Experiences in Collaboration

In seventh grade, my English teacher required us to read a book each month and write a report on it. Naturally, there was an approved list of titles one could choose from, and on it were the works of Agatha Christie. My suspicion is that I’d seen one of the Poirot episodes on A&E and that piqued my interest in reading the works of Christie. Her Poirot novels I read in seventh grade were my entree into the detective novel genre – one that I enjoy to the present day.

It’s a love I share with my wife and Saint Bernard, as many evenings find us at home crammed on the couch watching one or another episode of a detective show. Poirot, Sherlock (both the Cumberbatch and Jeremy Brett incarnations), and Nero Wolfe are among our favorites. Recently, however, our show of preference has been Foyle’s War, set in World War II Great Britain. Many elements make this a great program – Michael Kitchen’s acting is excellent and the intro theme is lovely – but most interesting is the collaboration between Foyle (Michael Kitchen), his driver Sam Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) and his Sergeant, Paul Milner (Anthony Howell). While Foyle is, in typical detective genre style, the “brain” behind it all, he would not be as successful without Sam and Sgt. Milner.

It was this collaboration that set my mind to thinking about collaboration for those of us that don’t investigate murders and jewel thefts, but instead work together to give access to the information held by our respective institutions. As a first-year academic librarian I’ve found collaboration both in and out of the library to be invaluable. It occurs to me that my posts here have touched on this but I’ve never really talked about the value of collaboration to me as a “first year.”

In my previous position, I worked closely and collaborated with the librarians who are now my colleagues here at the University of Arkansas. At a fundamental level, working well with others gives you a good reputation in the library community, both locally and globally. If that collaboration had not existed and been a positive one I would more than likely not have been selected for the position I am in now.

That is, admittedly, a selfish way to think about collaboration – and as members of the academy, we strive for service to that academy, as well as our respective disciplines. Most of that work is carried out in committees – to my mind a formalized collaboration. And as it’s something many of you have had experience with I will not spend any more time writing about committees. No, what I have in mind are the less formal collaborations one participates in.

For me these informal collaborations make my work richer in two very tangible ways. First, with a fellow cataloger here as well as a library specialist, I wrote an article currently under review at Cataloging & Classification Quarterly. The article details our method for handling electronic theses and dissertations, and is much richer with their contributions and ideas. Also, I don’t know if I could have written the article without their help and prodding! Second, in collaboration with Sarah Burke Cahalan of Dumbarton Oaks, I am presenting at the RBMS preconference in Las Vegas about an under researched scientific illustrator who spent most of his career in the Ozarks. This presentation and research would not have been possible without Sarah’s work with the artist’s family and her work with institutions in her area that hold work by this artist. I am immensely grateful for her work in making our research about the artist far better than that which I could have done on my own. As an aside, I will also say that our library administration really appreciates these collaborations – especially with other outside institutions.

So these collaborations are indeed valuable and helpful to the first-year librarian. What can you do to facilitate these collaborations? First, listen. Listen to the research interests and areas of your colleagues – academics love nothing better than to talk about their own research. Second, reach out. I never would have met Sarah if it weren’t for twitter. It’s important to have an active professional presence in whatever social media arena you feel comfortable in. Third, don’t be afraid of asking – the worst that could happen is that a potential collaborator could say no.

Finally, my charge to you is to start some form of collaboration next week. Identify and have lunch with a faculty member on campus about a shared research interest. Reach out to your “research hero” at another institution about that great idea you’ve had. But most of all, do it all with an upbeat attitude and a kind smile on your face!

Embedding, Flipping, and More at LOEX 2014

I was fortunate to be able to attend the LOEX Conference this year, which took place May 8-10 in Grand Rapids, MI. I have only ever heard great things about this conference, and accordingly, I had a great experience.

This was my first time attending the LOEX Conference and I only became aware of it recently (within the past year). Many readers here will likely be familiar with LOEX, but for those who aren’t, LOEX stands for Library Orientation Exchange and it is a “self-supporting, non-profit educational clearinghouse for library instruction and information literacy information.” The annual conference has earned a reputation for being particularly relevant and exciting for instruction and information literacy librarians, as attested by the many people I met who were either multiple-time attendees, or thrilled to finally get to go to the conference.

I went into the conference with high expectations, which were met and exceeded. The two days were full of presentations and workshops that are extremely relevant to my work, and with ideas I can incorporate by making small changes. I love coming away with new ideas that are practical, so I can actually implement them myself. Here are some things that the LOEX Conference got me thinking about:

Embedding

A few presentations focused on embedded librarianship in one way or another. “Embedded” often refers to being embedded in an online course, but these conversations also brought up ways to extend the library’s presence beyond the one-shot, without necessarily being embedded online. For example, librarians can collaborate with faculty to redesign a course or a central assignment. That sounds like it can be a huge task (to me, at least), but some possibilities for integrating information literacy outside of the one-shot could be having students do a reflection paper about their research process, introducing concept mapping to develop literature reviews, or discussing with faculty how information literacy fits in with their own disciplinary content and pedagogical goals.

Another opportunity to be more embedded comes as a solution to a common problem – when you receive a request for instruction at the very beginning of the semester, clearly not at the point-of-need. Of course, try to schedule the instruction session at a time when students will benefit more from the information, but you could also visit the classroom at the initial request for a short 5-10 minute introduction of yourself and the library. This would increase students’ familiarity with a librarian and allow you to build a relationship with students prior to the one-shot session, an important connection which I think can go a long way. If the initial classroom visit gets too time-intensive, it could be replaced by a re-usable introduction video.

Flipping

During the interactive session on the flipped classroom, my group ended up talking about student buy-in and accountability: what do you do when students come to class having not done the pre-assignment or reading? One answer is to plan ahead with faculty so that the pre-assignment can be added to their syllabus, thus adding more accountability. My first reaction to this idea was that there is no way I can have instruction sessions planned out far enough in advance to be added to a syllabus. However, I now think this could take the form of a more general statement, for example:  “At least one class session will be led by a librarian to introduce you to library resources and assist with research skills. This may require a pre-assignment.” This leads to another point that the presenters stressed as important for a successful flipped classroom: identifying faculty who will be supportive. It’s less likely that students will see value where their instructor doesn’t.

That session also served as a great reminder for me that flipping the class should not be an opportunity to cram in more information, but an opportunity to cover a topic more in depth through the use of a pre-assignment and in-class active learning. I realized that the one time I somewhat-flipped the classroom, it was because I didn’t have time to cover everything I wanted to. I sent a video tutorial for them to watch ahead of time, and it was just an add-on, rather than an enhancement.

And More

These are really just a few things that I came away with after LOEX, and it’s already my longest post here yet. Some other useful ideas I picked up had to do with active learning assessment, design recommendations for online tutorials, and reflecting on and improving teaching strategies.

I constantly had a tough time deciding which session to attend, because they all looked good. By scrolling through the conference hashtag (#loex2014) on Twitter, I could tell that was the case. One thing I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed the interactive sessions. Although I didn’t think I would want to interact very much, I ended up loving how they facilitated conversation and sharing of ideas with new people.

It was great to attend a conference for academic librarians that was so focused on instruction and information literacy, and I definitely hope to go to the LOEX Conference again sometime.

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.