Every Year is Someone’s First Year in Academic Librarianship

With all of the changes in our work over the past year, I know I’m not the only one who’s spent lots of time recently thinking about both the pre-pandemic past as well as the always uncertain future. This historical turn has had the ACRLog blogteam thinking about the past and future of our First Year Academic Librarian Experience series, and we concluded that the slower summer months mark an opportune time for a retrospective FYAL post.

First initiated by ACRLoggers Marc Meola, Steven Bell, and Barbara Fister, the FYAL series began way back in the 2008-2009 academic year, with founding FYALers Olivia Nellums and Susanna Smith. Looking in on their terrific posts from that year it’s so interesting to see that while some things have changed, many, many other aspects of their time as early career librarians over a decade ago have stayed the same. Olivia’s post that touches on “other duties as assigned,” those times in our jobs when we’re doing work we never expected to do, seems especially resonant to me here in the second year of a global pandemic. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that the category of “other duties” has sometimes been even more time-consuming since last spring than our usual job responsibilities. I have similar feelings on re-reading Susanna’s consideration of the challenges of collection development with constrained budgets, especially for smaller libraries, a persistent issue even before we had to grapple with increased requests for ebooks as our physical spaces were made inaccessible last year.

After a short hiatus, the FYAL series restarted in the 2012-2013 academic year with FYALers Rebecca Halpern, Ian McCullough, and Kim Miller. Their first posts for the year also highlight themes in early-career academic librarianship that are evergreen: managing a career change (because one constant about academic librarianship is that almost everyone’s path to here is unique), working through the new job jitters (relevant at every stage of our careers, I think), and the transition from graduate school to a library position.

In subsequent years our 2-4 annual FYALers have blogged about a huge range of topics. Learning and getting comfortable with their new academic library job is a common theme, including the experience of some who are in a newly-created position, as was Lindsay O’Neill when she was hired as an instructional design librarian. Many of our FYAL bloggers have come from the instruction and reference side of the house, and we’ve heard from Ariana Santiago on the overlaps between outreach and instruction, and from Sarah Hare about bringing our whole selves into the classroom. On our regular blogteam we usually have fewer folx on the technical services side of the house, and I always appreciate hearing those perspectives on librarianship from our FYALers. Jason Dean shared his experiences as head of a cataloging unit, and Erin Miller took us through a few days in the life of an eresources librarian.

Conference wrapups and discussions about aspects of the research and writing process also make frequent appearances in the corpus of FYAL posts over the years, hardly a surprise since professional service and scholarship is required in many academic library positions. While certainly the biannual ACRL conference shows up in our ACRLog archives, we’ve also appreciated posts on other conferences of interest to academic librarians, including Zoe McLaughlin’s notes on the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color, and Nisha Mody’s thoughts on the annual meeting of the Medical Library Association. Many new academic librarians are in tenure-track positions, and Heidi Johnson shared her appreciation of the different aspects of her tenure-track role. Of course, research and writing isn’t the exclusive domain of those on the tenure track, and we heard from Abby Flanigan about her experiences getting started with scholarly writing. And one sure advantage that academic librarians have in our research process is our familiarity with the tools of the trade, as Lily Troia reminds us in her post discussing using Hypothes.is for web annotation

Our FYALers have also tackled more difficult topics while blogging with us. It can be hard to talk about rejection and failure, in any context and at any stage in our lives, and probably more so for folx who are new in their careers. I truly appreciated reading Quetzalli Barrientos’ post on rejection in librarianship, and Dylan Burns’ take on failure and when things don’t go as we hoped they would. Struggles with work-life balance are not unusual in the first year in a new position, and in higher education jobs more generally, and Chloe Horning reminds us to take opportunities for reflection and recalibration when possible. The stress of a new and demanding job can take a toll on our mental health, in our first year and beyond. I have so much gratitude for Callie Wiygul Branstiter’s post about the impacts of depression on our jobs, and Melissa DeWitt‘s sharing some of the ways she prioritizes her mental health; both posts are full of insightful truths for all of us, whether we’re in our first year or Nth year as academic librarians.

Our most recent FYALers have had the difficult challenges of the covid19 pandemic to grapple with along with all of the other aspects of their new careers. As the pandemic was beginning to shut everything down in North America last March, Yoonhee Lee walked us through her new normal during remote work. And while the pandemic reshaped our academic librarian workplaces and practices more than we could have anticipated, there are constants in our work and in our FYALers’ experiences too. Valerie Moore shared honestly about her thoughts as she progresses on the tenure track, while Kevin Adams reminds us that collaboration is and continues to be critical in our work, and offers some strategies for success when we collaborate.

