Looking Back: A Yearly Wrap-Up

I’ve (almost) made it! As of May, I’m eleven months into my first not-so-new-anymore academic librarian position. Looking back on my first year in an academic library, there are a handful of lessons, moments, and people that come to mind – including just how fast time flies while working at a university. In the spirit of growth, this month’s post reflects back on my various lessons from this academic year.

Teaching a library credit-course has always loomed rather large for my first position. So, it makes sense that there’s more to be said about teaching than I have space for (see my January post, for example). That being said, here are couple of lessons from the library classroom.

Proper Preparation

I’m going to let you in on a little-known secret – I get nervous each and every single time I have to teach. It doesn’t matter how many years of teaching I have under my belt, it doesn’t matter if it’s a one-shot lesson I’ve delivered ten times. I always get at least a little nervous whenever I have to teach, and it took me a while to realize that that’s okay.  There’s something that’s always stuck with me from my alternative teacher certification days that still holds true for me to this day – proper preparation prevents pitiful performance. Aside from being an impressive example of alliteration, this maxim has become something I live by when it comes to teaching. 

Teaching is stressful. Each class, each lecture, each activity comes with its laundry list like number of considerations to think about. Activating students’ prior knowledge, preparing mini-lectures, creating opportunities for students to practice new skills, assessing those skills; these are just some of the few things an instructor has to take into consideration whenever planning an instruction session. Granted, some level of stress is unavoidable when teaching, but craving time out each day to prepare and plan instruction has made teaching a lot more manageable for me.

Reflection

Planning takes time, but actual instruction sessions themselves fly by. It’s because of this that reflection has become a staple of my pedagogical praxis. Thanks to my lovely colleagues who introduced me to the concept, I now have a journal specifically for both planning out my classes but also reflecting on each instruction session. Having a space for reflecting on each class session has afforded me a variety of insights. Something I learned early on about teaching is that classes don’t always turn out the way we image, so having a journal filled with the ups and downs of instruction helps me better plan for future sessions. In a way, my reflection journal works as a form of self-assessment, but it also serves as a marker of progress – comparing my notes from the first week of Fall classes to this Spring lets me know I’ve come a long way as both a librarian and an instructor.

Working Out a Workflow

Prior to my current position, my old workflow consisted of notes in a very lovely planner that I would consistently forget to regularly check. I regretfully admit that, because of my lax scheduling, there are a handful of work and nonwork related events that I missed. But, I’m happy to report that since starting at my current institution, I’ve become the type of person who lives by their Outlook calendar. My last to-do every day before leaving the office is taking a look at my calendar for the next day and locking in exactly what I need to be working on and when. More importantly, I’ve grown into the habit of setting my calendar up in advance as often as possible. This means that sometimes I place an event or deadline on my calendar months in advance but, thanks to my calendar’s reminders function, the likelihood of me forgetting to prep for that event or deadline is much smaller than it has ever been.

Outreach

It seems to me that figuring out your approach to outreach is an almost universal librarian experience. Each library and each campus come with their own set of distinct factors to take into consideration when planning outreach. Because of that, I think it’s safe to say that there’s no one hard and fast rule for conducting outreach to your campus community. What I’ve come to learn about outreach is that most of all it requires time and visibility.

Connecting with students has quickly become one of the most rewarding parts of my position. But, like that phrase about Rome, those connections aren’t built in a day. Whether it’s in the classroom or a campus cultural center, building relationships with students and the on-campus organizations that serve them require an investment of time and presence. My biggest success story in this regard has been my outreach to my campus’ César Chávez Cultural Center (I touched on this in my March post) which led to me being personally sought out by students.

Service

Service to the library, service to the university, service to the profession at large – service period is something I didn’t have much experience with till this year. Much like the other lessons, figuring out my approach to service work has taken time. Though it seems like a requirement typical of most academic libraries, service seems like the type of work that can either become an additional burden or a fulfilling joy. My approach to service has consisted of finding opportunities aligned to my passions. For example, back in March I took part in two training sessions with the library internship program I was in during grad school. During the sessions, I had the opportunity to discuss my experiences in the job market and my transition from intern to full-time librarian with current interns. Maybe it’s something to do with the type of people this profession attracts, but I’ve found that incoming librarians tend to be very responsive and appreciative of hearing earnest advice about the profession to which I usually reply with, “this is one of the fun parts about my job” – and, it’s true. I’ve found that sharing the experiences and advice I’ve received along my path to the profession thus far to be immensely gratifying. Doing so has made my service feel a lots less like work and more like giving back.

