Tag Archives: reflection

Vocational Awe and Professional Identity

A few days ago, In the Library with the Lead Pipe published an article by Fobazi Ettarh titled Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves. Ettarh uses the term “vocational awe” to “refer to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” Her article masterfully traces the root of this vocational awe, from the intertwining history of faith and librarianship to our current state, where librarians are expected to literally save lives. Ettarh argues that vocational awe leads to some of the structural problems in our profession, like lack of diversity, undercompensation, and burnout.

I will admit that I initially felt some defensiveness when I started reading this article. One of the reasons I became a librarian is because I wanted to care about and be engaged with the mission of my work, and I do deeply believe in the values that libraries try to uphold. When I got past that initial reaction, I realized how Ettarh’s research allows us to talk about our profession more honestly. As the author clearly states, the article doesn’t ask librarians not to take pride in their work. Nor is it an indictment of our core values (although it does, rightly, point out they are inequitably distributed across society).  Rather, it encourages us to challenge the idea that our profession is beyond critique, and therefore opens up space for us to better it.

Although this is not its primary intent, I wonder whether this research direction will help us resolve some of our own tortured professional identity issues. I am among those who became a librarian partly out of passion and partly out of convenience. I didn’t feel called to the profession. Instead, I made a conscious decision based on my interests and the sort of life I wanted for myself. I knew I wanted to be in a job where I would be helping people, with the opportunity for intellectual growth, and that I wanted to have a stable job with a balance between work and my other personal interests. Librarianship seemed like a very natural fit. But the vocational awe in librarianship means that you’re surrounded by the idea that being a good librarian means being driven solely by passion. Heidi Johnson previously wrote about the isolating feeling of not being a “born librarian” here at ACRLog, and I remember this post resonating deeply with me when I first started to become self-conscious that my professional identity was built less on my sacred calling to it than some of my peers. I think that unpacking the vocational awe that makes us feel this way might help to dispel some of the professional identity issues that so many librarians, and particularly new ones, seem to have.

As I was thinking about this article, I also realized that my own version of vocational awe usually manifests when I’m talking to non-librarians. Telling people I’m a librarian produces surprisingly revealing responses. Some people respond a well-meaning, but misinformed, “how fun! I wish I could read books all day, while others respond with some variation of “but aren’t libraries dying?” I suspect that this is partially a result of the slew of articles that are published every year on the decline of libraries and the death of librarianship. After responses like this, I feel compelled to defend librarianship in the strongest terms. I talk about information literacy, intellectual freedom, public spaces, privacy, access to information, democracy, you name it. I turn into a library evangelist. None of my own hesitations, challenges, or frustrations find their way into these conversations. Several people have already written about the exhaustion of constantly defending and explaining our profession. But this article made me wonder if there is some connection between how often we find ourselves needing to defend what we do — to friends, to faculty, to funding agencies, to the public — and tendency to resist the idea that there is a lot of internal work we need to do to truly uphold the values we claim. Ettarh’s article made me think about how to balance these two ideas: believing in and advocating for my profession, while working to make it better for the people in it.

What does that look like? I’m not entirely sure yet. But I think it entails being more honest. It means advocating for our value, but not pretending that we can do everything. And it means contributing to a culture that doesn’t valorize martyrdom. For me, that means saying no if I don’t have the bandwidth for a project. It means using my all my vacation time, and stopping using busyness as a measure of worth. There is much more to the article than I can unpack here, and I hope that everyone will go read it. I’m looking forward to hearing other people’s thoughts on how vocational awe impacts our profession, and how we might work to stop using it, as Ettarh puts it, as the only way to be a librarian.

Digging for Gratitude

A little over a year ago, I took a flight to Los Angeles to interview for my job at UCLA – it was the night before the election. At the time, natives and their allies were fighting to re-route Dakota Access Pipeline. I found out towards the end of my flight to LA, that the gentlemen in the aisle seat of my row was from North Dakota and thought natives were “making a big deal” out of it. I woke up the next morning to learn that my less preferred candidate won the election, and I cried in disbelief. I had no idea how I was going to get through my interview.

