Quality Time: The Presentation That Changed My Work Life

Have you ever learned something that radically changed the way you work? I experienced that kind of paradigm shift this summer during a Professional Development Day on my campus.

The session was on time management, led by David Gurzick, a professor of management at Hood College. I walked in expecting to hear about tools like Trello and Evernote, or maybe bullet journaling. But the session wasn’t about the HOW or WHAT, but the WHEN. Using workplace research and Daniel Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Dr. Gurzick talked us through how our brains function throughout the day, and how to match the right task to the right time. Dr. Gurzick’s talk and the book When have transformed how I structure my day.

Both Dr. Gurzick and When emphasize the importance of timing and becoming aware of what researchers have found to be the natural pattern of the average work day. Over the course of a day, most peoples’ moods follow a consistent pattern that starts high in the morning, dips in the afternoon, and rises for the rest of the evening. Pink calls these phases of the day the peak, trough, and recovery:

Image of graph that spikes, dips low, and gradually rises again over the period of 12 hours.

“During the peak, which for most of us is the morning, we’re better at analytic tasks. That’s when we’re most vigilant, when we’re able to bat away distractions and concentrate deeply. During the trough, which for most of us is the early-to-mid-afternoon, we should do our administrative tasks—answering routine emails, filling out expense reports. And during the recovery, which for most of us is the late afternoon and early evening, we’re better at insight problems. Our mood then is better than during the trough. And we’re less vigilant than during the peak. That looseness—letting in a few distractions—opens us to new possibilities and boosts our creativity.” (Daniel Pink, interview on Scientific American)

Being invited to notice this pattern hidden in everyday life was personally revolutionary. I can easily see the clear rhythm of peak-trough-recovery in my day. And if this pattern doesn’t resonate with you, you might be a night owl. For night owls this rhythm is actually reversed – you wake up in the recovery phase, hit your trough in the middle of the day, and are the most alert to detail in a peak phase till bedtime.

So how did I work these ideas into my library life? Well, at my library we don’t have a strict schedule for desk shifts. Like I imagine many directors and department heads, my boss doesn’t direct my day hour by hour. So I have at least the illusion that I’m in charge of how I spend my time, which can be both good and bad. There are definitely days where I feel like I’ve lost half the day fighting my own distractions and discouragements.

In fact, during the quiet of the summer, structuring my own day was particularly challenging. Without classes to teach or students to interrupt me, I struggled to prioritize tasks. My habit was to do the “easy” things first, like reading email and shelving books. What I didn’t realize until Dr. Gurzick’s talk was that I was wasting my strongest brainpower on the tasks that required the least attention and energy. Simply by becoming aware of when I focus best and when my mood is the most hopeful, I have been able to harness the work hours more effectively. For example, I’m working on this blog post at 11:00 in the morning because I know this is the best time for me to write thoughtfully.

Dr. Gurzick also shared this matrix, which illustrates a few types of work that we all have to do every day:

2x2 grid that shows an axis of high to low engagement and an axis of high to low challenge. Highly engaged, not challenging work = rote; Hihgly engaged, challenging work = "focus"; Low engagement, low challenge = "bored"; low engagement, high challenge = "frustrated"From Bored Mondays and Focused Afternoons: The Rhythm of Attention and Online Activity in the Workplace by Gloria Mark, Shamsi T. Iqbal, Mary Czerwinski, Paul Johns

In the mornings, I am tempted to do “rote” work: tasks I find fun but not challenging, like shelving books or cutting out images for the bulletin board. According to When, this is my peak time – the time for vigilance and analysis. So now instead of wasting my sharpest attention on clip art, I tackle writing first thing in the morning. An unexpected benefit of this: the afternoons are more fun, now that I’m not forcing myself through punishingly slow writing sessions. I’ve learned to downshift into rote tasks that match my energy level during the afternoon slump.

I also let this awareness of my brain’s peak, trough, and recovery times help me choose meeting and break times strategically. Although I might have no say in when a class takes place, if I’m scheduled to teach right after lunch (during my sleepy time), I might take a brisk walk to jumpstart my mind.

When you learn a new way of seeing the world that resonates, it’s hard not to evangelize it to everyone you meet. “Hey, have you heard of minimalism?” “Have you ever tried yoga?” But one gem from this book did catch on with my co-workers – the reason we’ve all been crabby and directionless during our staff meetings is because we keep scheduling them for the end of the day! We now shoot for 10:00 or 11:00 am, when people are more alert and less prone to pessimism.

