Thoughts on Writing From a First-Time Author

One of my performance goals this year is to write more. My position isn’t tenure-track so there’s no pressure to publish, but finding meaning in my work is important to me and the best way I know how to that is drawing connections between what I’m doing all day and the broader environment in which I’m doing it; in other words, building a reflective practice.

Writing is, at least for me, a deeply uncomfortable process. I suspect this likely because it’s an un-flexed muscle of mine. I applied to write for ACRLog because I wanted to push myself to write more often for a public audience, hoping that the process would get easier, and to get more comfortable articulating my own thoughts about librarianship. Each month, I go through several false starts. I’ll write half a blog post hoping that the thing I want to say will become more clear to me as I write. Sometimes this happens and sometimes it doesn’t, so I’ll often end up switching several times settling on my final topic. I’ve also learned that I need to give myself plenty of time for editing. I wish I were the type of writer who could dash something off, perfectly formed, but I find myself having to back and rewrite and rearrange constantly in order to come up with something I feel really gets to the point I was trying to make in the first place.

It’s also a very vulnerable process to share your writing with other people, even if (maybe especially if?) it’s in a professional context. I think the most engaging writers and the ones I’ve learned the most from manage to be radically honest in their writing, even for an audience of their professional colleagues. While this is what I am working towards, I still find myself worrying in advance about how something I write will be received. I wonder if openness, too, is a muscle that needs to be flexed regularly.

These thoughts have been on my mind recently because I’m about to submit the first draft of the first book chapter I’ve ever worked on, and I’m feeling nervous about sending it off for feedback. I was lucky to collaborate with three of my colleagues on it, and I was reminded of this as I read Michele Santamaria’s recent post on Embracing the Value of Sharing “Rough Work”, in which she writes about the value of being part of a learning community and sharing “rough” work with your peers. The research community she describes challenged and encouraged the author as she was working on a project outside her comfort zone, and I completely relate. Although it wasn’t a formalized learning community, working alongside my colleagues (sometimes literally) on this chapter opened up space to work together on moving from unformed ideas to rough work to an actual chapter. In truth, I don’t think I would have been able to get through a project like this without their solidarity, encouragement, and feedback.

Pushing myself to write and to grapple with the insecurities it brings has helped me grow, but it also helps me empathize more with the undergraduate students I work with (and graduate students and faculty – I’m sure they’re not immune!). It’s easy to talk about “Scholarship as Conversation” and jauntily remind students that they are scholars, too, but writing this chapter reminded me that it is really, really hard sometimes to figure out what it is that you could actually contribute to that conversation and intimidating to assert your own thoughts and ideas in a realm that you may have only experienced as a consumer. There may not be a lightbulb moment where you realize you have a brilliant idea to contribute to the scholarly dialogue. Maybe the only way to get there is to practice.

In and out of context: Musings on information literacy, institutional, and higher ed landscapes

After more than a decade at a private small liberal arts college, my recent transition to a large, public research university has been full of learning opportunities regarding both the content of my work and the culture of this organization. Since arriving, I’ve identified a need for jumpstarting and growing a dormant information literacy program. Developing information literacy initiatives–including course-embedded instruction and faculty development, for example–was a significant focus for me at my previous institution. My experiences and the expertise I developed there certainly apply here. Yet that application requires some translation; my previous work, no surprise, was deeply steeped in that institution’s context.

In my previous position, talking about information literacy by articulating its connections with critical thinking, for example, packed a solid punch for faculty and students. My former institution’s mission statement illustrates the context of our discourse and work, dedicated to the development of “independent critical thinkers who are intellectually agile” and “committed to life-long learning.”

Don’t get me wrong. This kind of language and these values aren’t hard to find at my new institution either. In our general education learning objectives alone, I can point to both explicit and implicit language about information literacy. Telling the story of information literacy in terms of strengthening our abilities to think and learn and live is still compelling. But it doesn’t feel like it goes quite as far a distance here–where I’ve heard gen ed branded as “connecting curiosity and career,” for example–as it did in my previous context.

