Category Archives: library careers

“Just…why?”: Coming to terms with ambiguity, resilience, and acceptance

As a former electronic resources librarian, along with what I’ll call my own unique set of life experiences, I’ve found the practice of radical acceptance has served me well.  Acceptance as an ongoing practice is not optimism or permissiveness, but healthily recognizing how and when to let go, and knowing that acceptance is not the same as approval.  This practice comes in handy, especially in life’s lemon-giving moments. I’ve mentioned a few  from the technical side of library work in previous posts.  Certainly the current sociopolitical climate is not at a loss for examples of this either.

When these “Seriously?” moments occur in my job, I am reminded of another idea, comfort with ambiguity, which frequently appears as a desirable skill in job advertisements, along with its companion resilience.  Both have been on my mind since attending a recent ACRL presentation,  Resilience, Grit, and Other Lies: Academic Libraries and the Myth of Resiliency.  As ubiquitous as both ambiguity and resilience are in my field, this presentation reminded me how poorly defined, misunderstood, and problematic they are when idealized professionally.  So I was thinking about how to unpack this concept related to my own academic librarianship and how a personal practice of acceptance (without approval) might play a helpful role.

It seems in the everyday ambiguity, as well as ambivalent with the same root, often describe something squishier.  For example, ambivalent is often misused to describe someone who is passively undecided or not invested in a particular outcome, rather than actually feeling multiple different ways about a thing. Similarly, ambiguity is often synonymous with an amorphous state of confusion than specific set of circumstances that make a solution unclear.

While inexactness and its synonyms might reflect this murky spirit, isn’t ambiguity really only inexact because it can’t be just one thing?  The fact that it can still be exactly many things is what I find interesting and overlooked in the experience of ambiguity.  Recognizing the possibility of multiple interpretations as specific, distinct avenues for action is especially important for efficiency and service in e-resources management.

Here’s a very basic example working with and a technical problem solving of e-resource access, which I repeatedly encountered when working with publishers’ technical support:

Me: Hi, My name is [me] from [my institution]. We have a current subscription to [your journal] but we’re not able access content online.

Tech Support:  What’s your institution’s [subscriber number, IP address, and other details]?

Me: *gives details*

Tech Support:  OK, it should be working now.

And that was it.  No explanation, no assurance it would not happen again, no way to plan workflow to prevent this very regular disruption.  Good problem solvers who thrive on the details of the problems and the solutions will no doubt feel frustrated and confused by this.  But the situation is no more a mystery than it is comfortable.  There likely is an exact cause for this problem. It’s just the cause is likely multiplicitous, complex, and in most cases less important than the fact that the problem is now fixed. So we move on.  In responding to the given ambiguous situation, we must accept the priorities of the current moment rather than the past or future.  This mindfulness of the present moment is a key part of the practice of acceptance.

Change may the new normal, but comfortable with ambiguity?

I think these tendencies show up in e-resources librarianship in particular because positions of this type developed from those which focused on the exacting and predictable realm of attention to detail.  Certainly the evolution of libraries content and services necessitates characterizing those details as now really messy and inexact.  But position descriptions mistakenly place this ambiguity in the context of a personal quality when it is really a quality of the environment.  To use such a problematic word, and to prefer people who are comfortable in that state, doesn’t say anything about how people should actually respond in these situations.  Expecting comfort in ambiguity falsely sets people up to stay in that state longer than may be necessary.

And this is where the problem of resilience comes in.  As the ACRL presentation I mentioned notes, research shows resilience often normalizes oppression of marginalized groups.  Systemically, I wonder how resilience hinders innovation, preventing us from answering the question “what can we stop doing?”.


So since, as a colleague once reminded me, the privileged have to be uncomfortable to recognize oppression, it is useful to discard a preference for comfort in the face of ambiguity.  Resilience or grit may help us more than comfort, as long as it is focused in the direction of action.  It should not be the normal or preferred quality of an individual professionally.

The idea of resilience as oppression also reminded me of another “What fresh h*!! is this?” experience working as an elementary music teacher.  At one of the two inner-city schools I was assigned, the music room was the stage in the gym’s auditorium. A burlap-like stage curtain was the only barrier between my music classes and the screaming, sneaker-squeaking, ball-bouncing, whistle-blowing activity of PE.  I often preface my sharing of this experience with disbelief that this was a reality to describe – it seemed so obviously nonsensical and in need of a solution.  So, I once spent a week’s planning periods reworking the entire school schedule so that all teachers still got their planning period during elective classes, but in a way that PE and music didn’t overlap.  Working out those complexities was frustrating and certainly not comfortable.  At the same time, I was driven to resist normalizing the resilience expected of the situation.  I knew this was more than a personal preference of the [should-be librarian] music teacher than the institution was leading me to believe.  Before leaving this job, I don’t think I ever gave these alternatives to my principal, but succeeded in getting a new curtain for the stage. When I noted to the principal that the change didn’t block sound as I’d hoped, I’ll never forget her response.

