviews in our conference room via speakerphone and not everyone can sit right next to the phone. (Years ago I did an interview on my cellphone in an alley behind the office where I was then working, so I’m very sympathetic to phone interview issues. But if I could do it over again for that interview, I’d have found a different way for sure.)

To speak more specifically to Brenna’s questions, I make sure to share as much information as possible with the candidate while scheduling the phone interview: that it will be with our full search committee (typically 5-6 librarians), and that we anticipate it lasting about 30 minutes. It’s fine to ask those questions if that information isn’t shared when you’re scheduling the interview. We do have a list of questions to go through — the same for all candidates; I also briefly introduce the job responsibilities and budget time for the candidate to ask questions at the end.

In-Person Interviews

Brenna:

I’ve been advised (read: warned) time and again in library school about the full-day interview. As a new professional, the pressure to make a good first impression on a search committee can be overwhelming. I know that interviewees meet with the search committee and sometimes give a presentation, but everything else seems to vary depending on the institution. One thing that would put me at ease is having a schedule so I know what to expect. For students, I’d recommend reaching out to the career advisors at your school in preparation for your interview. They can provide you with guidance not only for the interview, but for the whole process.

One thing I’d like to know is what to expect from the presentation: what should we be conscious of as candidates? what kind of things are the search committee looking for? Also, what should we expect from the shorter interviews?

Maura:

In-person interviews at academic libraries can vary in length — I’ve seen anything from a few hours to a full day or more. The search committee should share the schedule details with you, and you should definitely ask if you have any questions. If you’re traveling from out of town, the search committee and/or college administration should be able to help with travel arrangements and/or reimbursement. Unfortunately not all colleges and universities have funding to support bringing in out of town candidates for a position — if you’re applying for positions outside your local area I’d suggest asking about travel reimbursement before scheduling the interview. And for those of us on hiring committees, it’s best for us to be up front about whether we can support travel for out-of-town candidates before we schedule interviews.

My understanding is that the most common components of an on-campus interview are a meeting with the search committee and an opportunity to make a presentation with all librarians in attendance. Other possibilities include meeting with one or more library departments or units, meeting with other offices or departments at the college or university, and lunch or dinner with the search committee or others. Interviews with individual departments or offices might focus specifically on what those departments or offices do, while the search committee may ask the typical interview questions and discuss the responsibilities listed in the job ad.

I’ve heard (and suggested) a range of presentation possibilities for job candidates. In my library we usually ask instruction librarian candidates to present on how they would teach a specific topic in our library course; for technical services and technology candidates we typically ask candidates to look at our library’s strategic plan and consider one or more goals related to their position. We do ask all candidates to give presentations, not just instruction librarians — all of our librarians will likely make a presentation at a conference or on campus at some point, and we also use the presentation as an opportunity for our entire department to meet and ask questions of the candidate.

Institutional Culture

Brenna:

It seems that a major part of the on-campus interview is to determine if the candidate is a good fit for the institutional culture. Though it’s tempting for recent grads to jump at the first job opportunity we see, it’s quite possible that we may interview somewhere and find we would not want to work there. Some things I look out for are lack of mobility and limited professional development opportunities. I want my career goals to match up with the opportunities the institution provides their employees. What do search committees look for in a candidate that tells them they will fit in? What should candidates look for to see if they are a good fit for the institution?

Maura:

Institutional culture is varied and can be difficult to get a handle on in just the time allotted for an interview (or even multiple interviews). My experience is that you can’t really know, you can only make your best guess. However, your best guess will be better if you dig into some research beforehand.

Browse through the library’s website to see how the library is organized and what services and resources the library offers. Search the internet to learn more about the librarians who work there: are they active in professional organizations? do they publish or present at conferences? Look through the college or university’s website as well, which can help you get a sense of the institution. Some sections to look out for include any policies that apply to librarians, including support for travel or professional development. If the college or university has a union that includes librarians, you might find information about contracts and salaries on their website.

During the interview you should have time to ask questions about the work culture in the library, and to see how the search committee interacts with each other. While I hope this happens infrequently, if search committee members: make disparaging comments about their colleagues or the institution, ask questions they’re not allowed to, or you experience microagressions — those are red flags that you’ll want to consider. As Brenna notes, during the interview process you may realize that you don’t want to work at that institution, and it’s okay to withdraw from the search if so.