You don’t always have control of what you need to do in a given workday, and sometimes your day is derailed by the surprises of librarianship. But being aware of your brain’s peak functioning times may help you structure your day to best advantage. Especially if you have some flexibility in your daily schedule, I recommend checking out Pink’s book and thinking about what you do when.

Notes:

  • Many thanks to David Gurzick for his talk and sharing his slides with me!
  • For a preview of Daniel Pink’s book, you can check out this planner he has made available online.

My “Step-Library”: A Joint-Use Library Experience

Do any of you have step-families? I do, and I recently realized how relevant that experience is to working at a joint-use library.

Starting out, there may be concerns on both sides about merging, just like with step-families. There may be assumptions and stereotypes to overcome: step-families get a bad rap (see: evil step-sisters; red-headed step-child), and different library systems can have opinions about how other types of libraries work, and not always positive ones. You’ll have to share resources and space, (whether that’s collections and meeting rooms or toys and bedrooms). You might worry about not seeing eye-to-eye on everything (study room policies or bedtimes). The trepidation is normal, but everyone should work together to overcome it and find similarities, and how the differences benefit everyone.

Opening a joint-use library is a lot like moving in with a step-family. You wind up with two of a lot of things: bedrooms, neighborhoods, pets, etc. Our “step-libraries” have two of a lot of things, too. We’ve been open for five years, and here are a few things we’ve learned about the things we have two of:

Institutional Priorities

On paper, the differing institutional priorities are probably the most obvious difference between the public library and the community college library. You can pull up the organizational charts and see where staffing is strongest for a hint at what the priorities are: the public library has a large number of programmers, and positions with the word “youth” in their job description, whereas the college library has reference and instruction librarians, and a focus on people who cover the computer labs. There are areas with overlap, though: we have a combined welcome desk, where staff from both institutions perform circulation duties, for example.

When I refer to institutional priorities, I also mean that the two organizations define success by different metrics. The public library records data on program attendance and library card issuance, whereas the college is more interested in library instruction attendance and reference statistics. The college has a reference statistics form that must be filled out every time a question is answered at a service point, every day of the year. The public library has selected weeks where surveys are made available and when data about services is collected at service points. During those weeks, while completing both forms, one can easily see the differences between the priorities and “big picture” interests of the two organizations.

The priorities of the two libraries overlap and support one another, though; that was the point of sharing a joint-use library in the first place. Both are focused on “life-long learning,” with the public library placing heavier emphasis on the years before K-12 schooling, and the college library focusing more on the years after.

Organizational Relationships

If you go back to the organizational charts of each library, you can also see how people are arranged: what departments exist, which people are responsible for which tasks, and what kinds of hierarchies there are (who reports to whom).

We all realized, however, that the realities of the workplace are less clear than an organizational chart makes it look on paper. Some general rules apply that are obvious to both groups: managers set schedules and approve time, for example. But changes to how any given employee’s time is structured, or how new tasks are assigned, might complicate matters for one library system more than the other would guess.

Another, stickier problem arises when complaints or conflicts arise between employees from each library system. Mediation procedures may differ between the systems, and the supervisors of each party don’t report to the same administrator (or even the same Human Resources department). A great deal of careful communication and compromise are required.

The good news about this is, in most cases, the problems can be solved by just asking questions and learning about the structures that make up each system, not just in the building, but in the bigger picture. The college employees learn about the other branches of the public library, the public library employees learn about the other campuses of the college, and everyone has a better understanding of the broader range of parties involved. We were fortunate to have, for a while, several employees who worked two jobs in our building: part-time for the college and part-time for the public library. They were very valuable resources for understanding the inner workings of both sides at the same time. (This also helped minimize the us/them rhetoric among the staff, which is another thing you get in both step-families and joint-use libraries.)

Once that understanding is achieved, we realize that we also have a bigger and broader pool of skills and knowledge, with all these liaisons and working relationships we’ve created. One great example is a public library employee who is incredible at creating huge, gorgeous displays, and has used her talents all over the building.

