Special Collections and the COVID-19 Return to Campus

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Paul Doty, Librarian for Special Collections & University Archives, St. Lawrence University.

With the Coronavirus Spring of 2020 behind colleges and universities, the time to reflect on a semester compelled online has immediately rebooted to planning for an uncertain fall. Attention turns from helping students cope with the dashed expectations of a sudden physical disconnect from campus to a tangle of financial and health and safety concerns. Assessing the situation has prompted some in higher education, notably the California State University System, to announce (or argue) for a continuation of remote learning. Some campuses, notably Wells College in New York State, have suggested their continuance depends on having students back on campus. As the practical matters of dorm life and classrooms play out amidst the ongoing pandemic, there is also going to be a need to articulate why a community should be on campus. Within this, special collections and archives can be restorative as academic life returns to its quality of sanctuary by providing tangible hands-on materials that demonstrate re-acclimatizing to the life of the mind anew.

A very useful summary of questions that librarians will need to address is “Now and Next: What a Post-COVID World May Bring for Libraries” on the IFLA Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. Two questions that are specially apropos for special collections are, ”Many of our activities have ‘pivoted’ to online – will they stay there?” and “Education has been disrupted and delayed – can we limit the scarring effects?”

Addressing the first point, the post asserts, “Nonetheless, the possibilities of digital – for learning, researching and accessing all forms of culture – will be clearer for all, and convenience may well replace necessity as a reason for using online tools” (Library Policy). This is doubtless true, and certainly how libraries have provided online services in a climate of necessity is an opportunity to assess future services, but life online does not life make. Much of the discourse in the media suggests a high level of student dissatisfaction with the unexpected online curriculum; one PBS study pegged this near fifty percent (Krupnick).

A university archives can reconnect students with the tangible manifestations of the institution wrought over its history. Of our relationship to information technology Neal Postman wrote, “Unlike television or the computer, language appears to be not an extension of our powers but simply a natural expression of who and what we are” ( 124). The relationship of language to the identity of the institution can be made clear in archival collections. Particularly, if students can see the papers of university professors or presidents, or correspondence related to the important work of the university—if they can hold those materials in their hands—then students have an ability to see the genesis of where they are in a very real way. This is a way to reorient from being online only—a lot of blood, sweat, and tears have gone into making online courses, but universities have to reckon with reestablishing community identity. Certainly, institutional identity will be revived within many social circles, but here is also an avenue for people to connect with the college through its archives. In so doing, it is also an opportunity to encourage faculty and administrators to reconsider the archives as a critical teaching tool for a university curriculum working to make academics bespeak the post-COVID-19 future students will need to consider.

The concern about educational delays and disruptions is addressed in another post on the Library Policy and Advocacy Blog titled “Storytelling in Difficult Times: Accessing the Past During a Pandemic.” The post tackles a number of questions related to technology and archived materials, and suggests that “In our modern, hyper-visual era, we are inundated with media…[though] stories don’t seem entirely real until we see visual evidence of them” (Library Policy, Storytelling). As academic communities regather there is a clear-cut need to again argue the case for the intimacy of our relationship with primary source material. Bombarded as they have been by news from medical and elected officials filtered through endless online spin, a post-COVID-19 student body will be hungry for the challenges in seemingly simple materials they can see for themselves and hold in their hands. How to identify handmade paper and to what aim watermarks work are investigations well recast as exercises interacting with the real. Having materials in hand to examine reasserts agency over events—obviously examining a book by Kelmscott Press is not going to mitigate the lasting effects of the events of March and April 2020, but it demonstrates creativity within the detail, that you can regain a sense of proportion and inspiration. Clues to whether paper is handmade or what watermarks on a flyleaf signify demonstrate that there is a story in the details which anyone, if they are willing to try, can decipher. These are discrete projects and discrete questions to reinstill a sense of agency in young people who have likely felt at the mercy of events.