Surely, it’s not institutional culture alone that explains the difference. The landscape of higher ed altogether has been and continues to be shifting. Yesterday’s joint statement by AAC&U and AAUP, for example, characterizes the trend in this way: “Politicians have proposed linking tuition to the alleged market value of given majors. Students majoring in literature, art, philosophy, and history are routinely considered unemployable in the technology and information economy, despite the fact that employers in that economy strenuously argue that liberal arts majors make great tech-sector workers precisely because they are trained to think critically and creatively, and to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.”

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m against pre-professional training nor that liberal arts will save us. This is not an either/or situation. One of the reasons I sought this type of job at this type of institution was to find a new context, a new learning experience. After so much time at one institution, I wanted to see other ways that higher ed works. But I certainly still subscribe to the maxim that critical thinking is just as important, if not more, as content knowledge for our students’ (and our society’s) future success and that information literacy is an elemental part of those critical thinking habits, attitudes, and skills.

So as I’m thinking about growing our information literacy program here, I’m thinking about our institutional context and higher ed landscape with fresh eyes, too. I’m thinking now about all the ways to make the long reach of information literacy visible beyond the classroom. My thoughts turn first to the application and impact of information literacy skills in students’ internships, a signature experience on my campus. How have you illustrated the power of information literacy for your context(s)? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Amping up Diversity & Inclusivity in Medical Librarianship

This past week, I attended the 118th Medical Library Association (MLA) Annual Meeting in Atlanta, GA. While it was a standard conference in many respects, it was also a historic one. Beverly Murphy was named the first African American president of MLA since it was incepted in 1898.

When I first considered becoming a librarian, I quickly learned about #critlib, which centers the impact of oppression and marginalization of the many –isms in librarianship. I wanted to be in a profession where I could provide information in a critical way, dismantling library neutrality. I found this through a hashtag which allowed me to meet diverse, inspiring, kind, and intelligent librarians. However, I find it slightly more difficult to apply a social justice framework as an academic medical librarian focusing upon the School of Medicine. I have tried my best through critical search strategies and educating others about bias within publishing. And of course, subject areas specific to public and/or global health easily lend themselves to health disparities. Overall though, I have noticed that medical librarianship has been slower to the game, especially in terms of coming together as a community. During this meeting, however, it felt different.

The annual Janet Doe lecture was given by Elaine Martin, focused upon social justice. I have listened to some talks concerning social justice that just scratch the surface. They seem to give a nod to diversity as more of a check box rather than a critical interpretation and call for action. However, Elaine stressed mass incarceration as a public health issue; she emphasized dismantling library neutrality; she quoted Paulo Freire, the author of the seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed. She received a standing ovation. It was inspiring, and while it may have just been pure emotion, it gave me hope.

I also attended a Diversity & Inclusivity Fishbowl session by MLA’s Diversity and Inclusivity Task Force. During a fishbowl, a moderator poses a question to a group of individuals seated in a few concentric circles. In our case, there were around 30 of us. There were four seats in the innermost circle, and the individuals in that circle answered the question and can be “tapped out” by others in the outside circles who wish to speak. Unless we were in the inner circle, we were solely active listeners. I’m not going to lie, when I saw the format of this meeting, which was three days into the conference and from 5:00 p.m.-6:30 p.m., I dreaded it. But I also knew this was an important issue. Not only did I feel welcome, but I enjoyed the structured yet conversational format. It can be difficult to talk about diversity and inclusion because everyone’s positions are well-intentioned, however, because this is an issue that historically induces trauma upon the marginalized, it can become very passionate. This passion is essential for affecting change, and this format provided a way to combine this passion with respect and compassion. While this is just the beginning of these discussions, it is important to understand perspectives, especially for those greatly affected by oppressions. It was assuring to see so many people coming together while sharing their individual experiences and beliefs for a topic I thought was somewhat dormant within medical librarianship. And, because of the incoming presidency of Beverly Murphy, I am full of hope and faith that events like these will result in an action plan.

