Finding Your Niche and Establishing Yourself in the Academy: What You Didn’t Learn in Graduate School

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Callie Wiygul, Social Work Librarian at the University of Southern California.

Seven months ago, I started a new job as a social work librarian in a city thousands of miles from home fresh out of graduate school. Since then, I’ve been trying to find my niche within my new (and MUCH larger) university and the wider community of academic librarians. I’ve also been working to turn my MLIS project to something that will establish me within the academy. During graduate school I worked in a public library, and before that I worked for nearly a decade in the corporate sector. This journey from the corporate to public to academic world has uniquely positioned me as a flexible communicator, perceptive learner, and ambitious librarian. But are these traits and my MLIS portfolio enough to establish me within the highly competitive and often individualistic world of academia?

For months (years!) of uncertainty, I have struggled to claim a place within the community of academic professionals. There is no set path to this goal. There’s not even a defined starting line, nor is there a finish line and Jumbotron to announce “You can stop running now, Callie, you’ve made it!” I have also learned that librarians must fight to convey our value to our institutions, subject faculty, and even students. Even more, I have learned that we also must convey our value to each other–our colleagues in librarianship. The struggle is real, y’all!

Publication, programming, service, leadership: all of these are common ways through which librarians establish themselves on campus and within the larger library community. But how do you become an established librarian before you have discovered your niche within the profession?

It’s not like there’s not enough for a first-year librarian to worry about already: burnout, imposter syndrome, and navigating the idiosyncratic politics within academia. This doesn’t include the challenges of serving as the liaison to a body of approximately 1,200 graduate students and 100 faculty at four academic centers in Southern California. But when I feel overwhelmed I try to remember that my incredibly successful colleagues were all new librarians once, too! Shocking, right?! It’s a borderline platitude, but this sentiment gets lost in the chaos that is venturing out and making a dent in the universe (just watched the new Steve Jobs biopic, sorry!). Instead of seeing barriers, I choose to view this experience as it is: a) my job, and b) a huge opportunity.

I am a big fan of asking questions and soliciting advice from veteran and rookie colleagues alike. I began venturing forth from my comfort zone on Day One and met with colleagues over lunch. I asked for feedback on my manuscript draft, posited questions about the underpinnings of reference and instruction programs at my institution, volunteered to join campus committees, and vetted ideas about programs and events to colleagues both within and outside of my liaison area.

Of course, none of this was carried out without anxiety! I’m almost always terrified when anyone—even closest friends and family—reads my words or hears my ideas. But this going-out-on-a-limb experience has unequivocally made me a better writer and thinker. Reaching out to fellow instruction librarians and asking them if I could observe their instruction sessions has introduced me to lesson plans and teaching styles that have definitely made me a better educator. I apply for (what seems like) countless leadership programs, calls for proposals, and grants because I am hungry to explore my interests in leadership, programming, and instruction not only to establish myself as a professional, but to become a better librarian as well. And, honestly, I’ve been turned down more times that I care to admit. But, hey…it’s par for the course in academia.

So how do I find a niche to call my own and the academic bona fides to give weight to my name? In everything I do, I consistently ask myself “Is this marketing tool/program idea/reference answer/FAQ submission helping people? Do I truly feel compelled to do it? Is it only because it is a hot topic on Twitter?” These questions often help me parse out the crucial from the superfluous. They also provide insight into potential career interests and goals.

It’s easy to fall down the proverbial rabbit hole of following others. So many librarians are superstars at what they do and have become “library famous” for their achievements. I’ve learned that as a new librarian, you can get caught in the vacuum of trying to follow every Twitter chat, read every article mentioned in said Twitter chat, while blogging about being a librarian, applying for grants, and developing new ideas. The Digital Age can be just as dizzying and disheartening as it can be nurturing and inspiring. Here is where I believe perspective can bring things into focus.

