Culture Shock! and Other Discoveries of a New Academic Librarian

Academia is weird. I did three academic library internships and worked as two years as academic library staff before becoming an academic librarian at Cal State Fullerton. But I didn’t truly realize how weird academic was until I became, well, an academic. Now that I’ve achieved a full (academic) year of librarianship, I thought that it would be fun to reflect on my challenges, frustrations, and discoveries.

First off, in academia, you don’t have coworkers. You have colleagues! After a lifetime of hourly jobs and coworkers, I’ve really had to retrain my brain to start saying colleagues. Colleagues, colleagues, colleagues. And we librarians are basically flat hierarchically. Since we are all autonomous, I’ve had to do a lot of detective work to figure out who-does-what and who can (and is also willing) to help me on projects.

Second off, where is my boss? I’m partly kidding, but the level of autonomy I have and continue to have is astonishing. I think it’s partly a function of having a brand new position in a field with which my colleagues are unfamiliar, but on my first day I was basically shown my office and left alone. Being a brand new librarian in a new and growing field has been really challenging. I’m interested and engaged in all my work because I get to choose what I work on, but I’ve also had to learn to say “no” to many requests so that my workload is not unmanageable.

That leads to my third point: I am never bored. Never ever ever. For the first time in my life, I have engaging work to fill my hours well beyond the forty-hour work week. If I screw around at work, I’m only harming myself! My work now is also largely project-based rather than daily, weekly, or one-off tasks. I’ve had to learn to become a project manager, and project management continues to be a developing skill for me. Remember how I wrote that post on time management a few months back? I followed my own tips for quite a while, but it’s become a regular struggle to dedicate the time to better manage my time. Ironic?

Fourth, working as an academic sometimes feels like I’ve betrayed my working-class roots. I’m the only person in my family to have a college degree, let alone two graduate degrees. I come from a blue-collar background. My dad was a truck driver, my mom was a secretary, and my sister is a waitress. I’ve spent years waiting tables and loading trucks. It’s hard to explain what I do as an academic librarian to my family. Academia is also a strange world where colleagues take their children on college tours (you mean you can choose where you go to college?), and who also tend to assume a commonality of life experience (I’ve had to google some of the upper-middle-class things my colleagues talk about). Naturally, as a librarian, when faced with unfamiliar situations in life I do some research to find kindred spirits. Fortunately there are wonderful books like This fine place so far from home: Voices of academics from the working class, and, Limbo: Blue-collar roots, white-collar dreams. I also really like the blog Tenure, she wrote. I also get excited about critical pedagogy and critical librarianship, which I didn’t know existed before I was a librarian.

But finally, let’s not forget about all the buzzwords (aka alphabet soup) in academic libraries. HIPs, FYE, ACRL IL Framework, Retention, Student Success, 508 Compliance, OERs, OA. I’ve had a crash course in HIPs (high impact practices) and even attended a HIPs institute this month as a librarian representative on a campus team. I subscribe to several library-related listservs but still can’t tell you what LITA or LIRT stand for, or what the difference is between INFOLIT and ili-l. However, I fondly refer to information literacy as IL, and am baffled when non-librarians don’t know what I’m talking about. QP is QuestionPoint, ILL is my favorite thing ever, OPAC is often used incorrectly here, and any day now we’re going to get an IR. Meanwhile, I’ll get back to trying to sell my colleagues on a learning object repository where we can store all of the DLOs (digital learning objects) that we’re going to create together!

What are some of the things you found surprising about being an academic librarian?

Author: Lindsay O'Neill

I'm a shiny new Instructional Design Librarian at California State University, Fullerton. I'm a bike commuter, triathlete and compulsive reader trying to figure out this whole tenure-track librarian thing. Tweet me: I'm @lindsayontherun.

5 thoughts on “Culture Shock! and Other Discoveries of a New Academic Librarian”

  1. I’ve been an academic librarian for 8 years now, but the alphabet soup still amazes me. Starting work at a community college library for the first time, I was struck by the widespread assumption that I already knew the culture and the acronyms. Not long ago, in fact, I got tangled up in the FTE/FTES acronyms. A colleague from another campus asked me how many FTEs we have. “Around 20,000,” I responded with confidence, thinking he meant FTES (full-time equivalent students). He looked at me as though I’d sprouted tentacles. He was asking me about FTEs, full-time equivalent faculty members — the plural of an FTE but not an FTES.

    Another twenty years and I’ll have it all down pat, just in time to impress everyone at my retirement party!

  2. I hate to tell you, but most libraries are not flat hierarchically. Not by a long shot.

  3. I also work at a CSU library and have worked at a couple of other academic libraries before coming here. I think a lot of the work qualities you mention are related to the fact that we have faculty status. As I read your piece I kept thinking “this is totally my experience!” The flat hierarchy and the autonomy, specifically. I LOVE these things about working in this library and the last place I worked at wasn’t like that at all. And yup, this is also the first job I’ve had where I’m never bored.

    You’re completely right that the autonomy also means you have to be able to say no, and you need to create a culture where it’s ok to say no. That can be hard when we all rely on each other so much to keep the ship moving ahead. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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