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!

Professionalism–are we there yet?

Next week, I will travel to the other side of the county for my 10 year undergraduate college reunion. I’m excited and nervous about going back to my old college haunts. Part of the nervousness comes with the territory at any reunion: will I have met an acceptable number of life-milestones in order to not be shunned by my classmates? However, some angst is more specific to my situation. My undergraduate institution is an elite women’s college that employs a lot of rhetoric about preparing professional women to do important work in the world. Am I doing important work?  I would argue that yes, my work at the library plays a very important role in the life and health of the academic institution.  Ah, but am I a professional?  About that bit I am less sure.

It’s hard to believe that it has been 10 years since I was an undergraduate myself, and that I now serve and supervise undergrads as a professional academic librarian. Part of my management philosophy has always been to lead by example, and conversely, to work hard to follow the example of those whom I admire. But I also like to be genuine with others at work, and find areas of connection outside of the library. And I certainly don’t LOOK like the ‘professional’ that I imagined I might be at my age when I graduated from college ten years ago. (Real talk; I am currently wearing sneakers and wiping Toblerone crumbs from my desk.)

Jake the Dog looks on as a get some serious work done.
Jake the Dog looks on as I get some serious work done.

But as a new librarian, it can be difficult to ‘be professional’ because professionalism itself seems to be a moving target. Everyone I work with seems to hold themselves to different standards when it comes to how to dress for work, how much to share about one’s personal life, and how to conduct oneself on social media.

As usual, the internet can help. I’m a big fan of the Adulting Blog, which provides a host of humorous and useful aphorisms for those of us who are trying hard to behave like adults.  Numerous library blogs address these issues, and I particularly like the level of granularity that the I Need A Library Job Blog sometimes reaches…one recent post focused on the use of pronouns in thank you notes; specific but usefully so. And if, like me, you are part of or on the cusp of the millennial generation and have limited stores of self control when it comes to the internet, this list of tools at 99u can help you block offending sites and rediscover your focus.

Ultimately, I’m happy that I didn’t join a profession where I would be expected to wear a suit and heels, or never to talk about with coworkers about ‘that cute thing that my dog did yesterday.’  Likewise, it is probably to the good that library schools tend not to overemphasize workplace conduct…most of it is common-sense knowledge that is more effectively learned through communication backchannels from peers and advisors. But I believe that putting some thought into what kind of professional I want to be; actually articulating to myself my own professional standards and how I can do a better job of holding myself to them, is a good exercise for a new librarian.

Librarians Meet the Commissioners, Live: The Middle State Accreditation Standards Revisions Redux

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Beth Evans, Electronic Services Librarian and Africana Studies/PRLS/Women’s Studies Specialist at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

If the recent town hall meeting of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) in Albany, New York had been a boxing match, you might have easily concluded that the librarians won in a forceful effort to help shape the revision of the accreditation standards document. One third of all those who stood up to speak spoke in defense of the work librarians do on college campuses across the region.  Furthermore, not all of those who spoke were librarians.  Librarians had allies among the classroom faculty present.  One history professor closed out the comment period with an impassioned call for all to recognize the seductions of the latest trends as not having the tested value of some of what has been with us for centuries.  In particular, he referenced libraries.

The overwhelming response of librarians to the call for action in the ACRLog post of January 27, 2014 and other forums had a resounding effect.

While some may feel librarians and library concerns dominated the open discussion at the MSCHE meeting – one speaker from the audience, not a librarian, elicited a laugh from all when she introduced herself and made a particular point of saying that she was not a librarian – in an odd sort of way, it might be argued that libraries lost some ground in this critical round with the Middle State Commissions.  Yes, there was a victory, and a strong victory it was.  The chair of the steering committee, in a conversation before the proceedings, in introductory comments to the assembled audience, and throughout the open comments period, apologized for the omission of the words “information literacy” from what will become the new Characteristics of Excellence.  It was a mistake, he said.  An embarrassment.  We were wrong and we are going to correct it.

The Middle States Commission, the same accrediting body that Steven J. Bell had called “a good friend to academic librarians…an early adopter of specific language in its standards addressing information literacy as a desired learning outcome,” had made a boo-boo and was more than ready to make it better.