Instead of guiding my work with the intent on being a superstar, I guide my work by focusing on my growth as a librarian. I must find ways to design programs and ideas that will help faculty and students attain their research goals. At the same time, I must develop the confidence to create my own ideas and take advantage of my own abilities. That is MY goal. It has to be, because if my actions are simply founded on the desire to be library famous or earn the respect of the academy, they won’t be meaningful. I’d rather cultivate my niche and excel at it in a way that is both personally fulfilling and helpful to my students, colleagues, and university. Finding a niche and establishing myself won’t happen overnight, but it will if I stay focused on the bigger things and keep my fears and ego in check.

A Midwestern Girl in the Land of Politics

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Quetzalli Barrientos, Resident Librarian at American University.

American University History Photograph and Print Collection
Bender Library Under Construction, courtesy of the American University History Photograph and Print Collection

I have been at my new job for two and half months as the current Resident Librarian at American University (located in Washington, DC). My main job duties consist of reference and instruction, with the freedom to pursue some of my own interests. Like a lot of you might be thinking, what is a residency position? Is it like an internship? What exactly does it entail? I’ll admit that before getting this position, I was also not familiar with the term “residency.” However, I’m getting ahead of myself. I have to go back to before I got this position.

As I began my last semester of library school in the Spring of 2015, I began to apply to jobs. A lot of jobs. To say that the job-hunting process is stressful is an understatement. While I was focusing on mostly reference and instruction positions in academic libraries, I also applied to outreach and community engagement positions. As anyone who has been on the library job-hunt (or starting) can tell you, the job description and requirements are a very important part. While applying, I saw a fair share of job descriptions. A lot of them were detailed and gave the applicant a good sense of what the job entailed…and there were some job descriptions that had three or four sentences.

One particular job announcement caught my eye. The position was for a Resident Librarian for American University in Washington, DC. By that time, I had been applying to jobs for about three months and this was the first time I had encountered a “residency” position. I’ll admit that I was a bit confused about the term “residency,”- but I am glad to say that the job description answered my questions. “American University Library invites early-career librarians to apply for its Resident Librarian Program. The program is a fixed-term appointment of three years and designed to provide an immersion into academic librarianship.”

As I read through the job posting, I saw that the responsibilities would include reference and instruction, just what I wanted! I quickly applied and waited. As you may now have realized, I got the job. However, I want to go more in depth about the residency position, its structure, and its place in the library.

My residency position is part of the Diversity Alliance Institute. The purpose of the program is to bring diverse set of entry-level librarians into academic librarianship. The Diversity Alliance has partnered with the University of Iowa, West Virginia University, and Virginia Tech (and obviously American University). By having the resident librarians immersed in academic librarianship, they are given the opportunity to explore their interests.

Recently, all the residents involved in the Diversity Alliance Program gathered at the campus of West Virginia University. I had the pleasure of meeting the other residents, their supervisors, and the people who made this event possible. This conference was meant to do a couple of things. First, it was meant for the residents to meet the people who came together to make the Diversity Institute possible. Second, it was meant for everyone, but especially the residents to network and interact with people from the various universities in attendance. Third, and this the most important in my opinion, is for the residents to meet each other and be able to exchange ideas and collaborate.

Having met the people who are in the same position, I feel like I am not alone. I was also able to get to know them, their backgrounds, what their interests are, and how their residencies are shaped and organized.

A little bit about my position. I am part of American University Library’s Research, Teaching, and Learning (RTL) Division. As a member of this division, I do reference at our Research Desk and help students, faculty, and staff with their research needs. I also do instruction for the College Writing Program at AU. This consists of communicating and reaching out to faculty members who teach these classes and organizing and planning a library instruction session for their class. I also have the opportunity to get involved in projects that reflect my interest. I participate in social media and marketing within the RTL Division and the AU Library.

Like some of the other residents, my job will have a “rotation” aspect to it. What does this mean? This means that I will be rotating around departments within the library. However, while I am doing the project or tasks within a certain department as part of the rotation, I still have my duties to reference, instruction, and anything else I might be involved with.

As I was talking to the rest of the residents, I was interested to see how their residency had been organized. For example, Virginia Tech University has their residency broken down by year.