Workplace Cultures

All of the other little differences I can think of between the two libraries fall under this catch-all “workplace culture” category. There are a lot of little day-to-day things that we have picked up on a little bit at a time. The public library has a dress code, and the college does not. The public library tends to schedule people for separate one-hour shifts at the service points, while the college prefers to give people multi-hour blocks in the same place. We’ve had to sort out the details of how to celebrate birthdays (and baby showers and going-away parties and holidays), who cleans the refrigerators and when, how to cover the service points during one side or the other’s staff meetings, whether public and college items can (or should) be used on the other’s displays, and so many other little details that have come up over the years.

One of the big ones, from day one, was hours and closures. Long story short, we follow the college’s holiday and weather closure decisions, so we might be open when other public libraries aren’t, and vice versa. This has many far-reaching implications, but one that I find interesting is how the staff members react to weather predictions. A public library employee knows they may be required to work at a different branch that doesn’t close if the college (and therefore our library) closes for snow, but a college employee would just be excited at the prospect of having a day off.

Another of the big ones is something we still work on: the definition of customer service. Our public library staff strive more to find a final answer for a patron, while our college librarians are more focused on showing a student a resource and teaching them how to use it on their own, to avoid accidentally doing the student’s coursework for them. We have spent a great deal of time and effort training everyone to do things both ways, and to discern when each approach is appropriate. In my opinion, it has made all of us better at our jobs, because we have learned a lot about the diverse needs of our patron population and how to meet them in a variety of ways.

Your “Step-Libraries”

You don’t need to work at a joint-use library for these concepts to apply. I know of many college libraries who report to multiple deans, or have combined library and IT departments, or even just have multiple campus libraries that need to work together to avoid becoming silos. Anywhere you have multiple parties at the same level working together to provide services to your patrons, these concepts are relevant and important.

Navigating uncharted territory: Short Edition at Penn State

So, you might have heard of a machine that disenspers short stories. You’ll find these dispensers at airports, hospitals, gig cities, malls, and community spaces. With a press of a button, you can print off 1, 3, or 5 minute short stories or poetry. These dispensers are made by Short Edition, a company based in France whose mission is to “propel literature” and share short stories and poetry with as many people as possible. Their machines have been featured stories at Mental Floss, LitHub, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.

There definitely is something novel about the machines; I’m actually writing this post while sitting near one in our library. Penn State got several dispensers in spring 2017 and PLA just finished up their Courage writing contest, and I can only assume some more libraries will be getting their own dispensers in the next several years. I love watching students approach the dispenser, some not quite sure what they are all about. They press the button and the machine whirls a bit, gearing up to print the story. It spits the story out, the five minute stories always my favorite to watch because it’s always longer than you’d expect. They smile when they pull it out of the dispenser, folding it carefully while they walk away. My favorite comment to hear is, “Can you actually read that story in one minute?”

Short Edition started in 2011 and the company created their dispensers in 2015. Libraries have gravitated towards these dispensers and the mission behind the company, we seem like a natural fit. When Penn State first got our dispensers, they were fun machines we had in our library and in spaces across campus. But we wanted to do more than just have students print out stories; we wanted to build a program that could showcase student, faculty, and staff writing. I became part of the group tasked with building this program in fall 2017. In the past year, I have learned a lot — about Short Edition, the creative writing scene at University Park and the campuses, and how to take a fuzzy vision for a program and turn it into something a bit more defined.

I got involved because our administration had felt strongly there should be students involved with the editorial process and naturally, the Student Engagement Librarian knows some students. Other than some loose guidelines from the Editorial Board at Short Edition, we really had the chance to create what we wanted. While the machines themselves are “easy” (just plug them in and let them print), there is much more beneath the surface, and at the complimentary website, where the magic really happens in converting community content into something you can print off on the dispensers. There was definitely a learning curve and when we’ve got a contest running, I email my contacts at Short Edition at least once a week. We’re currently running our second writing contest, around the theme of Lost & Found. Running these contests seem like the best way to get content onto our website and our dispensers — having a broad, general theme (and prize money) seems to attract more writers than a rolling submission process. Sometimes, I have gone up to the group of students printing off stories and ask, “Did you know you can submit your own stories to this dispenser?” The students often chuckle and shake their heads, “I just like reading the stories, I don’t write” they respond. We’ve got a little hurdle right now — finding folks who not only enjoy the machines, but also want their stories and poems to be the ones getting printed out.