I can’t say that I remember everything that Beverly said during the talk she gave after being named the new MLA president. But I can tell you how I felt in response. First, Beverly did not stand at the podium when delivering her words. She sat at a table on the stage to be in conversation with the MLA members. She included song, humor, and love in her words. It was warm. It was inviting. And given the previous events I witnessed, it felt promising. She incorporated the importance of diversity and inclusivity, so it wasn’t a mere check box. Rather, it was always part of the conversation. Just two days before, I met Beverly at the New Members Breakfast. As a co-convener of the MLA New Members Special Interest Group (SIG), I was interested in how we can further engage new members. Shannon Jones, the founder of the New Members SIG, was eager to share ideas with me and introduced me to Beverly, who immediately stated her commitment to advocating for new members. She also told me that she was asking first-time attendees she met to share their experiences, positive and negative, and to contact her directly. Real change comes from strong leaders and action. And diversity is more than an initiative – it is a way of being. Regardless of topic, subject area, or library role, it needs to be part of all we do. Beverly is firm in this commitment:

“No matter what race we are, what color we are, what ethnicity we are, what gender we have, or whether we have physical issues – we are all information professionals, with a common goal, and that is ‘to be an association of the most visible, valued, and trusted health information experts.’ Diversity drives excellence and makes us smarter, especially when we welcome it into our lives, our libraries, and our profession.” – Beverly Murphy

The solidarity and volume is increasing for diverse voices in medical librarianship, becoming a stronger driver for diverse and inclusive representation, pedagogy, scholarship, community, and more and vice versa. I know that equity of race, sexual orientation, gender, and ability is a long road. And I am appreciative we are on it.

 

The Emphasis on Text(s)

The current dominant paradigm of information literacy emphasizes the importance of connecting with textual information. This produces a deficit model of information literacy which does not take into account the importance of information learning or other sources of information which are accessed through communication or action.

–Annemaree Lloyd, Information Literacy: Different Contexts, Different Concepts, Different Truths?
as cited by Eamon Tewell in 
The Problem with Grit

It all started with this quote. I was sitting in Eamon Tewell’s presentation at LOEX earlier this month, learning about the problematic nature of grit narratives in education and libraries, when these two sentences showed up in his slide deck. Eamon was convincingly linking the popularity of grit to current deficit models of information literacy education. By defining information literacy in academic libraries in a particular way, we categorize students as academically deficient. They may be able to solve complex information problems on their own, in their own way, but because, as Annemaree Lloyd states, we emphasize text as information in academia, their experiences and abilities are invalidated. Our academic librarian version of information literacy is rooted in the written word, and not just any written word, but words of a certain kind: academic journal articles, scholarly books, book chapters, reports, grey literature, legal documents, etc. Our emphasis as librarians is on the things we can read that signal some connection to the academy.

We see examples of this in our work all the time. We might say something like,”You are used to using Google, but Google won’t help you in this situation,” (Spoiler: It probably still will). Or, “Let’s start our research with the library databases.” We might try to branch out from scholarly texts by encouraging students to use Wikipedia or news sources as launch pads for research, but these are all still resources rooted in the written word. I can always count on Library Twitter to help me process problematic ideas and issues, so I posed the following questions to my colleagues:

Responses were so thoughtful and thought-provoking. Desmond Wong, Outreach Librarian at the University of Toronto, shared the problematic nature of current information literacy education in relation to searching for and accessing indigenous peoples’ knowledge. This idea is seconded by research done by Alex Watkins of University of Colorado Boulder, who sees this emphasis on academic textual sources as “academics policing the boundaries of authority as well as elevating a particular way of knowing.” (Side note: Both Desmond and Alex have done some excellent work researching indigenous knowledge practices and information literacy). And Karen Nicholson pointed me to the great chapter by Alison Hicks on this very topic in her recent book co-edited with Maura Seale, The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship

