Category Archives: library careers

The Beginning of the Middle

Today is the 5th anniversary of my job as an information literacy librarian, my first full-time library position. Five years: while it’s not all that long — certainly many of my colleagues have much more experience than I do — it seems momentous in some ways. In my previous two careers I had serious reservations about whether to continue down each path by the five year mark, and it’s wonderful to have none of those doubts this time around. Instead this seems like the very beginning of the middle of my career, and feels like a good time for reflection, for both looking back and projecting forward.

The past five years have flown by as I’ve worked on and learned about information literacy and library instruction, my library and institution, the research expectations for the tenure track, and service at my college, university, and beyond. In my first couple of years I spent lots of time engaging with new faculty at my college and new library faculty across my university, and I have to admit that I sort of miss it. I was in a meeting the other day with a Biologist in her first year at the college and her energy and enthusiasm was infectious (pun intended). I see announcements posted about meetings for new or junior faculty and realize somewhat wistfully that’s not me anymore, as I was (happily!) promoted last September.

While I’m a bit nostalgic for the strong camaraderie of the newbie experience, I’ve enjoyed transitioning into the role of a more knowledgeable colleague who (I hope) can offer support. The first few times I was asked for advice by colleagues it was genuinely surprising to me, but it’s less unexpected and more comfortable now. I’m also just about at the halfway mark in a leadership role in a large faculty development grant at my college. I’ve had the opportunity to work with new and seasoned faculty from across the college, and that’s definitely had an impact on my knowledge and self-perception.

This Spring both the college and the library where I work are creating five-year strategic plans. For me the immediate future seems fairly clear: I have two more years until I go up for tenure, I’m in the midst of writing up a big research project, our library instruction team is starting to pilot strategies we hope will help us reach more students with more relevant information literacy instruction. But farther out than that seems less certain. One aspect of being a faculty member that I’m very grateful for is that I have some freedom in considering projects to work on, especially in my own research but also as a librarian. And libraries and higher education are in a constant state of flux, from the introduction of new technologies and tools to the fact that the population we serve is ever-changing as students enter college and progress through their degrees, so certainty may be elusive.

If you’re at the beginning of the middle, do you have a five-year plan for yourself? Have you taken on new responsibilities as you’ve become a more experienced librarian? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Librarianship: As We May Evolve

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Debra Kolah, head of the User Experience (UX) Office at Fondren Library, Rice University in Houston, Texas. She also blogs at the Effervescent Librarian.

A 1947 film located in the online Wayback Archive, The Librarian, urges young people to become librarians, and features a traditional library, and lots of books, and no technology—not even the early technologies of the library world. It stresses you must have two things to be a librarian: a love of books, and a love of people. Ten years later, the classic 1957 film Desk Set, starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, pits a traditional librarian against a suit from IBM. It is his task, as an expert of “electronic brains,” to automate and replace the jobs of the reference librarians at a television studio.

I love these examples of librarianship, not just because they are quaint and outdated, but because, at the time, they spoke truth. A love of books got you far in 1947, and in 1957 there was a fierce battle raging between a group called the documentalists, and traditional humanist librarians. Librarianship is a golden thread that organizes, illuminates, and provides knowledge. Luckily, we are now more open and responsive to innovations in discliplines, and infuse our profession with methodologies and best practices from every disclipline. When we have suffered from information overload, the chemists have helped; even now, when we need to find out what our users are saying, and what they are doing, we rely upon anthropologists, like Nancy Foster. This is a wonderful thing about librarians — we are some of the best people at work arounds, and we look at other fields for answers. Jesse Shera, who once scolded us for being slow to adopt technology, would be proud.

A brief glimpse into the past serves us well. One tale that is interesting is the story of two chemists who entered library school, and then went on to become leaders in the world of organizing scientific information.

• Eugene Garfield received a BS in chemistry in 1949 from Columbia and an M.S. in Library Science in 1954. Garfield created Current Contents which provided journal contents in a simple, regular and comprehensive format. He also spearheaded the indexing of scientific articles by their bibliographies, which creates a system of citations so that the very ideas of science can be traced. In 1960, his firm name became the Institute for Scientific Information, and began publishing an ambitious index entitled, the Science Citation Index, which both the NIH and NSF had declined to publish. The SCI later became the Web of Science.