Finally, as academic communities regather, archives are uniquely positioned to make the case for the essence of what a library is within the academic setting. Of course, how they will gather when they return according to yet to be articulated social distancing guidelines is still an open question, a prickly question when you would like to see classes forming as communities of readers to consider books. Alberto Manguel explained it this way when thinking back on the most legendary of all libraries, “as a public space the Library of Alexandria was a paradox, a building set aside for an essentially private craft (reading) now to take place communally” (31). Being a visible (visual if you will) argument for the primacy of reading within everything else a library does is a great role for an archives, a special collections department. This primacy will be asserted through the necessity of training critical skeptical readers, and this training can be greatly aided by studying original texts. Attempts by interested parties at major media platforms to try to create controversy over COVID-19 mortality data brought to the fore the need to know how to read data. One can find great explanations—a beautiful example here by John Burn-Murdoch, Valentina Romei and Chris Giles writing for the Financial Times—that underscore the need for experience with primary source material if one wishes to read to debunk (Murdoch). Special collections can emphasize the process through which students reinvent themselves in reading’s mental demands. According to a quotation widely attributed to American President Harry S. Truman, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” The physicality of reading demonstrated via studying old books and manuscripts can get the consideration of reading where it needs to be; it can inspire our post-COVID-19 student leaders.

Works Cited

Burn-Murdoch, John, Valentina Romie, Chris Giles. “Global Coronavirus Death Toll Could Be 60% Higher Than Reported. Financial Times. April 26, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/6bd88b7d-3386-4543-b2e9-0d5c6fac846c

Krupnick, Matt. “Forced Off Campus by Coronavirus, Students Aren’t Won Over By Online Education.”  PBS Newshour, March 27, 2020. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/forced-off-campus-by-coronavirus-students-arent-won-over-by-online-education

Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. “Now and Next: What a Post-Covid World May Bring for Libraries,” Blog, April 6 2020. https://blogs.ifla.org/lpa/2020/04/06/now-and-next-what-a-post-covid-world-may-bring-for-libraries/

Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. “Storytelling in Difficult Times: Accessing the Past During a Pandemic,” Library Policy and Advocacy Blog. Blog. April 2 2020. https://blogs.ifla.org/lpa/2020/04/02/storytelling-in-difficult-times-accessing-the-past-during-a-pandemic/    

Manguel, Alberto. The Library at Night. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Postman, Neal. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Knopf, 1992.

For the Public Good: Social Distancing with Online Events

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Verletta Kern, Digital Scholarship Librarian, and Madeline Mundt, Head of the Research Commons at University of Washington Libraries.

Everything was going smoothly! This was an event we had planned twice before–third time’s a charm, right? We had been planning since September and were just hitting our stride when news broke that the first case of coronavirus had made it to the US, just north of the city of Seattle where our university is located. It soon became clear that what started as one small case was turning into something more, as Seattle became the epicenter of the US coronavirus outbreak in early March. With less than a month before our event launch, we faced a tough decision–should we move forward with planning for an in-person event for 150 people? Was it even ethical to ask people to gather in a confined space given all that was going on? Should we postpone to an unknown future? Should we cancel? Should we move this event fully online? Could we move it fully online in 21 days? What if we moved forward with an in-person event and the University closed operations, leaving us to cancel and deal with the messy work of canceling catering contracts, etc.?

“Going Public: Opening Scholarship to All” was designed to be the third in our series of annual “Going Public” events, which encourage researchers to come together to learn about and exchange experiences communicating research openly beyond the walls of the academy. The 2020 focus was equity in the production of and access to scholarship and we were excited to bring this work to our campus community. We hoped that shifting online would allow us to reach a broader audience beyond the University of Washington. With the encouragement of our wonderful planning team and the support of our Libraries’ administration, we began the scramble to convert our event to an online format in 21 days. Shortly after we made this decision, the University of Washington became the first university in the country to suspend in-person instruction in favor of finishing the quarter online. 

The shift wasn’t easy! We needed to confirm our presenters were still okay with presenting online and to talk with them about the possibility of recording their sessions and sharing them following the event. We revisited conversations with our five event co-sponsors to see if they would still be willing to co-sponsor an online event. We negotiated the purchase of a zoom webinar license to protect the privacy of attendees. We set up live captioning for the event to provide equitable access to all. And then we tested. And we tested. And we tested the technology more. We tested it ourselves. We tested it with our speakers to make sure they were comfortable. We assigned chat moderators to moderate the question and answer period. And with two weeks remaining before our event, we felt confident enough to launch registration!