In Making the Case for a Sociocultural Perspective on Information Literacy, Alison Hicks moves beyond the ACRL Framework vs. Standards debate to advocate for a sociocultural approach to information literacy. This focuses on the ways in which information literacy “shows itself” in different communities, and the ways in which it is shaped by different contexts. A sociocultural approach to information literacy shows us that the way we’ve defined information literacy as librarians is just one version of information literacy. It is a “social practice that emerges from a community’s information interactions” (p. 73). But by adopting a “single understanding of information literacy” as the information literacy, we impose one group’s knowledge practices on another (p. 75). What we are teaching in academic libraries is specific to an academic context, but we are teaching it as though it is universal.

I can already hear the dissent brewing, because so entrenched is my relationship to a particular type of information literacy that I had a similar, initial, knee-jerk reaction. “But we need to teach students how to use and understand these textual, scholarly resources precisely because they are new and they have never used them before!” I had to counter my own reaction with a blog post I read a few years ago by the ever-prolific Barbara Fister. Referencing the PIL study that looks at info-seeking behavior of recent college graduates, she laments the difficulty these young adults have setting up their own personal learning networks. We’ve focused so strongly on information as a textual source in information literacy education, that we don’t address the information literacy practices of different communities, including the workplace. Think about the last time you started a new job and how you gathered new information about your place of work. Did you immediately start digging into scholarly articles about best practices? Or did you set up formal and informal information appointments with your new colleagues? I think we all know the power of information in the workplace and our lives, and we’d be lying if we said we got all of this information from reading text, much less academic texts.

I’ve been deep in this idea lately as I start a new job and seek resources for my son who has various learning differences. As much as I want to say that scholarly, empirical research articles have been my go-to information sources, they absolutely haven’t. For me, as a new employee, my information literacy practices have centered around talking to people and learning from their experiences and institutional knowledge. For me, as a parent of a child with learning differences, my information literacy practices have centered around meeting and speaking with other parents and special needs education advocates. This is the information literacy I practice in my daily life, and I am starting to think more and more about how to incorporate this into the work I do with students, librarians, and faculty as an information literacy educator.

 

Finishing up a Library Residency: My Final Thoughts

It has been almost three years since I moved to Washington DC for the Resident Librarian position at American University. My contract was for three years and this July, that contract will end. As I am preparing for my next steps, applying to jobs, and going through life changes, I am inclined to reflect on my residency and the residencies I have seen show up in our field over the past three years. Most of it positive, but some that has me left with questions.

Let’s start with the good:

I was the very first Resident Librarian at American University and while the first year was a little unstructured and we were all still learning, I have to say that the past two years have been productive and joyful. Not only is my residency more structured, but I also received so much support for developing as a professional. The support and success I have had has to do with the following:

Professional development funds: Here at AU, we have funds set aside for each librarian, which we can use to attend conferences or other professional development events. With this support, I have been able to present at conferences all over the country (National Diversity in Libraries Conference, ALA Annual, and ACRL NEC 2018) and meet other fellow resident librarians. Presenting and traveling to these conferences are essential, especially to an early career librarian who is looking to meet new professionals and get their name out there.

Peer-mentorship: As I was able to travel to conferences and get involved in the ACRL Residency Interest Group, I was able to network. A whole new world of resident librarianship opened up to me. I am glad and proud to say that I found a supportive, kind, and ambitious community in resident librarians, as well as other early-career librarians.

Formal mentorship: Many of you have heard me rave about my mentorship experience, but I will repeat it once more. At the beginning of my residency, I was paired with my mentor, Nikhat Ghouse. She has been a librarian for about 20 years, is a former resident librarian, and someone who has guided me, trusted in me, and pushed me to fulfill my full potential. Along with my formal mentor, I had others who have guided and advised me throughout my residency. I have learned so much from them and am grateful to have them in my life. They know who they are and without them, I would not have had such a productive time during my residency.