• The other chemist, Robert Maizell, received his Phd in Library Science from Columbia in 1957. His dissertation was entitled: Information Gathering Patterns and Creativity: A Study of Research Chemists in an Industrial Research Laboratory. He was interested in how chemists found information in their day to day life. Maizell’s solution to information overload was fairly simple: do instruction and teach abstracting. He wanted chemists to do abstracts, and make the literature more accessible. He first published Abstracting Scientific and Technical Literature in 1971. A glowing book review in the Journal of Chemical Education says, “Chapter 14 is an excellent introduction to the use of computers and their corresponding information systems both in future automated abstracting operations and as current support systems for highspeed printing, producing ‘keyword’ indexes and in maintaining and servicing interest profiles for users involved in Selective Dissemination of Information Services.”

Regardless of their methods, the infusion of chemists changed librarianship, and information science, forever.

E-Science, the evolution of scholarly communication in a digital world, depends not only upon the selfless engagement that chemist turned librarians like Robert Maizell offered, but a truly more transnational approach and embrace of semantic web capabilities. We are seeing a revolution in the digital humanities now, where historians are creating data driven databases to organize and make sense of their data, which they freely publish, and make available for others. This is certainly the case for Andrew Torget, who created election data that is now incorporated into Google maps and freely available to the end user. This means that millions around the world used Voting America layers in Google Earth. To do digital librarianship in the future requires looking to the past, and understanding the history of who created some of the great information and storage systems. We will slowly move past solutions created in the Cold War, embrace open technologies, and yes, we will still need to love books, and people. And we need a new recruitment film. Especially one that attracts scientists that are good at data, and want to become librarians.

Managing E-Resources For Users, 100%

I returned to electronic resources librarianship – and full-time work – 16 months ago in a brand-new e-resources coordinator position at an academic library. The catch? It was in public services.

Not many e-resources librarians live among the folks in reference and instruction – link resolvers, proxy servers, A-Z lists, COUNTER compliance, and ERMs usually keep us pretty close to our colleagues in acquisitions, serials and IT. Public services librarians, who spend their days building relationships with teaching faculty, performing classroom instruction, and juggling reference questions don’t have time to worry about the circuitous, detailed process involved in e-resources acquisitions and maintenance. Likewise, technical services and technology staff don’t necessarily see the daily impact their work and decisions have on users. Feeling caught in the middle, my transition was difficult. As a public services librarian, I got to do things like teach and work reference in a way most e-resources librarians don’t. But I also had limited opportunities to connect with my colleagues on the technical side, leaving me out of the decision making loop at crucial points.

Despite its necessary involvement in technical processing, I feel that electronic resources librarianship is actually very well suited to being located in public services. My previous e-resources position, at a small college, meant I managed e-resources from a public services position because we all did public services, and our close contact with students, faculty and each other helped us stay focused on making decisions that we thought were good for users even if for collections they were only good enough. How did that affect my approach to e-resources management? For one, I didn’t get into our systems from the back-end – I used the front end, the way our students did, and still do. I didn’t care at all how our records were constructed and linked in the ILS – in fact, most of our e-resources weren’t in the ILS at all, because that’s not how our users found them. Instead, I cared about how items were labeled and displayed so people could understand what they were and what they did. I was never preoccupied with usage statistics but more interested in promoting use. Those concerns were at the forefront of my mind because they were on the minds of the people I interacted with most often – other reference and instruction librarians.

Early job ads for e-resources librarians emphasized public services skills like reference and instruction (Fisher 2003: “the position title of Electronic Resources Librarian has been pre-empted by the public service sector of the profession”); over the years, these changed to emphasize more specialized technical skills – licensing, web development and customization (Albitz & Shelburne 2007). Why the shift? My guess is that early e-resources required a lot of instruction to use, even for other librarians (I remember trying to use Infotrac as a frustrated undergraduate in 1998 – a lot of librarian intervention was required before I got it), and public services librarians became the early adopters of a lot of the first online resources. But as CD-ROM databases were replaced by more and more online journals (and the platforms to search these in aggregate), we tried to mainstream them into existing workflows. Only these workflows, created to acquire print objects and hold on to them forever, have proven difficult to adapt.

