Serendipity Without Stacks

Timeliness, structure, and willingness to perform process-oriented tasks and maintain operations with consistency are some of the work behaviors that I associate with librarians who have experience as hourly library workers.  For those reasons, I value the years that I spent as a full-time library staff person before being offered my first librarian role.

But moving from classified to professional status has, for me at least, involved a paradigm shift that has been difficult at times to wrap my head around.   As library staff, I had some autonomy and input into decision making, but my primary role was to carry out library protocol.  I believed that a cheerful, ‘can do’ attitude was the objective that I should constantly be striving for, and sometimes I even succeeded at that goal!

As a librarian however, I’m finding that a plucky attitude and a consistent desire to do my job well are only the beginning.  I must also conceptualize some of the overarching goals and objectives that I want to define my library career.  It isn’t that I’ve never thought critically about the role and future of libraries…I certainly did in graduate school!  However, over the last couple of years, I had put those thoughts aside in order to focus on job knowledge.  Moreover, I was engaged in a search for a professional job, and I wanted to keep my options open; I believed that over-narrowing my focus would be problematic.

Now, though, it is time for me to think deeply about the paradigms around which I wish to structure my career.  In some library roles, professionals are anchored by a collection or a narrowly focused user group, and their career objectives flow naturally from those starting points.   My position is a little different.  As I mentioned in a previous post, my job is newly created and intentionally flexible.  Moreover, I work in a non-traditional academic library environment, which is fairly young (the UW Library Research Commons is only 3 years old).

No doubt there are many library paradigms that I will come to explore, ponder, and perhaps even subvert (!) over the course of my career.  The one that I have been thinking about a lot lately, however, it that of the “serendipity of the stacks.”  I’m not sure where I first encountered this term, but a little quick research turns up an article by Michael Hoeflich [1] which captures succinctly the spirit of the idiom; that of the fortuitous nature of research and the intellectual thrill of making an important research discovery that can only be achieved through deep relationships with library collections.

This is a well worn idea, sure, but it’s in idea that I like and I identify with (full disclosure: I spent my graduate school years as a student curatorial assistant in my library’s rare book collection).

The Research Commons is bookless, and our focus is on providing space and technology to promote collaboration.  But from that collaboration, intellectual serendipity can surely arise.  I have personally seen it happen, particularly at the programs and events that we host in my library, such as our Scholars’ Studio series, which invites graduate students from across disciplines to present ‘lightning talks’ on a given topic.

Programming like this gets at the human aspect of “serendipity without stacks” and mark the library as a place where spontaneous learning and collaboration can happen.   It’s a good start.  But I am also interested in new modes of serendipity that could be discovered in the realm of digital scholarship.  What could this interest mean for the future of my library career?  I’m not sure yet, but I trust that the answers will come to me; through serendipity or otherwise.

1. Hoeflich, Michael H. “Serendipity in the Stacks, Fortuity in the Archives.” Law Libr. J. 99 (2007): 813.

Nominations Sought for ALA Intellectual Freedom Award

We recently received an email from the ALA Intellectual Freedom Round Table letting us know that nominations are open for the John Phillip Immroth Memorial Award. See below for more details — please consider nominating yourself or others.

Dear Colleague,

When you think a champion of intellectual freedom, who comes to mind? Do you know someone personally or professionally who deserves recognition? If so, please consider nominating that person (or organization) for the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Round Table’s John Phillip Immroth Memorial Award. Past recipients range from Amnesty International (for their approach to Banned Books Week), public librarians who organized book clubs for students to read books with “more mature themes” than they were allowed to read in school, individuals who returned censored art work to galleries from which they had been removed, to a bookstore refusing to breach the privacy of their patrons. For details about these and other award winners over the past four decades please see the Immroth Award recipients list.

For more information about the award in general, please see the press release about the extended deadline (now February 14, 2014) for the next award.

Nominate your intellectual freedom champion by February 14, 2014, here!

