Things I Didn’t Know I Needed to Know

Hindsight is 20/20, right? In this collaborative post from our ACRLog team, we’re reflecting on the lessons and truths about libraries, librarianship, and higher ed that we wish we had come to understand sooner — the stuff we didn’t know to ask about earlier on in our careers, the stuff we didn’t know that we needed to know — and how our current understanding can perhaps help us to more clearly see the things we need to do differently. 

What’s something you wish someone had told you or that you wish you had asked in a job interview in order to get a clearer picture of the work, institution, or culture? 

[Alex] I wish I had the foresight to ask for more detail about what the tenure process looks like for a librarian, as this was not something I had encountered before. I had the rare opportunity to choose tenure-track or fixed-term when I was hired, and I assumed tenure-track was inherently the “better” choice and did not give it much critical consideration. 

[Hailley] A colleague and I were just talking about this recently – we wished we had asked about what the culture is around start and end times. At my current institution, we have a pretty standard 8:15-4:30 workday (university-wide). Knowing this might not change your mind to take or not to take a job, it is helpful to know what the general rule of thumb is before entering a new institution. 

[Veronica] It’s incredibly important to ask what the organization is doing to ensure their workplace is equitable, inclusive, and accessible. Both the answer, and the way that it is answered are especially important for librarians with marginalized identities, but should be a concern for all librarians. You can usually get a sense of a place by how the people you are talking to react to that question. 

What’s an unwritten rule at your current or past institution(s) or within your area of librarianship that you had to learn as you go?

[Alex] At each institution I’ve worked at, the unwritten rules are mostly workplace culture, processes for the way things are done. My best example is that I have had scheduled reference shifts at both of my librarian jobs, and it is done very differently at each: on a weekly basis vs. six months at a time; in hourly shifts vs. 90-minute shifts; all open hours vs. a six-hour period of the day on weekdays only. It demonstrated to me that not only are types of libraries very different, but so are individual locations. 

[Maura] When I started at my current institution as Instruction Coordinator 14 years ago, I also noted a few things about workplace culture that were perhaps a bit more formal than I expected. Most of my library colleagues dressed up a bit for reference shifts and teaching, and across the college when faculty referred to each other in front of students they tended to use “Professor So and so” rather than first names. The former has definitely changed somewhat since the pandemic though I’m not sure if the latter has.

[Jen] When I moved to my current institution to take on this job almost five years ago, it was my first time in a faculty position. I had already worked in libraries for a long time by that point but always in positions classified as staff. I didn’t take this job because it was classified as faculty; I saw it as a plus, but certainly not the deciding factor. It’s taken me some time to fully grasp what it means to have faculty status in terms of planning my work and organizing my time, as well as in terms of my opportunities and responsibilities–not only of the position itself, but also as a faculty member. Of course, faculty classification while working in a public service-oriented unit and also being an administrator and manager is different from a typical faculty role. But I think this vantage point has given me new perspective on what a position’s classification can mean with respect to autonomy, advocacy, and the like. Having worked from both sides of this coin now, though, I still believe that it is up to us to not only practice and embody the full potential of our roles, but to also challenge it (or, perhaps more accurately, to challenge others’ assumptions and expectations of our roles). Whether because or in spite of classifications, we can play a significant part in making our places in our library and institutional landscapes what we want them to be. 

What’s something simple or fundamental about higher ed, libraries, or your current/past job(s) that you wish you’d understood sooner?

[Hailley] Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how decisions are made. Overtime, and especially as a current middle manager, I can more clearly see the many people above me who might influence, inform, or make a decision. Even if I don’t love a decision, I try to keep in mind the bigger picture and context for that specific decision. 

[Angie]  Absolutely what Hailey points out. I try to share this perspective with others as well.  Another reality I wish I knew sooner is how people in higher ed – from students to faculty to administrators – understand so little about the work of libraries, and how even those who communicate well, it remains a constant endeavor.  I am starting to accept this as work that is never done.

