Starting Anew, but not Starting Over: Finding Academic Librarianship from Other Career Pathways

This guest post was provided by Deborah Cooper, Digital & Special Collections Librarian, Mann Library, Cornell University (dsc255@cornell.edu) and Hannah Gunderman, Research Data Management Consultant, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries (hgunderm@andrew.cmu.edu).

One of the oft-repeated clichés of librarianship is the variety of experiences that are welcomed into the profession, such as customer service in retail, teaching in schools or wrangling spreadsheets in business. It seems an accepted norm that library workers are people at all stages of life and with a variety of backgrounds. Yet, there has been little exploration into the experiences of colleagues who join libraries after previous careers.

The topic of second-career librarianship can initially seem like it may not offer up much in-depth avenues of inquiry. Surely, coming to librarianship with other experiences under your belt can only be a positive! “Transferable skills” are not only desirable but will set you ahead in a highly competitive job market! While this is often true, the experience of being a person who shifts from one, or even several previous career paths into librarianship is not always as linear and uneventful as one might think! In our personal experiences, this circuitous journey from previous career paths into the academic libraries environment has certainly had its share of surprises and unique challenges. 

Hannah and Deborah first began their collaboration through a professional network. As they began collaborating, they discovered several overlapping research interests. However, they soon also found another unexpected similarity: they both came to academic librarianship from different career paths. It became evident that their status as second-career librarians had influenced their experiences in their respective libraries.

Before entering graduate school for her MLIS, Deborah worked in the publishing industry as both a writer and editor for over a decade. She travelled quite a bit and became a parent. While not the oldest student in class, she definitely was not the youngest. All of these previous experiences informed her entry into the profession. At the same time, when she graduated in 2014, the upstate New York region was still in the grips of recession and there were few jobs in her chosen niche of youth librarianship. After several false starts she eventually landed at a NY State university library as an adjunct, working eight-hour reference shifts in the evenings and weekends. It wasn’t part of the plan but it was a solid place to land. 

Hannah found academic librarianship after working in a geography research setting for several years, under the impression that she would pursue becoming an Assistant Professor of Geography at a higher education institution or work as a geographer in industry. It wasn’t until partway through her Ph.D. program that she realized she did not want to pursue those career paths but wanted to remain in a setting where she could help others conduct research. She found the world of academic librarianship, and for the next several years took a circuitous route to land her job in an academic library. By that time, Hannah had amassed a set of skills that served her well in a geography environment, yet at times she felt her skills were not up to par for working in an academic library.

When we first began discussing our personal experiences it was striking to us that, even with our vastly different career paths, our experience of shifting from one career to another was similar in its positives and negatives. We began to wonder if this was something that more people experience throughout the profession but wasn’t spoken about more widely. And why isn’t this addressed? Is it just a coincidence that two random strangers found similarities in their struggles? Or, is this a conversation worth having? We have indeed struggled in both similar and different ways. We decided to put our personal experiences to paper to reflect on what these experiences have meant for us and our careers, and bring the discussion to a wider audience.

In this reflection piece, we offer the following tips for navigating a second (or third, fourth, etc.) career in academic librarianship:

  1. You are not starting from scratch! Leverage the skills you already have:

When entering a new career path, you may find yourself wanting to do all the things to prove your worth. For Hannah, especially coming from a domain-specific environment where she felt very comfortable in what she was doing and the skills needed to succeed in her role, being in a totally new work environment sometimes led her to feel as though she was starting from scratch. However, you are not starting from scratch when you find academic librarianship from another career path. Leverage your transferable skills! Even if you are new to librarianship, you absolutely have skills from your previous career to contribute. These are beneficial and can help bring new perspectives into your library. 

Wherever you were before, you have valid and real experiences that are going to help you in the library. As we mentioned in the introduction, any job involving interaction with the public is a great help, whether as a barista, working in retail or answering phones. And, if you just graduated with your MLIS, remember those awful group projects in grad school? Yes, a lot of the challenges you may have encountered with those are actually good preparation for all of the groups, committees and collaborative work you’ll encounter in all libraries. If you are headed for behind-the-scenes work, for example in technical services or collections, being able to juggle multiple competing projects, track budgets or creatively problem-solve are all excellent applicable skills. 

  1. From skillsets to mindsets: 

It is not only your skill-set that’s important but your entire mindset. Even if you are only switching environments within the library profession, eg, from public to academic, the culture and expectations can be vastly different. While you may have a set of clearly defined tasks and responsibilities that you will soon learn on the job, the subtle nuances of the specific department and the wider institution may take several months to make themselves known. First, allow yourself several months to absorb the variations. Academia has a language of its own. The names and ranks can be confusing and acronyms abound. (At Deborah’s institution there is a Wiki containing a glossary of acronyms!)