Without the constraints of a physical space capacity to worry about, we opened registration with 450 spots, assuming somewhere around our normal 120 people would register. To our surprise, numbers rose quickly and by the time we closed registration 24 hours before the event we were at 269 attendees! Our largest group of registrants were graduate students, followed by staff and faculty. About two-thirds were affiliated with the UW. While our marketing campaign was not so different from a normal Going Public campaign in its content, it was conducted entirely online at a time when we were all beginning to look for ways to engage remotely rather than in person. Many face-to-face events at the UW and in Seattle were canceled in early March, and we suspect our event may have stood out as a rare online option at the time.

All 269 attendees received an email with a Zoom Webinar link about 24 hours before the event; this email cautioned them to refrain from sharing that link with colleagues (who could instead contact us to register). We hoped that by sharing the link in this restricted way, we would head off any “Zoom-bombing” or other malicious activity–things that were just beginning to hit the news. Then, on March 26th, they joined public scholars, librarians, and experts Nikkita Oliver, Chris Coward, Jason Young, Negeen Aghassibake, Lauren Ray, Gillian Harkins, Clarita Lefthand-Begay, and Linda Ko for a keynote, short talks, and a panel on inclusive research design. Sessions covered topics from libraries as spaces for public engagement (Oliver) to equity in research data visualization (Aghassibake).

Although our link-sharing strategy worked to prevent Zoom-bombing, we did belatedly learn the importance of creating a code of conduct for online events like ours when a UW attendee began making inappropriate comments in the webinar chat. Going forward, we will use event codes of conduct based on our UW Libraries Code of Conduct, with procedures in place to make sure all attendees understand our expectations and what will happen if harassment occurs. 

Along with the importance of a code of conduct and other tools to address malicious use of Zoom, we also learned the importance of timing for online events like ours. We originally planned a six hour in-person event with simultaneous talks attendees could choose between and workshops scheduled over the lunch hour. To make the shift to online manageable, we cut the workshops and decided to run the day’s event from a single zoom webinar account. As a result, we were able to cut the event down to five hours. We limited ourselves to very short breaks between sessions, reasoning that attendees wouldn’t need to move between breakout session venues. While this was true, we learned that people wanted longer breaks to combat the draining nature of starting a screen for hours on end. Although we traded off moderating chat, the length of the online event proved exhausting for our symposium planning team as well. In future online symposia, we will build in 10-15 minute breaks and stick to a three to four hour event. Overall, the hours selected for the event seemed to be accessible across multiple time zones as registrants from the west and east coasts as well as the Midwest attended.

Credit for the successful online shift of “Going Public: Opening Scholarship to All” is due to the creativity, enthusiasm and hard work of our planning team along with the support of our Libraries’ administration and our wonderful event co-sponsors. Thanks in particular go to our planning team: Joanne Chern, Robin Chin Roemer, Beth Lytle, Sarah Schroeder, Elliott Stevens, Sarah Stone, and Christine Tawatao. Due to this collaborative effort, we were able to successfully social distance yet still share our message of equity in the production of and access to scholarship to a wide audience at a time where research communication and access is more important than ever.  

Remote Managing in the Time of Corona

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Research Services, William & Mary Libraries.

When my university moved us to remote work on March 16, I immediately began thinking about how I could best support the colleagues I manage.  Most of the articles for work from home management focus on productivity and accountability, though, and I soon realized that these priorities did not match our new reality.  As Neil Webb posted on Twitter, “You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.”

As a manager, what could I do to acknowledge the struggles we were all facing?  In my social media feeds, I saw many peers asking themselves the same question.  Although everyone’s situation is different, I thought it might be helpful to share some things that my team has found helpful:

1. Explicitly talking about how these are strange times. When we first moved to remote work, I think I expected it to feel like a prolonged snow day.  Many of us, including me, were caught off-guard by how emotional we felt.  That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief was published just a few days after we began working from home and it helped us to discuss this weird, chaotic situation we find ourselves in.

2. Asking your direct reports. It can be tempting to make plans and develop policies and procedures on your own, but your colleagues should be part of the process of creating the new normal. What is succeeding for them?  What is challenging? What would they like to see more or less of?  What have they seen at other workplaces they think we should try?

3. Offering- but not requiring- lots of Zoom check-ins. We are a pretty social group; we often gather in the morning to chat over that first cup of caffeine, and we are always popping in and out of each other’s offices.  We began with daily Zoom huddles, then added in optional daily morning check-ins. We now cancel the huddles occasionally, but I’ve  also reinstated monthly one-on-ones so I can talk with individuals more consistently. Zoom fatigue is a thing, though, so we also communicate regularly via Teams and Slack.