“In the first year, the Resident will serve in three or four functional areas, determined mutually by the Resident’s interests and the needs of the Libraries.”

“In the second year, the resident will begin to specialize by contributing to one or two functional areas of his or her choosing, in consultation with the Library’s Resident Program Coordinator and directors in charge of the functional areas. The resident will then begin to formulate the basis for a capstone project.”

Among the choices were Learning Division, Data Curation, Assessment, and Scholarly Communications, to name a few.

“In the optional third and final year, the Resident will continue to specialize and will complete a capstone project, preferably suitable for publication, which incorporates the expertise and perspectives gained during the residency.”

I have recently started a project with Technical Services at the AU Library, but it feels good to have a home in the Research, Teaching, and Learning Division. Throughout my time as a blogger for ACRLog, I will be writing a bit about my residency job, adventures, and other cool things that might pop up. Most importantly, I want to hear from you and I look forward to getting to know you!

Versus / and / or: The relationship between information literacy and digital literacy

For years now, I’ve been working to both simplify and deepen how I think and talk about information literacy. These goals may perhaps seem at odds, but they feel rather complementary to me. Essentially, I’m trying to hone my ideas, language, and examples so that information literacy is both accessible and meaningful to my audience. I want them to recognize information literacy as something in which they are also (already) invested, as something that they also value and seek.

When I look back at that first sentence and see “for years now,” it gives me pause. Really?! It’s taken me years? Well, it’s not so surprising really. There’s always room for improvement, of course, but in part it’s that my own understanding of and work on information literacy is always growing and evolving. As is my understanding of my audience, too.

Recently, I’ve been trying to think more about digital literacy and its relationship to information literacy. Across higher education, momentum for digital learning continues to increase. My institution is no exception.

In a recently “expanded” definition, ACRL describes information literacy as: “the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.” While the tone of ACRL’s earlier definition (the “set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information’”) tended to be more procedural and mechanistic, both definitions highlight the critical thinking integral to the consumption and production of information.

So what is digital literacy then? In his book, published almost 20 years ago, Paul Gilster describes it as “the ability to understand and use information in multiple formats from a wide range of sources when it is presented via computers.” For Gilster, the “most essential of the [core competencies of digital literacy] is the ability to make informed judgments about what you find on-line.” As part of “this art of critical thinking,” Gilster also includes among these core competencies reading skills, “assembling knowledge” from “diverse sources,” and search skills. For Gilster, digital literacy is essentially “literacy for the internet age.”

More recent definitions continue in the same expansive vein. ALA’s Digital Literacy Task Force describes digital literacy as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, understand, evaluate, create, and communicate digital information, an ability that requires both cognitive and technical skills.” Cornell University explains it as “the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.” UK non-profit JISC defines digital literacy as “those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society. Digital literacy looks beyond functional IT skills to describe a richer set of digital behaviours, practices and identities. What it means to be digitally literate changes over time and across contexts, so digital literacies are essentially a set of academic and professional situated practices supported by diverse and changing technologies.”

Digital literacy is sometimes coupled with media literacy, as in Renee Hobbs’ Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan for Action: “the term ‘digital and media literacy’ is used to encompass the full range of cognitive, emotional and social competencies that includes the use of texts, tools and technologies; the skills of critical thinking and analysis; the practice of message composition and creativity; the ability to engage in reflection and ethical thinking; as well as active participation through teamwork and collaboration.” The Journal of Digital and Media Literacy states that “broadly defined, digital and media literacy refer to the ability to access, share, analyze, create, reflect upon, and act with media and digital information.”

I could keep going. Variations abound, but their essence stays constant. Digital literacy is not a checklist of skills. It’s far more than knowing how to operate a computer or a particular application. Instead it’s about critical thinking and reflection, social and cultural contexts, and identity. Rather familiar territory, no? So is digital literacy just information literacy in a digital only environment? Most definitions seem to at least acknowledge their connection. In library-centric spheres, information literacy tends to be presented as the larger category of which digital literacy is a part. But the reverse seems to be the case in other realms.

