Category Archives: Uncategorized

New Academic Librarian In The Desert

It’s amusing and convenient that this post goes up on Christmas day. First, happy holidays, intrepid readers. As you read this, I am in one of my favorite places on earth – Marfa, Texas. This small west Texas town is home to major installations by some of the most significant abstract and minimal artists of the twentieth century.  Here’s an image my wife made on our last trip to Marfa, so you can get an idea of the place:

Repetition

As a faculty member and new academic librarian, I have a very generous two weeks of vacation at the holidays, which was quite a change from my previous position. It is a time to reflect, rest, and renew – and a time for me to think about the importance of not working.

We live in an always-on, always connected society, and work in places that are increasingly more connected with each passing day. No, I am not really talking about personal social media, but email, cell phones, and voicemail. If we so desire, we can be well and truly just a phone call or a message away from our workplace, even if we are half a world distant. I cannot say that this is without benefits, especially if someone is in a position (say systems) that requires one to be always on-call.

But it’s not an entirely positive thing, either. Always being “on” or connected to work through email, etc., means we never leave work behind, and that we can never truly let work go and relax. This connection to work can be true at vacation time, evenings during the workweek, or the weekend. In a fit of aversion to our connected society, I once participated in a discussion (and semi-experiment) about the benefits of being “disconnected.” Indeed, the virtues of being less virtually connected, and more physically engaged were extolled in a recent article in the New York Times.

For me, this means I rarely have my work email “on” on my smartphone. I do have my calendar on, but keep my email off. When I am not at work in my office or in meetings, I am unavailable via email. I made this clear to my colleagues, and that if there was a true emergency, there are other ways of contacting me. I do setup my out of office assistant in Outlook when I am on vacation, and block off the time on my work calendar.

Overall, this helps me to disconnect from work every evening, and disconnect on vacation.  If you’d like more strategies for disconnecting over your vacation, I’d suggest the book The Tyranny of E-mail by John Freeman. If being “always on” is a challenge for you, he has some great thoughts and strategies on the topic that are fairly easy to try. I know some of his strategies have certainly made my work/life balance far better!

Have a safe, relaxing, and disconnected (or engaged) holiday!

Summer Projects

Ah, summer! A time when we all get to take a deep breath and work on all those things we put off during the school year. I’ve always thought that summer at an academic library is sort of a strange time. Even though it feels more relaxed in and around campus, we’re still  quite busy getting things ready before the students return. Last week when I realized that it was already August, I had to stifle a feeling of panic—the summer feels like its slipping away along with the time to work on all my projects.

Three projects that I’ve been working on over the summer include:

  • Reviewing the collection: Our library is doing a massive and much needed inventory and collection review project. This has involved the efforts of practically every person in the building. For my part, I’ve been looking at each of our music and theatre arts holdings and determining what could be withdrawn (–teaching faculty will get the final say). There have been endless book trucks coming in and out of my office. Nevertheless, it has been a great opportunity for me to see the strengths and weaknesses of the collection.
  • Processing opera scores: A few years ago my institution received a large donation of hundreds of music scores from the wife of a former opera professor. Most of these are opera scores. The collection has sat untouched awaiting cataloging and processing. Thankfully I was able to hire a music cataloger this summer and we are almost finished with cataloging the entire collection. Some items include incredibly rare 18th century first edition opera scores. In the future, I would like to apply for a grant to digitize some of these rare materials. But for now, I’ll just be relieved and satisfied once they officially join our collection.
  • Combining the Olympics and information literacy: While I am not a huge sports fan, whenever the Olympics roll around, I find myself glued to the television practically every night—especially for gymnastics, swimming, and track and field. Lately I’ve been thinking that there must be a way for me to incorporate some sort of Olympic-themed activity or research inquiry into one of my information literacy sessions this Fall. So far nothing has come to me, but I have had a lot of fun perusing the official website for the Olympics—including their photo gallery which contains over a hundred galleries based on year and sport.  The photos go as far back as the 1896 games in Athens.

What huge projects are you working on this summer and will you actually finish them?

Teaching Workload and New Librarians

The following story is true. However, the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Meredith, an acquaintance of mine from library school, is an extraordinarily bright person with an amazing attitude. The moment I met her, I knew she would make an amazing librarian. Despite the small number of jobs available to academic librarians in this economy and despite being limited geographically, Meredith was hired fresh out of library school as a full-time adjunct instruction librarian at a medium-sized public university. In her first semester Meredith somehow taught over 40 instruction sessions, which included several two-week intensive information literacy course sequences for introductory general education courses.

