Culture Shock! and Other Discoveries of a New Academic Librarian

Academia is weird. I did three academic library internships and worked as two years as academic library staff before becoming an academic librarian at Cal State Fullerton. But I didn’t truly realize how weird academic was until I became, well, an academic. Now that I’ve achieved a full (academic) year of librarianship, I thought that it would be fun to reflect on my challenges, frustrations, and discoveries.

First off, in academia, you don’t have coworkers. You have colleagues! After a lifetime of hourly jobs and coworkers, I’ve really had to retrain my brain to start saying colleagues. Colleagues, colleagues, colleagues. And we librarians are basically flat hierarchically. Since we are all autonomous, I’ve had to do a lot of detective work to figure out who-does-what and who can (and is also willing) to help me on projects.

Second off, where is my boss? I’m partly kidding, but the level of autonomy I have and continue to have is astonishing. I think it’s partly a function of having a brand new position in a field with which my colleagues are unfamiliar, but on my first day I was basically shown my office and left alone. Being a brand new librarian in a new and growing field has been really challenging. I’m interested and engaged in all my work because I get to choose what I work on, but I’ve also had to learn to say “no” to many requests so that my workload is not unmanageable.

That leads to my third point: I am never bored. Never ever ever. For the first time in my life, I have engaging work to fill my hours well beyond the forty-hour work week. If I screw around at work, I’m only harming myself! My work now is also largely project-based rather than daily, weekly, or one-off tasks. I’ve had to learn to become a project manager, and project management continues to be a developing skill for me. Remember how I wrote that post on time management a few months back? I followed my own tips for quite a while, but it’s become a regular struggle to dedicate the time to better manage my time. Ironic?

Fourth, working as an academic sometimes feels like I’ve betrayed my working-class roots. I’m the only person in my family to have a college degree, let alone two graduate degrees. I come from a blue-collar background. My dad was a truck driver, my mom was a secretary, and my sister is a waitress. I’ve spent years waiting tables and loading trucks. It’s hard to explain what I do as an academic librarian to my family. Academia is also a strange world where colleagues take their children on college tours (you mean you can choose where you go to college?), and who also tend to assume a commonality of life experience (I’ve had to google some of the upper-middle-class things my colleagues talk about). Naturally, as a librarian, when faced with unfamiliar situations in life I do some research to find kindred spirits. Fortunately there are wonderful books like This fine place so far from home: Voices of academics from the working class, and, Limbo: Blue-collar roots, white-collar dreams. I also really like the blog Tenure, she wrote. I also get excited about critical pedagogy and critical librarianship, which I didn’t know existed before I was a librarian.

But finally, let’s not forget about all the buzzwords (aka alphabet soup) in academic libraries. HIPs, FYE, ACRL IL Framework, Retention, Student Success, 508 Compliance, OERs, OA. I’ve had a crash course in HIPs (high impact practices) and even attended a HIPs institute this month as a librarian representative on a campus team. I subscribe to several library-related listservs but still can’t tell you what LITA or LIRT stand for, or what the difference is between INFOLIT and ili-l. However, I fondly refer to information literacy as IL, and am baffled when non-librarians don’t know what I’m talking about. QP is QuestionPoint, ILL is my favorite thing ever, OPAC is often used incorrectly here, and any day now we’re going to get an IR. Meanwhile, I’ll get back to trying to sell my colleagues on a learning object repository where we can store all of the DLOs (digital learning objects) that we’re going to create together!

What are some of the things you found surprising about being an academic librarian?

Collecting Cats: Library Lessons from Neko Atsume

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Kelly Blanchat, Electronic Resources Librarian at Queens College, CUNY, and Megan Brooks, Director of Research Services at Wellesley College.

This blog post is the culmination of a Twitter conversation between librarians talking about their experiences playing a phone game. The game is called Nekoatsume and it involves taking care of digital cats in a virtual backyard. Nekoatsume is entirely in Japanese, a key fact that actually started the Twitter conversation (and not the fact that the game involves cats, as might be expected).

In short: a librarian started playing a game, wrote some enticing tweets, and many more librarians joined in — and still are to this day.