4. Offering- but not requiring- team building opportunities.  I am a big fan of team building but am cognizant that some abhore “compulsory fun.”  My direct reports’ threshold for these types of activities is pretty high, but I make it very low stakes.  About once a week, we will spend some of our meeting time playing a quick game like ‘yuk or yum’ or ‘2 truths and a lie’. Once, we chose a color and all either wore that color, brought an object that color, or changed our Zoom background to that color for a meeting.  Sometimes we’ll have an informal chat in our Slack channel on a random topic, like how we take our tea or coffee.  Speaking of coffee, I also organized a virtual #randomcoffee for the library. My colleague Liz Bellamy has written about our library’s efforts to retain community.

5. Being transparent as possible with what I know about the larger organization’s plans and decision making. My university’s administration has been very communicative about its handling of the crisis, and library administrators sit on the emergency planning committee. I share the news I hear in various meetings with my team. Everyone would prefer if we had less uncertainty (When will we return to campus? How will we do so safely? Will we hold classes in person in the fall? How will the budget shortfall be addressed?) but my anxiety is lessened by knowing how the university is approaching the crisis and what it is prioritizing. I hope that my colleagues feel the same.

6. Providing flexibility in hours and days. People are working while also homeschooling, taking care of children and relatives, and coping with the onslaught of dire news related to Covid-19, the economy, and the future of higher education. It’s not the time to micromanage employees’ schedules or insist people be as available between 8-5. As long as the essential work is completed, I trust my reports to figure out the how and when- and to let me know if they need help.

7. Encouraging people to focus on their health. At the beginning, we spent a lot of time talking about self-care strategies and the importance of putting mental and physical health first. Work can be a welcome distraction or it can be a burden, sometimes in the same day. I’ve tried to emphasize that the “life” part of work/life balance needs to be everyone’s focus, and model it by talking about the Virtual Wellness classes I’ve attended, the neighborhood walking breaks I take in between meetings, and my attempts at meditation (a definite work in progress). Articles we’ve shared with each other in Slack include Coronavirus Has Upended Our World. It’s Okay To Grieve and Brene Brown’s 4 Tips for Navigating Anxiety During the Coronavirus. I also remind them of the Employee Assistance Program, which includes 4 free sessions with a therapist (hurray for telemedicine!), and that they can take vacation days as needed. We’ve also designated Fridays as meeting-free and check-in free, so people can get away from their computers.

8. Explicitly and consistently saying productivity will look different now- and my expectations are very flexible. At the beginning of the quarantine, I confessed to my manager, “I just feel like getting out of bed is an accomplishment some days.” I was ashamed because I had always been a fast, productive worker.  I was comforted by articles like You’re Not Lazy- Self-isolating is Exhausting and Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure, which I shared with my team.  As a library, we’ve talked about how this is a marathon, not a sprint, and we need to be gentle with ourselves and each other. 

9. Advocating for my team. At first, this was logistical. Does everyone have the equipment they need to work from home? Our library supervisors arranged for staff to check out laptops and MiFi devices, and bring home computer monitors and office chairs. Now, it’s finding ways to make visible the work my team does every day and help my supervisors share our successes with the campus community. 

10. Taking care of myself.  I can find it difficult to take my own advice; sometimes I work through lunch, skip exercising, and read too many news stories.  In the past few weeks, I’ve reconnected with old friends, attended Zoom happy hours and trivia games, and cut myself some slack.  This is exhausting and I need to extend grace to myself as well as others.

So those are my top 10 tips for remote managing during a pandemic! What has been helpful for you and your colleagues?

Thank you to my colleagues in the Research & Instruction Team at William & Mary Libraries: Liz Bellamy, Morgan Davis, Alexandra Flores, Natasha McFarland, Katherine McKenzie, Mary Oberlies, Jessica Ramey, and Paul Showalter for helping me to develop these practices and to edit this piece.

Credentials, Credentials!: Demonstrating Your Potential Value in Academic Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Karen Sobel, Teaching & Learning Librarian, Auraria Library, Denver, CO.

The ACRL Webcast that I presented last fall, “Making Yourself Marketable for Academic Librarian Positions” had a particularly lively Q&A session. Attendees shared detailed questions about how different types of credentials and work experience will support their case as they apply for academic librarian positions. In this post, I will respond to eight of the most common questions, moving from easiest to trickiest.