Information literacy was in.  But libraries were out.  So were laboratories, art studios, physical education facilities, and any other tangible objects, for this is a standards document focused on the student learning experience and not on the counting of things. Never mind that certain things, ranging from large, physical facilities and infrastructure (including infrastructure that allows for learning in a non-physical or virtual setting) to the smaller tools of education from brushes to beakers to books, play an indispensable role in the educational process.  As the president of the Commission warned those present, any attempts to be specific and proscriptive in the new document would endanger the future viability of the accreditation process.  Counting library books, in particular, was noted as an out-dated methodology, something to be steered clear of in a modern evaluation of a college.  A number of other vitals have dropped from consideration. Faculty is a word less used in the current proposed standards. Faculty used to be covered as a standard of its own.  According to the Commission, some of their members do not employ faculty.  So faculty are not required to make a college and neither are libraries.

Most librarians would agree with the Commission that counting books is not a fair way to measure the adequacy of a college.  Librarians are the first to acknowledge that we own less and less of what we consider to be our collections and lease more and more. Our big e-book packages see titles come and go, often with the result that we will give up on cataloging whatever books are in an electronic package to save ourselves the effort later of removing titles from the OPAC. Counting these books as a way to define our libraries would be like counting each raindrop as it falls, and then disappears on a lake, or worse, down a drain.

Indeed, the visible physicality of the academic library has been on the decline since the end of the card catalog, through the advent of CD-ROMs, to standardized access to databases through the internet. Nonetheless, Jason Kramer, the Executive Director of the New York State Higher Education Initiative, a library lobbying and advocacy group, made a forecast at the MSCHE town hall meeting this past April first.  If the physical functions of what libraries do—the thoughtful selecting and the collective acquiring of and providing access to resources on the behalf of many—is not taken into equal account with the established and now well-accepted role of librarians as key in the educational path towards information literacy, legislators will see this as an opportunity to deny funding for library resources.  It will be April Fool’s Day for many days going forward and it will be libraries who are the ones who will have been duped. In other words, if higher education standards documents make no mention of the need for a college or a university to acquire valuable, and sometimes costly, information resources as one way in which they are defined as an institution of higher learning, then those elected officials who see that tax dollars make their way back into the economy will pass over libraries as fully-prepared to do their job with little more than access to Google.

Perhaps the match between the librarians and Middle States Commissioners in Albany was not a win for either side but rather ended in a tie.  The Commission accepted that it must add information literacy back into the document; librarians are ready to make the case for expanding their role to include other things library.  According to the New York rules of boxing—and this has been a face-off in the New York State capital, an official will often decide on a winner when there is a tie based on which contender appears to be in “better physical condition.” Librarians will do well for the future of education and all learning if we begin to step forward and acknowledge once again the very real physicality of the profession we serve.  Libraries are very much about concrete, tangible goods, services and spaces without which, the incorporeal, but totally laudable goal of assisting learners on their path towards information literacy could not be achieved.

Beyond Livetweeting: Twitter Chats for Professional Development

This time 11 days ago I was grumpy. It was the last Friday before Spring Break, and I was prepping to teach an English Comp I session the next morning — not just a Saturday class but the Saturday before the break week. Our English Comp I sessions are typically assignment-driven, as we’ve found that to be more useful for students than a library tour or orientation, and having an assignment to work on encourages them to participate during the session.

But this class was different. Just one week prior to the library session, the current professor had taken over this class from another professor who’d fallen ill. The new prof was still getting his bearings with the students and he hadn’t yet assigned the research essay. I’d been thinking for a while now that I need to develop a solid plan for these occasional no-assignment sessions, something interactive and useful to students, but it’s been a busy semester and I haven’t found the time to put to it. So there I was with a class the next morning, not at all sure what I’d do with those students, how I’d keep them awake and engaged on the last day before break, or what I could offer that would be of most use to them when they eventually got to work on their research assignments near the end of the semester.

And then I remembered the most recent #critlib chat. What is #critlib, you ask? It’s a Twitter chat held at 9pm Eastern time every other Tuesday, begun earlier this month by moderators (in alphabetical order by Twitter handle) Jenna Freedman (@barnlib), Annie Pho (@catladylib), Emily Drabinski (@edrabinski), Kelly McElroy (@kellymce), and Nicole Pagowsky (@pumpedlibrarian). The purpose of the chat is to “engage in discussion about what critical pedagogy is and how it can be used in library instruction.” The most recent chat, on April 8, was terrific, with conversation ranging from whether neutrality is possible to strategies for encouraging our students to think critically about information. As Barbara pointed out:

At the time I’d wondered how I could incorporate what I read and learned during the chat into my usual strategy for teaching the English Comp I library session, and the need to create a new strategy for this no-assignment session let me do just that. I was lucky that the professor’s broad topic for the class is the American Dream, which is perhaps more amenable to a critical information literacy lens than many topics. I began by spending time talking with students about creating a more narrow research question from a broad topic, and we used the hypothetical research question “Is the American Dream available to all Americans in 2014?” to generate keywords and synonyms for searching which I wrote on the whiteboard.