Finally, I know I speak for the entire ACRLog blogteam when I express my heartfelt appreciation to Jen Jarson for wrangling our Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect series. Thanks to Jen’s outreach there were 10 former FYALers who participated in this yearlong series during what ended up being the covid19 pandemic (the first post in the series was published on March 17, 2020). It was lovely to catch up with everyone who contributed a Where Are They Now? post, and to read their reflections on how their careers — both inside and outside academic libraries — have evolved.

It’s been so much fun for me to review our First Year Academic Librarian Experience series over the years, thanks for reading if you’ve made it this far! And if you’re starting your first year as an academic librarian we’d love to have you join us on ACRLog for next year as a FYAL blogger — keep an eye out for a call for applications to come later this summer.

Another post on burnout, or A pep talk on cultivating an empathic attitude

I’ve been in this profession long enough to know that it’s often around this time of year that I usually start to feel really burnt out. Looking back through some of my old ACRLog posts, I found one from some time ago where I reflected on this very feeling…and tried to see past it. It makes sense that a transitional period or even a breaking point can follow the pace and workload of the ever-hectic academic year. 

Of course, this wasn’t a typical academic year. The pandemic–and all its related professional and personal stressors and uncertainties–exacerbated the strains we all regularly endure. As a result, I think my sense of end-of-year burnout has been amplified, as well. I’m referring to the sense of fatigue, detachment, lack of motivation, and difficulty focusing that are typical hallmarks. But what strikes me most this time around relates to my capacity for empathy. 

I’ve always considered myself an empathetic person. In recent months, though, I’ve been feeling that my capacity for empathy has diminished. I’m thinking that the course of the last year and a half has made me feel more emotionally strained and, therefore, more emotionally ungenerous or inflexible than I’ve felt in some time. Because I’m closer to my own limits, I feel more emotionally stingy with others.

I’ve generally taken pains to practice empathy and considered it to be a foundational characteristic of my personality and–in my professional sphere–my teaching, leadership, and managerial styles. Empathy fuels my interest in and perspectives on the world: it motivates me, facilitates effective communication, and strengthens collaboration. So to feel diminished in my capacity for empathy feels like a pretty big deal. 

If you’re at all familiar with the research literature, media coverage, or even just the general conversation on burnout, you know that it can show up in different ways or arenas and that strategies to address it may vary accordingly. These range from creating space for breaks and reflection and practicing self-care and compassion to reducing workload and setting and maintaining boundaries and much more. Of course, individual strategies can only take us so far; organizational approaches are needed for wider cultural change. 

While none of these strategies are a surprise, that doesn’t mean they’re easy to implement or sustain. So as I sit here at more or less the midpoint of the academic summer–lamenting how much of my “break” is already behind me, how much I have to accomplish, and how much of a real break I still need–I’m thinking about how to recharge, assert my agency, and affirm the meaning of my work again, like all the articles say to do. It’s here that I begin to wonder if my symptom might, in fact, also be my solution. Rather than waiting for the stars to align and my capacity to return to me fully restored, I’m thinking instead about how to pursue it–how to intentionally cultivate empathy, even in small ways, and reflect on the value it adds to my outlook, my work, my relationships. If I can re-frame it as a choice to make, a habit to practice, and an attitude to cultivate, then it becomes a path I can follow. Perhaps focusing my attention on taking steps to reclaim my capacity for empathy will be precisely the treatment I need to address my burnout.

How are y’all faring? How do you restore or maintain your capacities when burnout strikes? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

A different summer vibe

Writing, especially blog writing, has been tough in 2021. I keep looking at open and blank documents, trying to think of something new to say. Spoiler: that strategy hasn’t been working too well. And frankly, I, like many others, are tired. This past spring semester, I did what I needed to do but didn’t try to push the envelope. A lot of great work did come from this semester — a successful student showcase, many undergraduate research award winners, and a short story contest where I got to learn way more about circuses than I anticipated. I brought a similar energy into summer outreach and engagement and so far, that has been paying off. I feel like I have time to think, plan, and dream up new ideas.

However, there’s a different vibe to this summer. I don’t know about you all, but I’ve been to a few meetings where my colleagues have referred to the pandemic in the past tense. When I first heard the past tense, I waited to see if this was a slip. It wasn’t. I asked the group text if they were also seeing this use of past tense at their institutions. “Yes” was the response I got. 

