Category Archives: Student Issues

Use this category for posts about our students, student services, and other issues involving students.

Professional Development as a Student

Check out our post on HLS today too! Quetzalli Barrientos, ACRLog FYAL blogger, reflects on her job search in “Job Search Tips.” See more information about the HLS/ ACRLog collaboration here.

Emily Minehart is a second year MSLIS student pursuing a Certificate in Special Collections at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a Graduate Assistant at Illinois’ Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where she is processing the Gwendolyn Brooks papers. Emily is currently an SAA Students and New Archives Professionals Roundtable steering committee member-at-large. Emily was asked to write about professional development as a student and how she stays in conversation with practicing librarians.

Professional involvement has been one of the foundational pieces of my library education, and I have benefited greatly from having a mentor who is involved in the profession. Classroom experience is important, but I feel as though I have learned more through interacting with practicing archivists and librarians than in my coursework. I am studying archives at the University of Illinois GSLIS, and have been lucky to work in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML) there for the past year and a half. My direct supervisor and professional mentor, the RBML’s archivist Megan Hixon, has taught me more than I can convey about archives, their relationship to a rare book library, and how to address problems (75 dead bugs falling out of a folder all over my desk is my favorite example) in a large academic library. She has allowed me to communicate with other involved parties, like preservation librarians. Learning how librarians and archivists from different units interact while having different backgrounds and approaches is an important part of academic librarianship and something that seems very difficult to teach in the classroom.

In my experience, the most significant lessons I have learned have come when I asked for help, more responsibility, or for specific experience. This goes beyond the workplace and classroom. It is important for students to seek out ways to become involved in the profession if they want a more holistic education. I am a student steering committee member of SAA’s Students and New Archives Professionals (SNAP) Roundtable. Being in contact with new archivists and other archives students has been reassuring and has challenged me to engage directly with the decisions SAA is making. Being involved with a professional organization as a student helps me to better understand the career in front of me, and it feels as though I have agency over my future and the futures of my peers; that makes some of the drudgery of library school feel valuable and more widely relevant.

Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to attend a conference. GSLIS is accommodating of conferences (they offer travel stipends and professors are understanding of missed class time), but the idea of presenting remains intimidating. SNAP is working very seriously to make SAA’s annual conference less daunting to students. We, as a committee, are trying to facilitate conversation between student SAA chapters with national SAA, and we are brainstorming ways to welcome students and first-time attendees to the conference. Still, presenting seems overwhelming. I think the best way to overcome that is to have a mentor; my supervisor attends conferences and will be part of a program at the Midwest Archives Conference this year. Hearing her talk through the process has been reassuring, and knowing that I will be able to find her at the conference itself is comforting.

Professional development as a student has both broadened and deepened my education, and I feel more qualified to enter the field this spring because of it. While groups like SNAP are doing great work to facilitate a connection between students and professional organizations, I feel strongly that there is no better way to become involved and feel supported than to have a mentor who also participates in professional development. Librarians at Illinois are extremely generous and approachable, and GSLIS students benefit from their graciousness. Knowing the general character of librarians, I imagine this is true in other library schools as well. However, I believe that an institutionalized mentorship program would help students approach conferences more confidently and would ease the transition into the profession after library school. SNAP certainly assists new archivists, and many ALA groups provide online resources, like those published by the RBMS Membership and Professional Development Committee, but there is still something more tangible about having a person to speak to directly. A profession-wide mentorship program across library schools would boost student confidence and professional participation, and would lead to better-prepared and more involved professionals entering the field. Certainly such a program would not be easy to execute, especially in the case of distance learning programs, but I believe it would be widely beneficial.

Practitioner Engagement in LIS Education

Check out our post on HLS today too! Callie Wiygul, ACRLog FYAL blogger, compares the challenges of graduate school to her experience in the academy in “The Perils of Seeing a Job as Your Endgame.” See more information about the HLS/ ACRLog collaboration here.

Elizabeth Lieutenant is a current MSL(I)S student who will be graduating in May 2016. Her research explores how higher education structures, systems, and processes can be used to  promote reflective praxis, student agency, educational equity, and organizational change. Elizabeth has presented her research on LIS student engagement in systematic planning at the Second Rutgers iSchool Research Invitational for Master’s Students, the Association for Library and Information Science Education 2016 Annual Conference, and the forthcoming Catholic University of America Eighth Annual Bridging the Spectrum Symposium and iConference 2016, respectively. Elizabeth was asked to write about if (and how) practicing librarians should be engaged in LIS education.

