Confessions on Owning and Honing Your Weaknesses

The month of June marks the ramp up to fiscal close in my neck of the library wood.  In the otherwise quiet summer of academia there is this corner of buzzing frenzy. Staff work though last minute orders, pay invoices, troubleshoot problems, answer questions about the various statuses of the cash flow, and pull and prepare data to estimate a new year’s allocations.  In my role, I mostly coordinate various inter-dependencies of the workflows and people that must align for these numbers to be properly reconciled. Thankfully for all I’m not responsible for the number-crunching.

You see, I’ve never had the intuitive ease with numbers accountants, or it seems an acquisitions librarian, is expected to have.  I prefer to visualize and think around things rather than operate in the linear calculus that numbers require.  My analytical mind loves to think about cause and effect, and even the many complex inversions and formulas that produce usable data and its visualization. But producing those inversions on the spot, even in simple arithmetic, doesn’t come easy for me.  It explains why I was always terrible at timed math tests, but loved algebra and geometry.  I struggle with sewing patterns that instruct from the inside out, but love cooking, where I can follow strict instructions and play with them to my taste.

When I worked in serials, calculations took on linguistic obscurity when it came to publication frequencies and title changes.  “Is twice a month semi-monthly or bi-monthly?” Does continues mean what a title it used to be? Or what it will be going forward?”

And to this day, when gardening,  “Do annuals mean I plant them every year, or that they come back every year?!”

What gets me in trouble in all of this is my strong preference to operate intuitively and efficiently. This means I am often impatient with the extra time it takes me to slowly think through cost comparisons and reports. I know that extra time is necessary for me, though, to make sure it is done right.  Understanding of my own strengths and weaknesses in this way allows me to recognize the need to rely on other tools, systems, and people.  Relying on the strengths of others is not an excuse to avoid your weaknesses. In fact, identifying and using your particular strengths can be a tool to overcome weaknesses, and it can mean talking about those vulnerabilities in more empowering ways.

This important skill is perhaps most practically applied in job interviews, where some variation of “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” is no doubt asked. The best interviewers do this using behavioral questioning or appreciative inquiry techniques, which often ask for examples that demonstrate direct personal experience with particular skill or trait.  My first ever job interview was as a senior in high school, and I had no previous work experience.  So I had to answer questions about what I find difficult when working with others using only my school experience.  Thinking of various show choirs and musicals, where I had to practice and perform with my ex-boyfriend (among other  characters), I answered:

“Sometimes I have a hard time separating my personal life from my work.”

*crickets chirping*

Surprise! I did not get the job.  Not knowing a lot about myself at 17, I failed to realize my strength as a performer was precisely the fact that I actually can and do work with others, even those with whom ‘it’s complicated’, probably better than the average person.   Even though inside it was a hormonally-charged tornado of difficult emotion, I could summon my inner Olivia Newton John and nail Grease’s  “You’re the One That I Want” number with a smile on my face. With each interview I got a little stronger at framing my skills.  When interviewing for a waitress position, in which I did have some experience, I shared my thoughts about an unreasonably disgruntled customer, but described how I worked foremost to best meet that customer’s need.

As I’ve learned more about how my own strengths help my weaknesses, I know I thrive in project management roles because there is a framework to breakdown milestones, tasks, and timelines.  I thrive on learning to use new tools because they help me be more efficient and accurate.  Perhaps most importantly, I rely the strengths of the people with whom I work.  What is painstaking for one person is often the effortless strength of another who is happy to be asked to contribute what they do best.  When dealing with numbers, as I must inevitably do in the day-to-day work of acquisitions and resource sharing, I strategize (a strength of mine) to build in the extra time to sit with, play with, and picture data (my analytic strength).  I am constantly using my learning strength not just to find new tools that can help me, but to know more about myself and others.  I also have an individual relational strength that allows me to know and connect with other people and the unique strengths they offer.

In my seventeenth year experiencing and third year overseeing the fiscal close, I’m putting my anxiety around the numbers in better perspective. I’ve come to see that working through vulnerabilities and getting help where you need it is not abnormal at all. It’s what a responsible adult person would do.

Please tell me your favorite job interview story!  What would you do over, if you could, from a position of strength?

 

 

Holistic Advocacy, or The Case of the Annoyingly-Optimistic Librarian

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Courtney Block, Instruction, Reference, and User Engagement Librarian at Indiana University Southeast.