The other aspect about this project is now that we have some consistency around contests, our Editorial Board and guidelines, we are adding other elements to the program. Community members in Centre county can now add their content to our website and dispensers, we are adding dispensers to some of our campuses across the state of Pennsylvania, and working locally with the high school to see what their program could look like. It’s a lot of juggling and deciding what is urgent, what decisions will be strategic, and what elements we can hold off on until we are more ready. In that way, this program is elastic, willing to bend in what direction we think is best, at the time.

In all of this, when you chart uncharted territory, people look to you for advice or ways forward. Since our Penn State Short Edition project has taken off, I’ve received emails from a whole host of librarians, all interested in what we’re up to. I send along documentation, neatly packaged in a Box folder, explaining some of the unique elements of our program. In these email exchanges, I receive my favorite compliment, “Wow, this is thorough.” I’m curious to see how many other academic libraries invest in Short Edition in the next few years. Maybe, in the future, we can find a way to connect them, in a contest or through our Editorial Boards.

The biggest thing I’ve learned since taking on this project is that you sometimes just have to do the thing, even if you’re not 100% sure it will work. I’m someone who craves feedback and seeks a lot of permission first; spearheading the Short Edition project has definitely challenged that side of me. I’ve gotten a little better at just doing the thing and being confident in whatever decision I’ve decided to make. There’s so much room to grow, experiment, and take this project to another level so onward we go, charting new territory and propelling literature forward.


Note: If you’re interested in seeing some of our documentation for Short Edition or learning more, feel free to send me an email at hmf14@psu.edu.

 

 

Notes on the National Joint Conference of Librarians of Color

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Zoë McLaughlin, Resident Librarian at Michigan State University.

At the end of September, I had the opportunity, as part of my diversity resident librarian position, to attend the National Joint Conference of Librarians of Color (JCLC). This conference is sponsored by ALA’s five ethnic affiliates and offers a forum to discuss issues of diversity within librarianship. For me, it was an opportunity to meet colleagues, attend some amazing panels, and exist amongst a crowd of librarians of color—a novel and welcome experience.

There’s been a lot written already about how librarianship is overwhelmingly white, so I won’t belabor that point. Instead, I will say that this was the first time I was surrounded by librarians and felt like just another face in the crowd. It was affirming to strike up conversations with strangers and know that we were coming from similar places in terms of experiences and concerns in the field. I am not the most outgoing and struggle at conferences, but noticed that I felt calmer and more interested in interacting with people than I have at previous conferences. I think this had to do with the overall energy of the conference: everyone was open, welcoming, and excited to talk about past experiences and new ideas moving forward.

I also found that I learned about the work of the different ethnic affiliate groups, something I had not expected but definitely appreciated. As a new librarian, I’ve tried to get involved without overextending myself, which has meant focusing on one ethnic affiliate and only occasionally seeing a forwarded email from the other groups. Having all the affiliates in one place meant that I had the opportunity to talk to people about their work heard from all the affiliates during JCLC’s gala and by visiting them in the exhibit hall. I’m now more interested to see what sort of collaborative and crossover work can be done between groups, such as AILA and APALA’s Talk Story project.

And then, of course, there were the panels. (See the program here.) It was exciting to hear from some important people in the field (see Fobazi Ettarh, April Hathcock, Jennifer Ferretti, and Rebecca Martin’s panel “Our Librarianship/Archival Practice is Not for White People: Affirming Communities of Color in Our Work”), as well as to hear from my peers (see Kalani Adolpho, Jesus Espinoza, Twanna Hodge, and Madison Sullivan’s panel “Under the Hood: Exploring Academic Library Resident Programs in Practice”). While “Our Librarianship/Archival Practice” dealt with taking care of yourself while facing the realities of the profession and working toward the way we want the profession to be, “Under the Hood” discussed similar issues in the specific context of residency programs. Having just started a residency program myself, I found it helpful to hear from other residents about the diversity of their experiences, including what went right and what went wrong. As was spoken to at the panel, diversity residencies can be isolating experiences because the position is often misunderstood and because the resident is often one of few other librarians of color in the institution. I’m lucky that in planning my residency this was taken into account, so I’m part of a cohort and haven’t had to jump in alone.