As a current LIS student, constituent engagement in higher education is one of my passions. Most of my attention has focused on improving student engagement in LIS education. I’ve spent the past year researching LIS student engagement in systematic program planning: The methods used to engage students, how systematically these methods are employed, and the types of programmatic changes implemented based on student engagement. Some of my most rewarding pre-professional experiences have been improving student engagement within my own LIS program: Organizing engagement sessions and meetings, creating and disseminating surveys and analyzing their data, and collaboratively leading various systematic planning initiatives to improve our students’ educational experiences. I will graduate in a few months and will soon be a practicing academic librarian. Shifting my focus from student to practitioner engagement in LIS education is a natural extension at this point in my career.

Practitioners, students, faculty, staff, alumni, employers, and university partners should each play an active and substantive role in LIS education. Each of these constituency groups has unique areas of expertise, perspectives, and needs that, when coupled together, can inform improvements to LIS education programs. The inclusion and engagement of diverse perspectives in LIS education ensures that program initiatives better serve their community, decision-making processes effectively respond to constituents’ needs, and collective praxis facilitates the educational formation of LIS students. Typical approaches to practitioner engagement in LIS education are usually confined to practica supervision, guest lecturers, and LIS student mentorship. However, these methods do not provide practitioners opportunities to engage in LIS education as broadly or substantively as they could.

Substantial practitioner commentary on LIS education exists, but most of this discourse is confined to informal venues: Blog posts, Twitter conversations, or advice to individual LIS students. There exists a far smaller pool of practitioner-led research on LIS curricula, the professional and educational preparation of LIS students, and the staffing needs of libraries and information centers. Recent scholarship on LIS curricula coverage of assessment and evaluation (Askew & Theodore-Shusta, 2013), copyright and intellectual property (Schmidt & English, 2015), and financial management (Burger, Kaufman, & Atkinson, 2015) revealed substantial deficits in preparing students to engage in professional practice. This type of research provides actionable data for LIS programs to benchmark their strengths and weaknesses and develop new curricula to respond to the profession’s needs.

Practitioner educators can also contribute a wealth of practical knowledge and expertise to LIS programs. Academic librarians who also serve as adjunct faculty are able to more deeply engage with a greater number of LIS students than they feasibly could in almost any other capacity. The mentoring relationships fostered with LIS students who take courses taught by adjunct faculty can be particularly rewarding for both parties (Brown, 2007). While I don’t support poorly compensated academic labor or precarity in higher education, practitioners who have the economic privilege to assume an adjunct teaching appointment play a critical role in enhancing LIS education.

Engagement in LIS program governance is another avenue for practitioner to substantively contribute to LIS education. Unlike informal dialog between practitioners and educators, committees, boards, and other governance bodies are structured, sustainable, and oft-times privileged venues for engaging in LIS education. Based on the most recently published ALISE Statistical Report (Albertson, Culbert, Snow, Spetka, & Hollenkamp, 2015), 17.6% of the 51 reporting schools included alumni representatives on their curriculum committees and 15.7% included practitioner representatives. These numbers fall far below staff (49.0%), student (60.8%), and faculty (100.0%) representation. Clearly, there are opportunities for LIS programs to improve practitioner engagement in program governance.

In my former position as an graduate assistant, I collaboratively initiated a number of processes that strengthen my own LIS program’s relationships with its constituents, including reestablishing the LIS Advisory Board. In recruiting eight new members to the Board, the LIS Department Chair and I ensured the Board included representatives from each of our constituency groups – students (now alumni), full-time and adjunct faculty, program administration, practitioners, alumni, employers, and university partners – to reflect our diverse community. Practitioners do not need to have an established relationship or formal alumni/instructor affiliation with an LIS program to serve as governance representatives. We all have biases, preferences, and limitations; representatives without an established affiliation can provide a impartial external perspective on a particular program’s strengths and weaknesses.

I have outlined a few opportunities for practitioners to be engaged in LIS education, but a program’s organizational culture – defined by its leadership and decision-makers – may preclude constituent engagement. Academic privilege, exclusionary practices, and personal biases all play a role in who is or is not invited to engage. As one of the presenters at the 2015 ALISE Annual Conference succinctly stated, “constituent engagement is important, but if your faculty and staff don’t want to engage, it’s not going to happen.” Even those who are invited to the table may be silenced by those in positions of power. Those few who do speak in this type of culture may find their knowledge dismissed, their contributions disdained, and their perspectives marginalized.