While this was happening, Kelly wrote on her personal blog about the joy & ease of understanding the game despite its language barriers, and how it would be nice if students felt the same way about using databases and library resources. Library databases should be just as user-friendly as a game in a foreign language, but too often they’re not. Our students do use recreational technology, and Nekoatsume isn’t the first app in Japanese or Chinese to gain popularity in the U.S. in the last month. And it’s not that recreational technology is always user-friendly, either. Torrenting platforms, such as the Pirate Bay, are notoriously convoluted – especially in regards to persistent content – but anecdotal evidence suggests that our students are able to navigate these platforms with relative ease.1


As more and more librarians join in to play Nekoatsume, there’s a common experience that happens early on: the digital cats have disappeared — maybe they died, or ran away — and we believe that we’ve played the game wrong.


Megan even initially deleted the app out of frustration. The experience of not understanding phone cats, even when “everyone else” seemed to, left her in a position that many of our students might find themselves: lost, stupid, and unwilling to engage any further. Sadly, library resources do not contain cute digital cats to lure users back after a bad experience. Megan, on the other hand, was willing to give Nekoatsume another shot after the Twitter conversation, and she also found a walk-through for the game online.

The satisfaction from playing Nekoatsume comes from getting more & more cats, and more & more points. For library resources the outcome is often much less immediate: find resources, analyze evidence, fill a resource quota for a bibliography. The research process can also be very solitary, and having the ability to apply similar or shared experience can counteract that as well as other obstacles with online library resources. That is to say, having a related experience can help the process to feel seamless, less daunting. In the case of Nekoatsume, the language barrier subsides once the basic movements of the game are understood, whether through trial and error, consultation of the Twitter hive-mind, or reading online tutorials. Such resources are comparable to “cheat codes” in the gaming world, elements that facilitate getting to the next achievement level. In the library world, they are often referred to as “threshold concepts”. And while most online library resources do contain the same basic functionalities, such as as a button for “Search” and and a link for “Full-Text”, differences from platform to platform in placement and style contribute to a block in fulfilling that need for seamless usability.

Libraries do make a great effort to provide users with workshops, tutorials, and LibGuides to facilitate user understanding and research methods. However, such content can require a lot of explanation whether with words, pictures, live demonstrations, or a mix of all three. Sometimes it can feel like tutorials need their own tutorials! Discovery layers, such as Summon and Primo, begin to address the usability issue by providing a single destination for discovery, but with that libraries still need to address issues of demonstrating research purpose, enthusiasm, and information synthesis. With so many variables in acquiring research — design, functionality, search queries, tutorials — the outcome of research can be overshadowed by the multitude of platform interfaces, both within the library and on the open Web.

The hype for Nekoatsume may eventually subside (or not), but another app will likely take its place and we librarians will still be asking ourselves how to facilitate the next steps of scholarly research for our students. If we can find a way to foster essential research skills by relating them to similar experiences — like with social media, searching on the open Web, downloading torrents, and playing games with digital cats — perhaps the process to knowledge can feel less daunting.

…but maybe we should just embed cute cats into all things digital.

  1. This statement is not an endorsement for downloading torrents. []

It Takes All Kinds

I am a huge sucker for personality tests. It started young, I think – I’ve known I was an INFJ/ENFJ since I was a kid. Over the years I’ve branched out from the Myers-Briggs and taken a wide variety of tests, usually in either a school or work setting. Most recently the Collection Management division at UNT did the True Colors personality test. In this one you are ranked in four colors which each represent personality traits: blue, green orange, gold. I was skeptical, honestly, because the assessment seemed too simple. It consists of just five rows of attributes organized into four columns that you score as most-to-least accurate personal descriptors. And, of course, I became even more skeptical because I first scored everything backwards so my results ended up being way off. But once I got things straightened out (it was funny to see my coworkers disbelieving faces when I announced I was a gold which I am certainly NOT) the results were surprisingly accurate.