This pandemic is definitely not over; sure, we might be coming back to campus, but that doesn’t mean COVID has gone away. Although the United States has ample access to vaccines, we, as a county, will miss the 70% of adults having at least one shot by July 4. I know there is a desire to “return to normal” but to speak as if the pandemic is over feels like a disservice to what we all experienced the past year and a half. This attitude also completely misses the fact that vaccine access is not equitable across the world. That inequity does impact our university community members who are not located in the United States. The pandemic isn’t over, we are just in a new season of it. Hopefully, this is a chapter near the end of this story, but we aren’t sure yet.

It also feels like there is a different energy behind planning over this summer. Last year, we spent a lot of time waiting — what would our institutions decide? How would we do outreach? We invested more energy into summer online programming, planned for different scenarios, and pushed some events off until we had a clearer sense of the fall. This summer, we are moving full steam ahead for in-person activities. We want to open ALL the doors. 

A part of me is ready to interact with people in real life and not over a screen. I’m ready to run into colleagues in the hallway on the way to a meeting and grab coffee with someone new to brainstorm new collaborations. And a part of me is nervous for what the fall will look like. In my research this past year on student engagement journeys, we’ve seen a spectrum of experiences. Experiences where students were lonely and joined clubs in order to find community. And we talked to students who ran some of those clubs and felt that they feel short of the engagement and interaction they could get when they were in-person. It feels that there will be a growing period where we all readjust. As we readjust, I hope we talk about it. Some parts of this transition will be difficult or challenging. To learn and grow together, we have to be able to communicate. 

Despite my hesitancy at calling the pandemic over, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve felt change on the horizon. Maybe it’s the nicer summer weather or new leadership at my current institution that has me feeling a bit more hopeful. Whatever it is, I think I’m ready for the rest of this summer and what fall might bring us. We’ll see.

What about you? How are you feeling about this summer?

Vulnerability, Connection, and Reflection During a Global Pandemic: Bringing the Personal Back to the Profession During a Strange, Strange Time

This guest post was submitted by Justin Fuhr, University of Manitoba.

Never a forced smile from the sun in the sky

Never the same cloud as it passes by

As the earth takes shape, as so should I

The weary are weary for they always ask, “why?”

Daniel Romano, “Never a Forced Smile”[1]

Introduction

At the beginning of the global pandemic due to COVID-19 when my work moved to working from home, I was in the middle of my five-week parental leave following the birth of my second child. I feel fortunate to have had this time with my family but more than a year later, have a feeling of emptiness that I continue to work from home. Don’t get me wrong, I feel extremely privileged to have a job that I can do from home, as well as an employer that is not rushing their employees back during an extremely volatile, unpredictable, and quite frankly dangerous, time.

My WFH situation also could be much worse: my kids could be home during the day while I try to work, as was the case in Spring 2020. Again, I am privileged to have childcare for both, allowing my wife and I a quiet house in which to work. The isolation, however, is difficult a year into this thing. I have little in-person contact beyond my immediate family and small bubble. I love my family and my friends, but it is difficult to go from seeing your co-workers in-person daily to seeing them solely over video conferencing software. For me, it’s a missing piece of the regularness of life.[2]

This feeling of isolation prompted me to talk and connect with my colleagues. Connection to colleagues, which for me led to vulnerable, authentic, and trusting relationships, is extremely valuable to me, something I have appreciated at a deeper level while working from home. These connections can lead to collaboration, throughout both research and work-related projects, in addition to providing much needed support and community.

Connection

I have been working at the University of Manitoba Libraries (UML) since 2015. I began work as a library technician, before attending grad school in 2016 to get my MLIS. I graduated in 2019 and was hired as a two-year term librarian at UML at the beginning of 2020. I have known many of my colleagues for a long time; there is a stable staff at the Libraries. I switched positions several times as a library technician and later as a librarian, so I have worked with a fair number of library staff and worked closely with quite a few. You naturally get to know your colleagues better the more you work with them.  However, I tried to maintain a work/home balance, which included my relationships with co-workers. Work was work and home was home, the professional and the personal stayed on each side. This changed while working from home, as I simultaneously became comfortable working as a librarian and found I needed more connection with colleagues. I felt isolated from my colleagues without seeing them daily. I wanted to connect with them at a time of isolation, to not only be more engaged in my work and research, but to actively build a community of collaboration and collegiality by bringing the personal back to the profession.