Friendship

Last and most certainly not least, friendship. Having people that you know that you can lean-on, as well as making space for those people to lean-on you, goes a long way for me in my personal life. But, I’ve come to learn that that’s also the case for me at work. I know, I know – librarians typical tend to identify as introverts (myself included) but having a close-knit circle of work friends has been huge for me. All of us have our fair share of bad days, but not everyone has someone that they can lean on during those times. Being open and vulnerable with my circle at work has gotten me through some of my roughest days at the library.

In a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve finally gotten adjusted to my new career. I fully recognize I still have much to learn but reflecting back on my first year has allowed to realize just how far I’ve come in a relatively short period of time. Though I’m happy to report that I’ll be taking some time off this Summer – I’m really excited to catch Rage Against the Machine and Kendrick Lamar in July – I’m looking forward to all the new lessons and challenges the coming academic year will bring.

My First Conference (as an academic librarian)

I promise I did not vanish into the abyss. I did, however, disappear into an incredibly busy March and April and I offer profound apologies to my fellow ACRL bloggers, though I’m quite sure they understand how these things go in the wild world of libraries.

TLA 2022 in Forth Worth, TX. April 25-28. Theme: Recover, Rebalance, Reconnect.

One of the many events that consumed me during these past two months was the Texas Libraries Association conference, AKA TLA2022. If you are a member of #LibraryTwitter, you might be familiar with the controversy that was stirred up by one of the keynote speakers, Alyssa Edwards. I was unfortunately unable to go to this keynote due to a very long and tiring day waiting in lines (Sidenote: What do conference organizers have against chairs? I haven’t been able to sit on the floor without a monumental effort to get up again since undergrad. Do not make people stand in lines for hours! It’s not acceptable or disability inclusive or okay! Geez!) but the issue was echoed again and again in each session I did attend. Libraries are being badgered by bigots, zealots, and busybodies who jump on us the moment we show any support to LGBTQ communities.

It’s not as bad in academic libraries. My colleagues in public libraries and especially those in school libraries are taking the brunt of the abuse. However, the field itself is having a reckoning, if the thrust of nearly every main session at TLA is any indication. I attended sessions each day, and book banning and challenges, patrons abusing staff, programs being canceled and boycotted, and constant, aggressive censorship was a topic brought up at almost every one of them. Even while I was busily networking in the Exhibition Hall, my main goal of the conference, I saw it everywhere. The air hummed both with the tension of the amount of pressure librarians and library staff are under as well as understanding. Every time a speaker acknowledged how hard this has been on us, professionally, physically, emotionally, I could feel waves of relief coming off those surrounding me. I got it. I’m lucky to have a partner who is also a librarian, so he understands. But how many of the people I encountered at that conference had felt isolated in their struggles? If your family, friends, even colleagues just don’t grasp the severity of the anxiety you live in day after day, that the one book you order or the one event you plan is going to set off a tidal wave of complaints, how amazing must it feel to finally have someone recognize it? And not only that, but someone on stage, holding a microphone, speaking with authority?

Nadine Strossen addressed the audience of librarians during her mid-conference keynote when she said, “In the land of the free and the home of the brave, it should not take courage to be so brave to do your job.” And all I could think was yes, yes, thank you! Thank you for acknowledging what the people around me have been doing. Thank you for speaking that truth to the people who really needed to hear it.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how amazing Ibram X. Kendi’s session was.

TLA did my heart good. I took a risk by going, I know I did. Large gatherings like this are going to be a gamble for a while with the COVID pandemic still in full swing. We did have protections in place, particularly either a vaccination record or clear test being required to enter the convention center, but in the end I’m very happy that I went and experienced this validation. No, I’m not on the front lines of this fight, but I’m also not so sheltered that I can ignore it (nor insist on continued oppression-favoring neutrality like some  members of our field). It was a memorable and important first conference for me in my academic librarian career. I’m hoping to attend more in the future, especially because I don’t see today’s problems going away any time soon. I’m going to keep my head in the game to support fellow library workers. We all need each other right now, that’s how we make it through this.

