Tag Archives: academia

Special Forces Formats

My business card states that I am head of the special formats cataloging unit. It’s an odd title – one of the many unusual titles that people who work in libraries have. Even speaking to an audience of librarians, special formats is such a broad classification that it requires some explication.

Organizationally, I work in the cataloging and technical services department. Our department is organized into units, each with an area of focus – monographs and acquisitions, serials, binding, database maintenance, special collections, and special formats. The primary focus of special formats are the theses and dissertations deposited at the library. We work closely with the graduate school to both preserve and provide access to these scholarly works. The nature of both access and preservation is changing – but perhaps that’s for another time. The University of Arkansas is unusual in that it describes the theses and dissertations with “full-level” cataloging, so that our library users have the best possible access to these items. After processing, the manuscripts are sent to the binding department and bound. Here’s the result – the bound theses and dissertations from May of 2012:

tds

When I started in this position, I looked at the workflow for these items and worked with public services librarians to make the processing more efficient, while increasing access to these items in the catalog. This prompts me to share with you one of my favorite quotes from one of the titans of cataloging, Charles Ammi Cutter:

The convenience of the public is always to be set before the ease of the cataloger.1

Indeed, one could replace “cataloger” with “librarian” and you would have an excellent directive for all librarians, and a pertinent reminder for me as a first-year academic librarian – that I work to serve the patron, and their ease and convenience should be foremost in our minds in the work we do as librarians.

In addition to theses and dissertations, our unit is also responsible for a wide array of other media formats – video, microfilm, and internet resources. When I arrived, there was a sizable (but not insurmountable) backlog of microfilm and microfiche, as well as a few CD ROMS. With the “newbie” energy I had, I tackled those backlogs so that users could find those items in the catalog, and use them. Your energy and enthusiasm as a new academic librarian can be put to uses that help the user – but just because you are new doesn’t mean you need to reinvent the wheel. Take time to learn not only how things are done, but why. Work in an appropriate way to change the things that need changing – and direct your enthusiasm on projects that you might not want to do later on. Working on that backlog was perhaps not the flashiest of projects, but it’s something that helped the user and the department almost immediately. I’ve already identified some things I would like to change long-term, things I could not really do on my own. I need to build consensus to do these things – building consensus on “big” things both inside and outside the library being a major part of that “work in an appropriate way” idea I mentioned above.

Another reflection that comes to mind is that it’s important to adjust to change, and to accommodate new opportunities. Though not in my job description exactly, I’ve been working on a digital project of early Arkansas history, the Colonial Arkansas Post Ancestry digital collection. It has been an exciting opportunity for me to hone my skills in CONTENTdm, and to gain some interesting knowledge not only of early Arkansas history, but also the history of the colonial Americas. Being open to this change and the new opportunity it represented has not only made me a more effective professional, but also has provided me with an opportunity to collaborate and work outside the library and serve the needs of a very wide community – one beyond the library here, and even beyond the state of Arkansas.

Putting the user – faculty, staff, student, and even worldwide users – first helps me be centered in my daily work as a new academic librarian. Keeping the user first in any work that a librarian does is something we should all strive for.

  1. Charles A. Cutter, W.P. Cutter, Worthington Chauncey Ford, Philip Lee Phillips, and Oscar George Theodore Sonneck. 1904. Rules for a dictionary catalog. Washington [D.C.]: G.P.O., p. 5 []

In The Sweatshop Or Reaping The Lottery Win

Are you feeling overworked these days? Do you feel the pressure to publish, present and serve on a dozen different committees? Does it seem like you are trying to do the work of two librarians, and that you just never have time to get much of anything truly constructive done? If so, welcome to the “Ivory Sweatshop”. That’s the term used in an article in this week’s Chronicle [Paywall Alert!] to describe the current academic workplace – or at least the way it feels to many faculty. What the article really attempts to do, is to frame the way today’s junior faculty feel in comparison to those who went through the tenure process a decade or more ago. The consensus of those interviewed appears to be that faculty are under much more pressure now to produce – and are being held to a much higher standard than colleagues who have already achieved tenure. I hear from academic librarians who know they aren’t keeping up with the latest news and developments as well as they should because they are challenged to find the time. This is reflected in one of the comments in the article: “This job has gotten a thousand percent harder than when I started out,” says Mr. Bergman, who began teaching in 1967. It takes a lot more time now, he says, for scholars to keep current with advances in their discipline.”

In the very same issue of the Chronicle there is a personal essay [Paywall Alert!] that presents a quite different picture of what it is like to work in academia these days. The author, a tenured faculty member at a rising research university, shares the process he went through in working out a midlife crisis resulting from that perennial question – what should I do with the rest of my life. His ultimate epiphany about his lot in life and what to do about it could be described as anything but feeling like working in a sweatshop. He writes:

That led me to the moment of clarity I had been searching for: I woke up to the fact that achieving tenure and promotion are like winning the lottery. With the odds against landing a tenure-track job in the humanities growing longer every year, I had hit the proverbial jackpot and been granted an opportunity that very few people have: the freedom to pursue my own interests on my own terms. Within the constraints of my job obligations, I could do whatever I wanted with my life.

That’s sounds like a pretty good deal. Who wouldn’t like to be in a position where they have many options and could take advantage of any of them. How many of you feel like you’ve hit the lottery in your position? Or do you feel like you are working in an academic version of a sweatshop? Which is it in academia? Depending on what you observe and who you talk to you will hear both versions. More likely you’ll hear from someone who feels like they are in the sweatshop complaining about a colleague who they believe has hit the lottery. It’s the “why I’m I working so damn hard while that co-worker seems to be barely doing anything at all?” I don’t know if the difference is simply an outcome of being on the tenure track versus having survived it. There’s no question that those on the track are feeling enormous pressure to succeed. But it would be a bad case of generalization to suggest that everyone who has made it shifts their career into neutral.

I have a good friend at a research university that has a very rigorous tenure process. Although he received tenure two years ago I’ve noticed no slowdown in his work or research agenda, and if anything he seems even busier. The difference I observe is that the pressure has shifted from external – exerted by a tenure process – to internal – the pressure one puts on oneself to achieve beyond the normal expectation. I wonder if there are also differences in perceptions based on being on the front line versus being in the administrative office. I know that reference and instruction librarians can feel overwhelmed trying to keep up with the demands placed upon them. I can also tell you that it’s no picnic for administrators these days, especially when we are all expected to be doing much more with fewer resources.

My own philosophy is that it’s always better too have to much to do than not enough, and it’s not that hard these days to come up with more than enough to keep the pressure cooker on medium to high range. Doing so doesn’t have to mean that you are working in a sweatshop though. In fact, I think that on the average day, a faculty member or an academic librarian, no matter how many deadlines there are, no matter how many committee reports are due and no matter how many classes there are to prepare for, is incredibly fortunate to have a challenging and rewarding career – and that’s why so many new professionals seek to enter this arena despite the odds of landing a job and why many who are past the age of retirement refuse to leave [Paywall Alert!]. And when you compare the work of many employed in academia to those individuals performing jobs where there is considerable physical labor or unpleasant or dangerous working conditions, you can’t help but conclude that those of us working in academia are more lottery winners than sweatshop toilers. How would you describe your situation? Sweatshop loser or lottery winner?