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.

Academic Libraries and the Adjunct Crisis

The large and growing number of faculty members working off the tenure track at U.S. colleges and universities has been well-documented. Recent years have seen frequent articles in the higher ed media including the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, as well as major media outlets like the New York Times. You may have read anthropologist and writer Sarah Kendzior‘s 2012 article about contingent faculty in Al Jazeera, or any of the blog posts by adjunct writing instructor Lee Skallerup Bessette at Inside Higher Ed, just to name a few of the many articles addressing what’s become known as the adjunct crisis.

As an academic librarian on the tenure track I’ve often found myself thinking on how the rise in adjunct faculty affects academic libraries. The ACRLog blog team has written about this issue in the past, though since the percentage of adjunct faculty has only continued to climb — up to 76% by 2011, according to the American Association of University Professors — the issue remains highly relevant to all in higher education. While hiring adjunct or part-time librarians obviously impacts academic libraries, I’d like to think here on the effects on academic libraries of increasing numbers of adjunct faculty in departments outside the library.

Working conditions for contingent faculty make participating fully in the campus community a challenge. Adjunct faculty may not have office space which, in addition to their potentially complicated schedules because of a need to teach at several different institutions, can mean that adjunct faculty don’t spend much time on campus outside of the classes they teach. Many adjunct faculty have multiple email accounts which may hinder our ability to connect with them if we don’t know which address they check most frequently. While some adjunct faculty return to teach the same courses in the same department over multiple semesters, many do not. At my institution new adjunct faculty are invited to attend an orientation to the college, though time pressures may make it difficult for them to do so. Staying in touch with adjuncts between semesters to keep them in the loop about library collections, services, and resources can be challenging.

As academic librarians we strive to provide access to collections that are most relevant for the disciplines and subjects taught and researched at our institutions. But while adjunct faculty may be teaching a majority of the courses in a department or subject, it can be difficult to involve them in acquisition decisions. Scheduling workshops and meetings at times when adjunct faculty are available may not be possible. At my college adjunct faculty often teach on evenings and weekends, when our full-time library faculty are less available. And though we do offer library workshops in the evenings occasionally, many adjuncts may not be able to attend them (or other faculty development programs) since to do so represents an investment of their own (often uncompensated) time.

The work we do with students can also be affected by whether their professors are full-time or adjunct. Difficulties getting in touch can hinder our ability to consult with adjunct faculty about their students’ research assignments before they come for library instruction. Some adjunct faculty may be unfamiliar with the collections and resources at our library, and may create assignments for students that are a mismatch with what we have to offer. Depending on their backgrounds and familiarity with the institution and the library, adjunct faculty may not realize that librarians are partners in information literacy and can offer research and library instruction. More than once I’ve heard from adjunct faculty members that they never knew that we provide research instruction for all subjects and disciplines at the college, not just English composition.

What actions can we as academic librarians take? We can stay informed about the challenges adjuncts face, and learn more about increasing adjunct activism, including the New Faculty Majority, an adjunct advocacy group. If we work in an institution with a union, we can advocate for health insurance and other benefits for contingent faculty members. Within the library there are small actions we can take as well. We can make a special effort to reach out to adjuncts with information about the library and, if budgets allow, consider offering a stipend to adjunct faculty to attend workshops, meetings, or other programs in the library. I’m sure there are other ways to partner and advocate with adjunct faculty members — I’d be interested to hear about what academic librarians are doing.

Experiences in Collaboration

In seventh grade, my English teacher required us to read a book each month and write a report on it. Naturally, there was an approved list of titles one could choose from, and on it were the works of Agatha Christie. My suspicion is that I’d seen one of the Poirot episodes on A&E and that piqued my interest in reading the works of Christie. Her Poirot novels I read in seventh grade were my entree into the detective novel genre – one that I enjoy to the present day.

