Maintaining in Academic Libraries

The spring conference season is in full swing, and one weekend earlier this month it seemed like there were conferences of interest to me all over the place, judging from the hashtags in my Twitter timeline: #PLA2016, #SAA2016 (Society of American Archaeologists), #OAH2016 (Organization of American Historians), #DifferentGames2016, and #AERA16 (American Educational Research Association), just to name (more than) a few.

But of all of those great-looking events, most of my conference envy (and associated hashtag-following) was reserved for #maintainers, hashtag for The Maintainers: A Conference, at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. From the description on the conference website:

Many groups and individuals today celebrate “innovation.” The notion is influential not only in engineering and business, but also in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. For example, “innovation” has become a staple of analysis in popular histories – such as Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

This conference takes a different approach, one whose conceptual starting point was a playful proposal for a counter-volume to Isaacson’s that could be titled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time.

From the tweets I caught this conference looked fascinating, and you can read more about it in the shared conference notes doc (with many links to full papers) as well as in the essay Hail the Maintainers published in Aeon by conference organizers Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell the day before the conference. And since the conference I’ve been mulling over this tension of maintenance vs. innovation, and how it might be expressed in academic libraries.

Like our transit infrastructure, libraries require maintenance work to function, work that touches every part of our libraries: facilities, resources, services (in alphabetical order, not necessarily order of importance). This maintenance work, while crucial, sometimes seems easy to forget, especially as annual reporting season rolls around each year. Do we report the maintenance work we do? If we don’t report it, administrators, faculty, staff, and students outside the library might not know it’s happening, so I would argue that yes, we should report it.

But maintenance can’t be the only thing happening in academic libraries — as technology, access to information, and higher education more generally go through changes, libraries do as well. One danger of focusing only on maintenance is that it might prevent us from trying something new that could bring real benefits to us as workers or to the communities we serve. Adding new (or making changes to existing) facilities, resources, and services can also bring new requirements for maintenance. Perhaps there’s legacy maintenance that’s no longer needed, allowing us to balance between continuing and new efforts within the constraints of our time and budgets?

I bristle when I read the phrase “do more with less” because I want to resist the overwork and burnout that can happen to all of us, especially when necessary maintenance work can seem invisible or underappreciated. And I think that innovation as a buzzword can sometimes be used to encourage us to do more with less, to believe that innovation alone will overcome the limitations of funding and time. But I also don’t think that flat or declining budgets mean that we shouldn’t change — I think it’s worth our efforts to figure out if there is maintenance work that we can stop doing that can allow us to try something new (which, if successful, will of course require maintenance of its own).

Is maintenance the opposite of innovation in academic libraries? Can we do both? Must we do both? To be honest, I’m still puzzling through my thoughts about this, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Publishing Practice: Developing a Professional Identity

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Chelsea Heinbach, MLIS student at the University of Denver; Cyndi Landis, MLIS student at Emporia State University, and Alison Hicks, faculty at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

How can we bridge the divide between learning about library instruction and engaging more concretely with a teaching librarian’s values and responsibilities? This was the question that drove the design of a writing assignment in our recent library instruction course at the University of Denver, and that we have been grappling with since the semester ended. Designed to mimic a core part of many academic teaching librarian positions, as well as to involve students more closely with teaching librarian communities, the assignment asked students to write a 3000 word essay that was peer-reviewed by librarians in the field, and published as an Open Access book.

Drawing from the idea of publishing as pedagogy, as well as sociocultural learning theories that emphasize participation rather than imitation, students were excited to mold the assignment on the first day of class. At the same time, the prospect of writing for a broad audience at this stage of a career was very different from previous LIS program experiences. This blogpost serves to explore the experiences of two MLIS students who participated in this project, Chelsea Heinbach (University of Denver) and Cyndi Landis (Emporia State University), as well as attempting to reflect on the role and nature of instruction librarian education today.

Merging practice and theory

The MLIS degree is largely practical in nature. As academic librarians in training we talk about publishing as well as open access, conferences, and peer review, but there is often little room built in for identifying our own place in these processes. While there are opportunities to publish as a student, there are rarely chances in class to simulate the peer review process and to treat our work as serious academic contributions. The future regarding our own publishing remains abstract for the entirety of our master’s degree and there are few chances to explore our professional writing goals and ideas. This assignment offered us valuable mentorship in academic writing, extensive and thoughtful suggestions for improvement, as well as an opportunity to explore our professional identity in a supportive environment.

