Category Archives: library careers

So You Wanna Be A Librarian Blogger Star

There must be at least 500 librarian blogs. Probably closer to 600. I imagine Walt Crawford has probably given some more accurate librarian blogger data in one of his blog studies, but I think I’m in the ballpark. So let’s say you are a librarian and decide you want to have a well known blog. With the field as crowded as it is how do you get noticed? What do you need to do to make it to the A – or even the B or C – list? Maybe you just want a blog that uniquely covers some new, unknown territory. I got to thinking about these things because a newer- to-the-profession academic librarian recently posed these questions to me.

You can find all sorts of advice on the Internet about developing a good blog, but I think my younger, less experienced colleague thought I had some special insights on how to make it big as a blogger. Maybe he was asking the wrong person. But wanting to be helpful – what academic librarian turns down a challenging question – I gave some advice over the course of a few e-mail exchanges. And you know what they say about free advice.

Succeeding as a blogger in a crowded field, to my way of thinking, comes down to three things. All are probably easier said than done. First, find the right niche because that will establish your identity as a blogger. I come across lots of blogs and many of them are missing character. If your tag line is “thoughts about librarianship and working in libraries” or something like that it allows you to write about everything but in the end you may stand for nothing. I think the best librarian blogs are the ones where you know what the blogger stands for, and you can be reasonably sure you going to get some consistency over time. Here at ACRLog you know we’re going to be focusing on academic librarianship (maybe not right now). If that’s what you like to read about – and to get some attitude on the side – then this is the blog for you. If we suddenly started covering totally different topics everyday I imagine we’d lose the bulk of our readership pretty quickly. Finding the right niche is probably the hardest thing to do. It requires you to figure out what no one else is writing about and to capture the market on that topic – or you could just write about things with an incredibly unique point of view – the way no one else is seeing them. You’ve got to be different. Originality is the key.

Now finding a good niche will only take you so far if you lack good content to keep your audience coming back. So the second thing is to identify a niche that is likely to have a steady source of content. It doesn’t mean you have to blog everyday, unless you are filtering a steady stream of news on a specific subject. But without good material to keep the ideas flowing, so you can post at least once a week, the blog will probably fail to be sustainable. Witness the many librarian blogs that have bitten the dust. Again, a bit easier said than done, but not impossible. One way to do this is to look for a niche that librarians would find of value and would draw upon sources of information external to this profession.

Designing Better Libraries is a good example. Most of the content comes from journals, magazines, websites and blogs that most librarians don’t have time to read. So for them the content is new and fresh. I really enjoy the subject matter so I’m always eager to put a library spin on the posts. That way I’m not just regurgitating the material. Given the amount of information on topics related to design, creativity, and innovation there is almost always something to write about. In fact, if I had the time I could do two posts a week. It’s pretty easy to write posts that say “So-and-so over at Generic Blog just wrote a great post. Here’s the link. Go read it.” Not very creative, and it gets old pretty fast – both for the writer and reader. Library Stuff is one of the few blogs that can manage that style of pointing to other posts, but only because the posts have terse commentary – often with a touch of wit, joy, sarcasm or anger. Showing emotion or passion can make a difference. How about showing the readers your personal side – letting them share in your real life? That’s not where I graze, though I see it works well for some bloggers.

Having a blog with a good niche and steady content won’t help if no one knows about it. So number three is promoting your new blog. We saw a good example of that last week when the blog In the Library with the Leadpipe made its debut. Several of the bloggers posted announcements to their friends on Facebook (where they also started a group), and asked a few established bloggers to take a look and spread the news. I think I saw it in at least five places, including LISNews and Walt Crawford’s blog. So just as it begins the blog is getting buzz. I’ve come across a fair number of interesting librarian blogs but they just seem buried in the blur of too many blogs called “The Something Librarian”. Though it may sound contrived, it can help to occasionally offer opinions, challenge traditions, take a position or anything that might get other bloggers to link to or comment on your posts. I think filter blogs like Kept-Up Academic Librarian have their place, but it’s also quite satisfying to generate a conversation and learn more from the comments and allow them to broaden your horizons.

