Tag Archives: career advice

Breaking Big: Transitioning from Small to Large Academic Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Michael Rodriguez, Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Connecticut.

Navigating the transition from large to small academic library employers, or vice versa, can be challenging. Early-career librarians in particular can find themselves navigating radically new landscapes: specialized, bureaucratic, and complex.

Recently I moved from a small, career-focused, private, nonprofit institution in Florida, to a large, tier-one public research university in New England. Now six months along my new path, I am ready to share some generalizations and guidance about navigating the transition from small private to large public universities and libraries. (For the opposite path, check out Seven Keys to Switching from a Big Company to a Small One—yes, it’s a Harvard Business Review piece, but the advice applies equally to librarians.)

Scaling Size

Large public universities are vast and complex. Libraries can be six stories high and filled with millions of volumes. A hundred staff and student assistants may be working inside the building during business hours. Millions of dollars may be spent on collections and salaries. Contrast this with smaller universities, where the library may boast four staff, a $250,000 budget, and one big room lined with eighteen thousand volumes and branded “the library.” A difference of 25,000 students is another huge numerical contrast.

Imagine changing jobs from one to the other of these environments. Maybe you already have. Either way, this can be a stunning adjustment. Example 1: Walking from parking lot to office takes twenty times longer at my massive public university than it did at my small private university. Example 2: I still manage electronic resources, but my budget is fifty times larger. Example 3: I used to negotiate e-resource licenses solo; now we have attorneys who write five pages of state-mandated provisions into all new contracts.

How to thrive in a larger environment? Chunk your experience into bite-sized pieces. One hundred colleagues to get to know? Set up meetings with each of them in turn, and then allocate time each week to walk about and schmooze. Many complex projects to manage concurrently? Start using Evernote, Trello, a notepad, or other tracking tool to divide your projects into manageable tasks and triage them according to stakeholder impact. Rethink goals as forward momentum. Reassess priorities, eliminate redundancy and excess, and clean up data and processes. Like Thoreau, “simplify, simplify.”

Personalizing Bureaucracy

Small universities are intimate to the point of claustrophobic. You know a great many of the professors and students by name, you work closely with each colleague, and you run into the college president at the neighborhood bakery. In contrast, your large university is a bureaucracy, “effective through its mass rather than through its agility,” notes Peter Drucker. Generally you will need to navigate layer after layer of approval and mediation. Destroying 20-year-old papers requires permission from the state capital. Managers ask you to make appointments to see them. Implementing innovations can take way longer than they should because of the many stakeholders you must consult or persuade.

How to thrive amid bureaucracy? Accept that change is slower in complex environments and that large universities value consensus, whereas small organizations can just decide. So stay patient, but bring your enthusiasm and energy. Bureaucracy tends to sap drive from its members, so as a newcomer setting a faster pace, your drive adds value to the organization. And if you counter-interviewed your search committee as rigorously as they interviewed you, your new colleagues will appreciate you and your vitality.

This brings us to the key point: personalizing working relationships enables us to break through bureaucratic barriers. Be tough and hard-driving, on yourself above all, but be genuine, kind, and helpful too—and do not allow your frustration with the bureaucracy cause you to become frustrated with the people trapped in it. You’re new, and that fact will help you build positive relationships with even the most challenging personalities.

Broadening Scope

Isolation is a byproduct of specialization in large, complex organizations. Small-library staff may do reference, instruction, web design, budgets, resource management, etc. Large-library staff are generally hired for a specialized role. This is fine. The problem is that you can do your job without interacting much with folks outside your immediate working group. This is true for instruction librarians as much as it is for catalogers.

This hyper-specialization is ultimately pernicious. If you do not collaborate or socialize with a broad spectrum of colleagues, or understand how users engage with the services you provide, then you are isolated, not specialized. Isolation’s effects can be personal, such as loneliness and loss of motivation. Or they can be work-related. If people do not know you, they will not know to respect you. You will (A) lack control over the direction of your work, and (B) fail to exercise influence outside your cubicle walls.

The key is to broaden the scope of your specialized work. Start by applying or acquiring expertise in areas related to your specialization. For example, if you manage eresources, then get a handle on user experience. If you teach, then study up on open educational resources. Do not try to take over other people’s jobs—rather, identify service gaps of which to take ownership. Wrangle appointments to committees and task forces beyond the scope of your immediate duties. Gently, persistently remind your supervisors of the intersections between your work and others’. Communicate openly and frequently. Be transparent with internal stakeholders. Embrace interconnectivity. You’ll thrive.

Michael Rodriguez is an Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, which has fifteen times as many students and fifty times the operating budget of Hodges University in Florida, where he formerly served as E-Learning Librarian.