Value

As a graduate student, there is pressure to have something on your resume to make you stand out among the pool of job applicants. We each scramble to find that extra separator to distinguish ourselves from others or at least to fill in the blanks of which accomplishments we think we should have by now. This assignment was something we could be proud of and use to prove ourselves.

Excitement and intimidation swept over us as we began to research and select our instruction topics. What did we want to know as a future teaching librarian? What could we research to make this open access book contribution count? This assignment was the opportunity we’d been waiting for throughout our graduate school experience – a professional introduction into scholarship that was guided and supported rather than just an assignment to be completed and tucked away in our personal portfolio.

Unlike most research papers throughout our LIS programs, this assignment would be shared with professionals beyond the student-teacher relationship. Not only would library professionals assist in the peer-review process, but the open access book would later be promoted within the LIS field as an example of this unique approach. This exercise was designed to emulate what research could be like in the “real-world”. Even the peer reviewers wished they had a similar opportunity when they were in school.

While we recognized this as a valuable opportunity that we were excited to engage with, we also grew nervous about the implications. With the permanence of this piece weighing heavy on each step of the writing and research process, we began to unravel the pieces of its potentially lasting effects. What topic would best fit our future career goals? Would it be something we could use to start building our curriculum vitae? Throughout the assignment, we felt the reality of this valuable opportunity sinking in, causing us to reflect hesitantly on the formation of our professional identity and our overall contributions to the field.

Editing

As we received feedback from our instructor and reviewer, the constructive comments revealed areas for improvement. Our wandering thoughts now had direction and our emphatic assertions were paired within the context of practicing librarians; we had a glimpse into our book’s audience and we could refine our papers with confidence.Throughout our academic careers, we had rarely received the opportunity to improve our scholarly writing within the assignment, or even within the course. The peer-review process gave us genuine, productive feedback to revise our paper before submitting the final piece for publication.

The feedback was two-fold, receiving detailed comments from Alison and our peer-reviewer. Comments ranged from pointing out areas to improve writing clarity, to making connections to concepts that we hadn’t seen before, and suggesting other sources to use for a broader perspective. As we are not yet practicing librarians, we found that some of the issues we wanted to discuss are already common knowledge in the profession. The reviewers’ comments provided the insight of instruction practitioners, helping us identify what truly needed further discussion and what research conclusions would prove helpful to our professional audience.

The level of detail in the feedback given in this assignment highlighted the lack of response have routinely received throughout our academic careers. With a few exceptions, we have rarely received suggestions for improvement on our work and instead have simply received a grade. After pouring hours into research and writing, a final grade isn’t as satisfying as encouragement and thoughtful recommendations for further development. Up until this point, some of our most demanding academic work stemmed from our expectations of ourselves and our future goals.

Identity

This assignment, therefore, provided a welcome break from the standard dynamic, as it gave us an opportunity to explore and assert our views in a way that felt more impactful than a simple class paper. It was encouraging to be taken seriously by a professional in the field and to have the opportunity to contribute to such a unique project.

However, after the excitement of the opportunity wore off, we realized we felt nervous about moving from passively reading the literature to owning our own viewpoints. This class is a mere ten weeks long and, as students, many of us are balancing multiple jobs, volunteer positions, job applications, committee obligations, and other classes. In addition, the academic library world can feel like an overwhelmingly polarized place where work is judged and dismissed openly and critically. While these conversations lead us to important awakenings regarding issues in the profession, we found it difficult to feel comfortable as students making assertions when we were still developing our own positions. Perhaps this was simply due to overzealous imposter syndrome, but it is why some of us ultimately focused on topics that were not overwhelmingly controversial, and decided against making an obvious political statement with our work.