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The point is that this was a valuable exercise in self-awareness as well as team building. I learned about what motivates and what irritates my coworkers and what different skills sets each of us possess and value. However, I learned the most not from the test results themselves but from hearing feedback and opinions of my colleagues as we analyzed ourselves and discussed in which ways we fit the different categories (colors). It would be interesting to design a personality test that is wildly inaccurate but designed to foster conversation and collaborative skill analysis – I bet that would be just as valuable as something like this. All this to say – I love categorizing people through personality tests because I think it is a fun as well as professionally valuable activity. Among other things, it can help you understand why some tasks are difficult or unpleasant while other people excel at them. That being said, I really dislike personality tests that are used to categorize people into specific careers. This is commonly done in college and high school and, while it can be interesting, these tests simplify careers to the point that the test results are pointless and even harmful because they might keep someone from following a certain career path that might be a perfect fit for them.

For example, this infographic popped up on the ALA Facebook page this week (click to view):

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My initial response was irritation that it simplifies librarians into one role – that of an Organizer. That old-fashioned idea that librarians spend all their putting books on shelves using the Dewey Decimal system and maintaining a catalog. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the largest percentage of librarians are actually ‘Helpers’ not ‘Organizers’. This is probably especially true in school and public libraries but also in academic libraries – particularly librarians in Reference & Instruction or Public Services. Some academic librarians are Persuaders – they often end up as deans or other administrators and there are definitely Thinkers in the academic library. And we definitely have and need Creatives in the academic library – to support the art students and faculty or run the music library, among other things. But then I started thinking about the other careers mentioned. Couldn’t someone become a physician out of a desire to be a help people rather than practice science? Programmers, in my experience, are often more like Builders than Organizers – they are just building digital objects or applications instead of doing carpentry. So maybe this kind of categorization is useless all around, not just for librarians? Or are librarians just especially hard to categorize because we, as I’ve heard said, “wear lots of hats” – especially, perhaps in the academic environment?

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The Assistantship as Ethnography: A New Lens for LIS Students

“I wish to make the argument here for usability as a motive, ethnography as a practice, anthropology as a worldview”

This was the first sentence of Donna Lanclos’ recent keynote speech at UX Libs, an international conference devoted to user experience in libraries. I find Donna’s speech to be moving and eloquent while still offering concise, tangible evidence of the value of ethnography in libraries. Moreover, she engages and cites some of the most interesting work being done in our field right now in a thoughtful, nuanced way. I’ll use some of Donna’s insights as a framing for this post, which will be quoted in larger text throughout. This won’t do her keynote justice. Please, go read the full text of the speech linked above!

My last post was on what advice I would give to new LIS students and a few posts before that I talked about the need to provide LIS student feedback mechanisms and offer more peer-to-peer mentoring opportunities. Just last week, my friends and I composed a zine with advice we would offer new GSLIS students entering our program. A few of my friends put this awesome page together:


I want to take a deep dive into one of the topics mentioned a lot here: pre-professional opportunities. These are few and far between and often underpaid or unpaid. One of my unconference groups at the Symposium on LIS Education coined experiences like practicums “double jeopardy” because students are often left paying for credit hours to work for free with little or no added value in having a LIS faculty advisor.

This is a structural issue that I hope students, those practicing librarianship, and those in leadership positions in LIS schools will continue to try to solve. Nevertheless, the current situation demands that LIS job applicants have meaningful, tangible experience that they can talk about fluently. Moreover, applicants will be even more successful if they can apply their experiences to other contexts, if they can look beyond their institution and connect events to trends in pedagogy, administration, technology, and even higher education. But how does this actually happen? How can students start to think about their experiences in this way?

Take Donna’s advice: apply anthropology as your worldview and make ethnography one of your regular practices. This will inherently make you a better listener and employee because you will be someone who is more in-tune with the institution. But it will also make you a better LIS professional, someone who understands the ins and outs of hierarchy, decision-making, evaluation, consensus, communication, and leadership. Someone who can think critically, engage, and see beyond the trees to improve the entire forest. Remember that as you’re taking notes for a committee meeting, reading an internal announcement, reviewing lesson plans, developing features for the IR, answering a reference question, performing outreach about preservation, or even reading a policy document you are learning. You aren’t just learning about that topic. You are learning valuable information about that institution, about what it prioritizes and disengages, about how community works, and, ultimately, about the state of and priorities of librarianship.