Storytellers. It’s what all professional librarians end up being in addition to our other specific roles or niches. But it’s not something they really prepare you for when you’re getting your MLS. There might be an occasional class, lecture, or even an entire course on public relations, managing, or marketing – but how often did anyone discuss how to be the library’s best storyteller? And how often did they discuss the perils and pitfalls of getting everyone in your library to be enthusiastic about storytelling?

I should probably point out that I’m not talking about tot-time. The kind of storytelling I’m talking about is advocacy. Pure, unadulterated, non-stop, advocacy. As librarians, we are all too familiar with the constant need to promote, market, advocate for, and tell our story. We are always highlighting the many services and resources we offer. We are always responding to the perpetual, “I had no idea libraries (fill in the blank here)” comments. And we are always making the case for the continued need for libraries in society.

The ways in which we tell our stories are often not grandiose. Which is fine – they don’t need to be. For example, perhaps we advocate via email with colleagues about information literacy, or explain to family and friends at social events that we can indeed help them find information on that topic, or perhaps we even market the latest database, tool, resource, or service to our local newspapers.

Advocacy comes naturally to the professional librarian. At least it does for me. Perhaps this is because I started my professional library career in public libraries, where I interacted with patrons and answered questions on a daily basis, or perhaps it’s because I’m currently the User Engagement Librarian at my organization. I’d like to think, though, that as librarians we have a natural tendency to advocate for our profession and the many contributions it provides to people and society. I like to think we’re just wired that way.

It seems like I’m making advocacy seem so easy, doesn’t it? One of the things we quickly learn about advocacy is that it’s tiring. Sometimes I just don’t have it in me to advocate for or explain one more thing for the day. So while it may be a natural tendency, it’s easy to get burnt out on advocacy – and fast.

That’s where system-wide storytelling support comes in. Getting each person in your organization to commit to being a storyteller themselves is necessary not only for alleviating your advocacy burnout, but also for enhancing your library’s user experience and enhancing the perception of the library to your stakeholders – be they members of the public or university administrators.

Consider this: front line staff who are initial points-of-contact for users are often not librarians. They might be student workers, professional support staff, clerks, or even pages. And while they may be very skilled and proficient at their jobs, they simply might not view each interaction as an opportunity for advocacy. I don’t mean to imply that staff run through a list of services and statistics each time they interact with a user. Rather, I’m arguing that there should be collaboration between professional librarians and all library workers to engage in advocacy efforts at every point of user interaction. Getting buy-in from all staff regarding the atmosphere you would like to promote is key to ensuring memorable user experiences.

It’s one of the things I try to do at my library, and it means engaging in continuous conversations with staff about what librarianship means. And to me, that means enhancing the user experience at every possible moment. During a time in which information literacy skills seem sorely lacking and the future of the IMLS is uncertain, engaging in collaborative advocacy efforts can help ensure that we don’t seem passive. In fact, it will display to patrons that every library worker carries within them a little spark of the spirit of librarianship.

I’m sure it seems like I might be painting another conveniently rosy picture. I know getting system-wide buy in for this might be a daunting task. Not all staff will be as impassioned as I am about being all “carpe diem” for advocacy. Perhaps not even all staff will be receptive to listening to my ideas – territorial issues abound, after all, in any organization. What I try to keep in mind during these conversations, though, is being open to staff ideas and suggestions on any and all library-related issues. I also try to investigate what the library means to them, and to use their own paradigm as a starting point to investigate how the user experience can be enhanced from their point-of-view.

The point I’m trying to make is that each point-of-contact is an opportunity to make or break someone’s perception of the library. And the best way to ensure positive user experience is to try and get all employees engaged in the same spirit of librarianship that is harbored by those of us who are impassioned (if sometimes overzealous). Holistic advocacy is what we’re shooting for.

Advocacy has implications for all libraries, but there are some special considerations for the academic library. Libraries ensconced on a college campus have opportunities and obligations to collaborate with other university departments as well as campus administrators. At a college or university, the library’s director is not the stopping-point for decisions that can be made regarding space or budget. This is not to say that visions and ideas between administration and librarians won’t mesh or that they won’t work together – I’m not saying that at all. I’m simply positing that advocacy is key in getting campus administrators to see and believe in that sense of librarianship, and the best way to achieve this is to get as many folks on board as possible, regardless of rank, title, or position. Not only will the quality of user experience be enhanced, but if the time comes for changes to be made or suggested by campus administrators, perhaps a robust advocacy strategy will ensure the best possible outcome.