It’s a love I share with my wife and Saint Bernard, as many evenings find us at home crammed on the couch watching one or another episode of a detective show. Poirot, Sherlock (both the Cumberbatch and Jeremy Brett incarnations), and Nero Wolfe are among our favorites. Recently, however, our show of preference has been Foyle’s War, set in World War II Great Britain. Many elements make this a great program – Michael Kitchen’s acting is excellent and the intro theme is lovely – but most interesting is the collaboration between Foyle (Michael Kitchen), his driver Sam Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) and his Sergeant, Paul Milner (Anthony Howell). While Foyle is, in typical detective genre style, the “brain” behind it all, he would not be as successful without Sam and Sgt. Milner.

It was this collaboration that set my mind to thinking about collaboration for those of us that don’t investigate murders and jewel thefts, but instead work together to give access to the information held by our respective institutions. As a first-year academic librarian I’ve found collaboration both in and out of the library to be invaluable. It occurs to me that my posts here have touched on this but I’ve never really talked about the value of collaboration to me as a “first year.”

In my previous position, I worked closely and collaborated with the librarians who are now my colleagues here at the University of Arkansas. At a fundamental level, working well with others gives you a good reputation in the library community, both locally and globally. If that collaboration had not existed and been a positive one I would more than likely not have been selected for the position I am in now.

That is, admittedly, a selfish way to think about collaboration – and as members of the academy, we strive for service to that academy, as well as our respective disciplines. Most of that work is carried out in committees – to my mind a formalized collaboration. And as it’s something many of you have had experience with I will not spend any more time writing about committees. No, what I have in mind are the less formal collaborations one participates in.

For me these informal collaborations make my work richer in two very tangible ways. First, with a fellow cataloger here as well as a library specialist, I wrote an article currently under review at Cataloging & Classification Quarterly. The article details our method for handling electronic theses and dissertations, and is much richer with their contributions and ideas. Also, I don’t know if I could have written the article without their help and prodding! Second, in collaboration with Sarah Burke Cahalan of Dumbarton Oaks, I am presenting at the RBMS preconference in Las Vegas about an under researched scientific illustrator who spent most of his career in the Ozarks. This presentation and research would not have been possible without Sarah’s work with the artist’s family and her work with institutions in her area that hold work by this artist. I am immensely grateful for her work in making our research about the artist far better than that which I could have done on my own. As an aside, I will also say that our library administration really appreciates these collaborations – especially with other outside institutions.

So these collaborations are indeed valuable and helpful to the first-year librarian. What can you do to facilitate these collaborations? First, listen. Listen to the research interests and areas of your colleagues – academics love nothing better than to talk about their own research. Second, reach out. I never would have met Sarah if it weren’t for twitter. It’s important to have an active professional presence in whatever social media arena you feel comfortable in. Third, don’t be afraid of asking – the worst that could happen is that a potential collaborator could say no.

Finally, my charge to you is to start some form of collaboration next week. Identify and have lunch with a faculty member on campus about a shared research interest. Reach out to your “research hero” at another institution about that great idea you’ve had. But most of all, do it all with an upbeat attitude and a kind smile on your face!

Embedding, Flipping, and More at LOEX 2014

I was fortunate to be able to attend the LOEX Conference this year, which took place May 8-10 in Grand Rapids, MI. I have only ever heard great things about this conference, and accordingly, I had a great experience.

This was my first time attending the LOEX Conference and I only became aware of it recently (within the past year). Many readers here will likely be familiar with LOEX, but for those who aren’t, LOEX stands for Library Orientation Exchange and it is a “self-supporting, non-profit educational clearinghouse for library instruction and information literacy information.” The annual conference has earned a reputation for being particularly relevant and exciting for instruction and information literacy librarians, as attested by the many people I met who were either multiple-time attendees, or thrilled to finally get to go to the conference.