These types of exclusionary practices can have deep ramifications for LIS programs. A lack of constituent engagement in LIS education can lead to degradations of program quality, perceptions of irrelevancy to the profession, and, as the ALA’s Task Force on Library School Closing concluded, dissolution (Jeng, 2006). Yet even with these negative implications, LIS programs may still struggle to engage. LIS students at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Pratt Institute have publicly expressed concerns about their respective program’s lack of constituent engagement. It is not my intention to single out these two programs as negative examples of how to engage constituents – each LIS program has its strengths and weaknesses – but it does underscore the importance of program transparency, inclusivity, and communication.  

I personally support these types of student-led initiatives to the hold their LIS programs accountable and sometime wish that LIS practitioners were more proactive in doing the same. My own work in trying to reestablish constituent engagement methods and relationships would have been far easier if other constituents had worked together to ensure that those relationships had not been neglected for years. While it may be easy for practitioners to dismiss the relevance of LIS education to our profession’s needs, it is those dismissals that contribute to LIS failing the future of our profession. Just as academic librarians must work with their constituents to better contribute to their scholarly communities, LIS programs and their constituents must work together to better contribute to our profession.

Of course, LIS programs cannot act on all suggestions, implement all improvements, or address all aspects of the profession. That would be akin to assuming that academic librarians can provide their scholarly community with unlimited access to all published scholarship, a heroic yet impractical ideal. However, there are opportunities to strengthen LIS education, and constituent engagement in LIS education can be a primary motivator for programs to improve. My own scholarship aims to motivate LIS programs to adopt decision-making processes that are inclusive of their students’ perceptions, voices, and needs. LIS programs cannot (and, I would argue, should not) reinvent themselves based on the suggestions of a few constituents. While I am realistic about these limitations, I am also optimistic that my contributions will have a tangible positive impact on LIS education.

As an aspiring academic librarian, one would undoubtedly assume that I assess LIS education based on my professional and intellectual needs. While there are particular experiences I wish my LIS program provided me, I don’t have a prescriptive vision for what LIS education should be, nor should I! I believe LIS education should be defined at the local level. My vision for LIS education is for programs to reflect the needs, values, and perspectives of their community. Actualizing that vision requires the engagement of members of all constituency groups: practitioners, students, faculty, staff, alumni, employers, and university partners. Whether the needs and values of a program’s community require a traditional approach to entry-level librarianship or a radical, forward-thinking approach to the information professions does not matter to me. What matters is having a LIS program’s community collaboratively provide its student with the preparation needed to ensure they graduate equipped to better meet their needs of their own constituencies.

I am personally grateful to the many professionals and fellow students who have played a role in my educational formation. I would not still be a student in my program without their support, guidance, and encouragement. However, our traditional approaches to practitioner engagement in LIS education – networking, mentoring, guest lectures, and resume reviews – is not enough to support LIS students. Those few who have played an active role in my LIS program, who have been engaged in my program, who have advocated for our students to be provided the opportunities and experiences we need, who have amplified our student’s voices, who have fought for an inclusive educational community, those are ones to whom I am forever indebted. Those are the ones we need more of. Practicing librarians should not just play a peripheral role in LIS education. Practitioners must be fully engaged in LIS education to better support the educational formation of our students, for it is our students who are tasked with creating the future of our profession.

So, how will you support the future of our profession?

References

Albertson, D., Culbert, C., Snow, K., Spetka, K., & Hollenkamp, J (Eds.). (2015). ALISE Statistical Report 2015 [Data set]. Retrieved from http://www.alise.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=415.

ALISE 2015 annual conference. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.alise.org/alise-2015-conference.

Askew, C. A., & Theodore-Shusta, E. (2013). How do librarians learn assessment? Library Leadership & Management, 28(1), 1-9.

Bajjaly, S., Burnett, K., Hastings, S. K., Hirsh, S., Marek, K., & Most, L. R. (2015, January). Representation for all: Including stakeholders in LIS program governance in a changing world. Juried panel presented at the meeting of the Association for Library and Information Science Education, Chicago, IL.

Brown, S. W. (2007). The adjunct life. Library Journal, 132(11) 42-44. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.uconn.edu/libr_pubs/9.