“Why do you care, since you won’t be here any longer?”

On one hand her response demonstrated everything that’s wrong with institutional resiliency.  At the same time I can also see it as an honest statement of my own realm of control.  When work and life inevitably boil down to “Just…what? Why is this normal?”, a practice of acceptance means neither normalizing nor pursuing crazy to find resolution.

The circus has left town

Image CC BY 2.0 with attribution:  matthew_pennell “The circus has left town”

If there is a proactive path through ambiguity or resilience, then I believe the skill we’re really after is how to recognize, reassess, and negotiate our power to influence and control.  This requires a constant give and take of our experience of that control as anxiety or relief.  It means exactly both action and letting go and not necessarily having to choose between the two.  When requiring choice, it means knowing how not to wrestle very long in the choosing.

Should’ve, Would’ve, Could’ve: The Library Job Hunt

About two years ago, I was already applying for jobs in preparation of graduating from library school. I spent countless hours looking at job posts, writing cover letters, preparing for phone interviews and being anxious about that coveted on-campus interviews.

Throughout my residency at American University, I have been able to participate in two (and one ongoing) search committees. This has allowed me to see the job hunting process from the other side and has allowed me to reflect on how I apply and prepare for the job hunt. Getting to look at other cover letters, resumes, watching people interview, and interacting with job candidates puts a different perspective of looking at the whole process.

While in library school, I was lucky enough to have supervisors that revised (many times) my cover letter and resume. Not only that, but spoke to me about the interview process and even set up a mock presentation. It was great preparation for interviews, but in the end, you have to experience it in order to reflect on it later on. Although there is no going back, it’s good to have these experiences for future job hunting.

So, what would I have done differently? (and definitely do for next time)

Be organized!

Most normal people have a system that helps them be organized during the job search. Two years ago, I was not that person. This past summer when I was looking for apartments, I kept an excel spreadsheet that kept track of the craigslist post, the rent amount, date I emailed the contact person, and other important emails. I only wish I had been that organized back when I was searching for job. Instead, I would find myself overwhelmed by all of the cover letters that I had saved on my flashdrive.

Amount of experience

Looking at job descriptions, I would often see “3 or more years of experience required.” Having had only 2 years of pre-professional experience, I would go back and forth on whether to apply or not. I ended up not applying to most of those jobs, but looking back, I should have. What do you have to lose?

Wanting to cover all the points 

Every job posting is different and they can be brief or very detailed. There would sometimes be a job posting where it discussed the job duties, expectations, requirements, and preferred experience. It’s an exciting feeling to have when you read a job posting and you happen to have the experience that they describe, require, and prefer.

While it’s very tempting to want to cover all the details on the job post, you ultimately have to cover the required and preferred points. You might have room for relevant points, but that usually does not happen. While your cover letter may have some interesting points that are relevant to the job duties, the search committee is looking for you to directly address the required qualifications and any preferred experience you may have. That will be your priority and may not leave room for anything else.

Background research

You’ve applied to a ton of jobs and have finally gotten that phone interview! Take the time to do some background research on not only the library, but the university and their goals. What reports have they released? What are their long and short term goals and strategies? I remember learning this the hard way while on the phone with a library search committee. I was asked, “What are some  resources or programs at the university and/or library that you’d be interested in?”

Easy question, right? Not if you have not done your research. Learn from my mistake. Take the time to look at the university website and find what initiatives they are working on or any programs that you would be interested in knowing more about.

Red flags at a campus interview

I remember going on my first campus interview and 20 minutes in, I already wanted to leave. Of course,  I still had the rest of the day to go, but when you immediately know that this is not going to work out, you still need to power through it. What I should have done is taken that visit as an opportunity to work on my interview and presentation skills. Instead, I continued to be frustrated at the multiple red flags that popped up throughout the day and not knowing what to do about it. However, if it’s an interview that is going well, show your excitement and energy!

Everyone has a different way of searching for jobs and mine come from experiences and mistakes that I have made. I hope that you’re able to use this post as a resource when looking for jobs, either as a new graduate or an early career librarian. What are some of your tips? Comment below!

 

The Grossly Exaggerated Death of the Library, or Why I Don’t Discourage Students from Attending Library School.