On the Friday before spring semester classes began, Meredith was informed by her administrators that no temporary staff were to be hired to fill in for a librarian going on sabbatical. Instead, Meredith was now expected to take on 50% of her colleague’s workload, without any additions to her salary. Previously, Meredith had provided her superiors with a thorough account of her work hours—complete with professional standards from the ACRL Standards of Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators—in order to demonstrate that she had a full workload.  Despite this, they believed that she was under-worked and that this addition to her current duties would bring her up to full-time.

To make a long story short, Meredith decided to fight this by arguing that if she was forced to take on 50% more work, the quality of education that she provides would severely deteriorate. She told me, “I cannot roll over and become part of the cycle that is perpetuating the corporatization of higher education.” In the end, Meredith was able to prevent the increase to her workload.

This situation is the result of an unfortunate combination of massive budget cuts and administrators questioning the value of teaching information competency in higher education.  While Meredith’s situation is extreme, I have a feeling that her situation may not be an isolated incident. In this economic climate of dramatic budget cuts, librarians—particularly new, adjunct, and temporary librarians—are especially vulnerable. And the time available for some of us to provide effective instruction in information competency is getting compacted with additional duties and tasks.

I don’t want to make this a “librarians vs. them” kind of a thing because I realize there are a lot of complicated factors at play. But I would like to know: how do we successfully determine and prove what a feasible teaching workload is and how can new librarians like Meredith effectively share and demonstrate workload concerns with their administrators?

Our Non-MLS Director is Great! Compared to What?

One of the programs I attended at the ALA Conference in New Orleans was titled “Hiring Non-MLS Librarians: Trends and Training Implications.” The first panelist shared some research findings from a survey in which library directors were asked about the positions in their libraries that they believed did or did not require an MLS. The results were pretty much what you’d expect. Directors expected the MLS for positions related to reference, instruction, and metadata services – the more traditional librarian functions. For positions in human resources, IT, fundraising and instructional technology, not so much. The other three panelists addressed the pros and cons of hiring non-MLS holders (as they were called) for librarian positions in libraries. My impression is that all three panelists supported the notion of hiring non-MLS holders under certain conditions, but that if a MLS librarian was available at the right price and with the right skill set an MLS holder is preferred. But in each of their libraries, it appeared that hiring non-MLS holders for librarian positions is an accepted practice.

The comments that followed the presentations revealed the strong, mixed emotions about this topic. It’s definitely a hot button issue, and I commend the organizers for providing their perspectives on why we’d want to hire non-MLS holders for some professional positions in our libraries – and those conditions that make it a challenge to fill an opening with an MLS librarian. Given the topic I was surprised by the light turnout. Perhaps the 8:00 am, Sunday morning time slot had an impact. One commenter mentioned that the “MLS attitude” is more about individuals than the profession, and that the “Yes I am superior to you” mentality, while unfortunate, isn’t limited to MLS holders. The dean from an LIS program shared his concerns that we think it’s fine to replace MLS holders with non-MLS holders, and articulated some excellent thinking points for what LIS grads can bring to libraries in tangible and intangible ways. But it was the comment from the public library board trustee that most concerned me.

The trustee shared a story about the current library director. Apparently this person has no MLS. She has worked at this library for 40 years in different positions (we have no idea what the size of the library is or where it’s located). “She’s doing a bang-up job as our director” was the comment. I take that to mean you can be a great non-MLS library director – or librarian – with many years of on-the-job training/experience regardless of your educational background. My response to a statement like this one – which I suppose is often thrown out to justify non-MLS librarians – especially in administrative positions – is “compared to what?” Perhaps this person does do a great job, but according to what standard? What does this director deliver? Maintaining the status quo for all those years? Doing whatever the trustees want? Making sure the community doesn’t complain by keeping it all the same and giving them whatever they want? Is that what constitutes “bang-up” results? In comparison to similar libraries with MLS directors, what has the non-MLS director actually accomplished? Perhaps more and even better things, but without some sense of the outcomes achieved doing a “bang-up job” means little and is hardly a rationale in support of non-MLS holders in librarian positions.