I don’t know if my new colleague will achieve his goal of establishing a more widely read blog – I hope he will. Personally I think it’s getting hard to stand out in the crowd and attract the attention of the bread and butter of librarian blog readers – the younger generation of librarians who are accustomed to blog reading. Now I imagine they are spending more time sending and receiving tweets for their awareness and entertainment, and that reading blogs is, or will soon be, somewhat tired. I sometimes question how sustainable all of this librarian blogging is, and whether we’ll still be doing this five years from now. Perhaps it will last as long as we have a good topic, something to say about it and a need for conversation with our colleagues. But until then I wish my colleague good luck in his journey to librarian blogger recognition – or at least in bringing life to a blog that creates some value for those who read it. I admire his ambition but hope that, as always, he is motivated by a desire to provide meaning for others and a passion to help them learn. With these simple outcomes as your instrinsic motivation you will always be successful no matter how many librarians read your blog.

Real Faculty In Our Minds Alone

Late last week a number of library news sources pointed to the release of report from the Council of Library and Information Resources called “No Brief Candle: Reconceiving Research Libraries for the 21st Century“. The report contains eight essays that identify challenges facing academic libraries, and it offers a number of recommendations for change that may help to ensure the future relevancy of academic librarians. Library Journal described the report as “Harnessing the insight and experience of some two dozen stakeholders…the report offers a forceful call to action, and a penetrating take on the forces shaping the future of libraries and the academic enterprise”. I believe this report’s themes and recommendations will be somewhat familiar to ACRLog readers because we, and you through your comments, discuss and debate them here.

As I scanned the report I found something of interest in the article titled “Groundskeepers, Gatekeepers, and Guides: How to Change Faculty Perceptions of Librarians and Ensure the Future of the Research Library” by Daphnée Rentfrow, a former CLIR Fellow who has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. In this essay Rentfrow takes on some familiar themes of how to improve collaboration with faculty and obtain more professional recognition within the academic community. As to her qualifications to write an essay on these matters she describes herself as:

someone who finished a doctoral program at an Ivy League university without once meeting my subject specialist (or even knowing what one was), as someone who taught courses without conferring with a librarian and who never encouraged undergraduates to do so, and worked on a thematic research collection without thinking of metadata or preservation until I had a panicked reason to, I also know fairly intimately the failings of, let’s say, “public relations” and “outreach” that afflict academic and research libraries.

You may find what Rentfrow has to offer useful to improve your own public relations and outreach efforts with faculty. But something that caught my attention in her essay was this footnote:

By “faculty,” I mean non-librarian teaching faculty and scholars. While some universities offer librarians faculty status, while some librarians consider themselves members of the faculty, and while some librarians have Ph.D. degrees, anecdotal evidence shows that students, parents, faculty, and even university administrators rarely consider libraries [NOTE: not a typo - it actually says "libraries" not "librarians"] to be “real” faculty, or even intellectual peers. This problem of image is one of the biggest challenges facing the profession.

One of the reasons I found this footnote of special interest is because I took quite a bit of heat from several ACRLog readers when I explored similar themes in a post I called “What It Really Means To Be A Faculty Member“. Instead of just referring to “anecdotal evidence” I pointed to some real differences between what librarians do and what faculty do, particularly as our roles relate to student interaction. Perhaps the point is that it might not matter what we do or don’t do, because as Rentfrow points out as far as the rest of academe is concerned academic librarians are faculty only in their own minds. It seems I made the error of stepping directly on the landmind that Rentfrow tiptoes around.

You might conclude that Rentfrow adds nothing new to this debate, and if you read the essay you’ll see that it is about much more than this issue. Yes, we all know that as far as many “real” faculty are concerned we are nothing more than academic support staff no more deserving of faculty status than instructional technologists or IT support specialists. It may also be familiar territory to point to our profession’s failure to promote the ways in which we are equal to the real faculty and worthy of their respect and collaboration. But given my own attempt to inject some hard to accept reality into this discussion of academic librarians as “real faculty” I have to appreciate Rentfrow’s own honest approach and her admission that some of what she has to say will “offend some readers.” She writes:

Having experienced both [PhD and MLS education], I can understand why a scholar would bristle to be told that a librarian has an equal understanding of the rigors of scholarship and full course-load teaching. But I also understand that the average faculty member is largely ignorant of the changes that have affected modern librarianship in recent decades and the ways these changes (should) affect scholarship and teaching.