I might view the role of advocacy through rose-colored glasses, but that’s okay. I don’t mind being viewed as that annoyingly-optimistic librarian, so long as you give me five minutes of your time.

The Importance of Community

As everyone knows, library land is small. Having a profession where we all know each other or know of each other, can be a plus (but also has its drawbacks). This allows us to form our own smaller networks and build our own community. Being an early career librarian, I have quickly realized that while I have treated librarianship as a profession where one works alone, librarianship is in fact a team sport.

This past week, I had the opportunity to attend a conference-like event for my residency program. As most of you are familiar by now, I am part of the Diversity Alliance residency cohort. We have these conferences/gatherings about once a year. This year, we had a dual conference between Virginia Tech and American University.

The program included workshops, guest speakers, presentations and group dinners. Most importantly, all the residents were able to see each other again. While we occasionally see each other at conferences, these diversity alliance gatherings are an opportunity for the residents to catch up. We are able to talk about our jobs, our lives, any updates, and it’s a chance to catch up and learn about the exciting things that the residents are doing at their institutions.

I have been a librarian for only two years, but have realized the importance of having your own cohort. It does not necessarily mean that the people in this cohort are your best friends in the whole wide world. It might be a group of people who are not only your colleagues, but those who are able to be honest and frank with you. This is the group of people that you ask for advice, whether it’s library world or personal life. Above all, they are a support team. They support and mentor you–and you support and mentor them.

I would really encourage other librarians to think about the people they surround themselves with. I was basically put in a cohort as a diversity alliance resident, but after we all met, it just felt natural. We had shared experiences that brought us closer together and built a trust that you just can’t get out of thin air. I was lucky enough to be placed in a cohort, but I have also taken some time to slowly form other cohorts I want to be part of. I try not to force it, so I ask the readers, what is your advice to finding, forming, and nurturing groups like these?

Here We Go Again: Net Neutrality

With so much in the news since the new federal administration took office earlier this year it’s easy to be overwhelmed — I certainly have been, especially in recent weeks. So you might have missed the announcement that the Federal Communications Committee has proposed to repeal regulations on commercial internet providers that guarantee net neutrality. Net neutrality is an admittedly somewhat clunky term that requires companies that sell internet access to treat all content equally. As a concept it’s a bit easier to explain using the negative example: if net neutrality ended, companies like Verizon and Comcast could force consumers to pay different rates for different kinds of content, for example, high-bandwidth content like streaming video (think YouTube or Netflix) could be more expensive than content that doesn’t require as much bandwidth. Rolling back net neutrality could make it much more challenging for many of us to access the internet.

The FCC last proposed changing these regulations in 2014, at which point John Jackson wrote a concise overview — Keeping Up With…Net Neutrality — on ACRL’s website, which is a good place to start to learn more. Margaret Heller’s thorough post on the ACRL TechConnect blog is also a great read; in What Should Academic Librarians Know about Net Neutrality? she offers a clear explanation of how content gets from content providers via internet service providers to us as consumers. And how does this affect us as librarians? Content that our communities need could be made more difficult and expensive to access, costs that neither our communities nor our libraries may be able to bear. Even more troubling to consider are possible effects on information freedom and free speech, since as Jackson notes

The loss of net neutrality would add additional layers of economic influence on the structure of the web.

The FCC’s previous efforts to roll back net neutrality were met with a strong campaign from consumers and content providers that was ultimately successful. Both ALA and ACRL issued a statement late last month opposing the FCC’s plans. The FCC was accepting public comments on the proposal, which is scheduled to be reviewed at its open meeting on May 18th, but as of May 12th has entered a “sunshine agenda period” and is not currently accepting comments. But don’t despair — the good folks at the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) are making it easy for you to register your opinions about net neutrality. Visit their Dear FCC site to add your comment, which will be submitted by the EFF when the comment period reopens.

Invisibility and Ubiquitousness: How Digital Libraries Should Tell Their Story.

Under pressure from the presumed loss of influence, the contemporary academic library is often in the business of staking claims on campus. We see new technology or innovations as opportunities to ingrained ourselves deeper in the future of the institution. Partially, this is a reaction to the change in the world and a move away from books but also a survival strategy in declining budgets. As the Ithaka survey on “Library Leadership for the Digital Age” last spring told us “All libraries are now digital….  Users think libraries are—or at least should be—digital.” As someone who left the print world for the digital, I can say within my own experience this is true.

