Professional Conference Lurker No More!

Hello there. My name is Chloe. Long time conference lurker, first time participant.

In the language of the internet, a ‘lurker’ is someone who observes online forums or communities without actively participating.  This is the way I have approached conferences until recently…hovering at the fringes, without much direction or purpose.

In June, I attended the Canadian Learning Commons Conference in Sherbrooke, Quebec Canada.  CLCC is a relatively small conference, attended by US and Canadian delegates who work in the specific niche of Learning Commons (or, in our case Research Commons) library spaces. Attendees are not only librarians, but also writing center directors, IT help desk coordinators, and space designers.  The smaller scale and specific focus of this conference allowed my boss (Research Commons Librarian, Lauren Ray) and I to dial in on some very specific aspects of our service model for a presentation that we delivered, and to get some very granular advice about best practices from our colleagues.

Large, student-created statue, seen in the Library at Bishop's University (our conference sponsor).
Large, student-created statue, seen in the Library at Bishop’s University (our conference sponsor)

The last time I participated in planning and delivering content for a conference, I was still an MLIS student.  But It’s really nice to feel that I have something to offer in terms of professional practice, rather than student research alone.  Another difference is that, since I am not currently job-seeking, I could allow my interactions with the other delegates to be more relaxed and natural, rather than tinged with desperation.  It was nice to know that I might have something to offer THEM (like a valuable contact, or idea for a best practice) rather than just the other way around.

With that in mind, I feel like my conference impressions bear some special weight this time around, as I was in a much more receptive state of mind to receive them.  Here are a few selections:

Pre-Conference:

I got very lucky here, because the pre-conference was directly relevant to my professional duties. The topic was “Training and Mentoring Peer Learning Assistants, Peer Tutors and Learning Commons Student Assistants,” presented by Nathalie Soini and Caleigh Minshall from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.  The presenters gave a lot of practical advice as to how to foster engagement in our student workers.  The session gave me lots of ideas, and was a good reminder of what an important job student workers have to do, and that we literally cannot function without them.

Our Presentation:

Overall, I think that Lauren and I did a great job with our presentation. Again, it was nice that our audience already understood the Research Commons concept, so that we could get right to the meat of our presentation without too much exposition.  We carried the 45 minutes we were allocated fairly well, and received positive audience feedback. In preparing the presentation, I really came to understand the value of Lauren’s mentorship. She has given lots of conference talks, and has a very structured approach.  While I am certainly capable of organizing 45 minutes worth of thoughts into a coherent presentation, Lauren’s sense of time management around the project was invaluable, as was her commitment to making the final product polished and clear. Before the conference, we were required to submit an abstract for our presentation.  We worked hard to refine this, and it expressed what we wanted to say pretty concisely. One important thing that Lauren reminded me to do, was to look frequently (whenever we added new slides, or ad-libbed new language as we practiced the presentation) back at the abstract we had written, to make sure that we were staying on track. It would be very disappointing for the audience, we reasoned,  if they made a decision to forgo a concurrent talk and attend ours, only to find that our presentation was only loosely related to what we had promised in the abstract (and who hasn’t been to a conference session like that, frankly.)

Other Presentations:

I attended a wide variety of other presentations over the course of the three day conference.  One highlight was a keynote by David Woodbury from the Hunt Library at North Carolina State University. NCSU Libraries are really innovative, and it is was great to get some ideas from their practices.

Another nice thing about this conference…probably due to its size and supportive character, was that a few presenters gave talks that included detailed information about “failures,” challenges, and things that had generally Not Gone Well at their libraries. While it requires bravery to deliver this sort of a presentation, it was so much more valuable for the audience to hear them!

For the curious, all of the presentation abstracts and many slides (including ours) from the conference can be viewed here.

Summertime Space in the Library

After a long, cold winter in much of the U.S., summer is finally, definitively here. Many of us in academic libraries are taking advantage of the slower summer months to work on projects — both big and small — that may be difficult to get to during the academic year. Hopefully we’re getting the chance for some rest and relaxation as well, so that when the fall rolls around we’re rejuvenated for the start of the new semester.

