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The Born Librarian: My Professional Identity in Librarianship

creation
Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You may have noticed from my last post that lately I have been grappling with questions of my professional identity. For example, I tried to understand or argue for the importance of libraries, and my best answer was that libraries’ most important role is their role as a public space and gatekeeper of information. I have been using writing as a means to work through these important questions; my professional identity is very important to me, and I want to develop it deliberately and carefully.

I recently had a draft for this current post, only to decide that I was too negative about librarianship in it, that I questioned my professional role too much and had no sense of assuredness or confidence about the “fit” of the profession for me. The blog post was about being a generalist, how librarians are generalists, and how, essentially, I don’t want to be a generalist. My biggest fear is that to be a generalist means that I didn’t really know anything, that I have nothing in which to anchor my intellectual pursuits. Librarianship is very “meta” – all about access, discovery, evaluation, interpretation, use, creation, dissemination…but I want to know the substance and depth of this information that we are providing!

Then I asked my Dean and mentor, Patty Iannuzzi, to read the post, as it had been a direct response to learning that she values librarians’ being generalists, because it results in more balanced collections and services. The conversation was stimulating and a little unsettling, perhaps for both of us – for her because I have professional identity issues, and I’m not the only librarian who has them, for me because I realized, through attempting to answer her questions of me, just how shaky the ground is upon which I am standing in terms of my professional identity. Patty is the biggest champion of libraries that I know, and I felt badly revealing these doubts and insecurities to her. But I knew that if anyone could help me solve those issues, she could. Patty had several challenging questions for me, one of which was about why I do what I do, and what role librarians have. My answers for her felt grossly inadequate. They amounted to “helping people do research,” or “helping people access information.” My answers felt so simple, even shallow, and I wondered: what makes these activities unique to libraries anyway? The truth is, I am not sure that librarians are indispensable. After all, I went through all of my academic programs, up until library school, without ever having to really rely upon library services or sources even. I was required to purchase all my course texts, which were core readings in the disciplines.

Oh my! Have I chosen the wrong profession? I will admit, this was my second pick, an alternative to my original plan and dream for life. Certainly I would fall into the category of “failed academics,” (if such a category should even exist, but it sounds so negative)! I attempted to complete two PhD programs prior to entering the field. I finished a different master’s program with the intention of completing a PhD and going on to teach in a specific discipline. In all honesty, I chose librarianship because of its convenience, and chose to leave the program I was enrolled in to attend library school because I needed to move towards financial independence at a faster rate than I was currently. I needed something stable, and I needed something that would be more likely to land me an actual job.

I acted very quickly (deciding and then immediately applying in April, and receiving an acceptance letter a few weeks later for fall enrollment). As a consequence, I didn’t think too much about what it means to be a librarian, or the crises or growing pains that librarianship is experiencing as a profession. Maybe in the back of my mind I was aware of the clichés that librarianship was dying, but at the time, it seemed like a very good, practical career option; I knew there were still jobs out there. I believe that I made the right choice given my situation, because librarianship has provided me with a good, stable job and that was my top priority. I also happen to like what I do on a day-to-day basis, and when I tell others that I am a librarian, I say it with a sense of pride, because people respect and revere librarians. I simply have yet to figure out its significance for me as a profession – as a vocation or a calling. I am like Jason Bourne – I have an identity as a librarian, and I am trying to find out the truth about what that means. I don’t yet experience recollection in this role – it doesn’t feel familiar. It’s as if I have this new identity that comes with a past, a history, that is totally foreign to me.

I have faith that it will happen in time. In fact, I don’t think that attaining a sense of professional identity has to happen before one actually enters the profession and develops as a professional. That is because there are all sorts of factors we can’t predict before starting a career, and we can never really know what a particular career is like until we actually gain experience in it. Library school doesn’t teach you what librarianship is really like, only skills and some theory to help you work through or think about particular issues. Library school doesn’t take you to the essence, or the heart, of what it means to be a librarian. Library school doesn’t make you ask those important questions about professional identity. Now, library schools are becoming even more far-removed from actual libraries, becoming Schools of Information Science (including my alma mater). Does this mean they don’t even care about the physical spaces and services of actual libraries anymore? You can read more about that in Scott Walter and Carol Tilley’s College & Research Libraries editorial.