[Jen] I decided to go to library school without much library work experience, really. I had a job at the circulation desk in my college library, but my experience doing research for my senior thesis played a much bigger part in prompting me to take this path. While in grad school, I worked at the reference desk in one of my university’s libraries. This was a valuable experience that helped me solidify my grad school (and job search) focus on reference, instruction, and outreach work in academic libraries, but I don’t think I gave other areas of librarianship as much thought as I should have. All that to say, I didn’t come to this field with much pre-existing foundational knowledge about libraries. I feel particularly lucky, then, to have had a supervisor in my first professional position (a one-year stint) who took great pains to connect me with colleagues and projects in a wide range of areas and departments to help expand my awareness and skill set. And I feel very lucky, too, to have spent a significant chunk of my career early on at a small liberal arts college library. Because our library team was relatively small, collegial, and collaborative (read: everyone wore a lot of hats), I had many opportunities to get involved in projects outside the scope of my specific position. Moreover, the daily work of each person and department was literally visible to me. As such, I feel like I got a broad view of how libraries work. My current position at a small branch of an enormous university library system still requires me to wear a lot of hats and also still regularly offers me new insight into how libraries–and higher ed–work, too. But had I started my career in a system of this size, I don’t think I would have had occasion to participate in or observe so many aspects of academic library work so closely. I would have very little understanding, for example, of the technical work of my cataloging, serials, and licensing colleagues or of what’s involved in implementing a new discovery system. I regularly rely and expand on the broader, foundational understanding those early positions afforded. I’m grateful for the opportunities I had to build it.

[Veronica] Like Jen, I also spent a significant chunk of my career at a small liberal arts college library. What that time taught me, and what I wish I’d realized sooner, is that everyone in higher ed–staff, faculty (tenure track, adjuncts, lecturers), librarians–is trying to do their best with the limited time, bandwidth, and resources that we have. There can be this tendency in larger institutions to feel like it’s us versus them, or fall into victim-villain thinking, when in reality everyone is trying their best and no one is ignoring you on purpose. Yes, there will always be people who are rude, but the vast majority of folks are really just trying to get by as best as they can. I think the more that we can listen to our colleagues and get to know them and their wants, needs, worries, and hopes, the better we can support one another and show solidarity in higher education. 

What’s something in higher ed, libraries, or your area of librarianship that everyone just does but doesn’t work well or should be re-thought?

[Angie] I truly don’t understand how, especially as information scientists, we haven’t prioritized the problem that is email. When I first moved into my own place after college, I remember the internet offerings advertised “up to 5 email accounts!”, and I thought why would anyone need that many? In my work within technical services, we have more than that; I know their purpose, and still wonder why these systems can’t serve us better. Many band-aids out there endeavor to help us “manage” email, but not a lot of solutions recognize the problematic level of reliance on email in the workplace. I don’t want to manage email. As ubiquitous as email is, it ought to more effortlessly help or at least get out of the way.

[Maura] I am so grateful to my colleagues that we are a well-functioning, kind, and thoughtful team. Not that we don’t have challenges, because every workplace has challenges, but we’re committed to asking questions and taking responsibility for our inevitable mistakes (because everyone makes mistakes). I was in academia right after college and then took some time in the publishing industry before returning to academia as a librarian, and I’d forgotten about the conflict avoidance that seems endemic to so many academic settings. I wish that institutions offered more support for doing the necessary work of moving through conflict thoughtfully and respectfully.

[Jen] We need to increase transparency around salaries. To withhold salary information from position descriptions and during the interview process can make what is already a difficult undertaking even more uncertain and fraught–not to mention a waste of time for everyone involved if candidates drop out late in the process after finally learning that salaries don’t meet their needs. And then, once hired, the lack of communication within and across institutions about salary data leaves library workers siloed and in the dark about potential earnings equity issues and missing key information with which to advocate for themselves. On a related note, we need to create more internal advancement opportunities in libraries. It seems that the general thinking is that in order to move up, one has to move out. I agree with that approach to some degree–transition is typically healthy for an organization and individuals (fresh perspectives and new horizons!). However, the lack of growth potential for folks within an institution can result in stagnancy, frustration, and low morale. While an organizational culture that supports experimentation and innovation can keep motivated library workers interested and invested, the lack of structural elements to support such folks to move into new positions (with real salary growth) is hurting us on both individual and organizational levels.

[Veronica] Like Jen, I definitely feel as though pipelines to leadership are something that need to be addressed within libraries with equity in mind. There is a strong push towards diversifying the profession, but it often stops with the hiring and onboarding process. What happens after that? Why do people leave the organization or the profession? At my library we are looking into how to help all librarians access professional development and support that will help them advance their careers within our library or elsewhere. Some things we need to ask ourselves are: Who are we sharing leadership opportunities with and why? Who within the organization has access to training, mentoring, and coaching? Who is missing from conversations about leadership potential and career advancement? If we, as a profession, spent time on these ideas we might be able to ensure that people stay within librarianship.

What are some of the lessons and truths that hindsight has helped you to see better? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 

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