Once you begin to think of your pre-professional work as ethnography, as measuring the pulse of that institution and the LIS profession, the following advice might be helpful. I wish I would have had it so I could have been more intentional about my assistantship from the very beginning.

Ask questions

“Asking questions is a good way of finding things out, Big Bird taught me that in my childhood.”

Donna’s words ring true for many situations. We cannot learn unless we ask questions. We cannot clarify until we have some level of understanding. Ask your colleagues, mentors, supervisors, and other leaders within the institution about anything and everything. Try to think about these questions as higher level inquiries. What questions should you ask to better understand the complex processes of the institution? What questions should you ask to know more not only about the specific project you’re on but also about what it means for that niche of librarianship?

As an example, on the reference desk alone you might have access to librarians who do not directly supervise you but have a great deal of knowledge to share with you. Go beyond asking them about your specific reference question. Absorb what they have to say about their department, their position, and their needs within the library. Diversify who you talk to. It’s often less about always asking the right question and more about being interested, willing, and eager to listen.

Take advantage of tools

I often think about ethnography as being embedded in the interworkings of a group of people in order to better understand things like need and motive, but that might just be part of the picture. David Green, the coordinator of the ERIAL project, once stated that the use of ethnography in libraries “puts a human face on real issues experienced in the real world and creates empathy, motivating us to address the issues instead of just talking about them” (see the entire interview). I think that tools—or artifacts—can also be a valuable means of learning more about an institution’s culture when combined with the questions and observance I have already described. The community’s tools aren’t necessarily valuable alone; however, they help to paint a larger picture of the community when combined with other information.

I use the word “tools” very broadly here. These are artifacts, modes of communication, and recording mechanisms. I will share a few specific examples here from my institution that might help illustrate my point. One is a listserv called LibNews. This listserv, while sometimes irrelevant and overwhelming (as many listservs are), contains an unbelievable amount of valuable information if you’re hoping to learn more about my institution. Hiring plans, departmental restructures, updates on initiatives in discovery, budget restructuring plans, professional development opportunities, and other cross-departmental communication all pass through this listserv. Reading these announcements will enable you to be more conversant about initiatives and specific names but it will also give you important context. This context could help you relate your institution to movements in scholarly communication, reference, technical services, digital services, and other areas.

The other type of tools you might pay attention to are assessment tools. You probably use these tools daily to record how many people attended your workshop or how many hours you spent on a specific project. Some tools are more specific than others. At my institution, we use a reference transaction tracking software called Desk Tracker. The questions that Desk Tracker asks you about a given reference transaction are formulated by our assessment librarian and team. You could easily just fill out the form and not think twice about it. But think about what questions are being asked about each transaction and why those questions are important. Why ask about subject area or referral made? What does that have to do with the institution’s hierarchy and subject liaison model? Why use a READ scale? How does that assist the library in documenting perceived value to the greater community? Why do they have to document and construct an argument for their value in the first place?

Now, don’t take this too literally. You can’t spend hours reading into every simple form your institution has made. At the same time, these tools, forms, and messages aren’t made in a vacuum. They have inherent value and meaning. Once you interrogate and think critically about the systems around you, you will have a more informed view of the community you’re in. 

Take advantage of every opportunity to learn 

Go to library conversations of any size. These could be everything from large strategic planning events to small committee meetings. If the event announcement is publicized somewhere you were able to see it, you are probably allowed to attend. These events will sometimes give you information about a development (recent LibQual survey feedback collected from users, for example) or even allow you to engage with others about a specific topic (strategic planning on how the library should be involved with transformative learning, for example). If you’re able to attend these events, they will sometimes give you information that is even more useful than the skills you are learning while working at your institution. Don’t get me wrong, skills are important. But being able to think and learn in a forward, progressive, critical way and converse with different stakeholders constructively is just as important.

Another great opportunity to take advantage of is job talks. Academic libraries often make these open to graduate hourlies and assistants. These talks are usually focused on the specific area or niche that the candidate will be working in, which means that you’ll be able to take a deep dive into that area and become more knowledgeable about something that isn’t necessarily your specialty. It also means that you will inherently be able to prepare for your own job talks by observing what works well and what doesn’t, especially as candidates utilize different presentation styles and field the audience’s questions or concerns differently.