In response to my doubts and questions, Patty didn’t really have clear-cut answers for me, because I do not think there are clear-cut answers to such doubts. Those doubts are very real, and very personal. However, she did help me come to some realizations. She helped me to realize that it is okay to have doubts, that it is pretty normal at this point in my career – that is pretty normal for librarians in general – that I am not alone. She helped me understand that it is okay for me not to have a strong sense of professional identity right away, because that is something that I can develop over time, as I become more confident in the services that I provide, as I innovate more, and as I realize that my services are indispensable and beneficial to a large number of people. I can forge a path and make this profession my own. I know that this is possible because Patty, and many others, model it for me. I will simply develop my professional identity after-the-fact.

I once had a mentor who told me, “I want to help you become who you are.” I may not have been born a librarian; this hasn’t always been who I am, and I don’t quite yet own this identity. I have the potential to become who I am, though, and I am committed to this process. It may take patience. I’m not sure yet how it will happen. I just have to keep plowing forward, with openness to change, the willingness to innovate and create, and a lot of dedication to discovering out exactly what this means for my life, in this particular geographic location, and how I fit into the bigger picture of the profession. As I chase after this identity, this identity may actually chase after me too, and I’m sure there will be plenty of people, like Patty, to provide clues along the way.

En/Countering a Cliché

One of the tools I use for my instruction sessions is a cartoon of a librarian sitting at the reference desk with her “Librarian” sign sticking out of the trash, replaced by a sign that says “Search Engine.” I use this as an attention grabber, both to insert a bit of self-deprecating humor as well as to make students think about what librarians actually do. Of course, it is also a chance to talk about the services that UNLV Libraries provides.

So it’s cute; librarians aren’t necessary anymore because now we have Google – it’s a cliché about librarianship, which many people might actually believe. In the age of ebooks and Google and remote access to databases and journals that are so user-friendly, with the pace of change in technology, do we really need actual people to help us find information? Clichés are clichés often because they contain some truth, and the truth in this case is disconcerting when this is your life’s work.

It seems that the library world does see changes in technology and in the public’s perceptions as a serious threat, or there wouldn’t be a need to continually re-invent ourselves and our profession, or talk so much about the future of libraries. Even some librarians believe outright that librarianship is dying. With all the marketing campaigns and headlines touting the benefits that we will see with the “Future of Libraries,” the library world is tacitly acknowledging the truth that the traditional services of libraries are becoming obsolete, at least to a certain extent.

So as I enter this profession full force – teaching instruction sessions, meeting with faculty and students, learning the collections, etc. – I find myself experiencing some doubts about my professional identity, especially as I realize that no, my services are not absolutely essential in order for professors to teach their classes effectively. Did I choose a career path that is still necessary and important today, one that will continue to be necessary and important in the future?

I know what you’re thinking…yet another blog post on the death of librarianship or its counterpart the “Future of Libraries.”

My contribution to this conversation – which I believe is unique– is that I think that we should embrace the “death of librarianship.” I think we should confront it head-on, rather than whisper about it amongst ourselves every time those outside the library world bring it up, or bemoan the decline in reference services, for example. In order to really educate others about librarianship, we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room. We should even have a sense of humor about it, for this is a way to cope with a painful reality. To the belief that librarianship is a dying profession, we should be able to say, “Yes, it is,” because librarianship in the traditional or historic sense is dying.

Then we should follow up that “Yes” with an “and.” I think acknowledgement and recognition that there is truth to this stereotype is the best first step towards devising a solution. Yes, librarianship as it has traditionally been practiced is dying, and actually it is in the process of reinventing itself into something else. Libraries/librarianship is emerging and will continue to emerge as a profession, a space, and a type of service that are still essential for society and for academia. What will this look like exactly? One thing is certain: we’re outgrowing many of the traditional aspects of librarianship, and things are going to look quite different.

I won’t rehash all the ways in which libraries are growing and changing; there are plenty of places to read about those. Data services is one area in academic librarianship in which lots of changes and growth are happening, and I’m getting to witness and participate in those changes at UNLV Libraries on the Data Team. What I do want to focus on, though, is the need for all libraries, academic and public (and special, too), to connect with their communities. This is one aspect of librarianship that is timeless. Yet now it is more important than ever that libraries fulfill this need to provide a common space that is centered on knowledge, really in order to help equip people with the knowledge that they need to make their lives better. We need to fight for this enduring truth about libraries even as we reinvent ourselves. It is a truth that, if upheld, will secure our future.

