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The Born Librarian: My Professional Identity in Librarianship

Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You may have noticed from my last post that lately I have been grappling with questions of my professional identity. For example, I tried to understand or argue for the importance of libraries, and my best answer was that libraries’ most important role is their role as a public space and gatekeeper of information. I have been using writing as a means to work through these important questions; my professional identity is very important to me, and I want to develop it deliberately and carefully.

I recently had a draft for this current post, only to decide that I was too negative about librarianship in it, that I questioned my professional role too much and had no sense of assuredness or confidence about the “fit” of the profession for me. The blog post was about being a generalist, how librarians are generalists, and how, essentially, I don’t want to be a generalist. My biggest fear is that to be a generalist means that I didn’t really know anything, that I have nothing in which to anchor my intellectual pursuits. Librarianship is very “meta” – all about access, discovery, evaluation, interpretation, use, creation, dissemination…but I want to know the substance and depth of this information that we are providing!

Then I asked my Dean and mentor, Patty Iannuzzi, to read the post, as it had been a direct response to learning that she values librarians’ being generalists, because it results in more balanced collections and services. The conversation was stimulating and a little unsettling, perhaps for both of us – for her because I have professional identity issues, and I’m not the only librarian who has them, for me because I realized, through attempting to answer her questions of me, just how shaky the ground is upon which I am standing in terms of my professional identity. Patty is the biggest champion of libraries that I know, and I felt badly revealing these doubts and insecurities to her. But I knew that if anyone could help me solve those issues, she could. Patty had several challenging questions for me, one of which was about why I do what I do, and what role librarians have. My answers for her felt grossly inadequate. They amounted to “helping people do research,” or “helping people access information.” My answers felt so simple, even shallow, and I wondered: what makes these activities unique to libraries anyway? The truth is, I am not sure that librarians are indispensable. After all, I went through all of my academic programs, up until library school, without ever having to really rely upon library services or sources even. I was required to purchase all my course texts, which were core readings in the disciplines.

Oh my! Have I chosen the wrong profession? I will admit, this was my second pick, an alternative to my original plan and dream for life. Certainly I would fall into the category of “failed academics,” (if such a category should even exist, but it sounds so negative)! I attempted to complete two PhD programs prior to entering the field. I finished a different master’s program with the intention of completing a PhD and going on to teach in a specific discipline. In all honesty, I chose librarianship because of its convenience, and chose to leave the program I was enrolled in to attend library school because I needed to move towards financial independence at a faster rate than I was currently. I needed something stable, and I needed something that would be more likely to land me an actual job.

I acted very quickly (deciding and then immediately applying in April, and receiving an acceptance letter a few weeks later for fall enrollment). As a consequence, I didn’t think too much about what it means to be a librarian, or the crises or growing pains that librarianship is experiencing as a profession. Maybe in the back of my mind I was aware of the clichés that librarianship was dying, but at the time, it seemed like a very good, practical career option; I knew there were still jobs out there. I believe that I made the right choice given my situation, because librarianship has provided me with a good, stable job and that was my top priority. I also happen to like what I do on a day-to-day basis, and when I tell others that I am a librarian, I say it with a sense of pride, because people respect and revere librarians. I simply have yet to figure out its significance for me as a profession – as a vocation or a calling. I am like Jason Bourne – I have an identity as a librarian, and I am trying to find out the truth about what that means. I don’t yet experience recollection in this role – it doesn’t feel familiar. It’s as if I have this new identity that comes with a past, a history, that is totally foreign to me.

I have faith that it will happen in time. In fact, I don’t think that attaining a sense of professional identity has to happen before one actually enters the profession and develops as a professional. That is because there are all sorts of factors we can’t predict before starting a career, and we can never really know what a particular career is like until we actually gain experience in it. Library school doesn’t teach you what librarianship is really like, only skills and some theory to help you work through or think about particular issues. Library school doesn’t take you to the essence, or the heart, of what it means to be a librarian. Library school doesn’t make you ask those important questions about professional identity. Now, library schools are becoming even more far-removed from actual libraries, becoming Schools of Information Science (including my alma mater). Does this mean they don’t even care about the physical spaces and services of actual libraries anymore? You can read more about that in Scott Walter and Carol Tilley’s College & Research Libraries editorial.