In the end, this pressure to cultivate raw ideas and develop work that would be seen led to a more genuine interaction with the content than we have had in most other classes. Ultimately, it helped us develop our professional research goals in a more concrete and granular way, giving us a better understanding of publishing demands. At the same time, the intersection between student research and professional practice exposed some eye-opening issues that arise for LIS students. We are taught general theories of librarianship and given research assignments with little guidance of whether our conclusions and assertions are appropriate in the context of the challenges professionals face. To combat this block between the classroom and our professional careers, one of the most beneficial experiences we can have during library school is a mentor in our chosen area of librarianship.

We really appreciated the feedback and we encourage librarians to seek out opportunities to mentor LIS students, to share their professional experiences, and to help to bridge the divide between theory and practice. This project enlisted an enthusiastic group of librarian reviewers, who we recognize as invisible laborers behind its success. We are grateful to them for their  collaborative participation and commitment to bettering LIS student work through this publishing practice. Lastly, this memorable assignment would not have been possible without Alison’s insightful vision, reviewer matchmaking, and endless encouragement. When students and professionals engage in dialogue, it fuels our profession with a stronger foundation of new ideas and perspectives.

Advice and suggestions for future improvements

For anyone who is interested in building upon this assignment, we would offer the following advice:

  • Scaffold: The assignment built in plenty of drafting time so the peer review really helped to edit and shape the final essays. At the same time, many students found that choosing a relevant topic was tough. We suggest plenty of class discussion about potential directions, as well as interviewing a professional before starting in order to get guidance.
  • Workshop: Our class did not build in any in-class workshopping, but that could have made the delivery of the first draft less stressful. The process of reviewing other people’s work is always helpful for writers to experience, too.
  • Connect: This assignment was strengthened through the matching of reviewers with paper topics about which they were knowledgeable. Although the entire process was double blind,we found that this expertise, as well as the sincerity that the reviewers brought to the assignment, added considerably to the development of the second draft.

Read the book online: http://gotaminute.pressbooks.com/
Read the archived PDF: http://digitalcommons.du.edu/lis_stuother/3/

People and place: Musings on organizational culture

Last year, a few of my colleagues and I were awarded a small grant to develop an information literacy learning community for faculty, librarians, and staff in regional colleges and universities. In this first year of our grant, we’ve been facilitating discussion groups with stakeholders to better understand information literacy practices and needs at each of the six institutions. We’re trying to identify shared needs and themes across institutions so we can effectively shape the learning community. We’ve met with 80+ stakeholders. These discussion groups have been valuable and revealing. We’ve learned a good deal about each institution’s varied approaches to and perspectives on (not to mention challenges with) information literacy. We’ve been talking with stakeholders about institutional values and change, too. We want to find hooks to help connect the learning community to each campus and anticipate what might impede its implementation and success. Of course, we can glean this from the conversation generally–its nature and tone–but we have also been explicitly asking questions like: What’s valued on your campus? What drives change? What are obstacles to change?

In some ways, these have been the most interesting parts of the conversations, providing a glimpse into how each campus works, what each campus most esteems, and how people communicate and participate in the life and work of each campus. These institutions are grouped primarily because of geographic proximity. The variations in institution type and mission, then, can explain some differences: the emphasis on undergraduate teaching in the small liberal arts college versus the emphasis on research in the university, for example. Financial status and its accompanying freedoms or restrictions–money may flow more freely at a well-endowed institution, for example, whereas resources may be more limited at a tuition-driven institution–can also influence people’s behaviors and outlooks. Still, the differences between the schools seem deeper and more nuanced than mission and money alone can explain. These conversations have really thrown the nature and impact of organizational culture into sharp relief.

What struck me most in our discussion groups were the differences in collegiality, interconnectedness, and agency: how participants spoke to and about each other, how interested participants seemed in the opportunity to learn from and share with each other in a future learning community, and how much power over and engagement in their campus environment they felt they had. Of course, individual personalities play a significant role in such interactions and outlooks. And, again, institutional mission and funding contribute, too. But there are still other forces that shape relationships, attitudes, and behavior. Jason Martin, for example, suggests that “rites and rituals,” or “the way we do things around here,” are powerful influences on and manifestations of an organization’s culture.