I went into the conference with high expectations, which were met and exceeded. The two days were full of presentations and workshops that are extremely relevant to my work, and with ideas I can incorporate by making small changes. I love coming away with new ideas that are practical, so I can actually implement them myself. Here are some things that the LOEX Conference got me thinking about:

Embedding

A few presentations focused on embedded librarianship in one way or another. “Embedded” often refers to being embedded in an online course, but these conversations also brought up ways to extend the library’s presence beyond the one-shot, without necessarily being embedded online. For example, librarians can collaborate with faculty to redesign a course or a central assignment. That sounds like it can be a huge task (to me, at least), but some possibilities for integrating information literacy outside of the one-shot could be having students do a reflection paper about their research process, introducing concept mapping to develop literature reviews, or discussing with faculty how information literacy fits in with their own disciplinary content and pedagogical goals.

Another opportunity to be more embedded comes as a solution to a common problem – when you receive a request for instruction at the very beginning of the semester, clearly not at the point-of-need. Of course, try to schedule the instruction session at a time when students will benefit more from the information, but you could also visit the classroom at the initial request for a short 5-10 minute introduction of yourself and the library. This would increase students’ familiarity with a librarian and allow you to build a relationship with students prior to the one-shot session, an important connection which I think can go a long way. If the initial classroom visit gets too time-intensive, it could be replaced by a re-usable introduction video.

Flipping

During the interactive session on the flipped classroom, my group ended up talking about student buy-in and accountability: what do you do when students come to class having not done the pre-assignment or reading? One answer is to plan ahead with faculty so that the pre-assignment can be added to their syllabus, thus adding more accountability. My first reaction to this idea was that there is no way I can have instruction sessions planned out far enough in advance to be added to a syllabus. However, I now think this could take the form of a more general statement, for example:  “At least one class session will be led by a librarian to introduce you to library resources and assist with research skills. This may require a pre-assignment.” This leads to another point that the presenters stressed as important for a successful flipped classroom: identifying faculty who will be supportive. It’s less likely that students will see value where their instructor doesn’t.

That session also served as a great reminder for me that flipping the class should not be an opportunity to cram in more information, but an opportunity to cover a topic more in depth through the use of a pre-assignment and in-class active learning. I realized that the one time I somewhat-flipped the classroom, it was because I didn’t have time to cover everything I wanted to. I sent a video tutorial for them to watch ahead of time, and it was just an add-on, rather than an enhancement.

And More

These are really just a few things that I came away with after LOEX, and it’s already my longest post here yet. Some other useful ideas I picked up had to do with active learning assessment, design recommendations for online tutorials, and reflecting on and improving teaching strategies.

I constantly had a tough time deciding which session to attend, because they all looked good. By scrolling through the conference hashtag (#loex2014) on Twitter, I could tell that was the case. One thing I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed the interactive sessions. Although I didn’t think I would want to interact very much, I ended up loving how they facilitated conversation and sharing of ideas with new people.

It was great to attend a conference for academic librarians that was so focused on instruction and information literacy, and I definitely hope to go to the LOEX Conference again sometime.

From Public to Academic: Reflections on a Transition

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Raymond Pun, Research and Reference Services Librarian at New York University, Shanghai, China. Tweet him anything @oboro85 (yes, he can tweet in China!).

As this spring semester is coming to an end, I finally have the opportunity to reflect on my first year working as an academic librarian. This is a unique position, because I also work abroad: New York University Shanghai, a portal campus that is affiliated with New York University. I joined the team on September 2013 and started working in Shanghai on November 2013.

raypun

In the past I worked as a librarian in a public library for three years: The New York Public Library: Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. I worked in NYPL for a total of six years or so. It seems very fitting for me to write about my transition from public to academic in this post.

For the most part, I see some very strong connections in terms of similar service philosophies and standards, yet I also see the contrast of the work cultures and expectations. But it’s also true that I worked in two very uniquely situated institutions: a major public research library and a new academic university in China. It isn’t like I am comparing a branch library experience to a state university library one. However, I do want to share some of these insights despite the unique arrangements, to see how both worlds share a deeper affinity than they think.