Sincerely,
Jean Caspers, Chair
John Phillip Immroth Memorial Award Committee
2013-14

New Academic Librarian In The Desert

It’s amusing and convenient that this post goes up on Christmas day. First, happy holidays, intrepid readers. As you read this, I am in one of my favorite places on earth – Marfa, Texas. This small west Texas town is home to major installations by some of the most significant abstract and minimal artists of the twentieth century.  Here’s an image my wife made on our last trip to Marfa, so you can get an idea of the place:

Repetition

As a faculty member and new academic librarian, I have a very generous two weeks of vacation at the holidays, which was quite a change from my previous position. It is a time to reflect, rest, and renew – and a time for me to think about the importance of not working.

We live in an always-on, always connected society, and work in places that are increasingly more connected with each passing day. No, I am not really talking about personal social media, but email, cell phones, and voicemail. If we so desire, we can be well and truly just a phone call or a message away from our workplace, even if we are half a world distant. I cannot say that this is without benefits, especially if someone is in a position (say systems) that requires one to be always on-call.

But it’s not an entirely positive thing, either. Always being “on” or connected to work through email, etc., means we never leave work behind, and that we can never truly let work go and relax. This connection to work can be true at vacation time, evenings during the workweek, or the weekend. In a fit of aversion to our connected society, I once participated in a discussion (and semi-experiment) about the benefits of being “disconnected.” Indeed, the virtues of being less virtually connected, and more physically engaged were extolled in a recent article in the New York Times.

For me, this means I rarely have my work email “on” on my smartphone. I do have my calendar on, but keep my email off. When I am not at work in my office or in meetings, I am unavailable via email. I made this clear to my colleagues, and that if there was a true emergency, there are other ways of contacting me. I do setup my out of office assistant in Outlook when I am on vacation, and block off the time on my work calendar.

Overall, this helps me to disconnect from work every evening, and disconnect on vacation.  If you’d like more strategies for disconnecting over your vacation, I’d suggest the book The Tyranny of E-mail by John Freeman. If being “always on” is a challenge for you, he has some great thoughts and strategies on the topic that are fairly easy to try. I know some of his strategies have certainly made my work/life balance far better!

Have a safe, relaxing, and disconnected (or engaged) holiday!

First Year Wrap

So on July 23rd, the 2012-13 first year academic experience bloggers got this from blogging dynamo Maura Smale, “If you’d like to write a summing up post sometime this summer, that would be great –” . This was good news; I did want to summarize my experiences for new librarians before the school year. I had the mental outline of a post and then came my first retention narrative (warning, sound).  I thought at that point it would be easy to do what I had been doing the first year – knock out a blog post over a few slow info shifts. How very much things have changed.

Last year set the stage for a much, much busier second year. My outreach efforts generated many, many more instruction sessions. – all of which had to be prepared from scratch. My service duties had also ballooned – I’m now on two university committees, and have completed two faculty searches. Finally, I’m gearing up to turn my research into research products. In other words what I thought was a deep end introduction to my job turned out to be relatively easy in retrospect.

Failing in the “Summer” part of the request, and having rewritten this a couple times, my take home from the first year is that my liaison work gave my subject departments the confidence to gift me with a success problem. I didn’t expect the workload of this semester, but I had some wise advice about setting boundaries and sticking to them early that has made this year manageable. I told people early I couldn’t do document delivery, much to the lament of six departments worth of graduate students. But if I scanned articles regularly, I wouldn’t have time to plan a gallery opening or perhaps hatch an open access initiative – activities which should benefit Akron more in the long run.

So meet everyone, make connections, and be persistent. Not everyone appreciates my “just barge in on them” method of liaison librarianship but most do and it is effective, especially for the lab sciences where you should have no expectation of ever seeing a faculty member in the library. If my first year on the tenure track is at all typical your work week and your home life will become increasingly blurred… he typed during his holiday vacation.

Perks and Quirks of a Single Service Point

In my last post I talked a little bit about the Learning Commons that opened in August at my library, a major renovation that brought exciting changes to the first floor of the Main Library. Although I wasn’t here to see the “before,” the “after” is bright, shiny, and new. It’s an appealing place with a lot more space for students to study and work: there are plenty of computer stations and a variety of flexible study spaces, including 16 group study rooms. Another major new feature of the Learning Commons? The Service Desk.