Special shout-out to Rachel Minkin of Michigan State University. In addition to being a wonderful moderator, Rachel managed to copy down and categorize the questions most important to attendees while keeping the presentation running smoothly. Thank you!

And now for the questions:

Does a library school “field experience” that I performed for credit count as work experience?

  • Absolutely! Work is work, no matter whether you received pay, course credit, or simply gratitude for doing it.

Does GPA count for anything?

  • Honestly? Potential employers typically don’t ask for your GPA. I don’t recall ever sharing my library school GPA, except for when I applied to my doctoral program. That said, making a positive impression of your work ethic within your program is important. So are your skills in respectful communication and collaboration, as well as insight and creativity. Your professors may be the ones to recommend you for work experiences that you want to have during library school. They may also serve as references for professional positions. But no, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever ask you to state your GPA. You don’t have to focus on that goal of earning a 4.0.

CV and cover letter: I have a gap in my library work history, how do I talk about it? (In this case, it was to work in K-12 education)

  • This situation is easy to “spin” in a positive way. You chose to spend several years working in a profession that librarians value highly. Depending on the area of academic libraries that you want to work in, you probably built many skills that will support your librarianship—perhaps teaching skills, curriculum building, and so on. You’ll only need to discuss this in a sentence or two in your cover letters. Be sure to phrase it positively: You chose to pursue your interests in K-12 education through studies and work. Now you look forward to returning to academic libraries and applying skills that you’ve developed in multiple settings. You’ll have the chance to discuss this in more detail when you interview.
  • If there’s a period of time where you were not formally employed, whether you were caring for a family member, dealing with medical concerns, searching for work after a lay-off, or another scenario, that gap will show up on your CV or resume. Make sure that you address it in a sentence or two in your cover letters. You can mention your situation in more detail at interviews—but make sure to stick to a level of detail that you and your interviewer will both feel comfortable with. Stay as positive as you reasonably can.

Second master’s degree: Necessary? Not really necessary? Does this mean I’m overqualified? Should I emphasize my second degree?

  • Oh, my goodness—one of the trickiest ongoing debates in academic libraries. Let’s address the easier parts first. I’m going to assume that we’re discussing positions where a second master’s is either preferred or not required. (If it is required, then it’s probably only worth applying if you do have that second master’s—though you can take a chance.)
  • Don’t worry about seeming overqualified due to a second master’s. If no second master’s is required but you have one, it will typically be seen as value added. You have extra expertise in a subject area, PLUS you have additional experience with graduate-level studies and research. Those experiences are worth emphasizing in an interview. Discuss the ways in which your research in the other field would help you to better support faculty and students. This will be true even if you’re interested in a subject specialist position in another field.
  • If you’ve earned your MLIS degree but don’t have another master’s degree, the choice is up to you. Whether candidates with an additional master’s degree are placed above you in a candidate pool depends on the nature of the jobs, as well as on that institution’s values.
  • Many articles and blog posting on this topic exist online. Try searching for “second master’s degree librarians” to find articles with a variety of perspectives. You may want to get more specific with your searching if you’re interested in a type of position that sometimes does require a second master’s.

Can one create their own internship, (i.e. get meaningful experience outside of library school program) and still call it an internship on one’s resume/ cv?

  • Many MLIS students create their own work experiences in one way or another. I did this myself—when I realized that I wanted to gain experience in collection development, I inquired in that department at the library where I was working. A librarian generously offered to train and supervise me in a project that we designed together. My advisor and I were able to arrange for me to receive course credit. Work experiences that you co-design can be incredibly valuable. And yes, you can often call them “internships.” One word of advice is that you should agree with your supervisor on exactly what you will call this work experience on your resume or CV. Regardless of what the two of you decide to call it, you don’t want someone who is serving as a reference for you to sound surprised at the beginning of a reference call.

How I can I use my background in teaching online to market myself for “in-person” instruction positions?