A year later, I am in my position at UCLA, and recent news of the Keystone Pipeline 210,000 gallon oil spill has come to light days before Thanksgiving, a holiday based upon the false notion of unity between natives and colonizers. I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but I just wanted to place this article in it’s appropriate historical context of my life as a first-year librarian. While I am beyond grateful for my job, my amazing colleagues, and the sunny skies around me, I started in this profession during, what I believe is, a grave time in global history.

I approached librarianship as a career because I loved being able to provide individuals information. However, as I mentioned in my first post, I also embraced the critical possibilities within the profession. I would be lying if I said I have been able to sustain the enthusiasm for deneutralizing the library because between moving across the country, starting a new job, and the current political climate, I am emotionally exhausted.

The good news is I have still found outlets that affirm my place in this field. So here is a list of what has kept me going. I want to share this for anyone else feeling a lack of hope and/or motivation to keep sticking with the fight:

  • Multiple students have approached me with a research question that focuses upon a marginalized population.
  • The UCLA Medical Education Committee held a retreat to discuss diversity, inclusion and equity in medical education. This included speakers that used words such as “racism”, “oppression”, and “microaggressions”.
  • I have been able to collaborate with amazing South Asian women librarians for an upcoming chapter in Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS. On top of it, my co-authors and I were able to share our experiences about being South Asian women in librarianship in a panel at a symposium at UCLA. And even better, I was able to meet and listen to the other incredible authors that will be included in this book!
  • My colleagues and I were able to create an in-person and virtual exhibit to highlight Immigrants in the Sciences in response to the DACA reversal and the White nationalist march in Charlottesville.
  • UCLA’s Powell Library held a successful Conversation Cafe for International Education Week.
  • I attended a fulfilling professional development opportunity about systematic reviews.
  • I have shared tears and memories with several other LIS students through the ARL IRDW and Spectrum Scholar program.
  • I was able to visit Seattle for the first time and attend my first (of many) Medical Library Association conference.
  • I gained a mentor and friend.
  • Every time I teach, I learn something new about active learning, teaching methodology, and how to teach to specific audiences. Most importantly, I feel like I am truly in my element.
  • I met the Librarian of Congress! #swoon
  • I inherited two precious cats (librarian status achieved).
  • I’m way less clueless about being a librarian than I was when I started in April!
  • And now I am able to share my first-year experiences through ACRLog!

This is not an exhaustive list, however, it proves that in less than 8 months of working in my position, I have been blessed to create, pursue, attend, and feel a part of unique opportunities within my profession, especially at my institution. So while I might feel disillusioned and hopeless because of the world and its inequities, I have to admit that there have been several upsides.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you too can discover these golden nuggets amongst the rubble around us.

Words, Censor, and Professionalism when WTF?!

That quaint blog post I published last month squeaked out just before Nazi rioters marched, threatened, and violently harmed counter protesters (killing one) in Charlottesville, VA. This post comes at the heels of the “worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history” (1)  at a Las Vegas music festival.  My first ever post for ACRLog was indirectly a response to the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting – the previous “worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history”.   Not to mention plenty of crazy sh*% that happened in between, including a deadly shooting in the heart of my own downtown.

Zohra Saulat’s HLS/ACLog Collaboration post last week on professional uses of twitter made me think about the scope and purpose of blog writing as well. Granted, the relevance of academic blog posts may  have already been questionable, but with all that’s  happening in the world, the practice seems suuuuper unimportant by comparison.   

Trying to get myself back to normal work after such events requires a bit of music therapy. This usually settles my brain enough to keep me focused and driven to stay on task. It also helps all the feels inside have space and language to work through what doesn’t make any sense.  Somewhat atypically as therapy goes, I recently started listening to Kendrick Lamar’s (probably NSFW) Be Humble .  The takeaway message to sit down and be humble in a way characterizes my go-to response to tragedy and the shame-spiraling need to do something while realizing I don’t have the first clue what or how.  When I first heard the radio version of Be Humble, the rhythm was what really grabbed me. The refrains’ driving hol’ ups, against beats of censured silence counter-intuitively push and pull the lyrics’  directive to sit downbe humble.  The full uncensored version of this single, as you may expect, has a much harder message to hear.  I can’t yet decide if that is just the how the language raises my white, Christian lady eyebrows, or if it challenges me to a serious musical-linguistic study of what changes when the word b!%@# replaces silence, and vis versa – that’s another post altogether.  I continue to force myself to listen to the uncensored version because I’m a stubborn, analytical sort by nature and because I know I need to test and question those eyebrows.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
-Winston Churchill