One step at a time.

Bad Art Day in the (Academic) Library

Last week, I hosted Bad Art Day, my second public program at Carroll Community College. Bad Art Day (or usually, Bad Art Night) is a popular program at public libraries, and it’s something I’ve wanted to try at an academic library for a while. The concept is pretty self-explanatory: you set out a bunch of art supplies and tell participants to go to town trying to make the ugliest piece of art that they can. 

This program had simple objectives: Creativity is messy. It’s ok to make mistakes. You don’t have to be a perfectionist. I even quoted Jake the Dog from Adventure Time: “Sucking is the first step towards being sort of good at something.”

"Dude, sucking at something is the first step towards being sort of good at something," Jake the Dog quote

I made a call for donated art supplies through our faculty newsletter, and got most of our art supplies this way! The only thing I needed to purchase was a selection of glues (glitter, stick), because all the donated glue was dried out. 

I was anticipating that it would be a hard sell to get students to stop, sit down, and do an active-participation event. I was truly bracing myself to paste on a smile and say “well, sometimes the programs are a bust,” and dutifully clean up my art supplies. Instead, we had 17 participants, including a few faculty members! 

Student making bad art using art supplies
An artist at work

Since starting programming in Fall 2021, our participation has been surprisingly good; there has been a real appetite for screen-free, face-to-face, low-stakes activities on this campus.

Students came between classes, they brought friends, and they chatted with each other while creating. The program was self-explanatory and students were eager to dig in to the art supplies. For the Bad Art Contest, I had the students give their pieces titles, which added to the humor and depth of the entries. 

After Bad Art Day, I created little table-tents with each artist’s name and the title of their pieces, then put them all on display in the library lobby. Students could come see the ugly art, and could even vote on their favorites! Having the art on display stretched the program into the rest of the week; just about everyone who came into the library stopped to look and chuckle at the pieces.

Photo of Bad Art on display across two folding tables
The titles that the students chose were widely regarded as the best part!

Outreach and programming work is possible by yourself, but I don’t recommend it. Whether I’m making a puzzle, choosing a program, or thinking through the logistics of an interactive display, I find myself running my ideas past another person. Interested circulation staff, an eager student worker or volunteer, and even my partner and family have been called on for their two cents on the wording of a discussion question or the layout of a poster. My best ideas have come from these conversational brainstorm sessions at the desk. 

No programming librarian is an island. And if you don’t have colleagues, Pinterest, blogs, library literature, and your patron audience can be your collaborators. I am finding inspiration everywhere.

How are you doing? (redux)

Bird sitting outside a window
Photo by Ziba Maghrebi on Unsplash

We’re coming to the end of another year of grappling with pandemic-related changes across higher education, and the ACRLog blog team thought this might be a good time to check in on how things are going for all of us in our libraries, as we’ve done around this time for the past two years.

What’s the situation at your institution at the time of writing?

(Alex) As the College of Medicine’s library, we are attached to medical facilities and have the same masking requirements in place, visitors are still not permitted into academic spaces, and library employees are all still hybrid or entirely remote. The rest of our university, though, seems fairly back to normal; they don’t have the restrictions we do, but they do allow remote work on a case-by-case basis.

(Maura) Our campus and library fully reopened last Fall, and with the increase in in-person instruction at the college for the Spring we’re definitely seeing more students in the library than we did last semester. Still, it’s quieter than it was in the past, perhaps not surprising as about 50% of classes are still online this semester (we struggled a lot with crowding and noise pre-pandemic so this change is not entirely unwelcome). The university (and the college) lifted the mask requirement a little more than a month ago, though many folx are still masking on campus, both students and employees.

(Emily) We fully reopened last Fall as well, and in early March (coinciding with the CDC’s updated guidance), our school dropped the mask requirement, although as Maura said, many on our campus are still wearing masks indoors. Having more students on campus has meant more business for library services, both at the desk and over chat and email. I chalk it up to students becoming aware of our virtual communication options during the pandemic, and some finding that they prefer that mode even when face-to-face is available.