Overall the session included more questions and discussion and less time for students to search on their own than the more assignment-driven sessions I teach. We spent lots of time talking about how information is produced and distributed while trying to keep a practical focus on what’s available in the library and what’s available on the open internet. We talked about how search engine results are ranked, and what to consider when choosing which information to use. I asked them to work with a partner to find one library and one internet source; while I love asking students to work together, it can be challenging if each student has chosen a different research topic.

While much of what I did in this session is similar to what I do in the more assignment-driven sessions, reviewing the #critlib chat before planning the session helped me stay mindful of critical approaches to information literacy as I was teaching. There’s always so much to cover in a library session and it can be so easy to charge on through, and I’m grateful that participating in the chat two weeks ago reminded me to look for opportunities to draw in students’ own experiences and to question the information landscape with students.

I’ve used Twitter to catch up on conference livetweeting for a while now, and also get lots of recommendations for professional reading and resources from the folks I follow, but this is the first time I’ve dipped into a Twitter chat for professional development. If you’ve missed the two chats so far, never fear: there’s a terrific cheat sheet/repository of chats and questions with links to a Zotero bibliography and a Storify of each chat. And if you’re interested in critical information literacy, please join in! The next chat is tomorrow, Tuesday April 22nd, at 9pm Eastern. Use the hashtag #critlib to tweet and follow the conversations.

The Urge to Do Everything

This week marks eight months into my first professional librarian position (man, does time fly, or what?) and as I get closer to the one-year mark, I’m thinking about what I’ve accomplished so far and starting to form goals for next year. Reflecting and goal-setting are good practices in general, but I’m making a conscious effort to do so after coming to the realization that I cannot, in fact, do *everything*.

I try to get involved in as many different kinds of projects as I can, and I seek out a lot of professional development opportunities (like this one – guest blogging for ACRLog’s First Year Academic Librarian Experience!). Luckily, the flexibility of my job allows me to contribute to a variety of projects and initiatives, explore new ideas, and collaborate with many different people. However, because I have varied interests and love to do a little bit of everything, I can easily end up taking on too much at once.

A perfect example would be from earlier this year, when I learned the hard way that if you submit a conference proposal, you have to actually have the time to follow through with it. I submitted a proposal for a poster session, not expecting anything to come of it, and then to my surprise it actually got accepted. I’m not at all saying that’s a bad thing – I had a rewarding conference experience and enjoyed talking with other attendees about my poster – but having to prepare for that in the midst of an already busy time of year made for some very stressful moments.

It’s hard for me to pass up an opportunity when it comes along, which is why I apply for just about every scholarship, award, or professional development program I can find. If there’s a scholarship granting travel funds for a conference, you can bet I’m trying to get it. I’m also on the lookout for other programs that I might be able to participate in (like ACRL Immersion). It’s especially tempting to not let all of these great opportunities slip by because so many are available to “new or early-career librarians” (hey, that’s me!). If you think that I must have spent a lot of time writing application essays and personal statements in the last eight months…well, you’d be right.

Not always the best approach.
Not always the best approach.

That need to *do all the things* can have great payoffs. I’m now looking forward to the LOEX Conference next month (which I wouldn’t be going to at all without the conference scholarship), and the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians this summer. But of course, I have also spent time writing a handful of unsuccessful application essays. It’s always disappointing news to not get a scholarship or not get into a great program, but what can be more frustrating for me at times is knowing that I put time, effort, and energy into an application packet only for it to not work out.

What this all comes down to is that time is valuable, and there’s not enough of it to do everything that comes along or anything that strikes my fancy. While reflecting on the past year and planning ahead for the next one, I’m thinking I should make sure my professional development activities are aligned with my goals, rather than acting on the urge to do any- and everything possible.

Of course, I say all of this now just as I’ve spotted another travel award for a conference that I’m just dying to get started on!

On that note, this post in Library Journal helpfully reminded me that there are more ways to engage in professional development than attending conferences and leadership institutes, publishing, presenting, and performing committee work. I get a lot out of following social media and blogs, which are beneficial without requiring money, travel, and a major time commitment.