At the Electronic Resources & Libraries Conference in Austin, Texas, last February, Rick Lugg of R2 Consulting talked about how models for approaching e-resources management have changed. First there was the “hub,” or expert model, in which one person in an organization was the point person for all the specialized processes and expertise required for e-resources management. This worked for small collections, but, as e-resources encompassed more and more of libraries’ content and budgets and became our most-used resources, the lack of scalability of this model demanded another approach. The next management model has tried to place e-resources into traditional workflows. This is the model most of us still try to adhere to, and is, in my opinion, another reason most e-resources work has come to rest in technical services. As one of my colleagues explained, many librarians whose jobs previously revolved around print materials feel it is essential that they have some responsibility for electronic materials; otherwise, what would their jobs become? Thus, selection and licensing of e-resources at my institution has stayed with collection development, acquisitions has handled processing, serials has handled e-journals, and IT has worked on access issues.

Rick, however, also suggested a model for the future in which libraries push much of the technical work associated with e-resources management up the food chain to consortia and collectives, freeing local librarians to deal more with acquiring, synthesizing and communicating information about virtual materials. Some libraries are further along this model than others: in Ohio, OhioLINK (for a long time the gold standard for library consortia, in my opinion) handles licensing, acquisition, payment, and sometimes even search interface customization for many of our e-resources, though not all: about a third are still processed locally, meaning that staff and workflows for all aspects of e-resources management must be maintained locally. Smaller consortia can absorb more of the work: the  California Digital Library, for example, is focused on just the 10 UCs, which have more in common (from programs to missions to administrative systems) than the 89 OhioLINK libraries. I am interested in seeing what models the enormous new LYRASIS will adopt – it is well positioned to fulfill Rick’s prediction for the future of e-resources management, though I imagine its challenges in doing so will prove to be as huge as the collective itself.

For someone in a public services e-resources position like mine, tracking information about e- resources and the issues that affect every stage of their lifecycles (from technology developments to budget pressures, staff changes, and trends in user behavior) was an important, if not the most important, part of my work. This is supported by Joan Conger & Bonnie Tijerina’s assessment of e-resources management in “Collaborative Library-wide Partnerships: Managing Electronic Resources Through Learning and Adaptation” (in Collins & Carr 2008). The dynamic process of managing e-resources “requires effective incorporation of information from a rich array of sources,” they write (97). The information it is important to pursue is most often stored in experiences – of vendors, library professionals, and patrons. To get to this contextual information, they say, librarians must keep current, particularly with users. They suggest “usability tests, library advisory groups, focus groups, direct observation,” as well as informal assessment to learn new things about user behavior (99). They also remind their readers that it is important to communicate what you learn.

Interfacing between the user experience and the information required to improve it proved to be the part of my job best suited to my location in public services, and in my first year at Bowling Green I focused on user issues. I participated in web and OPAC redesign projects, resource re-description, customization, usability testing, and training. I also made an effort to stay informed: I read (Don’t Make Me Think!, Studying Students, Online Catalogs: What Users and Librarians Want), I talked to vendors, I attended conferences and sat in on webinars.  But no matter how much e mail I sent, how many meetings I attended, or how many blogs and wikis I used, I couldn’t seem to find a way to merge the information I had together with the information from my colleagues so that together we could make our management of e-resources more effective for users. I discovered, during this period, that it’s not enough to recognize that lots of people are involved in making e-resources available; it’s also about having a seat at the right tables so you can advocate for these materials and their users, and, in my library at least, I was sitting at the wrong table.

After a retirement incentive program was completed last fiscal year, our technical services department found itself down five people, two of them faculty librarians. Library-wide, we discussed reorganization, and a number of staff changed locations, but I was the only one who actually changed departments: officially, my position is now split, and I am now 51% technical services – no longer with reference and instruction, for the first time in my career.

I’m excited about this change – everyone involved thought it would be best for the library and collections. Many of my new tech services colleagues started their careers in reference, so a focus on the patron is embedded in all of their approaches to processing, cataloging and collection management. But I also feel a little like I’ve given up a good fight. Why did I have to move to technical services? I know the answer is because that’s where a lot of e-resources work is still located. The model we had been trying, while I am convinced it is viable and know it worked at my previous job, wasn’t scalable for a large academic library with broadly distributed functions. Not yet. However, while my location has changed, it’s promising that my job description retains many of my public services functions. I will still work reference, teach, work on public web interfaces, and participate in usability efforts. These things may officially only be 49% of my job now, but I still want everything I do to be for users, 100%.