What Questions to Ask

Brenna:

Preparing questions ahead of time is a necessity for jobs of any kind. I usually peruse the library and institution’s websites to gather as much information as I can. I also look for a strategic plan, if it’s available, as well as news stories about the institution and faculty biographies. From these sources I come up with a list of questions to ask — I usually have quite a few in case some of them are covered during the interview. I also come up with questions as the interview goes on.

I’d definitely like to hear some advice on talking about salaries. It’s a touchy subject and it can be hard to determine the appropriate time to bring it up. If the salary is not listed in the job posting, when should you ask about it? I know that negotiation is generally expected once the job offer has been extended, but what should we know about making a counter-offer? Is it better to ask over the phone or via email?

Maura:

While it sounds somewhat trite, it’s absolutely true: when you’re on a job interview you are interviewing the search committee and library, too. It’s important to have questions to ask during the interview — not only will it help you learn more about the position and institution, but it also signals your interest in the job. Brenna’s given some great advice about questions, some of which may come out of your research before coming into the interview. Definitely ask about anything that’s not clear in the job ad. Other questions to ask include how often and by whom you’ll be evaluated, and what are the requirements for reappointment, promotion, and tenure (if relevant to the specific job). You might want to ask about other possible benefits, for example, funding for conference travel or opportunities for continuing education.

Salary questions are fine to ask during the interview, as far as I’m concerned, though the search committee may not be able to answer as specifically as you’d like. Library faculty at my library are in a union (with other faculty) which publishes salary ranges, so that’s a starting point. Brenna’s right that negotiation begins after an offer has been made — if you’re negotiating for a higher offer, focus on the experience you bring to the position. Follow the lead of the search committee re: negotiating via phone or email. While I definitely advocate for candidates to negotiate for a higher salary, typically salaries are a function of multiple factors, including how many/what kinds of other job searches are ongoing both within the library and across the institution, and ultimately there may not be much flexibility.

What Search Committees Are Really Looking For

Brenna:

After all the preparation, hard work, and anxiety that goes into the job search process, it seems the best thing we can do as applicants is to be genuine and hope that things work out. Though I’m an introvert, I used to pretend I was super outgoing in job interviews because I thought that was what employers were looking for. After some reflection, I realized that I may not be the first to stand up and give my opinion in a meeting, but I will take time to contemplate larger issues and put effort into seeing things from different perspectives. I have found a way to sell my introversion as an asset. The ability to play up your strengths and provide concrete examples or successes seems to be the best thing a candidate can bring to an interview.

What kind of things should candidates absolutely not say in an interview?

Maura:

One of the things that’s been most important on the search committees I’ve served on is a clear feeling from the candidate that they want this job, the position that we are offering. I’ve been on the job market enough to know that often when we’re looking for jobs, we need a job, and thus we may apply for range of jobs that are not all the same. That’s okay, but during the interview it’s important to speak convincingly about what interests you about working in *this* job at *this* place. When I’m on a search committee I also want to see that candidates understand the responsibilities for the job (and that’s where asking questions can come in). Since librarians are tenure-track faculty at my college with the same service and scholarship requirements as other faculty, we are especially interested in whether our candidates are interested in service and scholarship.

I’m also looking for a positive outlook in the candidates we interview. This is not necessarily synonymous with extroversion — introverts are positive, too. Red flags for me include disparaging comments about prior colleagues and workplaces. I acknowledge that there are real issues with toxic work environments and that there are good reasons for leaving a job in a toxic work environment. However, a focus on your hopes for this job, for your work, and for libraries is much more compelling during a job interview. Brenna’s suggestion to have a few specific examples in mind of successful work in other jobs is a great one, and will help the search committee learn more about the strengths you could bring to the position.

Academic Libraries and Mental Health: LIS Mental Health Week

This week is LIS Mental Health Week, organized by Cecily Walker and Kelly McElroy. The event involves “a week-long series of posts, Twitter chats, podcasts, and resource sharing about mental health issues for people who suffer and for their loved ones” (from a post earlier this month in which Cecily kicked things off on her blog). Folks from all across library and information science work are sharing their thoughts on mental health — using the hashtag #LISMentalHealth — to help raise awareness and push back against stigma. The posts I’ve read so far today have been inspiring and humbling, and I’m looking forward to reading more all this week.