Burger, R. H., Kaufman, P. T., & Atkinson, A. L. (2015). Disturbingly weak: The current state of financial management education in library and information science curricula. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 56(3), 190-197. doi:10.12783/issn.2328-2967/56/3/2.

CUA LIS Advisory Board. (2015, November 23). Retrieved from http://lis.cua.edu/about/LISadvisoryboard.cfm.

Hackney, S. (2015). SILSSA and the School of Information. Pratt SILSSA: The Student Association for the Pratt School of Information. Retrieved from http://silssa.prattsils.org/silssa-and-the-school-of-information/.

Helregel, N. (2014). Administrative transparency & LIS education. Hack Library School. Retrieved from http://hacklibraryschool.com/2014/12/11/administrative-transparency-lis-education/.

Jeng, L. H. (2005). Final report (2004-2005 ALA CD#48). Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/offices/sites/ala.org.offices/files/content/hrdr/abouthrdr/hrdrliaisoncomm/committeeoned/Library%20School%20Closi.pdf.

Schmidt, L. & English, M. (2015). Copyright instruction in LIS programs: Report of a survey of standards in the U.S.A. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 41(6), 736–743. doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2015.08.004.

January 2016 Collaboration with Hack Library School

ACRLog will be kicking 2016 off in a new and exciting way! Last fall, the ACRLog administrators had a discussion about the need for more LIS student voices on the blog. During our discussion, we recognized that Hack Library School (HLS) is the premier blog for LIS student communication. We knew that we wanted to honor this while still highlighting student voices and concerns to the broad readership that ACRLog has. As a result, a rich partnership with Hack Library School was created. This month, Hack Library School and ACRLog will be cross-blogging and co-blogging. This means that HLS posts from students–posts that focus on students’ lens, perspectives, interests, and anxieties–will be featured throughout January. These important pieces will replace our regular blogging schedule. All of the posts we’ll feature are written or co-written by HLS bloggers, LIS students, or very new LIS professionals. In return, HLS will be featuring ACRLog writers and other guests throughout January. Our ACRLog team will be writing about issues that we think might be of interest to students. Occasionally a post will be published in both venues. Regardless of if you’re a student, new professional, or seasoned librarian, we encourage you to follow both blogs throughout the month.

This initiative is based off of the belief that student voices are valuable to the profession and to practicing librarians. We truly believe that if practicing librarians are not listening to LIS students, they are not listening to the future of this profession. Our collaboration is meant to be a rich and valuable cross-pollination of voices and perspectives. We’ll feature posts that are co-written by administrators and students, posts that enable new professionals to reflect on the challenges of the last year, and posts that give students space to critically examine barriers and opportunities within their LIS school experience.

On a very personal note, this topic is near and dear to my heart. I started blogging for ACRLog as a student last fall. It transformed my last year as a graduate student in so many ways. It was invaluable to share to my reflections as a student publicly with the profession and engage with professionals before I formally became one. I’m thrilled that we’re providing a space for others to do the same. I know that I was given the opportunity to blog for ACRLog as a student because of the blog’s current administrators. The same is true of this collaboration. There are many practicing librarians that make student voices a priority. Maura Smale and Jen Jarson are two of them. I can’t thank both of them enough for not only believing in students but prioritizing them.

We encourage you to engage with both spaces and push the boundaries of this experiment. We hope it shapes your own practice, regardless of where you are in your LIS journey.

For more information about Hack Library School, please see Micah Vandegrift’s (HLS Founder) Leadpipe article.

Still Lost in the Academy: The Importance of #L1S and Other First Generation Initiatives

Disclaimer: This post is only about my experience as a first generation student. My experience is not truth. While I try to highlight some research done on this topic and point to others’ reflections, it’s worth stating that first generation student’s experiences are as diverse as they are.

Sometimes I get comfortable. I start to think that I have “made it” (whatever the hell that means), that I finally have some level of comfort with the academy, that I can speak the language of academia, that I can honor where I come from while still fitting in where I’ve worked so hard to be. And then I realize just how naïve I am.

A lot has happened in the last few months to bring me back to this topic. Kelly Kietur recently wrote a brilliant blog post entitled “HOT TAKE: class feelings and lis,” where she names her feelings of never belonging as being a “perpetual outsider”. This really resonated with me and pushed me to think about and reflect upon my recent experiences and how they relate to my first generation student status.