So what does this have to do with libraries?  My leadership responsibilities in the libraries concern people and how they work  – not just at work, or the work they do, but how they think and relate and cooperate within the work and with others. The events that shape our lives, not just at work, matter a great deal in this respect and challenge the notion that there are strict dividing lines between our work and private lives.  At times, not so fraught as these, some may question the need for this or that professional development training, or why we are addressing such heavy-feeling topics like emotional intelligence, active shooter training, microaggression, and privilege.  These events have an unfortunate way of focusing our attention to them.

When the career test I took some pre-internet years ago showed only librarian, I thought I’d overestimated the amount of weight I could lift — you know, handling books. I had no idea I would be handling license negotiations or learning code, let alone dealing with bullying in the workplace, accident reports, the senseless death of colleagues, or facing and challenging my own racism and other phobias.  However, if there is any truth to what I have learned through 17 years in academia, I know it has come by deeply considering how events, both horribly tragic and enormously joyful, have actively shaped my professional and personal paths.  As it turns out, a wholly different kind of heavy-lifting is required in my day-to-day work and leadership.

I continue writing amidst these greater, weightier issues as a matter of development.  Writing helps me think before I talk and think more quickly as I talk, which enables me to respond better within moments, not just after the fact.  Fundamentally, though, I do not blog because I think my words matter significantly to these events or that a wider audience will be changed by any words I offer.  I mostly do it because of how I am changed by it.  As small, removed, and privileged my development is against the experience of gun violence, police brutality, rape culture, and systemic oppression, not changing – letting guilt and privilege stop my changing — is no longer an option for me.

One different action I have taken to be more than just a seated, humble thinker and writer has been becoming an facilitator for the ACTive bystander training for sexual violence prevention (2).  This month I co-facilitated my first session with about 20-30 freshmen.  I am not an instruction librarian, remember, and confess I couldn’t help but agree with an initial reaction to my embarking on this challenge.

“That is some heavy material for a librarian.”

Determining how best to reach out meaningfully to serve others, especially in the face of violence and injustice, I think requires an openness to seeking out a common denominator.  That common denominator, interestingly, is not common to every single person.  So, while Lady Gaga points to kindness — and I’m all about that — as librarian, I am about questioning.  By remembering to question myself, I stay humble and kind in responding to painful tragedies that leave me without words.  Amidst my growing awareness of injustices in everyday work and life, this questioning is also the necessary preventative to a more damaging temptation to shut down myself or others.

(1) CNN charts the Deadliest mass shootings in modern US history (1949 to present) at http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/13/health/mass-shootings-in-america-in-charts-and-graphs-trnd/index.html

(2) This training was adapted from Bringing in the Bystander, a program developed by the Prevention Innovations Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, and One Act, a program developed by Student Wellness at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

 

Professionalism in the Workplace

What does professionalism mean to you? It might be that I was not paying attention, but I remember my professors in library school only touching on professionalism a couple of times. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines professionalism as “the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person”

This could be understood in a different manner of ways. However, I always thought that to have professionalism was to have common sense. Don’t be mean, don’t make crude jokes, and don’t do anything that you would not want someone to do to you. But we do live in a time where politicians use social media as their main way of communicating with their constituents, where we use social media as a way to network, and where we make our opinions known to hundreds and hundreds of people. While maintaining a professional social media appearance, we must also remember our everyday interactions with our colleagues. Over the past two years, I have gained more institutional knowledge and have learned when to stay out of office politics or how to navigate through them. While I am not an expert and recognize that everyone is at different institutions or work places, here are some tips on how to grow and learn from your own professionalism. 