American University colleagues: Last, but not least, I have had amazing colleagues. My colleagues at American University immediately made me feel welcomed and part of the faculty. Throughout these three years, I felt like the administrators put their trust in me, especially when it came to taking on a larger teaching load, interim liaison duties, and participating in service throughout the university. I have heard of so many residents who say they did not receive much support throughout their residencies, so I am grateful to have a great group of librarians and mentors at American University. I try not to think about it, but when I leave in July, I will be sad to leave them. However, I know that they are colleagues for life.

Let’s talk about the…questionable things:

Goals of a residency: Over the past three years, I have spoken to and interacted with people who still do not know what the point of a residency program is. Some seem to have the idea that a residency is a type of internship. I will say that this accounts for very few people I have interacted with. It causes me to think if we as a profession have not done a great job at effectively communicating what a residency is or if the goals and definition of a residency are so vague, that it is hard for some to comprehend.

Rotational Residencies: This might be unpopular, but I am not a fan of rotational residencies. When American University posted their job description for their very first resident librarian, they advertised it as a position that would focus on reference and instruction. They also added in the description that the resident librarian would have the opportunity to work with other departments. While the freedom to explore other departments was appreciated, I knew going in that I wanted to work in public services. I knew that I wanted to improve my teaching and work with first year students. When I voiced these interests, I was able to take on duties that allowed me to work with incoming freshman and first year students.

I personally believe that if an institution is going to have a rotational residency, then they should plan this with the incoming resident librarian. At the very least, allow the incoming resident the freedom to be embedded in one department, but also have opportunities and freedom to work (or not work) with other departments. If a resident prefers one department to another and chooses to work with them, then this is going to make their residency more productive. Let us remember that many of these residencies tend to be two-year terms and that is actually a very short time to get significant experience, so that you’re able to get a job you want after you leave your residency.

Lack of support from an institution: Most, if not all residencies are promoted as positions that will provide you the opportunity to become immersed in academic libraries. These institutions also might promise support in the form of mentorship and professional development opportunities. It is unfortunate that I have spoken to resident librarians that are frustrated in their residency, because they are not getting the support and guidance that they were promised. As an example, I received an email about a year ago from a resident librarian I have known for a couple of years. They had emailed me because they were now in the instruction portion of their residency rotation and had taught their first class. This resident felt like it had not gone well and needed some advice. In their email, they mentioned that they had not received enough training. While I shared my advice on instruction, it was disturbing to me that an institution would let a resident librarian, who did not have much instruction experience go out and teach a class without basic training. Had there not been an observation of how other librarians teach? Was the resident librarian able to co-teach before teaching a class on their own? It is disappointing, but while it is an institutions job to make sure that a resident librarian gets the proper training, the responsibility tends to fall on the resident librarian to keep their institution accountable.

Final Thoughts:

Our field of librarianship puts a lot of emphasis on the recruitment of librarians of color and from underrepresented groups, but once you get a resident librarian at your institution, that institution now bears some of the responsibility of retaining that person. If a resident librarian is not getting the training and experience that was promised and important to their career, then how can we expect them to want to stay in academic librarianship?

All of this brings me to my final point. In the past three years I have been a resident librarian, I have voiced my opinions and concerns, along with many other librarians about some of the issues with residency programs. While there are many in our field who truly care about improving the residency experience, there are some, who are involved in forming these residencies or coordinating residents, that are willing to listen to our residency feedback, but are not willing to address it and take action. When this happens, the issues are ignored, not taken seriously, or scoffed at. This is not helping anyone and I predict that these issues will begin to stack up and affect retention rates of these resident librarians and residency programs.

My last piece of advice would be for resident librarians. If you find yourself in a not-so-great situation at your institute, please know that there are people who are willing to listen to you and support you. Groups such as ACRL Residency Interest Group, We Here, or a long list of former resident librarians. Your experience is important, your concerns are important, and your success is important.