Connections can also be important to get to know more about your colleagues’ work, research, and professional interests. This can lead to collaborative and trusting relationships, extremely valuable and rewarding in any workplace. Connections also build community.  One of UML’s strategic directions is “building community that creates an outstanding learning and working environment.”[3]  One of the goals of this strategic direction is “the Libraries promotes staff success through…developing our internal communication tools and mechanisms for conversations within the UML in order to enhance our ability to provide efficient and effective services and increase satisfaction with our own work.” In this strategic direction, I see clearly two aspects that I really relate to: using unified communication software and conversations between colleagues, both of which are important for building connections and for future collaboration with colleagues.

Online communication

A benefit to everyone working from home was library staff using the same online communication software. I found when working from home, if your colleagues are connected by the same online communication platform — we use Microsoft Teams — it was in some ways easier to connect. Sure, you no longer run into your colleagues before and after meetings or chat at the front desk when you’re passing by, but it connects you to your colleagues in other ways.

Not only does the University of Manitoba have two campuses, separated by almost eleven kilometres, but there are also eleven libraries at UML, ten on the main campus. This separates staff located on different campuses and in different libraries; it can be difficult to connect with colleagues spread all over the place. Having many library staff using the same communication tool connects us in a way that working in-person throughout our eleven libraries and two campuses does not.

However, online communication is often an intentional act. You initiate conversation with others in a way that’s different than in-person communication. Often this is a one-on-one interaction. This can be vulnerable and you will need trust, which I touch on below.

Conversations as an Early-Career Librarian

Another factor for my feeling of isolation is that I am an early-career librarian. I need guidance as I navigate how to become a better librarian and researcher, and my colleagues, who are extremely friendly and supportive, are a fantastic support. As a librarian, I have flexibility and independence in my workload. I am early in my career and I have tons of questions about my work, research, future career plans, and direction to take in academic librarianship. I am eager to ask my colleagues for answers or advice, having an appreciation of perspectives different from mine, especially with their deep and varied experience. My colleagues very graciously share with me their own experiences, which I can apply to my own context, and otherwise provide support and advice relevant to me.

By reaching out to colleagues to get their advice on a wide range of topics, I can shape my direction and outlook on my work and research, now and in the future. With greater independence in my position compared to when I worked as a library technician, this guidance and connection is all the more important for me. Over the past year, I have found three important aspects to connection with my colleagues: vulnerability, authenticity, and trust.

Vulnerability

Connecting with others and bringing the personal to work may mean you are vulnerable. Sharing your fears, doubts, and reservations can be difficult to do (and not necessarily necessary). This is even more difficult to share with your co-workers. I don’t know about you, but I try to cultivate a ‘better me’ at work. Wouldn’t sharing your vulnerabilities run counter to this? You would think so. However, confiding in your colleagues on difficult issues or scenarios can be really rewarding for both you and your co-worker. You would be surprised how putting yourself out there can benefit both you and the person you’re confiding in, in a mutualistic-type of relationship. Also sharing vulnerabilities does not negate the ‘better you,’ in fact it enhances your image by being authentic to present the ‘best you.’

Mentioned earlier, online communication is often intentional. On some level, you have to put yourself out there to contact others. You trust that the person you’re contacting is supportive and collegial. In addition, confidence in your co-workers, in terms of privacy, is key here, which also helps to build trust. Sharing professional vulnerabilities is difficult and immensely personal, so if your confidence is broken that can do long-term damage to you and your colleague’s relationship. Also be cautious about sharing very personal information. Though I advocate for bringing the personal back to the profession, there still should be some sort of line between work and home. Where this line lies, though, is for you to decide.

Authenticity

Being authentic with your colleagues builds a stronger community and deeper connections — authentic connections. I advocate for being authentic in your work relationships, regardless of past experiences or history with your colleagues. Of course, don’t let yourself be taken advantage of, but learn to forgive and forget. Collegiality plays a large role here and should not be forgotten.

I also think honesty begins with yourself; knowing your boundaries, being aware of your work style, and conscious of your personality. Be honest with yourself and you’ll find it easier to be honest with others, especially in the workplace.

Trust

Trust is integral for strengthening connections among co-workers. Wojciechowska (2020) claims trust, when looked at from a social capital context, “strengthens relationships with the neighbourhood, facilitates cooperation with partners and colleagues, reduces fear and conflicts, and may also stimulate development.”[4] Trust is built in different ways. Sometimes it’s built over years of relationship building. Sometimes it’s based on someone’s personality, reputation, or history at the workplace (or your own!). Sometimes you just click with someone and trust comes quickly.

When you trust who you are speaking with, it is so much easier to have honest conversations. There’s also an element of trust where you need to trust that your conversations are honest. I find vulnerability and trust work hand in hand: it is easier to be vulnerable when you can trust your colleague has your back. In addition, trusting that the colleague you are speaking with won’t pass on any conversations held between the two of you is so important, and of course goes hand-in-hand with being authentic. 