With growing inequalities in the US, the racial tensions that are making the news every day, and the many other oppressive systems around the globe, libraries, as free public spaces, are necessary. I recently had a conversation via email with my Political Science professor from my MA program about the importance of libraries, and he actually put it a lot better than I could have myself, so I include his quote here with his permission:

“I think the stronger case for libraries is to be developed in a social argument. In some way, the defense of libraries is like the defense of public space, that is, like the defense of a commons or commonwealth. In other words, both the library and the librarian find their strongest defense in the guardianship of a commonwealth of knowledge, produced by a diverse collectivity, and for the sharing and intergenerational transmission of that knowledge.” – Richard Gilman-Opalsky

A public space, a commons, which is centered on knowledge – what could be more important and vital to a society than that? Realizing this, I can then ask how it applies to me and my situation here at UNLV. UNLV Libraries may be focused on helping students get the grade, but it supports students in other ways as well. With its extended hours, UNLV Libraries provides common spaces for students to go when they have nowhere else to go. The Libraries provides some of the most popular spaces on campus. The Lied Library building was even open on Veterans Day and will be open for most of Winter Break. In providing this common space, the Libraries encourages the pursuit of knowledge by all students equally, including those who do not have access to computers at home or those who have no other place to go that is free from distraction.

Besides this, there are other steps I can take to make sure that my services support and fulfill this crucial mission of libraries. In my instruction sessions and research consultations, I can ask: am I operating under this kind of ethos that I espouse as a librarian? I can engage in self-reflective practices and examine my assumptions that I make about students, and even professors from cultures other than my own, to make sure that I am a part of creating this kind of environment in which all are equally free to pursue, create, and disseminate knowledge. My beliefs about other people affect how I approach the class and engage students and others, and hidden biases and prejudice seep through, often in very subtle ways. I like to think that I am self-aware and free from prejudice, but I know that neither of those things is completely possible. I can deliberately work to challenge those assumptions that I make, through self-reflection, dialogue with, and mentorship by, colleagues, and quite simply, additional practice – through my actions towards others. I’ll conclude with a quote from Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

“Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all). Faith in people is an a priori requirement for dialogue […]” (p. 90).

I strive to have faith, faith in my students and other users as well as in myself – that we are capable and worthy human beings – both for its own sake and because it is a requirement for the ethos of social justice – and critical librarianship – to inform and infuse my practice.

If we simply cater to the elite and the privileged, if we simply conform to the status quo, allowing the systematic oppression that surrounds us, we will surely lose our relevance and our importance faster than the changes in technology that threaten traditional librarianship. On the other hand, if we fight to make our profession socially just, which is necessary for ensuring that all can participate in this commonwealth of knowledge, and if we treat others with the dignity that is rightfully theirs, we will secure a future and thrive. Libraries will become vital again.

No Longer an FYAL

Exactly 365 days ago I was exactly ten days into my job as the Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of North Texas. Well, actually – 365 days ago from today, July 13, 2015, was a Sunday (not a Monday) and I was flying to Texas after a belated going-away party back home. How do I know that? By visiting my Facebook profile and flipping through the events of that last year until I found the photos and posts from July 13, 2014. Seeing everything all at once like that was a bit disorienting. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and miss the big picture…especially, I think, when the “big picture” involves change that is both large and small.

A year ago I was excited about becoming an academic librarian and looking forward to learning all that entails – and here I am, a year later, still excited and still looking forward to learning. I’d have to say – of all the things I enjoy about being an academic librarian this might be the absolute best. Personal development, at least at UNT, is valued and encouraged. There are opportunities to follow your interests in so many different directions – whether you want to publish original writing, participate in statewide organizations or even take classes (at a steep discount!). I will never get enough of these types of opportunities.

For example: recently I decided to pursue a degree from UNT’s Interdisciplinary Information Science PhD program and so for the last month or so I’ve been taking classes. I am absolutely loving what I’m reading, writing and thinking about in that program and am so happy to be there – and I can’t honestly say that I ever would had had the courage to pursue this dream if it weren’t for having a job where continuing education is valued and supported. In the near future I will also begin a really cool new mentoring program called “Revving up for Research” that the Career Development Group in the UNT Libraries set up for new-ish librarians like myself. With a focus on scholarship, this is yet another opportunity that makes me grateful to be an academic librarian. And these are just the new experiences I’m most grateful for at the moment – there are definitely more, too many to list.