First Year Reflections

This is my last post for ACRLog, and it’s a little hard to believe so much time has passed already. Not only is it the end of my term as a First Year Academic Librarian Experience writer for ACRLog, but last week marked the one year anniversary from when I started my current job. Looking back on the year, reflecting on what I’ve done and learned, and trying to sum it all up…well, it’s not that easy! I went from not really knowing what to do with my time, to feeling like there weren’t enough hours in the day (and thankfully settled somewhere in the middle). I’ve gone to local conferences in the Midwest and navigated ALA Midwinter and Annual for the first time. Focused on public servicecampus outreach, and library instruction, I’ve  learned so much about this school and community that was brand new to me a year ago. 

So what can I say about the past 365+ days? It’s way too much to try to sum up in one short post, but I’ll try to collect my thoughts into some “words of wisdom” that other early-career librarians can hopefully benefit from. Whether you’ve just started your first academic librarian job, have several years under your belt, or are in a job search, here’s the advice I would give:

Take your time. You probably have a lot of great ideas for things you want to do, but you don’t have to do them all right now. In fact, definitely don’t try to do them all at once! This seems to go against some common advice, such as “be open to trying new things” or “say yes to opportunities.” Absolutely, say yes to things! Go after opportunities and take on challenges, but be aware of taking on too much at the same time. Don’t test your limits to the point of breaking them; don’t let yourself turn great opportunities and challenges into burdens and struggles. In short, pace yourself.

Make friends. One of the greatest things about my job is that I am constantly learning from the people around me. By “make friends” I don’t mean to hang out with your co-workers on the weekends all the time, but remember that people usually want to help you out and want to see you succeed and do well. So don’t be afraid to ask for help, opinions, or mentorship from your colleagues! As a newer librarian, I not only find it valuable to learn from my colleagues’ years of experience, but the many different viewpoints and perspectives regardless of years in the profession. 

Look at the big picture. This is something I particularly have to keep in mind, as someone who tends to over-think, over-analyze, and get caught up in making every little detail *perfect* before I can move on. Take a step back and look at the big picture. What’s the main goal? What are you working towards? Does every little detail have to be perfect, or does it just have to get done, in order to move forward? Often I end up realizing that in perspective, something may not be as big of a deal as I’m making it out to be. This can apply to all sorts of situations.

Those are some general tips that helped me be successful in the past year, which presented many changes and new responsibilities. I have to say, I’m glad I volunteered to write this monthly blog post for ACRLog about my experiences in my first year as an academic librarian. It forced my to constantly reflect on my progress, goals, and ideas, and to sort out my thoughts to make them coherent. Now that I’m signing off, I hope I can keep up this habit of reflecting and writing!

Making the Most of It: Professional Development Between Jobs

Robin Brown is not one to let an opportunity slip past her. In addition to experience working as an editor, a librarian, and recently earning a master’s in history (with a history of technology slant – how cool is that?) she is now pinch-hitting at an academic library after a full-time position evaporated. In a comment to a previous post here, she had some ideas that were so inspirational and timely that I asked her to write a guest post. Thanks for sharing these strategies, Robin, and let’s see how others answer the two questions she poses. – Barbara Fister

Professional Development Between Jobs

by Robin Brown

I am an experienced academic reference and instruction librarian. I was released during a round of funding cuts on December 31. The first 5 months were easy because I needed to finish my history degree, including a thesis. Now that I have my second Masters, it gets a lot harder to stay on task. What follows are some ideas I’ve generated to keep moving forward while the job market warms up.

Publish. I’m fortunate that I have just finished several months of full time research, during which I made contacts that have led naturally to some publishing opportunities. I’m working on two different articles that are more less derived from my thesis. I’d like to have at least one ready in time for ALA. Continuing to write is not only about qualifying for a tenure track position, but also persisting in my self identification with the academic community.

Service. I connected with the Director of the New Jersey Historical Commission through my research. He has offered me a chance to do some research and grant writing on a volunteer basis. I am on the Professional Development Committee for NJLA. I also give service within my community. This is about keeping my people skills sharp and learning to do new things.

Keep reading. Two tangents in this category. One is to read library blogs whenever I have a minute, looking for new trends. Because one of my concentrations is in public affairs, I also read news sites regularly. The other tangent is the old fashioned stack of books that accumulated while I was in the end stages of my thesis. I read mostly history and public affairs. It’s actually been kind of weird to once again have permission to read widely. Years ago I read Reading and the Reference Librarian: The Importance to Library Service of Staff Reading Habits and it changed my whole approach to this area of public service.

Tinker. I am geeky enough that I like to play with new computer toys. I believe it is critical for libraries to continue to master technological trends if they are to stay relevant. High on my tinker list is screencasting software. One of my questions to the community is … what would you tinker with if you had the time?

Conferences. I went to NJLA the day after I turned in my thesis! Besides the way cool timing, it was a great opportunity to hear about what’s going on. I think the highlight for me was Marie Radford’s presentation on the Reference Revolution. I am going to ALA. I’m really looking forward to it as a wonderful opportunity to see friends I made in Anaheim last year, and some great opportunities to continue to learn.

1. Have I missed anything?
2. What would you do if you had the time?