(Angie) My campus resumed in person classes last fall with a vaccine and mask mandate in place for a brief period. The summer prior, the Libraries began transitioning remote faculty and staff back to hybrid work that was at least 60% onsite. In the Spring semester mask mandates continued in all indoor campus spaces as Omicron was peaking. Then in March they became optional in non-classroom settings, and later that month became optional in classrooms. My impression of the physical spaces is they still seem sparsely populated by normal comparisons,  and request volume in technical services is still only 30-50% of pre-pandemic levels. We have had a lot of employee turnover and are in the middle of 3 of 5 faculty searches. This has definitely affected morale, especially since many, if not all, were already experiencing significant burnout before taking on additional duties these vacancies may have left to them. 

Do you anticipate changes in your library or campus situation in the Fall semester?

(Alex) We were recently asked how many days per week each person would like to work in-person after Labor Day, so the plans are being made for changes, but they aren’t finalized yet. It’s hard to say what other changes may come at that time.

(Angie) It’s hard to imagine *not* anticipating changes, right? But I hope the drive for normalcy will hold some sway in keeping major changes to a minimum. Orienting some new faculty and staff will bring positive, new change. In my area of the library we’re also seeing an urgency to support new orientation for all students – not just new ones. With the university experience of the past few years being so irregular, many haven’t had the chance to experience the usual things libraries offer students, like our spaces, the help desk, or ILL. Talking with my leadership, I’ve learned there is actually a campus-level priority to ramp up outreach as a matter of mental health as much as academic success. I love this acknowledgement of my favorite philosophical problem (not knowing what you don’t know) and the stakes and responsibility involved in helping solve it.

(Maura) We do anticipate that there will be more students on campus in the Fall, with an estimated 80% of classes scheduled fully in person or hybrid next semester (though that can certainly change as students continue to register throughout the summer). We’re starting a strategic planning process here in the Library that we aim to complete by the end of the Fall semester, so in many ways we’re not anticipating changes as much in the short term as we are thinking about changes we’d like to make in the next 3-5 years.

What pandemic-related challenges are you still facing in your library work?

(Maura) Librarians and staff are required to work at least 70% in person this semester, which has made scheduling somewhat complex, especially for service desk shifts. We’re managing it, though it took a few weeks to settle into our new routines. It’s not clear what the requirement for on-campus work will be for fall, but we’re keeping an eye on that. It’s also been somewhat challenging this year to reach students who started at the college last year and to raise their awareness of library services and resources. While that group did have information literacy instruction in their English Composition I course, as all students do, since those courses were fully online last year they didn’t have the opportunity to come to the physical library. We’re continuing to do outreach to all students and hopefully have reached at least some of that cohort with in-person instruction in their Comp 2 class this year. 

(Emily) The library staff where I work are all facing burnout and morale-related challenges, caused by negotiating telework and on-desk scheduling, feeling unrecognized by campus administration, and a protracted expectation to “keep the trains running” over the last 2 years. In light of this, our library director has instructed us to treat this summer as a period of recovery, urging us to take vacation time and avoid piling on extra projects like a usual summer. I’m hoping that this recovery period, combined with a reconsideration of some of our processes, will be enough to improve our overall morale.

(Angie) Hybrid schedules have turned out to be really challenging, both for those onsite who rely on others’ consistent onsite availability and for those who feel their work could continue to be done entirely remote. Selfish example: it has been much more difficult to grab coffee with my work bestie on a whim! The freedom we have been given to set the type of hybrid schedule is certainly nice, but it has proven practically at odds with rebuilding the kind of serendipitous connection for which it was intended. The variety of schedules means fewer people in the office at the same time for serendipity, or even intentional connection, to take place. The supportive technology onsite for hybrid meeting rooms is necessary but still kind of awkward – I think we prefer seeing each other in individual Zoom boxes rather than a combination of seeing individual’s boxes with another box of people distantly meeting in another room. I’m observing (guilty of) remote attendance at meetings happening from an individual desk in the same room! And maybe that’s OK. Maybe that is what we learned is necessary to preserve from remote work after all. I do worry that people’s pandemic-related burnout has been exacerbated, rather than eased (yet) by a logistical “return to normal.” The motions may be mostly normal, but people’s lived experiences have not returned to normal, and this makes it very difficult to authentically connect at large –  as a team, as an organization. Wherever our library has created those very intentional opportunities to connect, even in a hybrid way – award ceremonies, holiday parties, all staff meetings – this has seemed to help the most. It’s curious, right? That intentionality should be the necessary ingredient for serendipity.  