What do you say to the next generation of Librarians? Since I’m a First-Year Academic Librarian Experience I would assume the “next generation” is probably me, and it is a little too soon to play the grizzled older “in my day” type librarian. Because I work in a University Library, I know students finishing their undergraduate degrees considering graduate school or library school. They ask me if library school is a good idea and what a person like them should do if they’re interested in the humanities. I suspect that because I’m so close to having finished school I am sensitive to those questions. After my own negative experiences in undergraduate and graduate school, I have decided that I will not discourage anyone from the path that I succeeded on. I ask those who tell students not to pursue librarianship where else these students should focus their energies?

Libraries have a real crisis of confidence. Google “don’t go to library school” (I took a screen shot so you don’t actually have to google it) and you’ll see the kind of pessimism that plagues our students. The result of this is that students have a clear and unhealthy obsession (see any /r/Librarians Reddit posts), in some ways encouraged by current librarians, about whether or not they’ll get a job at the end of school. It doesn’t help that resources like Hiring Librarians, while a great source of information, often publishes the most pessimistic and disheartening interviews with “hiring” managers. Librarianship is dying, everyone abandon ship.

Don't google this
Don’t google this

As a student, I wrote extensively about this phenomena and how it breeds insecurity and negativity in already stressful student lives. Now that I’m a professional I see that this insecurity and negativity then leads to an undervaluing of the work that we do on college campuses. Many of us had formative experiences working closely with librarians in University Libraries and wanted to “pay it forward” by being part of the library-industrial-complex. When we tell students not to pursue what we have succeeded at we tell them that they are not as good, elite, or lucky as we are.

Judging from my friends and colleagues, I know that these concerns are not limited to librarianship. Anxiety over jobs and the economy is one of many issues that drove voters to the polls seeking “change” a month ago. Many of you will say “but librarianship is special because it is really dying!” Much of this is predicated on a longstanding prophecy of the death of print and of the book itself (after all what is a library if not a place for books). Whether or not this death comes from technology or from a deep-seated American anti-intellectualism, the threat to learning and reading impacts directly on our profession. Ongoing austerity movements in government challenge librarians to justify their own existence. But our “worth” is transcendent as J. Stephen Town writes “relying on a shared belief that there is an impact through higher education on individuals and society, and beyond that there is a value arising from being educated, which relates in a fundamental way to human flourishing.”(112) While “human flourishing” is difficult to measure it is unlikely our society will totally move past an expectation of education and learning as a hallmark of growth. But if we cannot measure the impact of the library, how do we know that it isn’t dying?

In anticipation of the death of libraries, there are two paths that librarians and scholars have taken. One has been toward change and innovation (or as a pessimist might say bargaining) where we change what we do and how we measure it to prove our worth and the other toward resignation and defeatism, where we tell people the library is dead and not to join our funeral parade. There is a great article that counters this pessimism entitled “The Library is Dead, Long Live the Library!” where the authors acknowledge that the academic library faces competition in the digital world as we are no longer the chief source of information for students and the public while positing the changes we need to make to ensure our own survival.(Ross 146) The “information fog,” as William Badke calls, makes us all lost and librarians are those who can leads us through the murk.

Interestingly, the rise of the anti-intellectual is often attributed as either the result or the cause of the libraries downfall. The ongoing and well publicized struggles with “fake news” are seen as either calls to arms for librarians or defeated examples of the long decline of the library in American life. Either way, the importance of librarians is still central to the teaching of information efficacy and theory, and, if the present crises in media confidence shows, we will always be needed. The library is not dying, it is changing. This is not outside of our own history nor is it something about which we should be afraid. Students should be aware of that change and the challenges of the future but never discouraged by it.  If we believe that the current and future work is worth doing then we should encourage those likeminded students to continue our cause.

I do not want to downplay the struggles of unemployed or underemployed librarians, and I don’t ascribe to the ongoing and troublesome myth that librarians will be retiring and we’ll all get nice paychecks when that happens. I also do not want to paint a rosier picture than exists for new graduates. There are real struggles for people wanting to get into librarianship, but we should never discourage those that are interested in our work from getting involved. If every Library student listened to their faculty mentors about not applying to graduate school we’d have no graduate students next year, and no new librarians in two years, and our universities would collapse along with society. This is an exaggeration, but if I was discouraged from reading about how librarianship was dying, I wouldn’t have the job that I enjoy so much. I expect that many of you had that same discussion and warning prior to enrolling in school. Losing people like us is the danger in telling students not to pursue the work that we love.

 

References:

Badke, William. Research strategies. iUniverse: New York, 2004.