Reflection doesn’t have to be lonely

“It requires reflection, the backing away from assumptions, it involves being uncomfortable with what is revealed.”

Reflection and metacognition are essential to not only retaining information but also being able to apply that information in a different context. Reflection often means making sense of prior experiences and pre-conceived notions about a topic once those have been challenged or reconstructed through new experiences. This is what your pre-professional experience is all about. It’s challenging to read the literature in class, see it in action in your position, and then engage with others about in a thoughtful way either through Twitter chats, blogging, or professional research. But remember that this reflection will make your observations richer, your understanding more developed and insightful. Reflection will help you go beyond observation and dive into creating your own unique stance and philosophy of librarianship.

“I want to emphasize the importance of sharing, of collective thinking, of not thinking of ourselves as special snowflakes, of not allowing the tendency to silo distract us from what we can reveal, confront, solve together, as a team.”

I believe that reflection is best done with others. I hope that this shines through in other posts where I try to convey the importance of working through new knowledge with colleagues, especially peers and those going through similar pre-professional experiences. It’s quite simple, really. Other people help us see the value in adopting new perspectives. They push us to think about our experiences in a new and complicated ways we hadn’t previously considered. In short, your reflection will be much more valuable to you, and the world, when shared.

Put it all together

“And for it to be useful, you should be embedded enough to know enough to be able to interpret the meaning of questions, and deploy them effectively…  You have to ask questions of lots of people and then interpret what they say, in the context of all of the other information you have gathered.”

This might be the most valuable piece of the puzzle. You have to piece everything you learn together. By “everything you have learned,” I mean absolutely everything. This goes beyond your practicum or internship or assistantship and includes your class discussions, assignments, Twitter feed, the library blogs you follow, the conferences you attend. It will shape your perspective, your research, and possibly even what type of institution you want to work at.

This mindset of making connections, even when they are complicated, will serve you throughout your career as you try to understand users, relate to colleagues, and even convey your perspective to others.

But don’t internalize it

Now that I have spent a great deal of time trying to convince you to become a more embedded observer of your institution’s culture, I’d like to offer a warning. Don’t internalize it. I know it’s difficult, but don’t take the politics or the conflict home with you. Becoming more attune to the beliefs and values of your institution will obviously meant that you know and understand more. Don’t conflate “knowing more” with having to feel responsible or helpless or frustrated.

Honestly, this has been the most difficult part for me. When we feel connected and passionate about our work, it is even more of a challenge to let something go. Yet, as you observe, think about how you could improve the institution or even how you could improve the profession but remember that right now you are also just creating a foundation for your work as a professional. You don’t own all of your institution’s problems. Jacob Berg’s tweet says all you need to know:

I am not my job

Advice for mentors, supervisors, and leaders

I’d like to be clear here: I believe that having an insightful, open mentor can make all of the difference for LIS students attempting to get the most out of their experience. While this is a different context, some of Donna’s assertions are uncannily true here too:

“If the only people who can comprehend what we are doing are the people who already know the secret passwords, who already have the map, the keys to the kingdom, we have failed.”

This, I think, is the key to good mentoring, teaching, and supervising. Transparency helps students understand why things are the way they are, even if they are not—and will never be—perfect. “Protecting” students from the truth is a Band-Aid solution. Even if you are able to hide bureaucracy or conflicts from students right now, you do them a disservice by not preparing them to navigate and understand these hurdles in their professional life, which is just around the corner. I understand that sometimes students can’t know absolutely everything about an institution. But (ask yourself) what can the strengths and weaknesses of your organization teach the student you’re supervising?

“What do I mean by a pedagogy of questions? It’s teaching through asking. Not by telling.”

Often we think that mentoring means telling LIS students how to do something or even how to think about something. I think good mentoring actually means pushing students to come to their own understanding about a topic or project. Mentoring is, of course, an extension of teaching. Teaching critically is about giving students the space and autonomy to construct their own understanding from their lived experiences. It’s about empowering them as creators of and contributors to knowledge. It’s about recognizing and identifying systems of oppression and opposing them. Mentors should use this framework to realize and act on the value of giving students the autonomy to identify and challenge power structures and develop their own individual voice and professional practice.

