Planning with Uncertainty

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Zoë McLaughlin, South and Southeast Asian Studies Librarian at Michigan State University Libraries. 

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the Virtual Minnesota Institute, which was a condensed form of the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians that was organized once it was clear that meeting in person wasn’t going to happen. As part of the institute, participants were asked to think about where they would like to be five years from now, along a variety of axes—professional and otherwise.

I found this exercise to be surprisingly eye-opening. While many of the things I want to have accomplished professionally over the next five years were easy to identify, I had a much more difficult time putting the pieces together into one cohesive narrative. I’d like to develop more subject expertise and significantly improve my abilities in a few regional languages and become involved in national conversations about accessibility. I’d like to contribute meaningfully to the professional organizations that have really supported me and engage community members and work seriously with librarians from overseas. All of these things are connected, but many of these things are connected only because they are all interests of mine.

In my final post for ACRLog in the first year academic librarian experience series, I wrote that one lesson I learned was to be intentional in selecting and agreeing to projects. Putting this lesson together with the five-year visioning exercise, I’ve come up with a new method that I’m at least trying to use to organize and prioritize my projects.

My job responsibilities are already organized into three main categories: collections, cataloging, and accessibility. I spent my first year trying to figure out how to balance these different responsibilities, and if I’m being honest, I’m still working on it. What I learned, though, is that it helps to really break down my projects into these separate categories so that I can make sure I’m spending time on everything. The new layer I’ve added on to this system is to think about goals within these separate categories. What do I want to have accomplished in my collecting five years from now? What competencies in accessibility do I want to have developed five years from now?

Thinking of concrete, long-term goals has been made trickier by the realization that nothing is certain. Back when I wrote my final blog post, I did not think that I’d be spending a year working remotely. Sometimes goals have to change. Imagining the long term, however, has also helped me to realign my work with my values. What will I be proud of accomplishing five years from now? That’s likely much more aligned with my values than all the emails I should be writing that I keep ignoring.

So then how have I moved from thinking about goals and values to organizing my day-to-day work? Essentially, every time a project or task comes up, I ask myself whether it advances my progress toward one of my goals. If it does, great! I say yes to working on the project and I make a note of which goal the project relates to. If something isn’t actually related to my goals, then that’s a good sign that I should be saying no. Of course, I can’t say no to everything (I really do have to write all of those emails), but it is a way to make me feel a lot better about declining to participate on another committee or deciding not to submit to a semi-interesting conference.

This summer, I’m going to hit three years in this position, which means that I need to start thinking about promotion and tenure. My hope is that in conceptualizing my day-to-day work in terms of long-term goals, I’ll also be able to build a cohesive and logical promotion/tenure dossier. Thinking about how each task I complete relates to a larger plan means that all my tasks are building upon one another and that I am continuing to make progress, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

So where am I now? Like everyone else, the past year has hit me hard. But I’m lucky enough to still have a job and with a fair amount of security and the space to work from home comfortably. I’ve had to make adjustments and relearn aspects of my job when I’d only just felt like I’d gotten my feet under me, but I do feel like I’m learning and growing and am more confident in my work. I’m excited to see what the future holds for me.

And for you? It’s a new year, so now might be the perfect time to look at your own goals and consider the ways in which you can make your everyday work align with your values.

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