Why does this matter? I’ve written before that librarians are translators and that our “unique position affords us opportunities to reach across divides of perspectives, stakeholders, and disciplines.” I’ve also written before about honing how we both communicate and listen in order to connect, find common ground, and seize opportunities. So when I wonder if digital literacy is just information literacy in a digital only environment, I do not mean to diminish or disparage. Instead, I seek to highlight points of intersection, alignment, and overlap. If we’re not talking about precisely the same thing, we’re certainly on the same page. I think it will serve us all well to recognize the difference in our language, but the similarity in and continuity of our teaching and learning goals.

What’s your take? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Being “Human” In the Classroom: A Case for Personal Testimony in Pedagogy

I’m three months into my first year as an academic librarian and it has been a whirlwind. Conversations with many of my LIS friends confirm that the transition to professional librarianship presents invigorating ups as well as exhausting downs. Something I have been trying to focus on is embracing the ups and moving quickly and gracefully past the downs (with a little reflection). In the spirit of trying to get better at this, I’d like to share the best “up” I’ve found in my short three months as an Information Literacy Librarian.

If you have the opportunity, use your personal experience in the classroom. I know that this is incredibly scary. Being vulnerable as a (new!) instructor is terrifying. Further, balancing vulnerability with expertise can sometimes be a challenge. Yet, Maria Accardi recently gave a brilliant keynote on library burnout in which she held, “I think to truly see each other, to respect and care for the souls of students, means aligning the emotionally vulnerable parts of your self to the corresponding parts of the student” (p. 13). Moments of vulnerability in the classroom, while intimidating, can foster unbelievably rich and meaningful dialogue. I’ve even had students approach me after class to ask me about a specific part of the testimony I shared, which can lead to subsequent conversations about their own research. I’m still struggling to figure out exactly why this happens, but a recent Twitter conversation sparked some ideas:

sharing experience tweet

why does it work tweet

april's response- connects learning to experience

I so appreciate April’s observation that it creates a stronger connection between experience and learning. Accardi adds that students are whole people in the classroom and that they “bring with them all of the things that make them human—their stories, their beliefs, their filters, their talents, their challenges, their emotional baggage, everything” (p. 12). Why can’t librarians be whole people too? Why can’t we bring the same baggage into the classroom? And doesn’t being “whole” make us more approachable? Doesn’t it make research more approachable?

I believe that it does. So how does one even start to integrate more personal experience into their teaching? Many of the tactics I have tried stem from an intensive research project I’m currently doing. I’m completing my first peer-reviewed article for In the Library with the Leadpipe and I have found that this provides rich testimony for many different research issues.

For example, I recently asked students to articulate what their research process looks like. They spent a few minutes drawing their process, from the time a research project is assigned to the time that they turn it in. We then tried to combine their ideas into one complex research process on the board. I was currently going through my own research process and I used this opportunity to challenge them with trials I had faced. I asked the students questions like “but what happens if you’re tracking down citations and you suddenly realize someone has already written the paper you’re writing?” and “how is research continually part of the writing process?,” often providing tangible examples from my article along the way. Before we knew it, the board was covered in arrows, illustrating the iteration necessary to do quality research. After the class, the professor came to my office to thank me. She said that she thought that the activity might have been the first time her students have had to articulate exactly what their process looks like. She said that she thought it would definitely help the students be more thoughtful researchers. I also believe that it made iteration and revision “okay” and maybe even reduced some library anxiety.

research process

My sample research process that I use as a starting point for this activity (adapted from NCSU’s “Picking Your Topic IS Research” video)

I have also used my experience with Leadpipe to facilitate conversations about how peer review works, blind vs. open and more collaborative forms of peer review, and the time it takes to complete vetting processes. This often sparks a more thoughtful and nuanced conversation about the pros and cons of peer review, which moves students away from peer-reviewed-equals-good-and-popular-sources-equals-bad conversation.

