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Thoughts for 2014 MLIS Grads from a Newbie Librarian

At my college reunion last month, I watched an energetic crop of newly minted liberal arts graduates receive their diplomas from my east coast alma mater. The University of Washington operates on a quarter system and our students graduate in June, so now that I’m back at my post I get to watch the whole thing play out a second time for the seniors and graduate students of my acquaintance.

I know that when this cohort of graduates leaves the Information School at the University of Washington and information schools around the country, a handful will find a job that is a great fit, right out of school.  A few will never end up working as professional librarians. Most of those students, however, will take a middle path. They won’t find their dream job right away. They might make sacrifices in location, schedule, salary or job description. They will experience bewildering inconsistencies–like being turned down for a part time page position one week and offered a salaried job the next. They will be expected to take on additional unpaid work or expensive training in order to get a shot at the jobs they want.

It turns out, the post-graduate school job search and subsequent first few years of work are, like just about every aspect of adult life that I’ve experienced so far, about a hundred times more difficult than I imagined. As I’ve mentioned here before, I worked for a couple of years in an academic library job that I really enjoyed, but I had a crazy schedule and no professional status.  My current position is temporary and not tenure-track, so the learning curve is far from over for me.

I don't REALLY believe this sentiment...honest!
I don’t REALLY believe this sentiment…honest!

For example: at the moment, we are working on hiring next year’s crop of graduate student assistants in the Research Commons, and I have found that I can learn a lot from their poise and professionalism. The iSchool at UW admits great students, and it seems like every year the cohort gets savvier and more competitive, but I was still surprised by the level of scrutiny that we needed to apply to these students in order to choose between many qualified applicants. It freaked me out to realize that when I must pursue the next step in my career, that scrutiny will be turned in my direction.

There’s no doubt about it; the cost of a MLIS degree is high and the job market is uncertain. I don’t want to trivialize the very real challenges that new grads face, because it certainly seems that the stakes are higher for them than ever before. It’s very important to put some significant thought into how you are going to manage the financial aspects of your librarian endeavor, particularly if you might not be able to go directly into a well-paying job. These inevitabilities are frustrating, but even in my most cynical moments, I’ve never regretted my decision to get my MLIS. I love being able to tell people “I’m a librarian!” It’s a part of my identity now, and one that I’m unreasonably proud of. I have tons of loyalty and affection for the members of my MLIS cohort as well.  They are an awesome group of people, with whom I completed two years of challenging academic work. A little bit of magical thinking, or creative self-visualization, can help you get through the moments of doubt. When I’m feeling philosophical, or dire, I like to imagine that, even if there were no libraries left to run, I’d still be a librarian in the core of my being; that I’d be helping people find reliable sources of information in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, or telling half remembered novel plots around the campfire to a group of other zombie survivors. Heck yes!

From time to time, friends have asked me whether I think they should pursue an MLIS. That’s a really hard question to answer. It seems to me that the most successful information professionals are the ones that embody a series of paradoxes. It’s important, for example, to be very invested in your work and let your commitment show; but if you’re slavishly devoted, people will take advantage of that and you’ll end up burning out. You want to have compelling interests outside of your library work; but if a prospective employer senses that this is just a ‘day job’ and that you’d rather be doing something else, you probably won’t get hired. And, in my experience, the hardest part of forming my professional persona has been figuring out how much to diversify.  I greatly enjoy multiple (and sometimes competing) aspects of the library profession. I treated my graduate course schedule like an all-you-can-eat buffet, and when I graduated, I could see myself in several types of professional environments. A few years in the field have narrowed my focus somewhat, but I still feel conflicted between competing urges to specialize and diversify my librarian skillset. That conflict has tripped me up more often than not. So, I’m not sure how well I’m doing at embodying paradoxes. At this point, I’m just finally getting a handle on embodying myself, thanks very much!

So this is it…a work in progress. When you get it all figured out, let me know. I’ll see you around the campfire.

Professionalism–are we there yet?

Next week, I will travel to the other side of the county for my 10 year undergraduate college reunion. I’m excited and nervous about going back to my old college haunts. Part of the nervousness comes with the territory at any reunion: will I have met an acceptable number of life-milestones in order to not be shunned by my classmates? However, some angst is more specific to my situation. My undergraduate institution is an elite women’s college that employs a lot of rhetoric about preparing professional women to do important work in the world. Am I doing important work?  I would argue that yes, my work at the library plays a very important role in the life and health of the academic institution.  Ah, but am I a professional?  About that bit I am less sure.