I just moved to a new institution, Davidson College, to start my journey as a new professional. The transition has been smooth sailing, mostly because of the awesome team that I have here. Still, Davidson is a very prestigious, selective college (the class of 2018’s median ACT score was a 31, which is 5 points higher than my best) and it has been difficult for me not to psych myself out about being in this environment. Davidson also recruits brilliant faculty that have degrees from other highly prestigious institutions. I often find myself doubting my ability (more on this later) to connect with them in a meaningful way or even have an in-depth conversation with them.

In addition to adjusting to Davidson, I’ve spent a lot more time with my mother recently. A few weeks ago she volunteered to help me move everything I own down to North Carolina, which was not an easy task, given that it was almost one hundred degrees for most of the move. Even just this one act illustrates my mom’s thoughtfulness and generosity. She has taught me things about the world that you can’t learn in a classroom. She continuously keeps me grounded but still ambitious. Yet being with her for almost a week reminded me that we always have to remember where we come from. She mispronounced words that are in my daily vocabulary now. She asked me a lot of questions about flying because she hadn’t been on a plane in over a decade. She talked about the physical work she had been doing and her fear of not having a real plan for retirement. I say these things not to embarrass my mom or ground sweeping statements about those without post-secondary education but simply because I think they illustrate what sparked my reflection. Does pronunciation really define how I feel about my mom? Of course not. But here I’m reminded of one of Maria Accardi’s more recent insights on her Library Burnout blog:

I think that the impulse to compare yourself to others in order to improve your mindset or make you feel grateful is not always the most affirming mental move to make, but thinking about my life in terms of my mother-in-law’s life has certainly informed and enriched my perspective, because while I do feel marginalized in some areas of my life, I also exist on multiple axes of privilege.

I value every minute I get to spend with my mom. But every minute also reminds me that I’m often playing make-believe, trying to pretend that I fit into academia and the poverty that I come from or, worse, that I have finally found my true place in the academy and that I should be ashamed of where I started and who I “left behind”. These feelings often create a sense of guilt that can be unmanageable.

To top it all off, I have also been working on the first draft of my first peer-reviewed publication. Kelly describes publishing in a journal as “daunting and almost impossible,” which I agree with. As I read more and more articles for my literature review, I find so much of the LIS and education literature inaccessible. These are articles about development, international forms of open access, the digital divide, and critical and inclusive pedagogy and I have trouble understanding a lot of it. Why write an article if the people that you are writing it for/ about can’t read it?! Ellen MacInnis recently tweeted something I think everyone claiming to do “radical” research needs to read:

So what’s my point? Why am I writing about this on ACRLog? I believe that we still have a lot of work to do in LIS, both in supporting and nurturing new LIS professionals that come from a first generation background and in creating academic library services that support first generation students broadly. In addition, I often see a lot of conversations focused on either the financial or academic hardships that first generation students face. These usually talk about retention in terms of scholarships, grants, or work study or the availability of academic support structures like remedial courses or tutoring. These conversations are vital to the success of first gen students. But I think that the social and emotional challenges that first generation students grapple with sometimes take a back seat to these more “tangible” problems, even though addressing them is just as important to actually retaining students. Further, if students are feeling guilty, angry, abandoned, and alone it is likely to affect their academic success.

For Ourselves

There are LIS professionals that identify as “first generation,” whether that means being the first person in their family to go to college or graduate school or the simply someone that is currently part of a different class than the one they were raised in. How can we, as first generation LIS practitioners, support each other? How can our colleagues learn more about the challenges we face?

This work has already been started! Cecily Walker (@skeskali) has started to collect feedback from self-identified first generation LIS folks about what support they need. As a result, she moderated a Twitter chat on June 1st where first gen LIS professionals discussed the challenges they face, how their experiences with class have informed their work, and what “coming out” to colleagues looked like. Cecily explains why she finds this work important on her blog.

I’ve had two revelations recently that I’d love to see the LIS community discuss more.

Several years ago, Teresa Heinz Housel wrote an article for the Chronicle entitled “First-Generation Students Need Help in Straddling Their 2 Cultures.” In the article, she describes her experience realizing that a new status didn’t change the disconnect she felt while in the academy:

After I accepted a faculty position, I wrongfully assumed that the old cultural demons would be gone. If anything, cultural isolation can increase up the career trajectory. Dinner parties, intellectual competition, and expectation of education as a right rather than a privilege underscore academic values.