In response to my doubts and questions, Patty didn’t really have clear-cut answers for me, because I do not think there are clear-cut answers to such doubts. Those doubts are very real, and very personal. However, she did help me come to some realizations. She helped me to realize that it is okay to have doubts, that it is pretty normal at this point in my career – that is pretty normal for librarians in general – that I am not alone. She helped me understand that it is okay for me not to have a strong sense of professional identity right away, because that is something that I can develop over time, as I become more confident in the services that I provide, as I innovate more, and as I realize that my services are indispensable and beneficial to a large number of people. I can forge a path and make this profession my own. I know that this is possible because Patty, and many others, model it for me. I will simply develop my professional identity after-the-fact.

I once had a mentor who told me, “I want to help you become who you are.” I may not have been born a librarian; this hasn’t always been who I am, and I don’t quite yet own this identity. I have the potential to become who I am, though, and I am committed to this process. It may take patience. I’m not sure yet how it will happen. I just have to keep plowing forward, with openness to change, the willingness to innovate and create, and a lot of dedication to discovering out exactly what this means for my life, in this particular geographic location, and how I fit into the bigger picture of the profession. As I chase after this identity, this identity may actually chase after me too, and I’m sure there will be plenty of people, like Patty, to provide clues along the way.

The Slow Gradual Veer to Academic Librarianship

Check out our post on HLS today too! Jen Jarson, ACRLog blogger, reflects on the importance of place and work environment in “Room to Grow?” See more information about the HLS/ ACRLog collaboration here

Hailley Fargo is a second year masters student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When she’s not in school, Hailley is an avid oatmeal connoisseur, baseball scorekeeper, bike rider, and reader of memoirs. She also likes to live tweet every once and a while (check out @hailthefargoats). Hailley was asked to write about why she’s interested in academic librarianship.

When I decided to come to graduate school, my heart was not set on academic librarianship. After working summers with children at my hometown public library and then working with all sorts of people at New York Public Library as a community outreach intern, I figured my place was with the communities at your local public library. I came into my graduate program dead set on children and youth services. The classes I first took at the University of Illinois pushed me away from that end-all-be-all focus and I ended up in the world of community informatics, digital literacy, and public libraries.

My second year in graduate school provided two opportunities that helped me to make the slow, gradual veer into academic librarianship. The first was my assistantship, as a library supervisor in our residence hall libraries. My job gives me the best of all library jobs – supervision, collection development, programming, and community building. I felt like I had finally plugged back into the college life – during my office hours I felt the energy of undergrads that I realized I missed when I entered graduate school. I was able to apply all my community engagement theories into actual lived experience and I found myself fully immersed. The job has given me challenges too, such as new projects for this spring and thinking through what undergraduates actually know about the library. What I love about this job is the daily work – there’s always something to do and I actually get to be out in the libraries, meeting students (and trying to relate to them), working with the clerks I supervise, and helping students and staff find information. It’s incredibly rewarding and I kept thinking to myself, “How can I stay in this sort of environment?”

The second opportunity was taking library instruction this fall. Our main lens to look into instruction was through academic librarianship. While the class was helpful in thinking through instruction to the elementary students I work with, reading books like Maria Accardi’s Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction and the collection of critical library instruction essays compiled by Emily Drabinski and company, got me thinking through what instruction for undergraduates might look like. My final instructional design project was focused on keyword searching for freshman and sophomores living in the residence halls my libraries are at. As I turned in my final PDF of the project I asked the same sort of question when I was in the residence hall libraries, “This is fun and challenging. How can I keep doing this?”      

To me, academic librarianship seems to be about balance as you attempt to put together an intricate puzzle. You are trying to serve so many different groups across the campus. From the bright-eyed freshman to senioritis seniors to student research rockstars and then a faculty with wide-ranging and diverse interests. Of course one can’t forget about all the other people with access to the library, such as staff, other members of the institution, and sometimes even the public. I get so excited about trying to help them all and finding ways to connect these groups, not only with each other, but with other aspects of campus. Academic librarianship seems to provide this unique community engagement opportunity because you have access to a community that (sometimes) lives very close and who have a constant need for information (two to four years of coursework). I see the chance to be the spokesperson, to engage outside the library walls to help faculty understand why library instruction is, and to remind students the library is an important presence to have (and to take advantage of). Perhaps I’m being a little too idealistic and ignoring the actual reality of academic libraries. However, based on my experience at the residence hall libraries, it’s possible, it just takes time and lots of relationship building.