I have also plugged our citation management system, Zotero, in these conversations. I have a single-spaced twenty-five page document of notes and draft citations for my article (no, this is, unfortunately, not a joke). I might risk compromising my “expertise” with students by sharing this fact and letting them know that I wish I would have used Zotero at the beginning of my project. Again, it is definitely nerve-wracking to be vulnerable in this moment. But I think it makes me more human and illustrates to students that research is a continual learning process, even for librarians.

Sharing your experience can be as simple as sharing tidbits about how you approach research. How do you figure out what the scholarly conversation is? What tools do you use to start your research? Do these change after you know the important scholars or disciplines for your topic? For example, I often share that one of my favorite ways of entering the scholarly conversation is by reading more about my general topic area and then finding claims I’d like to challenge or push back on and doing citation tracking from there. You can even reflect on the research you did in undergrad or graduate school. How did you use class readings to guide your thesis development? How did you organize your research? The point is not to show that you’re perfect. The point is to show that imperfect research can be successful too and that librarians can help guide students through this process because we’ve been there.

This work is not always easy. I have definitely noticed that sharing personal experience in the classroom can be harder or easier because of class dynamics, faculty involvement, or even student level. The reality is that it is difficult to build trust in the classroom when sometimes the space doesn’t even feel like your own. I hope to continue to brainstorm how sharing personal experience can go beyond the one-shot session. For example, I am currently thinking through how I might use some of this testimony in my research consultations with students.

How do you incorporate your personal experience into your teaching?

What Happens in Vegas… How My Location (and all the Vegas Truisms) Impact My Job

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Heidi Johnson, Social Sciences Librarian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Photograph of gamblers at a craps table in the El Rancho Vegas (Las Vegas), 1950s, courtesy of UNLV Libraries Digital Collections.

When I first accepted my position as Social Sciences Librarian at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I thought to myself, “How cool is this. I will be living in the ‘entertainment capital of the world,’ which also happens to be a beautiful desert surrounded by mountains.” I looked forward to living somewhere, well, really ‘interesting,’ to put it in the most generic yet suitable of terms.

Other than imagining potential weekend excursions hiking or camping, or taking advantage of some of the many cheap buffets in the city, (which aren’t so cheap anymore, by the way) and, ok, maybe trying a slot machine so I could say I’ve gambled once in my life, I didn’t really think much about how the physical location might affect me in my new situation. To me, considerations about the community were for community engagement and outreach librarians or public librarians, and maybe – at least in Vegas – special collections librarians.

Rather than thinking of the community, I was focused on academics. To me, academic environments were sheltered environments. I imagined the students that I would work with would be defined primarily by the nature and content of their studies rather than their backgrounds. Their backgrounds – which, in my mind, meant their upbringings and culture experienced within nuclear families – I assumed, would be of little concern to me, as my job was to support their academic work.

Once I started my job, I quickly discovered that these views and assumptions were wrong. To understand the academics at UNLV, it is also necessary to understand the community. UNLV is a microcosm that reflects the geography, economy, culture, and politics of the larger locale of Vegas. In fact, one cannot understand the academic environment at UNLV without having at least a basic understanding of the community.

So how does ‘Sin City’ impact, infuse, and invigorate UNLV? There are so many ways… For one, the student body is largely made-up of first generation students from underrepresented populations. Recently ranked 2nd most diverse campus in the nation by US News & World Report, UNLV is a designated Minority Serving Institution (MSI), with over half of the student population reporting being part of a racial or ethnic minority. Hispanic students make up the largest minority group, and UNLV also has a designation as an Asian American, Native American, and Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI). Different groups from neighboring states, the Midwest, and Asia and Latin America have migrated to Nevada for the cheap housing and job and business opportunities. In fact, between 2000 and 2007, the state of Nevada grew by 28.4 percent – making Nevada the fastest growing state.[i] Religious groups also have a presence in Sin City; 77 percent of Las Vegas residents say they are religious. And of course, yes, there is also plenty of secularism in Vegas. Fact: In 2010, the United Church of Bacon (UBC) was founded here. (UBC would be the least of Sin City’s concerns about secularism, I suppose, although this atheist group with legal standing as a church has demanded to be taken seriously.)