Town, J. Stephen. “Value, Impact, and the Transcendent Library: Progress and Pressures in Performance Measurement and Evaluation.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 81, no. 1 (2011): 111-25. doi:10.1086/657445.

Ross, Lyman, and Pongracz Sennyey. “The library is dead, long live the library! The practice of academic librarianship and the digital revolution.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 34, no. 2 (2008): 145-152.

 

 

 

 

Finding and Valuing My Own Voice

Today is my birthday. I am 24 years old. Today also marks the end of my time as an ACRLog blogger. I wanted to use this last blog post to reflect on how much blogging for ACRLog has been foundational to my development, not only a librarian but as a whole person.

When I started blogging, I was a second-year LIS student. I saw ACRLog’s call for new bloggers and, desperate for more lines on my CV in preparation for my upcoming job search, I applied. I had no idea how much blogging would impact me and, someday, become much more than a credential. I had never read Hack Library School (HLS) or seen LIS students blog regularly. I am thankful that the administrators of the blog, Maura Smale and Jen Jarson, accepted and encouraged me. They believed that it was worthwhile to give voice to an LIS student perspective.

My first post, which was about Dr. Steven Salaita’s intellectual freedom case against the University of Illinois, was an amalgamation of many half-developed, disconnected thoughts. I wrote about what the case meant for faculty governance, scholarly communication, and evaluation processes in higher education. I was taking my first scholarly communication class at the time, which meant that I had already started grappling with these ideas. Writing the post gave me the opportunity and the space to piece my thoughts together and shed light on how all of these seemingly unrelated conversations were connected. I was empowered to imagine something new and, even more importantly, reflect.

Every post I have written since that first one has happened in the same way. While (I hope!) that my writing has improved, my process has stayed the same. Before a post, I find myself revisiting conversations, experiences in the classroom, blog posts, and Tweets that push me to think differently. I reflect on how these pieces connect or how they’ve shaped my practice. Often this means that my posts are disconnected, with multiple theses and tangents. But it also means that I’m always becoming a better, more introspective librarian. I know that ACRLog has helped me find this process. It’s something that I hope to continue long after this last post.

There’s a difference between finding one’s voice and valuing one’s voice. I share my age above for a reason. Before I started blogging, I had a hard time believing that anything that I had to say was worth sharing. As someone incredibly inexperienced, I did not have the courage to share my perspective. I hadn’t taught extensively. I was just learning about openness and scholarly communication. I felt like a true novice. When others started sharing, lifting up, and commenting on my ACRLog posts, it helped me realize that a novice perspective is incredibly valuable. It helped me recognize that I could reframe and question concepts that I was still learning about. I found that my new, fresh perspective could be an asset. I always knew that I had something to say. Blogging helped me realize that it was worth saying.

These realizations have solidified my commitment to lifting up LIS students. I have found that our field often conflates ability with experience. Like much of my first year as a librarian, blogging for ACRLog has taught me that newness is not always a limitation. Newness sometimes enables us to see brokenness when others can’t, particularly in ingrained and entrenched practices. That’s why I’m thankful for ACRLog’s collaboration with HLS last January. I’m appreciative of Maura and Jen, and their willingness to run with the idea. I know that we highlighted LIS student perspectives as well as Hack Library School’s blog. I hope that the collaboration gave regular ACRLog readers who might not read HLS an opportunity to recognize and grapple with LIS student concerns.

Finally, being a part of the ACRLog team has been refreshing and life-giving for me. It’s been a constant reminder of the generosity and kindness of many of my library colleagues. I applied to be an ALA Emerging Leader last month. As a part of the application, I was asked to describe effective leadership. I wrote the following:

Effective leadership creates space for others to grow to their full potential. Thus, for me, leadership is not centered on power or control. I believe that we can have the greatest influence when we teach, mentor, and help others develop to be the best that they can be. While it is time-intensive, the investment in others enables them to create lasting, impactful change in the future…It is centered on the principle that working with others always makes ideas stronger and strategies more thoughtful.

Working with encouraging, invested mentors and colleagues through ACRLog has made this abundantly obvious to me. From the writing suggestions they’ve given me to the example they’ve set for shared collaborative work, the ACRLog team has helped me grow to my full potential. Working closely with the First Year Academic Library (FYAL) bloggers has also given me the opportunity to help others grow. I’m thankful for the opportunity to grow while also playing a role in the development of others.

I know that, while it’s difficult, leaving ACRLog will create space for new voices and give me time to pursue other projects (some of which ACRLog has made possible). I hope that the next set of bloggers finds and values their own voice—blogging has been an invaluable tool for helping me to do so.

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.