I haven’t firmly settled on academic librarianship. But it’s calling to me. As I start my job search, I seem to more drawn to the job descriptions I’m seeing at colleges across the United States. Reading through those job descriptions are exciting and I’m going to apply to some of them. Two years ago, I would have never suspected that academic libraries would have been on my librarianship path. Now, I feel the opportunity is available to me and I feel my experiences this spring will help to decide what I decide to pursue next.  

Thank you to the ARCLog and Hack Library School for the opportunity to write this post.

Happy Holidays, and Thanks

With the calendar year winding down and the semester wrapped up, I wanted to take a quick moment on behalf of the ACRLog team to share our best wishes with you, our readers. Thanks for reading, commenting, tweeting, retweeting, and sharing our ACRLog posts this year. We hope everyone’s getting some time to rest and relax during the semester break. We’ve got big plans for next year here on ACRLog, so stay tuned. Happy Holidays!

Stating Your Case: The Annual Review

This year marks my first year as a professional librarian and, as such, January 2016 is the due date of my first full performance review packet. Librarians at my university are considered faculty and are on a continuing appointment track, which is similar to tenure but different in structure. While this is the first full performance review I’ve ever encountered as a librarian, it is *not* the first time I’ve had to do a performance review. I was reviewed countless times during my former career in the corporate sector, and the outcomes of these reviews helped determine whether I received a raise, promotion, or additional opportunities within the company. I’ve always felt moderately confident going into these previous performance reviews because their expectations were clearly delineated and set. There were clear rubrics that determined an average score from an above average score. But my upcoming performance review as a faculty member has my head spinning.

First, I should explain that my university bases librarian performance on whether or not we meet the ever-amorphous “excellence in librarianship” and “impact” benchmarks as opposed to metrics or other formulas. So what determines excellence in librarianship? You tell me. Please!

Many of my colleagues at other universities have clear cut standards to which they are evaluated: thirty percent of their time is dedicated to service, thirty percent is dedicated to teaching, and thirty percent is dedicated to research, and so on. However, my employer has not established a standard for “excellence in librarianship.” There is no definitive standard for delineating what excellence could be for a reference and instruction librarian versus what is deemed excellence for a technical services librarian, for example. Some may argue that the lack of clear standards is a huge check in the plus column for librarians. We aren’t relegated to metrics, and we can showcase our efforts and tell our stories any way we want (at least theoretically). While numeric formulas may seem confining or even archaic, I have discovered that articulating and justifying my intangible, behind-the-scenes efforts, in addition to my standard job responsibilities, is difficult. It’s up to the librarian to strategically align their performance with the mission and vision of both the library and the university, which is what we should be doing anyway, but this lack of explanation does tangle the process.

My full performance review will be a partial year review. When it is submitted, I will have been with my university for ten months. The first six months of this job were spent becoming acculturated to my first academic job at a large R1 university in a major metropolitan area. This entailed a lot of instruction shadowing, meeting with students and faculty, and traveling to the other academic centers where I was assigned as liaison. Listening and observing was a huge part of my day-to-day work life. I kept a daily log of my activities, and submitted monthly activity reports to my reporting officer. These meticulous notes show lots of progress, including relationship building with colleagues, faculty, students, and stakeholders at my institution. In other words, I may not have loads of fancy workshops and sexy publications under my belt – yet – but I have laid significant ground work for future projects and programs that will potentially have a large impact of my daily work. But how do I showcase these in an annual review under the banner of “excellence in librarianship”? Are these considered “soft skills” even though this is what it takes to make a real impact?

Here are a few thoughts I’m using to guide my writing. I do not presume a one-size fits-all approach, but merely offer suggestions:

1. Soft skills have serious value. In fact, I posit that instructional academic librarianship as a whole is moving toward a more backstage model. Meaning, we – especially new librarians – may not have loads of workshops, programs, or events on our year-end activities report, but we are constantly working on the more understated areas of librarianship, such as cultivating relationships with community stakeholders, for future benefit. Based on both mine and my colleagues’ experiences (both at my institution and outside of it), our roles are changing. We spend more time working with faculty and colleagues on large, months-and-years spanning projects that fall outside realm of a brief bullet point or narrative paragraph. Mention these long-term planning events and relationship building in your review packet. Don’t be reticent to sell your soft skills.