  • Observe and learn from the successes and mistakes of other colleagues. I personally learn best from observing others. How did they handle tough situations? What did they say? What was their body language like?
  • Pick your battles. This is a tough one. Sometimes you feel so frustrated at certain things, but stop and think about it. Is this worth all the effort? Is it worth your time? Will this get resolved? And realistically, what will probably happen?
  • What is the root of the problem? This might be a tough one, because a lot times, the root of the problem is a much bigger problem of the institution as a whole. This is not something you can take on on your own, but might be worth bringing up.
  • Know your strengths. How can these strengths help you contribute to problem solving or group work?
  • Recognize your weaknesses. What do you need to work on and how can you improve?
  • Who is your support system at work? Sometimes, you might get frustrated with either people or situations at work. Who has your trust and who can you turn to in these times?
  • What are your personal rules? While every institution has their issues, ultimately, you’re the one that has to look out for you. What are your own rules in terms of getting involved in office politics? You don’t have to write them down, but it’s a good idea to have a mental list

I have only been an academic librarian for the past 2 years. While I have learned and observed a lot, I also feel like it’s only the tip of the iceberg. For those middle-career and more seasoned librarians, what lessons have you learned? What tips do you have?

Relationship Priorities from the Forest to the Library

A post shared by True Rath (@truerathbrarian) on

I just returned from my annual family vacation in Colorado.  Amidst the forest bathing and a slower daily pace, I always experience a deep dive into relationship building on these trips.  Riding in a compact Fit for the eight hours it takes to get there, and living for a week in a different “home”,  does test and stretch patience.  The physicality of hiking and even adjusting to new altitudes requires a certain reckoning of oneself.  This year we were battling swimmers ear in high altitude and an overall slack in physical fitness. Both required accepting limitations in ways we weren’t used to and spending a greater amount of time in quiet inactivity.  With each year, however, I always discover new strengths and unique differences in myself, between fathering and mothering, wifery and husbandry, sibling to sibling, and among hikers who want to push on versus those who want to rest. 😉

This thinking on relationships helpfully segues my mind to the arrival of August and the start of a new school year. As the students return and faculty prepare course syllabi, my more isolated, internal, summertime work turns externally, patron-oriented.  As my library is also discussing its strategic priorities for the next two years, words like collaboration, partnership, engagement, and development abound.  In every practical discussion around seeing our own work in these priorities, the actionable path forward always points to relationship building.  Just me?  Perhaps.  As one of my favorite quotes suggests, I have come to believe relationships are key to how we accomplish real goals.

“If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to far GO TOGETHER.”

– African Proverb

I didn’t always think this way.  I usually preferred fast and alone.  Both personally and professionally, my default is still often internally-focused and analytical.  One of the stories I tell about my path to librarianship — besides it being the only result of my junior high career test — is that in my first job as an elementary school music teacher, I was much more interested in discussion music theory than singing songs.  Now, it’s true, I justifiably lacked the necessary accompanist skills.  Moreover, I know preference for the analytical side to just about everything was to blame.  “What a great match for librarianship!” I thought at the time, conceiving the profession as solely concerned with how things ought to be organized.    Working in libraries quickly taught me that the most efficient and organized ways involved learning from others.  My favorite analytical question soon became “Who?” rather than “How?” or “Why”.  Eventually learning to build relationships with vendors became the best way to get what was needed on both sides of a negotiation.  Understanding vendors’ relationships within their own organization helped alleviate undue aggravation and reduced miscommunication.   My first aha moment as a new leader (and still a magnificent daily challenge) is what comes from just listening to others.

Taking an analytical approach to building relationships made it easier for me in some ways.  But, like too much process thinking,  it has sometimes kept human connection at a safe distance.  I often got by using my analytical side to figure out how I respond to others and circumstances rather than in relationship together with them.  Let’s be fair. The relationship business is messy and time-consuming.  I’ve learned that can be OK, and how analysis is just one step of many to decluttering it.  Working through problems, successes, new ideas, and ultimately changing with others creates bonds.  As bonds suggest, I believe stronger relationships and work/life places result.

Thankfully, I can continue analyzing to my heart (or brain?)’s content with ACRLog and in my research.  My analytical passion now focuses on seeking ways in which technical services can get beyond mere transactions to richer, more interpersonal communication and sense-making.  It’s proven to be messy, challenging, and very worth it.