  • When academic libraries hire for instruction positions, they’re looking for a number of qualities and specific areas of experience. These vary, depending on the nature of the position. As colleges and universities offer more and more courses and degrees online, there is increasing demand for instructors who can teach online. If you have experience teaching asynchronously, you already have very marketable skills for those positions: for example, choosing content and creating online teaching materials, and interacting with students online.
  • If you’re looking to move from teaching online (synchronously or asynchronously) to teaching in person, yes, you do have marketable experience with some of the necessary skills. You understand selecting content, creating lesson plans and curricula, and interacting with students. To make yourself more marketable, it’s worth trying to build experience and confidence with day-to-day interactions in the classroom. Find opportunities to work on your teaching confidence, as well as your skills with classroom management. Think broadly: Can you volunteer to teach workshops at your local public library? Could you practice teaching in another group that you’re involved with, such as your child’s scout troop, your church, or another community organization?
  • Different library instruction positions will have different levels of competition. Some may have three applicants; others may have a hundred. You may need to keep trying before you get your first opportunity – but once you have an instruction position, you can build from there.

How can I start building a scholarly record if my MLIS program and/or my current job don’t give me opportunities to do so?

  • Getting started building a scholarly record can feel overwhelming, especially if you don’t have opportunities from your degree program or workplace. It can still feel overwhelming if you do—I’ve been there! (You can learn more about what a scholarly record is beginning on slide 19 of the November 12, 2019 webcast.)
  • I’ll reiterate a couple of points from the webcast for readers who are still enrolled in an MLIS program.
    • It’s unusual that your professors offer writing a manuscript for a scholarly paper as an option for an assignment. However, they’re often open to this as a course final project if you ask well in advance.
    • You may have opportunities to gather data, perform cutting-edge work in informatics or many other subspecialties, or simply to spend significant time thinking about theory and praxis. The data you gather, and the thoughts you put together, can form the basis of articles, presentations, and blog posts when you write them, or later.
    • Speaking of “later”—you can absolutely revisit the work you did during your MLIS and write about or transform it later.
    • Speaking of articles, presentations, and blog posts—remember that a scholarly record usually *doesn’t* begin with peer-reviewed articles. Rather, it often begins with a few thoughtful professional blog posts, a presentation at a local or student-oriented conference, or an article for a professional magazine (“non-peer-reviewed publication”). Look creatively for opportunities to show off your writing and analytical skills. (Check out the slideshow linked above for suggestions on finding opportunities.)
  • If you’re working in the field, you can almost certainly write and create professional or scholarly materials on your own time. That isn’t as great as having work time set aside—but it’s how many librarians start building a scholarly record.
    • Ask your employer if you may write about innovative work that you and your colleague have done. Aim for a professional publication—or for a scholarly one, if you feel that you have the information needed to meet that publication’s requirements. Or present locally—that’s a great way to build recognition for your library as well.
    • Talk with your employer about whether you may analyze data that you have available to serve as the basis for a scholarly manuscript. Or consider designing a project that will ethically gather data about your work. You will need to investigate policies at your institution to make sure that you are following all of their ethical regulations related to patrons and patron data, if applicable. That said, once you’ve made sure that you are following regulations, you’re set for meaningful and productive work.

As always, I look forward to hearing additional questions, as well as insights based on your experiences. Please feel free to comment, or to contact me.

Best of luck to you with your career goals for 2020!

Reflections on Shame and the Library Profession

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jenn Monnin, Scholarly Engagement Librarian, Health Sciences Library, West Virginia University.

Last October, I had the opportunity to attend the Mid-Atlantic Chapter Conference of the Medical Librarian Association in Durham, North Carolina. The theme was Rising to the Occasion, and talks ranged from information management in emergency planning to building your own ILS system. One of the plenary speakers was Dr. Will Bynum, a shame researcher at Duke University. Physician suicide is, unfortunately, a common tragedy, and Dr. Bynum is working to counteract this by normalizing a conversation around shame in medical education. Near the beginning of his presentation, Dr. Bynum asked us to participate in a Poll Everywhere by texting our responses to the question: “In 1-2 words, what has triggered shame or imposter feelings in you (or could in the future).” Our submitted answers would appear on the screen in a public word cloud. 