Thanks to Lisa Hinchliffe for inspiring this post and Donna Lanclos for giving me the vocabulary and passion to see it through. 

Let’s Assess!

The California State University system has been considering a move to performance-based funding. Librarians here have expressed a lot of consternation about how we can show we’re worth funding, let alone why we should have to show it at all. At the same time, Cal State Fullerton is making a big push towards implementing and assessing High Impact Practices (HIPs) as part of our focus on increasing student engagement, retention, and graduation, so as a library we have to figure out how we can incorporate HIPs as well.

I think there’s a tendency for librarians to worry a lot about how we’re going to assess what we do, both because it’s not something we’ve done formally and we’re inexperienced with it, and because librarians worry that their academic freedom is going to be impinged.

As an Instructional Design Librarian, I see the push towards assessment a little more optimistically (though I’m not at all onboard with performance-based funding!). However, I am interested in being effective at what I do, whether facilitating student learning, or providing outreach at campus events. I want to know if I’m making a difference. I also feel pretty well equipped to perform assessment activities since instructional design is my specialty.

What do you want to know?

Before we should start worrying about how we’re going to assess what we do, we have to decide what we want to assess. I think that there are two paths to decide on what we want to assess. There are our campus priorities, which of course we have to support, especially with the possibility of performance-based funding. There are also our own priorities – what kind of library do we want to be? What kinds of services and collections do we want to provide? What do we want students to learn from our one-shots?

I’m an Instructional Design Librarian, so naturally my assessment focus has an instructional bent. I like to write learning objectives for every session I teach, and each learning object that I create. Learning objectives ought to be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and (sometimes) Time-bound. I write objectives for one-shots like “students will be able to give two examples of why a scholarly database is a better choice for university research than Google,” or they’ll be able to “describe the process for finding books using the Books & eBooks tab on the Pollak Library home page.” I’m not likely to demand that students write essays on how to search for books at our library so that I can formally measure their mastery, but I am likely to do an informal assessment to verify that students are learning.

Both formal and informal assessment will give us useful information on what works and what doesn’t, possibly saving us from using time and money on instructional efforts that aren’t effective. Formal assessment is just the quizzes and tests we give, or other graded assignments from which we can collect data. Informal assessment might just consist of chatting with your students to see if they “get it,” or if students are actually accomplishing a given task that they were assigned. I use a lot of informal assessment in my one-shot sessions due to limited time. However, I’m also working on a couple of assessment-related projects at my university that will yield useful data.

ID Workshops, ACRL Assessment in Action, and Badges

As this post falls under the cateogory “First Year Academic Librarian Experience,” you might assume that I’m still a new librarian. You’d be correct. That means I haven’t yet accomplished any meaningful assessment efforts, but I’m on my way. Last month I planned and delivered an instructional design workshop for librarians, wherein I introduced the concepts of Backward Design and how to write learning objectives. We definitely need to work more on writing measurable learning objectives, and I plan to deliver more workshops in the future. (FYI, I assessed my “students’” learning through Plickrs and Padlets in the class, but it was definitely informal assessment). I want to help librarians discover ways they can be as effective as possible in their work.

I’ll be doing some major assessing for the next 14 months since I’m now the proud Librarian Team Leader of the Pollak Library Assessment in Action (AiA) Team, part of the third cohort of ACRL’s AiA program. We’re going to embed our Human Services Librarian into an online class this fall, and assess his impact on student learning. This particular Human Services class used to come in for in-person instruction, but since it’s gone totally online the instructors have done without library instruction. This is a trend at our university, so I’d like to learn how we can better serve our online students and now just let them fall off our radar.

Finally, I’m contemplating the mechanics of implementing a badges program here at our university. I recently managed to get a really simple (beta) eLearning webpage going for us on a WordPress platform. There are several WordPress plugins that can be purchased that turn your WordPress site into an LMS – like LearnDash and Sensei. With the site magically transformed into an LMS, we can award badges based on quiz and tutorial completion. How cool would it be to tally up the number of Super Searcher badge-holders? If we were able to track our badge-holding students’ retention and graduation rates, we’d have some really nice information on the library’s correlation with student success!