Another thing I had to get over was my worry of bothering my co-workers, especially because I have so many questions! I had to learn to trust that my relationships with my colleagues were strong, that my colleagues are eager to chat and help, and that they would let me know if they had to complete time-sensitive work.

In Conclusion

I appreciate the camaraderie and collegiality received from my colleagues over the past year. I’ve said in the past that it takes a village to raise a librarian, which I find is more relevant than ever right now. I am very fortunate to work in a library system that has so many supportive, knowledgeable, and friendly colleagues.

I feel that over the past year, I have connected at a deeper level with a substantial number of my co-workers in vulnerable, authentic, and trusting ways. These connections have provided me with a strong librarian mentor who is encouraging, empathetic, and experienced, colleagues with whom I regularly meet up with to go on walks, and co-workers who I now consider friends. Most of all, I can connect and collaborate with my colleagues on work, research, our future careers, and just life.

Acknowledgements

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the importance of Daniel Romano’s music over the past year, whose lyrics appear at the beginning of this reflection and whose music has brought me comfort during the isolation of working from home.


[1] Romano, D. (2011). Never a forced smile. On Sleep Beneath the Willow [LP]. Welland, ON: You’ve Changed Records.

[2] Unlike Christopher Moltisanti, I love the regularness of life and can’t wait to get back to it.

[3] University of Manitoba Libraries. (2021). Strategic infrastructure. https://www.umanitoba.ca/libraries/administration/strategic-infrastructure

[4]  Wojciechowska, M. (2020). Trust as a factor in building cognitive social capital among library workers and users. Implications for library managers. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 47(1), p. 1. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2020.102300

Trust and Teaching

In late April I (virtually) presented alongside Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz and Elvis Bakaitis at the CUNY Mina Reese Library’s event, Towards a Critical, Decolonized Pedagogy: An Interactive (Re)Visioning. Shawn presented a thought-provoking and compelling search for ancestral connection through pedagogy, while my portion of the workshop centered on the idea of trust in critical pedagogy.

I view trust in an educational context as both essential and fragile. It’s difficult to build and sustain and can be easily broken, but without it we don’t have the kind of connected needed in critical, engaged learning environments to foster transformative learning. One of my favorite definitions of trust comes from Judith V. Jordan, who describes it as “confidence in the relationship.” Seeking help and connection and expressing vulnerability is scary, and it’s what we all do as learners: share what we don’t know, ask for what we want to learn, and hope that we’ve connected enough with others (our peer learners, our teachers) for them to support us through the process. If there is no confidence in the relationship between learner and teacher or learner and learner, then there is no trust that this is an educational experience where everyone learns and grows as people.

A few weeks after this talk I received an unsolicited email from a sales representative at an academic-adjacent company touting a new software product that would help teachers track and record the “time [students] spent reading, working with sources, [and] taking notes” online, all in the name of good assessment. Shortly after receiving that email I learned about faculty who review hundreds of video recordings of students taking exams because the proctoring software flags them as potential cheaters for not looking at the screen. These are students who are working out complex problems on a sheet of paper at their desk. After that eye-opener, I then attended a pedagogical discussion that devolved into a lamentation over cheating (not the point of the discussion) and the inability for instructors to preserve the integrity of the test. And just last week I reviewed dozens of syllabi for a curriculum mapping project where the tone and language used automatically assumed students were going to cheat or try to scam their course professor.

The trust that could/should have existed between learners and teachers or learners and learners has instead been placed in browser lockdown software and surveillance technology. Students are assumed to be scammers, professors have to protect their exams, and any energy that could be put towards meaningful learning is instead diverted to cheating prevention. I know this is not the norm in every class or with every professor at every campus. But it is a mindset that I find particularly insidious in higher education.

This mindset sees rampant cheating as the real problem, not the 300 person classes students have to take their first year at college. This mindset characterizes students as dishonest and unmotivated to learn, when really they might be juggling work, school, and family and struggling to buy books. This mindset assumes professors are just out to catch you when do something wrong, rather than help you get what you need to learn. It’s a mindset without trust or connection, one that is easily monetized by education-adjacent companies whose profits grow as learning suffers. The inertia of practices in higher education is strong, and I fear that we are hurtling towards more distrust in teaching and learning. But I find solace in the small moments of trust I have with learners and teachers, in the instances of grace that others extend to me and that I can reciprocate, and in the small spaces after class (that are all virtual these days) where students ask questions and we can just talk as people, connect, and trust.