So as I reflect on the differences I’ve observed in the institutional snapshots afforded to me through these discussion groups, what I wonder about most is how does organizational culture change (for better or worse)? And then, how do we change organizational culture?

swirl

Swirl” by Zack Jones is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

A selection of examples from the corporate/business sector (like this one and this one) suggests that effective and sustained change requires a multi-faceted, and mostly top-down, approach including: leadership and management, control systems and reward systems, and more. Indeed, a skilled manager and/or a visionary leader (not necessarily one and the same, of course) are powerful motivators and change agents in both business and higher education generally, and libraries more specifically. Yet leadership in libraries–in my experience, at least–is often distributed. To ignore the role of individuals as not only players, but agents of change, seems both erroneous and perilous.

So what does organizational change look like in libraries? In their article about the University of Saskatchewan Library, Carol Shepstone and Lyn Currie stress the important role each library staff member plays in perpetuating an existing culture, identifying a preferred culture, and effectively changing culture. They identify staff new to the organization especially as important in influencing change.

I’ve witnessed and participated in large-scale organizational change directed by a titled leader and some of it has been to great effect. But it seems to me that organizational change can and does happen in smaller, more incremental ways, too. I think of the daily aspirations my colleagues and I pursue and the affirmations we try to offer each other. I think of how a single person’s tone or attitude or behavior can change the temperature of a room or the potential of an organization.

How do you think change happens? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Do I Have to Be An Expert? Helping Students Understand and Confront Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome hit me hard as soon as I entered the job market. As I perused job announcements and skimmed the required and preferred qualification sections, a sinking feeling crept into my chest: How will anyone ever hire me without experience? How will I gain this necessary experience when all of these job announcements want candidates with experience? Do my MLIS and various internships fall short of this requirement? Will I ever get a job? Those fears may have subsided when I received my first job offer, but the sentiment definitely followed me into the first year of professional employment. And I am certainly not alone. From the discussions around emotional labor (which inherently includes imposter syndrome) during LIS Mental Health Week, to scholarly articles and blog posts, it is difficult to argue that imposter syndrome does not exist among academic librarians, especially new ones like me.

But I find less discussion about imposter syndrome among college students. As a subject liaison to a school experiencing unprecedented growth in its online program, much of my daily tasks revolve around curating and assessing library interventions for a large number of first-generation, distance, and non-traditional students. Many of these students are second-career students who haven’t stepped foot (virtually or otherwise) in a classroom in at least a few years, or, sometimes, as long as a decade or more. In addition to meeting the demands of a rigorous graduate program, these students also work at least part-time to support themselves and their families, and complete internships that are a required component of the curriculum. Additionally, the school recently revamped its curriculum to include more rigorous courses in research methodology and data analysis. So how is all of this affecting students?

Recently, I presented library instruction to a group of students in a foundation-year course about research and data analysis. During the Q & A portion, a student hesitantly asked whether practitioners had to understand statistics to be successful. The student was visibly frustrated, so I thought about it, and said that she didn’t need to be a statistician to be a good practitioner, but she did need baseline knowledge of statistics in order to understand this type of research. I relayed my own shortcomings in this area – I took statistics twice during my undergraduate degree and did poorly both times – but explained that it didn’t affect my ability to be a “successful” librarian. She seemed satisfied with the answer, but this experience reminded me that imposter syndrome is a very real phenomenon among students. Of course this student was upset, because everything in the curriculum leads students to believe they need to walk through the door as experts in this field. The student felt like an imposter. College may be the first time in students’ lives that they fully experience imposter syndrome, especially in an educational setting, and this student reminded me that helping students navigate these tacit areas of the college experience is just as important as helping them craft a good research question.

So what are the action items? What does “reaching out” look like? How can I help students who are wrestling with imposter syndrome while acknowledging the uniqueness of their experiences and the privilege of my own perspective as a gainfully employed librarian?

It starts with positive reinforcement. As an educator, acknowledge that students bring unique experiences and perspectives to the table. Then tell them that they do – even if their unique qualities do not include statistical prowess. I encourage students to reflect deeply on their goals and harness their abilities in those areas. A less grammatically correct way of saying this is, be the best at whatever you are good at.