Uncertainty

It’s amazing just how anxious that request made me, as this was my first professional conference and all four of my immediate coworkers were in the room. I was extremely self-aware of my identities as a new medical librarian, a new academic librarian, and as a new librarian. I began my current position a month and a half before this conference, and spent the previous two years as a public librarian. I just got the hang of managing the collections and all programs for adult and teen patrons for all six library branches, had established partnerships with all four local afterschool programs offering Girls Who Code Clubs to their students, and worked consistently with the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation and the local OhioMeansJobs office to offer In-Demand career services to the county. When my family moved, I had to get settled in a new position all over again. Now, at the very last session of my first conference as a medical librarian, I was being asked to publicly reflect on what made me feel so behind in my career. That felt like a lot to ask. I didn’t want to send anything in, and thought I’d leave the imposter-feeling explaining to people who knew more about librarianship than me. Thank goodness I was sitting alone so my coworkers wouldn’t see me not participating! 

As words started appearing on screen, I saw my own anxieties, fears, and insecurities reflected in real time. The more a word was texted in to the Poll Everywhere, the larger it appeared. Since I saw concepts that so completely described how I felt in my new position being sent in by others in the room, I decided to send in my own thoughts. Dr. Bynum posted a picture of our completed word cloud to his Twitter account shortly after the conference. 

Early on in his talk, Dr. Bynum pointed out that when dealing with a professional at any level, it’s possible to trigger something that disrupts their professional identity. In our profession this could happen when presenting in front of peers or encountering new library jargon, for example. This causes what he refers to as “a shame reaction,” and has the potential to cause the person to feel shame and/or react defensively because their identity has been threatened. Any time a shame reaction is triggered it is possible for the person to respond “I am bad; I must fix myself” instead of “I did a bad thing; I must improve at ____.” The first response, or the internalized shame response, is anti-learning and impairs belonging. When the shame is prolonged, it can turn especially destructive. The second response is a guilt response, and according to Dr. Bynum, when properly harnessed guilt can be motivational and lead to the healing of whatever caused the shame reaction in the first place. 

Many librarians are already talking about shame and impostor syndrome in librarianship, and I had been completely missing the conversation. Some great examples I’ve found recently are  Zoë McLaughlin’s great reminder that “we are faculty members too, so there’s no reason to feel lesser,” Veronica Arellano Douglas’s amazing internal monologue about her own impostor syndrome, or the important light that Yoonhee Lee shed on the difficulties of even learning how to introduce yourself “in a succinct but engaging way.” More and more librarians are being vulnerable and opening up about their impostor syndrome, and how it affects their everyday life. 

Millennials

After Dr. Bynum posted the word cloud to his Twitter, I noticed that two words to the right of mistakes, is the word millennials (it is written vertically and can be easy to miss). The inclusion of millennials surprised me. Up until this point, my perception of impostor syndrome, or more like my desperate hope, was that it had to disappear at some point in your career. There had to be some threshold where, if only I knew this much, if I could only go through this imaginary gateway, then all my impostor syndrome would simply be cured. The longer you’re in a field the more you know about it, so clearly one day I will get to a spot where I feel secure in what I know and never suffer from impostor syndrome again. The truth is the longer you are in a profession the more changes you will have to walk through, each one presenting a new opportunity for impostor feelings to arise. 

Rising to the Occasion

Comparison is the enemy of community, and comparing myself against someone who has been in the profession for their entire career ultimately serves no productive purpose. Similarly, it is no help for experienced librarians to compare themselves to new librarians. At the end of the day there are far more ways we can support and learn from each other if we actively create those environments where all people can grow, freely express themselves, and put down roots.

Thankfully, Dr. Bynum left us with some practical advice on dealing with our shame and the shame we see in others. I would say this advice can also be applied to impostor syndrome:

  • Know what shame looks and sounds like, because it is often hidden 
    • Ask “how are you feeling about yourself today?”
  • Actively identify when you or someone you know feel shame, and be aware of the feeling
  • Explicitly say “let’s take the blame for this mistake and put it on this other thing” so you can accurately process what went wrong and how to keep it from happening in the future
  • Speak up and break the culture of silence
  • Create environments where people can grow roots and freely express themselves

I am fortunate enough to work at an institution that supports early career librarians, and have plenty of experienced colleagues who want to learn from me as much as I want to learn from them. I have yet to open up a conversation about impostor syndrome other than with a few trusted, early career librarian colleagues, but that may be the next step for me. Yes, it is difficult to break a culture of silence. Yes, it means we have to be vulnerable with each other, which is not easy and opens you up to getting hurt. But when we break the culture of silence, when we actively love and care about the well-being of people around us, when we work together and harness our impostor syndrome instead of fear it, we are far more equipped to handle change and will be far more successful than if we had tried alone.