It may all come down to a question of what’s most important to academic librarians. Is it being recognized as a real faculty member and being deemed their equal? Or is it doing whatever it takes to work with faculty to partner in helping students achieve academic success regardless of what our status is in the academic community? No instructional technologist, learning center professional or IT specialist I’ve ever met seems as remotely concerned about their academic status as are academic librarians. They aren’t busy trying to establish their equality with faculty. But what I do see is that they are busy spending lots of time collaborating with faculty helping them to improve their pedagogy, their use of technology and their ability to bring the two together in connecting with students. Can you say the same for the academic librarians at your institution?

My apologies to Rentfrow for reducing her well-written piece to a few statements about academic librarians and faculty status. You should take a closer look at Rentfrow’s recommendations (63-64) as well as the overall set provided in this CLIR report (pgs. 10-11). I’m not sure they will resonate with frontline librarians and other library workers. I think they will seem either unoriginal, too ivory tower or simply too vague (e.g., “The functions of libraries must be aligned with the core mission of research and education at the institutional level. We need to create professional and practice layers that enhance research and teaching across disciplines”). As with the Ithaka report discussed last week there needs to be more attention paid to the integration of academic librarians into the teaching and learning process. This recommendation of Rentfrow’s expresses it best:

Librarians should work with departments and teaching centers to nurture the idea that the library is a part of all teaching initiatives on campus.

That seems eminently practical and of value to faculty and students – no matter what our status is.

The Letters And Titles You Add To Your Name

Not unlike the “we need tenure” / “we don’t need tenure” debate, librarians appear to be quite divided on whether members of our profession should add their degree(s) to business cards, on their e-mail signature or elsewhere. In a discussion taking place on this topic on friendfeed (thanks to StevenC for pointing to it) librarians are expressing their opinions on the merits of putting MLS or MLIS after their name and whether or not doing so is an act of pretension. The decision to add one’s degrees on the business card can have special implications in higher education. I think the question is not whether it is pretentious to do so, but whether there is any point in doing so at all.

For me the bottom line is that it should not be necessary to make a point of one’s degrees. All that should matter is whether or not you individually add value to the work and lives of others so that it gives them meaning, and whether you contribute to your organization’s capacity to deliver a great library user experience. But the reality of academia is that we all do carry different degrees, and that sharing which ones you hold can deliver a message and may have potential value to colleagues. Like the adoption of leadership techniques, the listing of degrees on a business card or signature file should be considered situational.

While you could add MLS or MLIS to your name, as some folks pointed out over at friendfeed, there’s a pretty good chance that your academic colleagues won’t know what it means or probably won’t care to know. Just last week I was reading a faculty blog post where the author indicated that some of the nicest people she encountered as a grad student were “the librarians at the checkout counter” – ouch! Heck, many faculty still without a clue as to who is a professional librarian and who isn’t. What might be of more interest is to specify subject masters degrees and advanced degrees. That could carry more weight with faculty and give them more insight into an academic librarian’s capabilities. I deal frequently with administrators from other campus offices, and occasionally faculty, and I think there is value in having them know I have an Ed.D. (I add that but not the MLS) – moreso with the administrators than the faculty I’m sure. In fact it sometimes leads to better relationships. I’ve gotten into some good conversations with fellow Ed.D. holders and those who ask questions about pursuing the degree. If I had just listed MLS some of those collegial relationships would probably have never developed.