It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since I was an undergraduate myself, and that I now serve and supervise undergrads as a professional academic librarian. Part of my management philosophy has always been to lead by example, and conversely, to work hard to follow the example of those whom I admire. But I also like to be genuine with others at work, and find areas of connection outside of the library. And I certainly don’t LOOK like the ‘professional’ that I imagined I might be at my age when I graduated from college ten years ago. (Real talk; I am currently wearing sneakers and wiping Toblerone crumbs from my desk.)

Jake the Dog looks on as a get some serious work done.
Jake the Dog looks on as I get some serious work done.

But as a new librarian, it can be difficult to ‘be professional’ because professionalism itself seems to be a moving target. Everyone I work with seems to hold themselves to different standards when it comes to how to dress for work, how much to share about one’s personal life, and how to conduct oneself on social media.

As usual, the internet can help. I’m a big fan of the Adulting Blog, which provides a host of humorous and useful aphorisms for those of us who are trying hard to behave like adults.  Numerous library blogs address these issues, and I particularly like the level of granularity that the I Need A Library Job Blog sometimes reaches…one recent post focused on the use of pronouns in thank you notes; specific but usefully so. And if, like me, you are part of or on the cusp of the millennial generation and have limited stores of self control when it comes to the internet, this list of tools at 99u can help you block offending sites and rediscover your focus.

Ultimately, I’m happy that I didn’t join a profession where I would be expected to wear a suit and heels, or never to talk about with coworkers about ‘that cute thing that my dog did yesterday.’  Likewise, it is probably to the good that library schools tend not to overemphasize workplace conduct…most of it is common-sense knowledge that is more effectively learned through communication backchannels from peers and advisors. But I believe that putting some thought into what kind of professional I want to be; actually articulating to myself my own professional standards and how I can do a better job of holding myself to them, is a good exercise for a new librarian.

On Being A Faculty

This clip from Spies Like Us is a great introduction to my topic for this post:

The line at the end – we’re not doctors – brings me back to my first post here in October where I touched on the idea of feeling a bit out of place with the wider faculty – something like a pretender. Still, being librarians in the wider academic community of campus is an important part of our roles.

Indeed, making use of these collegial connections is important to our success as members of the academic and library communities. My mentor and I attended a faculty lunch this past Friday where I knew several of the more senior faculty members there from across many colleges on campus. These connections not only give one an opportunity to be a representative for the library and share pertinent tools and services the library might provide to teaching faculty and students, but these connections can also foster cooperative research across the colleges. Beyond these immediate benefits, being more “plugged in” to the wider campus makes the librarians more visible in general, and keeps subject specialist librarians aware of current trends in research not only on the local campus, but within their wider respective disciplines.

Moreover, being a faculty – a whole faculty – creates a sense of community for all the involved parties – faculty, staff, students, and administration. This faculty community is responsible for the teaching and learning aspects of campus life, and so should come together not only to talk about the pedagogical aspects of that life, but also the scholarship aspects as well. Teaching faculty have many formal and informal opportunities to be a larger community, but librarians can be left out of this process if we don’t make sure we take part.

So my challenge to you, fellow academic librarians, is this: make an effort this week to be a bit more plugged in. Have lunch with someone on campus whose research you admire (an academic’s favorite conversation topic is their research). Reach out to someone in your discipline, or to another discipline entirely. Your effort will help the library be an even more integral part of campus and academic life. Perhaps a more immediate reward is being able to attend one of the most exciting events on campus: commencement. To my mind, commencement is a time of reflection and a time of beginnings. Being able to attend these as a member of the wider campus faculty is an honor, and a joy – to come together with one collective voice and express joy and pride in our graduates. It is with this collective faculty voice in mind that I want to close with this photo:

Commencement in the Greek Theater at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 1933. Image from Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville
Commencement in the Greek Theater at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 1933. Image credit: Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.

Hurry up and Reflect! February’s Dynamic Duality

February, the shortest month of the year, has always seemed pretty rushed and hectic to me.  Holidays and observances like Superbowl Sunday (yay Seahawks!), Groundhog Day, Black History Month, Valentine’s Day and President’s Day jostle for our attention.  Students at my university are studying for midterms, and the Research Commons is starting to get busier and noisier at the quarter progresses.  We also have all of our largest public events of the quarter scheduled in in February; on the docket this month we have installments of our Scholars’ Studio and CoLAB programs, as well as a session in a popular speakers’ series.  A lot of people I know have February birthdays, including myself and my boss.  Oh…and I’m scheduled for jury duty next week, so there’s that.  Where’s a leap year when you need one?