Imposter syndrome is caused by the idea the we need to conform, that we need to be conventionally exceptional (oxymoronic much?). It is a direct result of the neoliberal model of higher education. Tell students that there is another way. I remind them that we need more people in the world who will foster collaboration instead of trying to the best individually. We exist in a time when we have too much competition, and not enough collaboration in academia and beyond.

When I sense imposter syndrome in a student, I use it as a teaching moment. But I don’t tell students that “everyone has it” because it is not incredibly helpful. Instead, I explain that imposter syndrome is false because you are not an imposter. Your experiences, opinions, and ideas are valuable. Look at your peers and examine why they are valuable. How can you help them? Maybe you can work together, and learn from each other.

The Caltech Counseling Center offers detailed explanations of imposter syndrome as it relates to students, suggestions for understanding imposter syndrome, and outlines the connection of imposter syndrome with gender. The University of Michigan has similar information for graduate students. Inside Higher Ed published a fantastic piece about imposter syndrome written by a graduate student. These sources may be immensely helpful for students who are beginning to understand the effects of imposter syndrome. But I also believe that there are grassroots, campus-wide efforts that we, as librarians, can implement to help undergraduate students who face imposter syndrome. We aren’t their professors (at least, most of us aren’t), but we aren’t their classmates either. For better or worse, we occupy neutral spaces on campus and can reach out to students in distinctive ways. Recently, I founded a first-generation college student initiative in my library. Among my many goals, I hope to help students navigate the tacit barriers that underlie the undergraduate college experience. Partnerships with student services groups, student caucuses, or other stakeholders across campus are among my other goals to help students mediate imposter syndrome.

As librarians, we are uniquely poised to help students with imposter syndrome. I take my role as an educator seriously and want to help students steer the range of problems they face during their academic careers. Instead of competition, I encourage collaboration. Rather than focus on perceived shortcomings, I encourage mindfulness in the areas in which they excel. And I remind students that imposter syndrome is false.

Everyone is an imposter, and nobody is an imposter.

OER Outreach for Newbies, Part III: Embracing the Messiness

This post is the third in a three-part series devoted to OER outreach (here are the first and second posts). I’ll use this post to advocate for more transparency from the library open education community in order to encourage OER newbies to take risks and share mistakes.

The most important thing I’m going to do moving forward is be open about my OER work—both the pretty parts and the ugly parts. Emily Drabinksi has acknowledged that the stumbling blocks of our work often don’t make the cut as conference proposals. They aren’t flashy or impressive. But they’re important. So I’d like to ask: how can we, as a community of librarians, make our OER work more open?

Many (though not all) of the OER sessions I’ve attended, particularly those that were facilitated by librarians, have been success stories. These sessions usually focus on (currently) high buy in from stakeholders and administration, high adoption rates, and increasing infrastructure. These sessions can be incredibly intimidating to someone new to OER outreach. Moreover, they privilege product over process and hide the messiness, the mistakes, and the misunderstandings—the work that I believe is most important for us to share in order to grow as a community.

As an example, Eleta Exline, the Scholarly Communication Coordinator at University of New Hampshire, shared tips and “what I wish I would have known”s with me before I started our OER stipend program and, as a result, I was able to think proactively and improve logistics before the program was even announced. Eleta encouraged me to create OER support teams for our recipients and brainstorm opportunities for the recipients to build a community and cross-pollinate by sharing successes, failures, and stumbling blocks with each other throughout the semester. Our faculty have a much more robust and thoughtful support structure in place because of her. For this reason, I’ve been explicit about what I wish I would have done differently here on ACRLog (for everyone to read!) but I also hope to continue to share moments of learning through Twitter and possibly conferences.

Perhaps one of the most important (and frankly disappointing) things I’ve learned as a new librarian is that academic librarianship can sometimes be an exclusive, impermeable club where our hiring practices enable us to swap superstars back and forth and our conference decisions mean that the same people are asked keynote again and again. We don’t always make entry and success easy for those new to the field or a specific area, like open education. I’m not yet embedded in the open education community to know if the same is true there. But I want to continually ask myself: am I making space for new voices? If I have an opportunity to lift up someone new to this area, do I? How do I privilege the same voices, knowingly or unknowingly? We need both transparency (the tools newbies need to get started) and inclusivity (the space newbies need to learn, grow, fail, and most importantly, share).