What I am finding, though, as a new digital librarian, that our work is still ignorable and invisible. The reasons for this might seem contradictory. One, the digital library is not traditional library work and is seen as outside of the realm of the library’s scope. On the other hand, the internet and technology is ubiquitous which makes the behind the scenes work expected and ingrained with very little work assumed, with high levels of integration and low levels of recognition. Ubiquity, while central to our digital lives, is, perhaps, the most difficult thing to overcome. When user expect things to be there, or that the digital world should just exist around them, it is difficult to ask for their patience or their work in helping build the digital world in the library.

Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man
Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man Wikimedia Commons

And yet we need their input and their work to makes ours possible.

This tug and pull, the pressure to remain a stable part of the institution’s traditional academic world, maintaining print collections and special collections materials and being part of the on campus classroom, while being forced to compete with the google and the always on internet is difficult for our libraries to prosper. The ironic thing being: the better we do at our jobs the less visible we are and vice versa.

Take it from this excellent Futurama episode “Godfellas” 2002 where “the God Entity” explains the realities of omnipresence to Bender:

While the trend towards digital helps libraries stay relevant in this age the difficulty remains in how this information is presented. The same Ithaka report from above continues that, “Libraries are also challenged in a dramatic way to deal with the demands of our users as technology allows them to gain access to information directly rather than without any intermediation from us.”

Unfortunately, intermediation is the only way we are visible to some, and often that comes at the expense of our users. Users want the system to be there without having to feel like they are using the system. Because of google, our faculty and student expect that our services to be available always with little thought to the infrastructures that make it possible. Only when the curtain is pulled back is the process unveiled, usually with disastrous consequences.

If the institutional repository, the center of my work, works as it should, where materials are preserved and promoted with little to zero effort given on the part of individual faculty there is no one to complain or question its existence. This requires the input and the collaboration with faculty across the university. Proving that their buy in is difficult when some search engines make visibility so seamless. As a result, I often tout the visibility of the Institutional Repository in search engines like Google Scholar to show that it is “working.” The same thing exists on the technical end, if our online catalog bridges the gap seamlessly between physical location and online direction, then no one chats to complain they can’t find a book. That book, found via the Online Catalog, is retrieved with very little noise aside from the ding of the barcode scanner.

Only when things are visibly broken does our work become a point of either discussion or contention.But how then do we talk about our roles in the larger campus community if our work is largely behind the scenes?

In someways, we are forced to tell our stories to our Deans and Provosts about what we do for the library and the institution. This can be done in a number of ways, and best practices have yet to be fully established. The Digital Library Federation’s Assessment Interest group is focused on how we can assess the work that we do.

We can count the amount of money that we bring in during digitization projects or we can measure the encounters and shares as part of larger schemas of impact for promotion and tenure purposes. There are  great guides to Google Analytics and Altmetrics through the DLF assessment, but this is reactive instead of proactive. And requires us to justify our existence through outside tools and after things have been posted, not to prove why the initial work is necessary.

Just as the traditional library has been praised for its collections used to foster learning and scholarship, the digital library must be used to show its importance to the larger campus. This goes beyond showing the web analytical impact, but by showing the use of the materials by people on campus. As I wrote in my piece on the library as more than a mausoleum, it is the use of materials that will save us from irrelevancy and invisibility.

There is no simple solution, but a first step is often telling our own story apart from the rest of the library. Perhaps we should be making the case in a way that shows the seams that hold the digital library together with the campus is the way to go. We should use opportunities where ubiquity gives our campus partners feelings that we’ll always be there to tell our story and look for partners. Our seams show not where we are stretched to the limit or where we lack; but where our institutional and collaborative partners can build a larger and better digital community.

We will never have ALL the answers to what our community will need tomorrow  In our stories we should acknowledge both our failures and our successes and what we need to prosper in addition to build on our successes. We should show the people behind the curtain that make the easy to use interfaces and search functions work well, and increase the stake that our users play in decisions.  

Digital collections are unique in our library world. Outreach, like social media or regular media, can put objects at the forefront of the infrastructure and makes it all the more likely for our users to think of us when they think about the library, but it is the structure itself that often needs visibility and part of the narrative. Without this narrative, without selling the good that we do behind the scenes, our value is lost in a sea of other sources of information. The resources do not just appear because there is work done to make them available. It is time that we start making that visible.