In The Sweatshop Or Reaping The Lottery Win

Are you feeling overworked these days? Do you feel the pressure to publish, present and serve on a dozen different committees? Does it seem like you are trying to do the work of two librarians, and that you just never have time to get much of anything truly constructive done? If so, welcome to the “Ivory Sweatshop”. That’s the term used in an article in this week’s Chronicle [Paywall Alert!] to describe the current academic workplace – or at least the way it feels to many faculty. What the article really attempts to do, is to frame the way today’s junior faculty feel in comparison to those who went through the tenure process a decade or more ago. The consensus of those interviewed appears to be that faculty are under much more pressure now to produce – and are being held to a much higher standard than colleagues who have already achieved tenure. I hear from academic librarians who know they aren’t keeping up with the latest news and developments as well as they should because they are challenged to find the time. This is reflected in one of the comments in the article: “This job has gotten a thousand percent harder than when I started out,” says Mr. Bergman, who began teaching in 1967. It takes a lot more time now, he says, for scholars to keep current with advances in their discipline.”

In the very same issue of the Chronicle there is a personal essay [Paywall Alert!] that presents a quite different picture of what it is like to work in academia these days. The author, a tenured faculty member at a rising research university, shares the process he went through in working out a midlife crisis resulting from that perennial question – what should I do with the rest of my life. His ultimate epiphany about his lot in life and what to do about it could be described as anything but feeling like working in a sweatshop. He writes:

That led me to the moment of clarity I had been searching for: I woke up to the fact that achieving tenure and promotion are like winning the lottery. With the odds against landing a tenure-track job in the humanities growing longer every year, I had hit the proverbial jackpot and been granted an opportunity that very few people have: the freedom to pursue my own interests on my own terms. Within the constraints of my job obligations, I could do whatever I wanted with my life.

That’s sounds like a pretty good deal. Who wouldn’t like to be in a position where they have many options and could take advantage of any of them. How many of you feel like you’ve hit the lottery in your position? Or do you feel like you are working in an academic version of a sweatshop? Which is it in academia? Depending on what you observe and who you talk to you will hear both versions. More likely you’ll hear from someone who feels like they are in the sweatshop complaining about a colleague who they believe has hit the lottery. It’s the “why I’m I working so damn hard while that co-worker seems to be barely doing anything at all?” I don’t know if the difference is simply an outcome of being on the tenure track versus having survived it. There’s no question that those on the track are feeling enormous pressure to succeed. But it would be a bad case of generalization to suggest that everyone who has made it shifts their career into neutral.

I have a good friend at a research university that has a very rigorous tenure process. Although he received tenure two years ago I’ve noticed no slowdown in his work or research agenda, and if anything he seems even busier. The difference I observe is that the pressure has shifted from external – exerted by a tenure process – to internal – the pressure one puts on oneself to achieve beyond the normal expectation. I wonder if there are also differences in perceptions based on being on the front line versus being in the administrative office. I know that reference and instruction librarians can feel overwhelmed trying to keep up with the demands placed upon them. I can also tell you that it’s no picnic for administrators these days, especially when we are all expected to be doing much more with fewer resources.

My own philosophy is that it’s always better too have to much to do than not enough, and it’s not that hard these days to come up with more than enough to keep the pressure cooker on medium to high range. Doing so doesn’t have to mean that you are working in a sweatshop though. In fact, I think that on the average day, a faculty member or an academic librarian, no matter how many deadlines there are, no matter how many committee reports are due and no matter how many classes there are to prepare for, is incredibly fortunate to have a challenging and rewarding career – and that’s why so many new professionals seek to enter this arena despite the odds of landing a job and why many who are past the age of retirement refuse to leave [Paywall Alert!]. And when you compare the work of many employed in academia to those individuals performing jobs where there is considerable physical labor or unpleasant or dangerous working conditions, you can’t help but conclude that those of us working in academia are more lottery winners than sweatshop toilers. How would you describe your situation? Sweatshop loser or lottery winner?