Mental health concerns can impact all library workers regardless of where in the library we work. One tweet I saw earlier reminded us to take advantage of the employee benefits program if you have one in your library or organization. This often takes the form of work-life balance resources and can include counseling or other services that are anonymously available to all employees. My university has a program like this, and I’d guess that these services are commonly available at colleges and universities.

Of course, in academic libraries we also serve students, and undergraduates and graduate students may struggle with mental health issues during their academic careers. The university typically has one (or several) offices that work with students in crisis or otherwise address student mental health issues. Since these issues can also impact folks who interact with students — like library workers at service desks or in the classroom — it’s worthwhile to reach out to those offices to see whether they can offer information or training in handling challenging situations that may arise. At my library we’ve invited representatives from the counseling office and public safety to visit us and make a presentation, which gave all of us who work in the library a chance to ask questions and learn more about what resources are available for student mental health on our campus.

What kinds of mental health concerns have you grappled with in your academic library work, and what strategies have you used to address them? If you’d like to, please share your thoughts in the comments.

And if you’re around and online later this afternoon/evening (January 18), tune in to Twitter at 4pm Pacific/7pm Eastern time for the #LISMentalHeath Twitter chat. That link will also take you to a form that Cecily and Kelly have set up for folks to ask questions/pose discussion topics anonymously. I’d bet that they’ll Storify the chat as well, so check back to the website later this week to catch up with the chat if you have to miss it today (like I do, unfortunately).

Digging Into My Non-Library Past

Like many academic libraries, library faculty at my college and university are required to have a second graduate degree in addition to the ML(I)S. I came to librarianship after a couple of other careers, and one of the things that attracted me to the field (and to academic librarianship specifically) was the opportunity to use some of the knowledge and skills I’d picked up in my prior work, especially in research, teaching, and instructional technology.

Those skills could be gained during graduate study in lots of different disciplines, though. My prior graduate work is in anthropology, and specifically archaeology. I spent 8 years in a graduate program to get my MA and PhD, and sometimes I find myself wondering, what does that have to do with librarianship?

Anthropology in the U.S. typically takes a four-field approach, in which cultural anthropology, archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology are all in the same department (this is not necessarily the case outside the U.S.). As an anthropology major in college and at the beginning of my graduate studies I was required to take courses in all four fields, and while I sometimes felt that a non-archaeology class was less relevant to my immediate interests, I appreciated being exposed to the full range of the discipline. Close and distant observation as well as listening to others’ experiences are important aspects of all four fields of anthropology, and the opportunity to explore ethnographic methods has been especially useful to me in both my daily practice as a librarian and in my research on how students do their academic work in the library and elsewhere.

What about archaeology? Digging up remnants of the past, cleaning and refitting what we find, using drawings and photographs to record the site — that couldn’t be more different than librarianship, right? But since I’ve become a librarian I’ve been thinking more on the similarities than the differences. To be somewhat reductive, archaeology is using what people have left behind to try to answer the question “what happened here?” It involves looking at objects – tools, garbage, etc. – as well as structures, roads, and other traces of work and life. A circle of soil that’s a different color and texture than the surrounding soil might be a post hole, where a log that held up the roof of a house once stood; broken and sawed bones could be the remains of a meal.

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I ask that question in the library, too: what happened here? What did students leave behind — books on the desk? the remains of a meal? (always a challenge for us) rearranged furniture? Two or three kickstools clustered in the stacks around an electrical outlet suggest students using them as seats while they charge their devices. Sometimes I take a picture of an unusual situation or innovative solution to a problem, like this photo taken during finals week last semester of a student who brought their own extension cord to reach an outlet and made a handy sign to warn other library users not to trip on the cord. (Access to outlets is definitely an issue in our library.)

I also ask what’s happening in the library as a whole. How do the different parts — our facilities, services, resources — work together for the benefit of our patrons? When the group study area is buzzing with conversation in the late afternoon, is there enough space on the quiet floor for those who need silence? Figuring out how students use the library often involves observing people in physical spaces in addition to the things they leave behind, but like archaeology we can use our observations to puzzle out both “what happened here?” and “how might things happen differently?”

I’m sure I’m not the only one to consider what my extra-library experience brings to my library practice. What does your additional academic experience, either undergraduate or graduate, bring to your academic library work?