I continue to learn and re-learn this. Earlier I described this feeling of “making it,” of feeling secure in academia. I am constantly realizing that being a first generation student actually means realizing again and again that I am different. I have profoundly different experiences than many of my colleagues and that’s okay. It’s actually something to be proud of. But sometimes I will find myself in situations where it’s difficult to remember that. I feel ashamed that I don’t know something or I feel lost in certain conversations. I feel like I’m a helpless college freshman all over again. How do other LIS professionals deal with these feelings? How do we continue to show pride in being different and assert that our voices make academia a much more rich and fascinating place?

I have also been thinking a lot lately about how the media and the public has informed the way I think about my abilities and myself. Lynne Coy-Ogan wrote a dissertation in 2009 where she studied first-generation students in depth. One of her findings was that despite their resiliency and success in other aspects of their lives, first generation students were often reluctant to identify themselves possibly because of shame related to the criminalization of poverty. They believed that they were “subordinate to their peers” and they often underestimated their abilities (Coy-Ogan, 2009, p. 19). They are also more likely to accept degrading or demeaning labels or representations of themselves (Coy-Ogan, 2009).

I do this a lot. I beat myself up. I underestimate my ability in a variety of situations, from #critlib chats to faculty outreach. I have already doubted this blog post and the quality of my writing several times! Part of this is that I am a human being. We always have some level of self-doubt and fear when we’re putting ourselves out there. However, the older I get, the more I realize that my feelings fit into a greater narrative that the world has told me about myself. From Missouri’s food bans to Arizona’s drug tests, our nation has no problem dehumanizing its poorest citizens. Welfare recipients are depicted as lazy drug addicts whose only skill set is manipulating and cheating the system. This idea has been alive and well since Reagan depicted the “welfare queen” several decades ago.

When you spend all of your life hearing these things about yourself, about your caretaker, about your community, what does this do to your self-esteem? What do you internalize? More importantly, how do we take these stories back? How do we assert that they won’t have power over us any longer? How do we help students do the same?

For Our Students

We have to acknowledge that a) first generation students exist on our campuses and b) that they experience the same challenges I’ve discussed above (and many more). There is a ton of literature on how to serve and mentor first-generation students and taking advantage of it should be an active part of library service planning, not an afterthought.

Again, I think that there also needs to be a more extensive conversation about the emotional, affective challenges inherent in being the first person in your family to straddle class lines and bear the emotional weight of “making it” for everyone before you that couldn’t. I know that having mentors that were more familiar with higher education than my parents has been invaluable. Having a community of other first generation students, faculty, and staff to work through these issues with would have also been helpful. How can librarians take on these roles?

Librarians should also start to think about first generation students’ needs in the context of information literacy, scholarly communication, and technology. Brinkman et al. presented an ACRL conference paper entitled “When the Helicopters are Silent: The Information Seeking Strategies of First-Generation College Students” in 2013. They explore a thought-provoking idea: if first-generation students’ parents don’t have specific information-seeking experience (as most other college students’ parents do) how do their information-seeking habits differ from their peers, both academically and practically? How does this affect library anxiety?

Getting to Work

Housel ends her Chronicle article with the following sentence:

I have slowly found other first-generation colleagues at my institution and others. Our conversations helped me realize that the biggest lie we have faced is that we do not belong in academic culture.

Let’s make our profession one that intentionally challenges and disregards this lie instead of perpetuating it.

References

Brinkman, S., Gibson, K., & Presnell, J. (2013). When the helicopters are silent: The information seeking strategies of first-generation college students. In D.M. Mueller (Ed.), Imagine, innovate, inspire: The proceedings of the ACRL 2013 conference. (pp. 643-650). Chicago, IL: Association of College and Research Libraries.

Coy-Ogan, L. (2009). Percieved factors influencing the pursuit of higher education among first- generation college students (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertation and Theses database. (UMI Number 3389750).

The Assistantship as Ethnography: A New Lens for LIS Students

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

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

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

zine

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

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

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

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

Ask questions

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

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

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

Take advantage of tools

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

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

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

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

Take advantage of every opportunity to learn 

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

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

Reflection doesn’t have to be lonely

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

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

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

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

Put it all together

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

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

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

But don’t internalize it

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

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

I am not my job

Advice for mentors, supervisors, and leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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