For many academic librarians, a more relevant question may be what to do with an academic rank or title. Is it pretentious to add “Associate Professor” to the business card? More or less pretentious than adding MLS? Adding this to the business card or signature file is probably of greater value locally. There may be some worth in communicating one’s rank to the faculty. It may inform administrative colleagues that librarians can hold a faculty rank. But to use it in your communications with the library community, such as adding it to the title slide of your presentation, will likely strike some fellow librarians as pretentious. Why do other librarians need to know – or why should they care – that you hold a rank at your institution? Most of these titles are just assigned upon hiring, not unlike being assigned to the rank of L1 or Associate Librarian, and may have no bearing on any sort of contributions one makes in a professorial way. At a prior institution I worked I recall adjucts who would routinely – even those teaching their first semester – sign off on their e-mail as Professor Jones. Of course it was absurd and insulting to the tenured faculty.

I know that librarians who have these titles are proud to hold them, and many have worked hard to earn them. When I see “assistant professor” after a librarian’s name in a journal it tells me is that he or she is likely on the tenure track, but beyond that I believe it means little to most librarians. So in this great debate perhaps the rule of etiquette is this: In your own community – sure – go ahead and create an alphabet soup of degree abbreviations and add a helping of titles and ranks. But when we’re amongst our own, let’s drop that stuff. All we really need to know about each other is where we’re from and what we do there. Let our conversations lead to the discovery of our professional DNA.

Fast? Slow? Timing? Luck? Contemplating The Secret To Success

The one time I wrote something on the personal side the nature of the post was achieving success in academic librarianship. I asked how you know if you are where you should be in your career? For the most part the response was positive, although a number of you, particularly the younger demographic, thought my formula for success depended too much on a slow but steady approach. Well, get ready to start hearing a whole lot more about the nature of success, what it takes to achieve it, and on what terms you should define your own interpretation of a successful career. I’ve recently come across some different perspectives on being successful or reaching your potential, and they are showing up in some fairly different sources.

One individual who will be driving the conversations about the nature of success is Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell, best known for his popular books The Tipping Point and Blink, has a new one coming out this fall and according to a recent NYT article, it may be even bigger than those previous two books. A clue as to the book’s content appeared in a May New Yorker article by Gladwell titled “In the Air“. What we do know is that the book is titled “Outliers: Why Some People Succeed and Some Don’t” and that it promises to show that the ways we think about success and how it is achieved are all wrong. The clues suggest that Gladwell will make the point that success is often more about where you are at a particular point in time and whether you have the smarts, intuition and ability to spot the right opportunity and grab it “out of the air”. I think we all know there is something to this idea. In our profession the difference between success and mediocrity can be getting the right student internship, being on the staff at a library that has the right resources for a timely, innovative project or disseminating your ideas in a blog post ahead of a colleague with the same thoughts.

But even if you aren’t in the right place at the right time there may still be some strategies you can use to get on a better path to achieving success on your own terms. The key is to take personal responsibility for your career. That advice comes from an article in the July-August 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review titled “Reaching Your Potential” (subscription required). Career success, as defined in this article, is not necessarily about getting to the top. Rather, the author says “It’s about taking a very personal look at how you define success in your heart of hearts and then finding your path to get there.” Getting there involves three accomplishments: knowing yourself; excelling at critical tasks; and demonstrating character and leadership. All careers, even the rewarding ones – as I said in my post – are a series of hills and valleys. This article wraps up by pretty much saying the same thing, but points out that the challenge for many of us is to not abandon our career plans when we hit the valleys. That’s when we each must take responsibility for the management of our own careers.

Finally, there may be something to gain from taking things slowly in your career. Though you may scoff at my source, an article in the August 2008 issue of Best Life talks about the virtues of taking it slow in life. As the author writes “Apparently, slower is the secret to success.” Surprisingly, there are more than a few things in life where you may actually do much better if you slow up and take your time. It can be difficult to be patient when it comes to career success, making a name for yourself, being in the limelight – whatever you want to call it. But sometimes being deliberate about taking your time can make a difference in whether or not you succeed. The opportunity for success you think will be gone for good if you fail to rush to “grab it out of the air” may only be replaced later on by an even bigger and better one.

So keep in mind that there is more than one path to success, and that career success is based on your own definition of what it is.