In the library where I work we’re having a somewhat busier summer than usual. We’ve got a couple of librarians retiring, some new staff coming on board, as well as a major upgrade to the ILS used by all of the colleges within our university system. All of this has meant lots of activity for our librarians, making it in many ways more similar to the full swing of the semester than to the typical summer.

Student use of the library, on the other hand, has been characteristic of the slower summer. While summer classes are offered, there are far fewer classes and students than the rest of the year. The college has fairly high enrollment (17,000 students) for the size of our campus, and during the academic year we struggle to accommodate them in the library. (Luckily, a new building is under construction on our campus which will relieve the congestion when it opens in a few years.) A full, busy college library is a much better problem to have than an empty one, though it does bring challenges. With a colleague I’ve been engaged in a qualitative study of students’ academic culture — including library use — and have identified many of our students’ frustrations with the library that we’re beginning to address.

But as I walked through the very lightly populated library last week, I wondered what lessons we can learn from studying the library during these times of less heavy use, like the summer. What affordances might the summer provide?

During our primetime hours in the academic year we field many student complaints about noise levels in the library. One of our two floors is designated as a quiet individual study floor, but it can be a challenge to maintain quiet when the library is crowded. In the summertime that floor is not just quiet but silent. Students are spread more evenly over the quiet floor as well, and we haven’t had any complaints about the areas of the floor that are often problematic during the academic year. Our other floor, which has areas for group study and individual study, is also quieter during the summer, with more of the groups working together talking in low voices. Again, this is our goal for the academic year, too, but when the library fills up it can be difficult to maintain.

A related topic is student use of computers in the library. We have two small computer labs plus computers adjacent to the reference desk for students to use, and during the semester they are nearly always occupied. One challenge is that some students are clearly using the computers for non-academic reasons, often watching YouTube, shopping, or playing games. Perhaps they have some time to occupy between classes, or are taking a break from their studies. While we have no desire to prohibit activities or websites at our student computers, when we’re busy and there’s a line to print or use the computers for other academic reasons, it can be difficult to reconcile. We do have time management software on our computers and can adjust the settings to reduce session length during the busy periods. But our summer use is instructive — there are plenty of computers both for students who want to work on their assignments and for those who want to watch the occasional World Cup match.

I wonder whether the summertime lack of crowds has offered a window into preferred student library use, as students may be less likely to have to change their behavior based on the presence of others? And, if so, what can this teach us about extending the possibilities for students to find their ideal academic workspace in the library throughout the academic year? I’m already thinking about clearer and more visible signage, and perhaps increasing the number of walk-throughs by librarians, staff, and security to encourage students to keep their voices down in the quiet areas.

Does your library feel different in the summer than during the academic year? Have you gained useful insights from observing your library during the slower summer months?

New Academic Librarian On The Road

This post is coming to you live from the McCarran Airport in warm and dry Las Vegas Nevada. I imagine many of you know why I am here, but for those of you that don’t, the annual ALA meeting is here, concluding mid-week.

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But ALA was not my primary motivation to come to Vegas. I came for the annual RBMS preconference. I presented my first paper at this conference, and it was my first time to RBMS as well. Before I continue, want to tell you that if you are interested in or involved with rare books or manuscripts in your job, this is the place to be. Great people, great research being shared and plenty of coffee! If you’re already an ACRL member, the pricing hurdle is not onerous at all, so think about joining!

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Anyhow, I have a suspicion that many librarians are at least somewhat introspective and find new social situations a bit challenging – I certainly do! That said, this was the most at-ease I’ve ever felt at a conference, and I was a first-time attendee. For me as a new academic librarian three things were especially useful in meeting people and making the most of the conference.

First, remember that everyone at the conference is in the same social boat, so to speak. Conferences are filled with people who don’t know others at the conference, and hope to meet some great people. Of course, some folks have contacts and colleagues already made at the conference as they might be long time members of the organization and longtime attendees. That said, everyone at the conference is happy to meet new people, and the typical social rules regarding new situations are relaxed. Go introduce yourself and find a mutual connection.