In addition to the changes I’ve experienced, everything from moving cross-country and starting a job in a new field to adopting a new dog, some things are still the same. After a year as an academic librarian I am still passionate about the value of libraries and the important role of libraries (and librarians!) in education. And, in spite of having a decade of professional library experience that includes a year spent finding my place at UNT and getting to know academia, I still feel like a new librarian. I’m starting to wonder – at what point does one stop being a “new” academic librarian? After two years? Five years? Is it an attitude – ‘you are only as new as you feel’? If so then I hope to remain a “new” librarian with lots to learn for the rest of my life.

The New Dog. Very excited to see what's next.
The New Dog. Very excited to see what’s next.

One important lesson learned in the last 365 days that there is not enough time in any given day. All of this growth that I am so excited about does come with challenges – most obviously, being able to balance daily tasks with writing and service and learning. This has pushed me to reevaluate my time-management as well as information-management skills because organizing your files/emails/tasks goes hand-in-hand with good time management. It also led me to reflect on staying focused, which I wrote about in an earlier FYAL post. With so many opportunities available in academic librarianship who has time to waste time? Not this ERL (electronic resources librarian), that’s for sure.

This is a somewhat rambling post, I realize. It is difficult to summarize 365 days that have been so full of change, new experiences and personal growth. I am grateful to have had the chance to write for the ACRLog this year. Doing so forced me to take inventory and do some reflection that I might otherwise not have made time for. Sharing my experience has hopefully been insightful to other new academic librarians and possibly even inspirational to librarians who are considering a career in academia – and to you I say go for it – it’s a great career path that will open doors that you don’t even know exist yet.

The Old Dog and the New Dog. Looking forward to interesting, fulfilling careers.
The Old Dog and the New Dog. Looking forward to interesting, fulfilling careers as academic librarian buddies who are paid in dog food and leash time.

It Takes All Kinds

I am a huge sucker for personality tests. It started young, I think – I’ve known I was an INFJ/ENFJ since I was a kid. Over the years I’ve branched out from the Myers-Briggs and taken a wide variety of tests, usually in either a school or work setting. Most recently the Collection Management division at UNT did the True Colors personality test. In this one you are ranked in four colors which each represent personality traits: blue, green orange, gold. I was skeptical, honestly, because the assessment seemed too simple. It consists of just five rows of attributes organized into four columns that you score as most-to-least accurate personal descriptors. And, of course, I became even more skeptical because I first scored everything backwards so my results ended up being way off. But once I got things straightened out (it was funny to see my coworkers disbelieving faces when I announced I was a gold which I am certainly NOT) the results were surprisingly accurate.

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The point is that this was a valuable exercise in self-awareness as well as team building. I learned about what motivates and what irritates my coworkers and what different skills sets each of us possess and value. However, I learned the most not from the test results themselves but from hearing feedback and opinions of my colleagues as we analyzed ourselves and discussed in which ways we fit the different categories (colors). It would be interesting to design a personality test that is wildly inaccurate but designed to foster conversation and collaborative skill analysis – I bet that would be just as valuable as something like this. All this to say – I love categorizing people through personality tests because I think it is a fun as well as professionally valuable activity. Among other things, it can help you understand why some tasks are difficult or unpleasant while other people excel at them. That being said, I really dislike personality tests that are used to categorize people into specific careers. This is commonly done in college and high school and, while it can be interesting, these tests simplify careers to the point that the test results are pointless and even harmful because they might keep someone from following a certain career path that might be a perfect fit for them.

For example, this infographic popped up on the ALA Facebook page this week (click to view):

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My initial response was irritation that it simplifies librarians into one role – that of an Organizer. That old-fashioned idea that librarians spend all their putting books on shelves using the Dewey Decimal system and maintaining a catalog. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the largest percentage of librarians are actually ‘Helpers’ not ‘Organizers’. This is probably especially true in school and public libraries but also in academic libraries – particularly librarians in Reference & Instruction or Public Services. Some academic librarians are Persuaders – they often end up as deans or other administrators and there are definitely Thinkers in the academic library. And we definitely have and need Creatives in the academic library – to support the art students and faculty or run the music library, among other things. But then I started thinking about the other careers mentioned. Couldn’t someone become a physician out of a desire to be a help people rather than practice science? Programmers, in my experience, are often more like Builders than Organizers – they are just building digital objects or applications instead of doing carpentry. So maybe this kind of categorization is useless all around, not just for librarians? Or are librarians just especially hard to categorize because we, as I’ve heard said, “wear lots of hats” – especially, perhaps in the academic environment?