The Service Desk is a consolidation of what were previously separate service points for circulation and reference into a single service point. During the day, there is typically a mix of people at the desk: a circulation assistant, a librarian or another library assistant, and a few student workers. The librarian staffing the instant message service is also on back-up for the Service Desk, in case it gets particularly busy.

I don’t have any insight to the development of the Learning Commons or the Service Desk, the choices made, or future plans – especially as a relatively new employee (I’ve been in this position for four months, and have been doing shifts on the Service Desk for less than two months). I can only speak from my own experience at the desk, and as with most things, I see an upside and a downside.

Good news first: I really like being out on the desk! I enjoy interacting with people, seeing how patrons use the library’s space and services, and finding out firsthand the kinds of questions people are asking. Since I haven’t done much instruction yet, right now this is how I see students the most. I think that interactions at the Service Desk can also be used to inform what I include in instruction sessions. On top of all that, every time I’m at the desk is an opportunity to get to know other people who work in the same building as me every day, but who I otherwise wouldn’t see very much if at all.

A single service point can create a better experience for library users, eliminating any question or confusion over where to ask for help. At our Service Desk, patrons can check items in and out, pick up Interlibrary Loan material, course reserves, and holds, get basic technology help, and ask anything from “where’s the elevator” to an in-depth reference question. It’s great for our users that they can know “this is where I go to ask for help in the library.”

Now here’s the downside, at least as far as I’m concerned: with a greater variety of questions and interactions handled at one desk, and fewer hours spent staffing the desk for any given individual, it can become more difficult to help patrons efficiently. So far I have been on the Service Desk about once a week for a two-hour shift, and it is more often the circulation aspect that I run into trouble with (sidenote: I personally don’t mind handling circulation transactions, where librarians previously would not have done this at the reference desk). When something less common comes up – creating a community borrower card, for example – it may have been weeks or months since I have last done that process, if ever. With less hours spent at the desk, there is less hands-on practice performing circulation processes, which leads to me getting frustrated when I can’t remember how to do something.

I must say, this is not for lack of training: I have been trained on the circulation processes that I need to know, there are opportunities for additional training sessions, and instructional documents are easily accessible online. Also, because of the variety of employees that staff the desk, no matter what comes up, there is usually someone there that can handle it. If I don’t know the answer or don’t remember how to do something, someone else will, and I can use that as a learning opportunity for myself. However, that doesn’t make those situations any less frustrating for me when they do arise.

The consolidated service desk is new for everybody, so I’m sure that time and experience will work towards smoothing out bumps in the road. But I also have to remind myself that I’m still pretty new here and have less prior knowledge about the library and collections. I’m taking things in and learning about my new environment, and to be honest, there is a lot to learn and it can be difficult to remember even simple things! The other day, somebody asked me “what floor is this call number on?” and I had to check the floorplan to be sure – that’s totally fine, but I also wish I could remember more of those little things without having to check the website or ask someone else.

While out on the desk earlier this week, I came up with a way to work through the downsides I’ve encountered. Whenever I learned something new or something came up that I felt I needed a reminder on, I jotted down a quick note – starting with the call number range on each floor.

notes

To be clear, these notes are purely for my personal gain and not intended to be a record of any kind or contribute to our Service Desk stats. I’ve found in the past that I can remember something better once I’ve written it down, so by taking some quick notes when I’m at the Service Desk, I hope that these bits of information will stick in my mind better. If I had to create a community borrower card for somebody that day, I would have taken notes on that as well.

I like the fact that I learn something new whenever I staff the desk, whether it be about our online resources, common student needs, or how to troubleshoot technology (you may notice several points about a certain scanner in my notes above). I’ll continue to take these notes for now, in addition to reviewing the instructional documents for areas where I know I could use a refresher. I’m optimistic that this will help me retain more information as I continue to learn about my library, and assist patrons more efficiently and effectively.