Does Where You Work Define Who You Are As An Academic Librarian

The great thing about our higher education system is the enormous diversity found in the approximately 4,000 institutions that offer degree programs. Having too many options is sometimes a challenge, but a more significant issue in American higher education is the disparity between the have’s and the have not’s. The same could be said of academic libraries. Some have incredible resources while others subsist on a shoestring budget. I’ve worked in both environments, and I’ve enjoyed both though I now tend to think there are greater benefits to working in the latter. For one thing, it forces you to be much more creative in how you attack problems because the luxury of just throwing money at them isn’t an option. The victories, when they come, may be small but are far sweeter and rewarding. If you are or have been in this situation, or if you’ve ever been part of a team that’s turned around a challenged academic library, I think you know what I mean.

I’ve also known academic librarians who work in the former and would never consider a position at the latter because they like the prestige associated with being at their well-off institution. That’s not to say they dislike their jobs but stick it out for the prestige, but they might not consider the possibilities afforded at less well-off libraries. That’s also not to suggest they see their well-resourced academic libraries as problem-free havens. Those libraries also have their share of difficulties and challenges, though they might be significantly different ones than what those at poorly-resourced libraries are encountering. And by all means, I’m not suggesting our colleagues who enjoy working at a prestigious institution are snobs. Having an abundance of resources – even despite the economic challenges of the past two years – is an asset, and I know well the advantages it can offer in allowing the library to make a difference for the academic community.

But do we define who we are in the field of higher education by where we work? This question was the subject of a short essay by David Evan titled “Going Home”, in which he visits his alma mater for a reunion and contemplates the contrast between it prestigiousness and the place where he teaches which is far less well resourced. He writes:

Like a lot of academics, I’ve had the interesting experience of working at institutions that are much less prosperous and prestigious than the one where I earned my degree…My undergraduate institution is rich and has been for a long time. Although its endowment has shrunk in the past couple of years, it could come close to supporting its entire generous annual budget through conservative spending of its endowment income. Even 29 years ago, when I was about to start as a freshman, it had physical and instructional resources that beggar those at most institutions. The faculty teaching load is 2-2; the average faculty salary is nearly twice that at my current institution (and my current institution pays quite well, relatively speaking). A degree from there has, beyond doubt, been a foundation for my subsequent career.For a long time, I had a strong urge to return to work at a similar institution—a rich, selective liberal-arts college with highly talented students in a desirable location. My first job was at a much less rich (not rich at all, actually), noticeably less selective liberal-arts college in a location that many young faculty members would find less compelling. None of my subsequent jobs have been much different.

While this section of the essay makes it sound like Evan regrets his employment decisions, nothing could be farther from the truth. He goes on to write about how much he has enjoyed and learned from all of his different experiences at the four institutions he has worked in his career, though none of them carried the prestige of his alma mater. He concludes by sharing what’s he’s learned over the course of his career and offer this as advice to others:

Prestige is an immense factor in the academy. We are acculturated by the “big brands” of higher education, and many of us were taught to measure our value by our professional proximity to those big brands. I am convinced that this is one of the main reasons so many academics are unhappy. They were highly talented, motivated students at the most prosperous and accommodating institutions in higher education. Being removed from that rarefied context can be a rude shock, and enduring it can be hard for many people. But there’s a lot to do in higher education that doesn’t depend much on prestige or even institutional wealth. There are a lot of worthy missions in colleges, and a lot of excellent places to have a fine career. I wish I’d figure that out earlier.

At ALA Annual there were several programs directed to newer-to-the-profession librarians. Many of the speakers and attendees were academic librarians. I attended one where the panelists were all new to their jobs and just starting their careers, and at another I was a panelist where we were all well-seasoned academic librarians reflecting on our career paths, and offering advice to newer colleagues. At all of these programs there were both presenters and participants from all types of institutions, both well and poorly resourced. The question of whether it is better to pursue a position at one or the other never came up. In fact, most of those new graduates still seeking their first position indicated they’d be willing to work just about anywhere; institutional prestige or the lack thereof was certainly not on their minds. Had it come it up I would have wanted those who attended these programs to know that where you work, as Evan eventually discovered in his career, should not define your status as an academic librarian, nor should any academic librarian feel inferior or unhappy because he or she doesn’t work at a “big brand” college or university. The rewards of being an academic librarian can be discovered and achieved at almost any institution – just as being at a prestigious one is no guarantee of job satisfaction.