During the interview process for my current academic position, I was asked about my background as a public librarian and how that background can translate into academic librarianship. It would be very difficult for someone to explain why he/she decided to move into academic librarianship if he/she had only been involved in the public library world. But then again, why apply for an academic library position?

In my case, I argued that I was very active in professional associations such as ALA, ACRL, ACRL-NYC, and I frequently wrote and presented my research. I provided reference services to scholars, students, grad students, and anyone working on a research project in NYPL. I’ve worked with Pulitzer Prize winners, MacArthur Geniuses, HBO documentary filmmakers, New York Times journalists, U.N ambassadors, New Yorker writers, curators from the Huntington Library in California to the American Finance Museum in New York, and of course, undergraduates. I’ve had the opportunity to “embed” myself in academic courses as well, specifically in St. John’s University’s history departments, working along with Dr. Elaine Carey on various grant-funded projects on historical research for undergraduates.

So I felt comfortable with my experiences in NYPL to work in an academic library. However, I soon discovered that there are still many new things to learn once I got into the academic world. But after a while, it wasn’t all that difficult since my public library background did prepare me for this transition too.

First, the patron: the patron comes first. Of course, you want to show the patron how to find the items by him/herself so any teachable moment is an opportunity for any librarian to seize. NYPL and NYU definitely encouraged this behavior. Also if an item is not available, always offer alternative resources or suggestions. I learned that at NYPL: use ILL, METRO passes or any kind of open access resource that can substitute the item for the patron if possible. And finally, follow ups, which are nice either in person or by email. Public or academic patrons love librarians that care about their research progress. This is a sure way to develop rapport with the patron. From an academic side, this person may come back to use the library and may want to ask the librarian to teach their class. For the public side, this person may come back and also write an advocacy letter on behalf of the library when it goes through major budget cuts.

Second, service goals and committees: I think it largely depends on where you work and have worked. I see that my current institution fosters and emphasizes service and personal goals, which can be very useful to measure your progress and development. In the public library world, I had informal conversations about my projects and goals but never anything official. It was different there: I still accomplished a lot as a public librarian but I wasn’t being evaluated based on these service goals, and I was self-motivated to achieve them as well. As for committees, I served and am serving on various committees and I enjoy committee work because it lets me work with new people to collaborate and come up with creative or innovative solutions. Both emphasized collaboration and teamwork to support the library in various ways.

Third, schedules: this is obvious. Academic librarians will have busy moments during the semester such as midterm and finals week but they also have downtime or periods of recess where there are no students or faculty around. Unfortunately public librarians don’t have that luxury and every day is busy but different. For me, sometimes I like that rushed feeling where there’s always something to work on and something new to try, but now I also enjoy these periodic breaks: spring, winter, and summer breaks where I get to plan, reflect and think about new projects, ideas or solutions to work on. I get a chance to utilize that other side of my brain to think of better ways to improve user experiences. In the public library, I had to think on my feet and if there were opportunities for service changes, I reported them right away. There was not as much time to really reflect.

Forth, community partnerships: public libraries are engaged with their communities for the most part. I think academic libraries have the potential to partner with their communities outside the institution and I know some are already doing that. For obvious reasons, the public library needs to foster these community partnerships with schools, prisons, senior centers, etc., but academic libraries don’t really need to. In my current position, I feel like I am doing “community partnerships” where I am closely working with the Career Development Center, Public Affairs, Office of Student Life, Academic Resource Center, and Development. The people that work in these departments are staff of the university, however, they typically aren’t the library’s clientele. I collaborate with these different groups so that I can learn more about their roles in the university and they learn more about the library and most importantly, we learn to enhance our services and support to the students and faculty.

I definitely enjoy my work as an academic librarian now and I also feel grateful that I had the opportunity to work as a public librarian, to share my knowledge with the public and anyone who needed help. The transition wasn’t all that bad after all but I also happen to be an optimistic person when it comes to change! If you have also made the transition from public to academic or from academic to public, I would love to read your comments about your transitioning experiences or insights!