What are we to make of the “anyone with on-the-job experience can do the MLS holder’s job” proposition, especially when it’s being spread in public forums? We all know there are non-MLS folks who do their jobs well, just as we know there are MLS holders who should practice another profession. But it’s not about just doing a job well, being proficient or keeping the masses happy. We need MLS librarians because their specialized education and commitment to professional development is about more – or should be about more – than just maintaining the status quo and being good enough. As I said to the LIS dean afterwards, we need LIS programs to educate professionals who will challenge the status quo at their institutions, who will do the research that leads to new discoveries, and who will the explore the mysteries that lead to new knowledge and innovation. In essence they will do more than just get the job done. They are motivated to advance the science and practice of librarianship. They are inspired to keep their knowledge current with the state-of-the-art, but are constantly motivated to learn new skills. They debate the issues of the day among one another. For MLS holders, librarianship is more than just a job; it is a driving passion.

None of this is to suggest that we should be insistent that all professional positions in academic libraries require the MLS degree. We need to accept that our future will require a mix of skilled professionals. As was discussed at the program, it is accepted and sometimes preferred to have non-MLS colleagues for specialized positions in human resources, information technology, instructional design or the business office. In academic libraries specifically, non-MLS PhD holders may be best suited for some highly specialized collection or archival areas. I do believe that the MLS is the preferred degree for academic librarians. It is advantageous and often necessary for research support, education and strategic operations.

If we desire to establish the validity of the claim that communities best benefit by being served by MLS holders, then it is our responsibility to show that our careers result in concrete improvements, substantial advancement and benefits that would not otherwise be possible. That requires a commitment from all those who earn the MLS and the right to qualify for ALA-accredited positions in academic libraries to demonstrate, with humility and respect for colleagues from any and all educational backgrounds, that there is more to being a professional librarian than just meeting expectations and maintaining the status quo. It requires a passion for exceeding those expectations and constantly questioning what we do and how we do it – and in what ways could we make our libraries even better for our communities. When those inevitable comparisons between non-MLS and MLS holders in librarian positions are made, the rationale for and value of the MLS should be an easy case to make.

Showing Emotion? Keep It Real

You’ve no doubt had that experience where you go to a store, hotel or some other setting where you receive service, and the person (or people) serving you is doing all the right things to be nice – but you know it’s an act being put on for your benefit. We accept this because we know the person is doing their job and the management expects them to put some kind of positive emotions into the service. Just the same, it may leave us feeling a little weird. Should businesses expect their employees to fake emotions with you? This question is raised is a column titled “The Coming Point of Sale Revolution” by Grant McCraken. He understands the strategy but has a problem with it:

One of them is the American conviction that your emotions are your own personal business. Generally, we believe emotions are a private matter and that it is wrong to ask the employee to use them for public, commercial purposes.

McCraken shares the story of Dolores, a clerk at a busy 7-11 that sells the most cups of coffee of any other similar convenience store in America. Try to watch the video of Dolores in action. There’s nothing fake, contrived or insincere about the way she greets the customers and makes them welcome. While many of our service desk-based interactions could be described as impersonal transactions, I believe that we too have our “regulars” that we chat with, share a story or greet warmly. In other words, we put our emotions into those relationships – and the community members know it is sincere.

McCraken goes on to suggest that service-driven businesses should go out of their way to look for people like Dolores, or even those who have the capacity, through staff development, to be more skilled at what he calls “reading people and responding to them in real time” – the opposite of which is always avoiding eye contact, being sullen or professionally cold or aloof. I have no idea if that works for academic libraries. We talk about the importance of customer service, but when hiring and developing new librarians what do we tell them about connecting with community members when at a service desk or in consultation situations. Should we be asking or suggesting that academic librarians engage with everyone in a more personal and emotional manner – or at least be more adept at reading people and sensing at what level they desire personal engagement? It’s not necessarily a skill we all have.

Perhaps the important thing for all us who connect with community members in one way or another, at a desk, in a classroom, in offices or wherever, is to be thoughtful about the possibilities for building relationships. They can start with an enthusiastic greeting, sustained eye contact or simply demonstrating that we care. We should avoid at all cost communicating that the interaction is no more than an impersonal or bothersome transaction we perform in order to survive our time at the desk until we can get back to whatever it is we’d really rather be doing. Putting some emotion into our work can be a good thing. Do we all need to be Dolores? Of course not. Faking it, in fact, may be far worse.