My favorite session, though, was Mara Clowney-Robinson, Karen Downing, Helen Look, and Darlene Nichols’s “Mixing it Up: Libraries Embracing Intersectionality of Multiracial Identities” because it hit so close to home for me. The panel began with a brief history of multiracial identity in the United States, as well as how libraries have treated this identity over the years. Panelists noted that the population of people identifying as multiracial is growing, meaning that this is a group institutions—including libraries—should be paying attention to, in questions of collection development and cataloging as well as in outward presentation, such as in brochures or displays.

This panel, and the conference in general, made me think about what I want to be doing to advance diversity and inclusion within libraries and librarianship. The inclusion of multiracial identities, for example, is important to me personally, but I don’t often bring this out in my work. Should I focus on it more? How can I be an active advocate for issues that are important to me within my own practice of librarianship?

In another panel, one of the audience members raised the point that most librarians of color haven’t come through programs like Spectrum, IRDW, or residencies. As someone who has benefitted from these programs, how can I use this to also advance others? JCLC was exciting because not only did it offer me a space where I felt welcome and felt like I belonged, it has also inspired me to find ways to contribute concretely to diversity in librarianship and to think about how I can bring these ideas into my day-to-day practice.

Saying Good-Bye in Slow-Motion: Keeping a Student-Centered Focus Amidst Great Change

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jennifer Joe, Owensboro Campus Librarian at Western Kentucky University.

I will be leaving my students at the end of this semester. That’s the first time I’ve written that out (though by the time this is published, everyone will know.) I will be moving on to a new position, at a new university, in a new state. It will be a good move for me, personally and professionally, but it was not my choice.

I would have happily stayed at my current position, but budget cuts forced the elimination of not only my position, but many others at the university. I was lucky. I had a year to look for a new position, and I didn’t need the whole year. Others were not so lucky. Still others have left my campus (a small, regional campus which is part of the larger university system) of their own accord. Some of the best people we have ever had are gone.

For my part, at the time of this writing, I have almost exactly three months left in which I will be working. (I’ll start my new position in January.) How do I continue to serve my students in this climate? It has already required an immense amount of flexibility on my part. I’ve had to forge new relationships with new hires (some of whom will only be temporary.) Treating them as permanent employees, at least for now, is the only way to go forward. I’ve also expanded what it means to me to be a librarian. I’ve unleashed my research skills on career searches for soon to be graduates and used my critical thinking and analysis to troubleshoot IT problems for faculty. I even helped someone retrieve the contents from the hard drive of their dead laptop yesterday. (It was my student worker, and I repeated 1,000 times that I WAS NOT LIABLE if things went pear-shaped. Everything worked out and we retrieved the family photos he thought were lost.)

Going forward, I will need to have that same flexibility.

It isn’t a new or unique situation. I know for a fact I’m not the only one doing this – there is at the very least another librarian at a campus about 90 miles from mine doing the exact same thing for the exact same university and there are librarians across the country doing the same thing for other reasons: a colleague’s extended illness, a retirement or sudden death, staff who have quit unexpectedly or couldn’t be replaced on schedule. I’ve been in a few of those situations, too.

The question then becomes: how do I do this from a mental and emotional standpoint? For that, I rely on the student-centered approach I’ve always taken to librarianship. My students may not always feel like they need me, but I know their lives will be better when they have the critical thinking and research skills that make up information literacy, and their lives will also be better when they know how to find (and land!) appropriate jobs that reflect their education and when their professors can use technology to teach their classes.

What does that mean for my workload? That means continuing to organize presentations, displays, contests, and anything else that will continue engaging my students. There are some I do every year, and I am grateful to my past self for keeping good records of those events so that I can replicate them even as I am making arrangements to sign contracts, pack my house, and eventually move away. It also means trying to keep my tenuous hold on the relationships I have built with faculty who allow me to come into their classroom and use some of their precious time to teach their students about information literacy, while being unable to tell them with certainty what will happen to the library when I am gone.

I hope my students will remember me when I move on to my new position, because I will remember them. They are what has motivated me these last few months, knowing that my job was coming to an end. I also hope that in the midst of budget cuts, staff turnover, never ending assessment, repeated requests for justification, and all the other things that can make being a librarian unpleasant, my fellow librarians will also look to their students for motivation and inspiration.

Have you faced morale problems in your library recently? Were they things in your control or out of it? How did you cope with them? Share your experiences in the comments – it’s always nice to know you’re not alone!