Is it possible to find time for reflection in all of this chaos? At many institutions, February marks the mid-point in the academic year, so reflection is not only appropriate, but necessary. Since my position is not tenure-track, I don’t have codified avenues for evaluating and reviewing my performance so far this year.  But I can benefit from many of the tools that my tenure-eligible colleagues use.  Updating my CV, maintaining a file of thanks and kudos I have received, and beginning to plan conference proposals that illustrate my work so far, are important tasks that I need to make time and space for.

My earlier mention of Groundhog Day perhaps seems a bit silly and off-handed, but in fact, it provides an apt metaphor for my frame of mind the moment.  Our current rodent-based divination ceremony is often presumed to derive from other, more ancient festivals, like Imbolc, which celebrated the midway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox, and marked an occasion for reflection, scrying, and omen watching.  My aforementioned litany or February holidays can offer a series of fruitful starting points of small acts of contemplation; on the nature of community, on social justice, on bringing love and passion into our daily practices, on grounding oneself in the foundational values of our American institutions.

A typical February contradiction:  The view from my office is sunny and beautiful, but it's freakin' cold!
A typical February contradiction: The view from my office is sunny and beautiful, but it’s freakin’ cold!

On a more personal level, I feel grateful that I’ve settled in to my position now to the extent that my daily routines are becoming more natural and comfortable.  I know when the best times for me to arrive at and leave work are, and what times of day I am most productive.  I’ve figured out which yoga classes work best with my schedule.  Always at the back of my mind is the notion of bringing more contemplative practice into my daily work.

The time for learning the ropes of my position and department has more or less passed…it feels like the second half of my first year as a professional librarian will be a time for action.  The spectre of “imposter syndrome” is still strong… I don’t expect to ever fully rid myself of it, but I do now feel comfortable enough in my role to embrace the rare quiet moments at work as times for reflection and passivity, rather than panicking because I don’t have enough to do! I’m looking forward to the second half.

 

Serendipity Without Stacks

Timeliness, structure, and willingness to perform process-oriented tasks and maintain operations with consistency are some of the work behaviors that I associate with librarians who have experience as hourly library workers.  For those reasons, I value the years that I spent as a full-time library staff person before being offered my first librarian role.

But moving from classified to professional status has, for me at least, involved a paradigm shift that has been difficult at times to wrap my head around.   As library staff, I had some autonomy and input into decision making, but my primary role was to carry out library protocol.  I believed that a cheerful, ‘can do’ attitude was the objective that I should constantly be striving for, and sometimes I even succeeded at that goal!

As a librarian however, I’m finding that a plucky attitude and a consistent desire to do my job well are only the beginning.  I must also conceptualize some of the overarching goals and objectives that I want to define my library career.  It isn’t that I’ve never thought critically about the role and future of libraries…I certainly did in graduate school!  However, over the last couple of years, I had put those thoughts aside in order to focus on job knowledge.  Moreover, I was engaged in a search for a professional job, and I wanted to keep my options open; I believed that over-narrowing my focus would be problematic.

Now, though, it is time for me to think deeply about the paradigms around which I wish to structure my career.  In some library roles, professionals are anchored by a collection or a narrowly focused user group, and their career objectives flow naturally from those starting points.   My position is a little different.  As I mentioned in a previous post, my job is newly created and intentionally flexible.  Moreover, I work in a non-traditional academic library environment, which is fairly young (the UW Library Research Commons is only 3 years old).

No doubt there are many library paradigms that I will come to explore, ponder, and perhaps even subvert (!) over the course of my career.  The one that I have been thinking about a lot lately, however, it that of the “serendipity of the stacks.”  I’m not sure where I first encountered this term, but a little quick research turns up an article by Michael Hoeflich [1] which captures succinctly the spirit of the idiom; that of the fortuitous nature of research and the intellectual thrill of making an important research discovery that can only be achieved through deep relationships with library collections.

This is a well worn idea, sure, but it’s in idea that I like and I identify with (full disclosure: I spent my graduate school years as a student curatorial assistant in my library’s rare book collection).

The Research Commons is bookless, and our focus is on providing space and technology to promote collaboration.  But from that collaboration, intellectual serendipity can surely arise.  I have personally seen it happen, particularly at the programs and events that we host in my library, such as our Scholars’ Studio series, which invites graduate students from across disciplines to present ‘lightning talks’ on a given topic.

Programming like this gets at the human aspect of “serendipity without stacks” and mark the library as a place where spontaneous learning and collaboration can happen.   It’s a good start.  But I am also interested in new modes of serendipity that could be discovered in the realm of digital scholarship.  What could this interest mean for the future of my library career?  I’m not sure yet, but I trust that the answers will come to me; through serendipity or otherwise.

1. Hoeflich, Michael H. “Serendipity in the Stacks, Fortuity in the Archives.” Law Libr. J. 99 (2007): 813.