Second, twitter! Twitter as a professional and social network has been invaluable to me! It’s so much easier to talk to new people when you already have a connection online. I was a bit humbled to have several people approach me at the conference and say “I know you from twitter!” Indeed, we even had a tweet up at RBMS with about thirty (of 400 or so) attendees. It was so great to see these folks meeting another and solidifying connections made online. Janine Veazue said it best, and appropriately, in a tweet:

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Third, jump in. Simply because you are a first-time attendee doesn’t mean your voice and work is not valuable. There is so much work done at conferences that listening to what is going on and attending open conference meetings that are of interest is a great way to start giving back, even during your first conference! Alternatively, think about presenting at the conference. I was honored to present with Sarah Burke Cahalan about research we are doing on a botanical artist who lived in the Ozarks.

My bonus tip to conclude is reach out to the folks you met at the conference. Drop them an email and follow up with things that were of interest or just say hello. Solidifying those connections is key to a rich professional network – and it will make your next conference even better. As this has been a photo-heavy post, let me close with a photo at the RBMS reception of two great colleagues who I knew from twitter, but met in-person at the conference, Sarah Burke Cahalan and Anna-Sophia Zingarelli-Sweet:

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Musings on Outreach as Instruction

Last week, librarians from many branches of our university gathered for a Teaching Librarians Retreat. The retreat was organized and hosted by a few wonderful colleagues, who I cannot thank enough for their efforts and a fantastic event. The goal for the retreat was to promote a community of sharing, peer support, and ongoing learning among UI librarians who teach, and was a chance to reflect on the year and find colleagues with similar interests and concerns about teaching. Making dedicated time for sharing and reflection is especially important in an institution as large and with as many librarians as ours.

We broke out into discussion groups for part of the retreat, and my group gathered to talk about “outreach as instruction.” What struck me first as we each shared our thoughts is that “outreach” can mean so many different things. We had people contributing to the conversation from perspectives of social media, events and programming, marketing, digital badges, special collections, working with student organizations, and outreach to faculty vs. students vs. the community.

My take on “outreach as instruction” and why it matters has to do with the limitations of one-shot sessions and ways we can expand the impact of instruction beyond traditional methods. One-shot sessions are valuable as point-of-need instruction for academic coursework, but relying solely on them is limiting: only a fraction of students receive library instruction, and a number of them may not be particularly interested in the General Education required course that brought them into the library. This is where I think outreach can be powerful – in the many possibilities to connect with students outside of a classroom setting, while still teaching something. Here are a few ideas on how to go about doing that:

  1. Connect over something interest-based, rather than academics-based. For example, I’ve heard of academic libraries having knitting sessions (which is also closely tied with stress-relief activities during finals week), but it could be something else. The draw to participate is something of general interest that can also be connected to research and resources available at the library.
  2. Communicate with student organizations, and let the student leaders know how the library can support their group and members. This can lead to tailored teaching opportunities for students who are involved and invested in a group that may not get this attention and instruction otherwise.
  3. Use the collection creatively. We’ve found ways to do this by using images from the Iowa Digital Library on buttons, postcards, and Valentine cards. Those are all short and simple activities that can naturally lead to learning something new about a variety of resources. (You can see the Valentine’s activities here.)

Those are just a few ideas, which clearly come from my perspective as an Undergraduate Services Librarian (and barely crack the surface of our group discussion at the Teaching Librarians Retreat). For you, “outreach as instruction” could mean building on relationships with faculty, an emphasis on social media, or something else. Outreach itself is a broad concept with multiple definitions, but that also means there are so many variations and opportunities for librarians to engage with their users and community.

When I hear “outreach as instruction,” I think of how we can connect with undergraduates in ways other than in the classroom for a one-shot session, and incorporate what I like to call “nuggets of information literacy.” What does it mean for you and your library?

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.