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Focus and Spring Fevers

It always seems so unfair that people tend to get sick in the springtime. Just as the weeks of perfect temperatures and sunshine get underway and you want to be outside all the time just soaking in the gorgeous weather along come allergies, and sinus infections, colds and flu, etc. This year I was lucky enough to get sick twice in rapid succession so for the last week or so I have had a hard time focusing on anything more complicated than what time of day to take my next dose of decongestant and how many packages of tissues I need for any given event. And of course remembering to never forget to take hand sanitizer everywhere so as to avoid infecting others. I’m finally starting to feel human again which means now I’m realizing how quickly my task list grows when I’m not functioning at normal capacity. Basically, if you can’t focus you can’t get much done.

texastulips

I did an informal poll of my coworkers to find out what helps them focus and learned that what works for one person might not be helpful for another. For example, headphones were mentioned by several people but there was disagreement as to whether they foster concentration or create distraction. One of my colleagues mentioned that she gets distracted by new music but familiar tunes become a sort of background noise that help her focus on tasks. When she said that, I realized that I have the opposite experience. When I listen to music I know well, I start humming along and even dancing around (obviously it’s an understated nerdy seated dance only performed when nobody is looking). For me it’s often better to listen to music without lyrics.

Another colleague mentioned the value of white noise, which I have not yet tried but is an excellent idea. It’s the workplace equivalent of sleeping with a fan running to drown out noisy neighbors. I downloaded an app called White Noise Lite. It not only offers lots of sound choices, from box fan to rain forest, but also says users can “record and loop additional new sounds with total ease”. That is a really cool idea if there is something specific that you enjoy hearing. I’m thinking that the fountain and wind chimes on my patio would be perfect for relaxation; every time I hear these sounds I will picture myself lounging in the hammock (note: this may or may not be ideal for workplace productivity).

Another tip offered by several of my coworkers was to remove distractions. Put away your cell phone, turn off email notifications, log out of social media, etc.. You can employ a plug in like LeechBlock (for FireFox) or StayFocusd (for Chrome) that will limit the amount of time you can spend on distracting websites if that is an issue for you. Know the best time to perform certain tasks and organize your workday accordingly. Is the office noisy between 11am and 1pm? Schedule menial tasks that only require short attention span or get caught up on your emails during that time. If certain distractions are too much, you might even change the location of your desk. I recently moved to a new cubicle for reasons unrelated to concentration and was surprised to learn how much easier it was to focus in my new location – even though my former desk had been fine, this one was an improvement.

Another suggestion involved switching from a regular desk chair to a stability ball. Giving your body the ability to be positioned in a comfortable way makes it easier to keep your mind on task. A similar strategy is used successfully with students who have ADHD. I, too, find my stability ball conducive to getting things done efficiently. Something about staying physically engaged instead of slouching into my chair keeps my mind active as well. A stability ball might not be the best solution for everyone; finding a more comfortable chair that improves your posture could be just as beneficial. The key is finding what works for you, not settling for whatever dusty old seat was assigned when you got hired.

The most valuable and interesting advice came from one of our student assistants, Jessica. I was especially interested to hear from our students because their desks are in the most highly travelled area of our department, right out in the open without even cubicle walls to keep distractions at bay. Surprisingly, her first tip was not to avoid distractions but to “get comfortable with the distractions”. In other words, don’t get frustrated with them or try to pretend like they don’t exist – accept them and get over it. This fits in generally with the concept of mindfulness that has been proven in countless studies to boost productivity. Be present; focus on the here-and-now; be totally aware of where you are, what you are doing and what is going on around you. Mindfulness is a key aspect of many meditation practices but can also be as simple as taking a few seconds during a stressful time to focus on your breathing, notice your posture and get centered in your surroundings.

So, to summarize: the best tip to stay focused is to not get sick, ever. If that proves impossible, try some of these tips to get back and stay on track — especially practicing mindfulness.

Further Reading

Schilling, D. L., K. Washington, F. F. Billingsley, and J. Deitz. “Classroom Seating for Children With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Therapy Balls Versus Chairs.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy 57.5 (2003): 534-41. Web.

Shao, Ruodan, and Daniel P. Skarlicki. “The Role of Mindfulness in Predicting Individual Performance.” Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science 41.4 (2009): 195-201. ProQuest. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.