2. Connect your activities to the strategic mission and vision of your library and institution. Obviously this should be incorporated into both short-term and long-term goal planning, but it also needs to be explicitly stated, especially in a performance review dossier. For example, I know my reporting officer understands how I connect my goals to the mission and vision of the libraries and the unique needs of my liaison department, but does my Dean know that? Or the Provost? How can I make it clear to them?

3. Marketing, marketing, marketing. Does that word conjure four-letter imagery for you? I get it, I really do. There are power structures and privilege inherent in traditional corporate marketing practices. I also understand that, for many of us, the term connotes with other corporate lingo such as customer service, traffic forecast, year-end results. They word is faulty, but, quite frankly, it is important to harness its power for our own use as librarians. Subvert the traditional use, and harness its power to your advantage.

Think of it less as marketing, and more as conveying value: it is vital to convey our value to everyone – stakeholders, faulty, students, colleagues. And we convey this through marketing, whether we like it or not. The way you market yourself as a librarian could not be more important than during the full performance review. The action verbs you use to tell your story, the way your weave your story, how you present your reference/instruction/tutorial statistics (table, narrative, chart?), the structure of your reports – it’s all important. It makes you unique. I may be biased – my undergraduate degree is in marketing and I worked as a brand manager at an advertising agency prior to graduate school – but it’s important. Subvert and harness.

4. Clear and concise vs. verbose and extensive. I love a good, long narrative, but my full performance review is not the place to extol the minutiae of my daily activities. Rather, I choose to focus on an activity-impact model. I’m choosing a few points to tell my story. It’s the written equivalent of an elevator pitch: tell the story in two pages or less.

5. Get as much trusted and honest feedback as you feel comfortable with. I don’t trust a thing that I write until several trusted colleagues, mentors, or friends have proofread it.

Good luck and happy writing to every librarian writing their performance review in the throes of year-end chaos.

Achieving a work/Life balance: A little harder than it sounds

As December begins, my first semester as an academic librarian comes to an end. This fall semester, I was able to do instruction sessions, participate in a panel, collaborate with colleagues on projects, and gained experience with submitting proposals. Most importantly, I was able to do the thing that I love best–talk with students about their research topics, and help them brainstorm.

It has been a busy semester, with new experiences and meeting new people. Not only that, but I moved about 695 miles to begin a new job. I mentioned in my previous post that I am originally from Central Illinois. Making the move from Champaign to DC was stressful and went by quickly. Being an unfamiliar city, living with roommates for the first time, and commuting to work are just a couple of new things that I have experienced during my four (almost 5) months in DC.

For the first two months, I found myself very tired after every workday. It was a kind of tired that I had not expected. I had not gotten used to my sleeping schedule, but that changed after a couple of months on the job. I was used to my work schedule, and as I got to know the other librarians, I found myself myself struggling with keeping a work/life balance. I will admit, I had (and still do have) trouble adulting. As a recent graduate, I had had to deal with work/school/life balance. However, I will admit that I was not the greatest at keeping these things separate. I would take work home, I would take school to work and all the other combinations you could think of. By the end of each semester at school, I would find myself anxious about work piling up, and making plans to go home. This is something I went through and it is something that most of us (if not all) go through.

While I would rarely take work home (now that I am no longer a student), I would find myself thinking of an instruction class outline, proposal ideas, and other work related thoughts.

I felt guilty at times. Guilty because I did not check my work email during the weekend, guilty because I did not do the last thing on “my-to-do” list, and guilty because I left an hour earlier than I usually do from work.

However, it’s also important to be realistic. There will be times when you have to take work home. Submission deadlines and projects are things that may creep up on you and it will be necessary to work on them during the weekend.

So, what to do? Here are a couple of things that have worked for my work/life balance:

  1. Relax. It’s easy to sit in front of your laptop and stream Netflix for the next 5 hours (I am guilty of this), but having a nap or reading is a great way to relax and calm your mind.
  2. Take up a hobby. Those who know me know that I am not exactly the best cook (I know how to make some great guacamole though). I decided to try out a new recipe every week. It gives me the opportunity to get out of my room and experiment with different ingredients.
  3. Take care of your health. I had to remember that first and foremost, I had to look out for myself.

For me, it’s about loving yourself and drawing lines where there should be some. Thank you for reading and if you have any tips on maintaining a work/life balance, share them!