What positive changes have you seen this year in the ways your library supports the mission of the institution?

(Alex) We don’t hesitate to make changes that we think will benefit our users. I wouldn’t say we were “afraid” to make change before, but I think we’ve grown accustomed to pivoting (ugh that word) at the drop of a hat, so saying things like “let’s change this policy, it isn’t fitting students’ use of our resources” or “should our hours be this way, or can we adjust them to work better for us?” has become easier.

(Maura) We’ve also seen what Alex highlights — my colleagues and I are definitely more amenable to making changes in library services to align them more closely with what students and other library patrons seem to need, even if it’s different from what we’ve done before, or a change in the middle of the semester. We’ve adjusted printing limits to better accommodate students who are coming to campus less often, and shifted our study room policy to allow single-student use for taking online classes. We’ll be thinking about how students and faculty use the library now as we head into our strategic planning process, too, and will hopefully hold some focus groups in the Fall to help us learn more.

(Angie) At both our Library and University levels, there has been intentional effort by the administration to address salaries and diverse hiring in meaningful ways. We have had three different tiers of staff already getting across the board increases based on market studies. In my experience it is the hiring process that provides the most intentional and practical avenue for scaling awareness and development of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Given that we are doing so much hiring, and that those serving on search committees are experiencing that process, these are both positive changes to increasing DEIB awareness and (hopefully!) growth into other areas.

We’d love to hear how things are going in your library, please drop us a line in the comments.

Who Gets to be a Researcher?

One of my favorite days of the academic year is Undergraduate Research Day. The Honors College and the Libraries collaborate to showcase undergraduate student research done through various scholarship programs, experiential learning programs, and independent research with faculty mentors. Our main library’s second and third floors are filled with research posters from students in every discipline imaginable, and the students themselves are bouncing with enthusiasm and excitement. They’re eager to tell people about their research and are able to speak about their work with clarity and precision with fellow scholars. They also offer compelling narratives to a more general audience who might not be familiar with the conventions of the research in that discipline.

April 14 marked the 2022 Undergraduate Research Day, and it was so exciting to be back in person after 2 years of a virtual event. As I listened to a student talk about their work researching Spanish language newspapers in the U.S. during the 1918 influenza pandemic, I wondered what it would take to expand this kind of excitement and enthusiasm for research to a wider group of students. There were about 200 presenters this year, at a school that boasts an undergraduate population of over 37,000 students. Yes, there may be some students doing research who weren’t able to present or weren’t far enough along in their research to do so, and yes, there are students engaging in research in their classes, too. But there is something about making research public, having a conversation about what you’ve learned and what you still want to learn, that seems to foster a sense of enthusiasm and pride.

I would love for all of our undergraduate students to be able to proudly share their scholarly or creative output and say, “I did that!” It might not all be groundbreaking or revolutionary, but shouldn’t the work of novice researchers be celebrated, too? At my last place of work there was a day where all students in first-year seminars could share their coursework and/or research, projects, papers, etc. with the entire campus community. It was a way to celebrate the work of first-semester, first-year students, who all displayed a commitment to what they’d learned and excitement in sharing it with others. It was a way of planting the seed of research, investigation, curiosity, and knowledge building in these students, that they could then carry with them all the way to their senior thesis project.

How can we develop opportunities to recreate the kind of enthusiasm and curiosity that was present at that first-year student event and at Undergraduate Research Day? I’m interested in extending those experiences beyond a small, select group of students to a wider university population. I’ve sometimes heard the argument that some students just aren’t “ready” for research. This may or may not be accurate depending on the context, but what are we even doing if we aren’t entering teaching relationships with students assuming that they are intellectually curious? They might not have the scholarly background of an experienced researcher, but they may possess the same inquisitive spirit and excitement to learn. So where is their Undergraduate Research Day? How do we celebrate their work and progress? Are they not researchers as first-year students, writing their first synthesis paper or lab report? Who decides whose research is celebrated? In creating opportunities to do this we might then pave a pathway for those students to continue to research throughout their years in higher education and afterward.