The Las Vegas community has needs that UNLV is oftentimes able to meet. For instance, there is a shortage of doctors in the Las Vegas valley and in Nevada, and now UNLV is building a medical school. Professors and students also use their expertise to address issues that arise within the community. For example, UNLV Engineering professors and students 3D-printed a prosthetic hand for a 4-year-old child in the community who was born with a rare birth defect.

The academic programs and research interests of faculty and students also reflect this cultural and ethnic diversity, as well as many other aspects that characterize this urban environment and the wider region/state. I have worked with the class of a Sociology professor who studies legal prostitution in Nevada. This work is significant and fills a gap in societal knowledge and values; the book that she co-authored, The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex, and Sin in the New American Heartland, might even have the effect of restoring dignity to sex work and fighting stigma, while at the same time examining problems within the system. While not solely about Las Vegas – prostitution is illegal in Las Vegas itself – the book demonstrates how place impacts the social phenomena that scholars study. The brothels have been in Nevada since the mid to late 1800s,[ii] but it is likely the political and cultural climate in the state that has guaranteed their legality and longevity until today. After all, “Nevada built a tourist industry on turning deviance into leisure.”[iii]

Tourism isn’t just a topic of study in Sociology. People come here to learn how to work in the tourist industry, too. UNLV has a hotel college – the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration – and a hospitality liaison librarian. Yes, people do come here to study gaming; there is even a Center for Gaming Research with a collection of historic books about gaming. We even have an antique slot machine up in Special Collections.

In all of my many experiences as a student at five different academic institutions (it’s been a long journey), I have never encountered a situation where the school has had such close ties to the community. It makes sense, given that it is, after all, Vegas we’re talking about here. Yet, my time here so far has allowed me to reflect on these experiences, and on the backgrounds of the students at my former institutions, more carefully. As an undergraduate at North Park University in Chicago – which is the only school affiliated with the Swedish-American Evangelical Covenant Church – I, by and large, was surrounded by people who looked a lot like me – blue eyes, blondish hair – with Swedish or Scandinavian ancestry, who had similar religious upbringings in middle class families. The school offered a major in Scandinavian studies and a study-abroad experience in Sweden, and the library’s holdings and archives also reflected this heritage. As for the religious heritage, all full time professors were required to sign a statement of faith and incorporate their Christian beliefs into their teaching in some way. But being in the city, in one of the most diverse neighborhoods at that, there were many commuter students from various other ethnic and religious backgrounds. Their perspectives certainly mixed things up a bit at this predominantly white, evangelical Christian university that also took pride in its urban setting.

Another of my alma maters, University of Illinois, is defined by its student population, with many students from Chicago and many international students. And students I met at the European Graduate School were from all over the world – many different continents – which was definitely reflected in their unique perspectives. Finally, the academics at Loyola University Chicago, a Jesuit school where I studied philosophy, were also impacted by the type of community that it was. Social justice was emphasized at the school in general, and Continental (European, as opposed to Anglo-American) philosophy was a major focus of the philosophy program, in large part, I think, because it was a Catholic school. At all of these institutions, my academic trajectory (and personal journey) was largely determined by the history, geography, beliefs and values, and politics and culture of the schools.

Now as I move forward in my new job, I can be more aware of the differences among students, and why they think certain ways or have certain beliefs, values, or skill sets. I can be more aware of the reasons why professors and students choose certain topics to research and not others. Not only that – not only does this knowledge help me understand difference – it can also help be a more sensitive and empathetic librarian and teacher knowing that all of my students, and professors with whom I liaise, come from a place – a rich, complex background that has informed and, ultimately, shaped them to be who they are today.

Place matters. Vegas matters. To this job, to me, to the UNLV community.

[i] See p. 3 and Note 8, p. 245. Brents, B. G., Jackson, C. A., & Hausbeck, K. (2010). The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex, and Sin in the New American Heartland. New York, NY: Routledge.

[ii] See p. 6, Brents, Jackson, and Hausbeck.

[iii] Ibid, p. 2.