A big part of building your new mindset in an academic library is finding a community. We recommend inviting your new colleagues to coffee (or in our virtual world, a Zoom chat) to start to better understand the culture and identity of your library. Depending on a host of factors, this may initially be a scary undertaking (especially if you have social anxiety!), but most of your colleagues will be flattered that you asked and only too happy to get to know you better. And subsequently having a familiar face in meetings may help ease the “new person” feeling. Some libraries also have a mentoring or buddy program for new hires and these can also help you find your feet, especially if you are more comfortable asking newbie questions to people outside of your immediate colleagues and supervisor.

  1. Embrace Your New Identity:

The life experiences that you bring with you into your daily work are a deep well you can draw on in times of need. How you obtained this experience isn’t the most important aspect but if you have worked in different fields, travelled, volunteered or have clearly grown in life because of situations you’ve experienced, you are going to be more resilient in the workplace. Your cumulative experience will not only help you in your day-to-day work but give you something to draw upon when faced with tough situations. Being able to reflect on how you successfully navigated a path through various past challenges will sustain you through your current issues. 

Don’t compare yourself to others who have entered directly into the profession in a linear path.

Remind yourself that your unique, non-linear progression is just as valid and worthy. Librarianship attracts a healthy number of career-changers. Your life experience and exposure to different communities and ways of working will help you to stand out.  Imposter syndrome can sneak in when colleagues who entered the profession directly from college are rapidly climbing the promotion ladder–you will get there, too. Accepting your identity as a late-comer is important or you will forever feel behind. There’s no catching up and no need to. By focusing on your strengths and the merit of your work, you can build your confidence.

4. Exploring and innovating within your role to build confidence

One thing that Hannah and Deborah had independently found helpful was realizing that holding back and not going outside our comfort zone only exacerbated imposter syndrome or feeling less worthy. A great piece of advice we received was to focus on work that feels personally fulfilling and then direct your energy towards it, as much as your other work will allow. We’re cognizant that some roles in an academic library may not allow for full flexibility to choose projects, but in areas where you can experiment, it is useful to identify meaningful projects. When you feel invested in projects it helps build your confidence and allows you to talk about it, present on it or generally discuss it at meetings with enthusiasm. Gradually, your colleagues will start to recognize your specific area of expertise. This goes double for non-traditional roles, such as newly created positions that cover emerging areas of librarianship and evolving roles. 

Building a Community of Interest

If you found yourself entering academic librarianship as a second (or third, fourth, etc.) career and have had similar experiences and see yourself reflected in what you have read, please get in touch with us! We’re looking to build a community around these experiences and delve deeper into the question of how librarianship is influenced by career-changers and how career-changers are themselves affected by their switch. We’re hoping that this community can also serve as an informal support network for anyone who is feeling unmoored and wanting to better understand and grow their identity within academic librarianship. Academic librarianship is a rewarding career path that’s not without its challenges, and we hope that building a community of other career-changers can help enrich all of our experiences as we navigate this career together. 

On Being a New Librarian During a Global Pandemic

This post comes from guest Giovanna Colosi, who is the Education Librarian, Subject Instruction Lead at Syracuse University Libraries in Syracuse, NY  and Board of Trustee Member of Northern Onondaga Public Libraries.

I joined my university’s library in July 2018 as my first full-time library job post MLIS. It was a career change for me as I already had a successful 20-year career in student affairs. Like many other adult career changers, I chipped away at my second master’s degree while working full-time and raising a family. It was as much exhilarating as it was stressful.  I was proud of myself that in midlife, instead of having a crisis, I had an epiphany and changed the course of my career and life!

I had been working on getting assimilated in my new position, branching out and making connections to librarians across the country, started interesting projects, teaching classes, and overall, on my way to becoming a well-rounded librarian. Then a pandemic happened. Just as I felt I was hitting my stride; everything was put on pause for a bit while we all transitioned to a virtual world.

I have now been working from home since mid-March. I spend my days jumping from Zoom meetings, virtual classes, writing, researching, all while helping my daughter with virtual schooling and taking care of my toddler.  It is not uncommon for me to be juggling making lunch, trying to keep my toddler from scribbling on the walls and helping a Ph.D. on their dissertation. Suffice it to say, it has been a challenge.

As I continue to work during this pandemic, not only I am still learning best practices, taking courses, and developing my skills in teaching, collection development and leadership, I am also learning how to do it while being a single mom, working at home full-time, and trying not to feel guilty about not always having a spectacular day.  I have come to the realization that many of the strategies that helped me during the time I went back to school to obtain my MLIS are helping me now, so I wanted to share those insights with you.

Time Management/Organization: When I went back to school to obtain my MLIS I had to be uber organized. Having a day planner, color coordinated calendars, and a to-do list was a must. I find that being organized helps with some of the added stress we are all dealing with. I literally write EVERYTHING down. In the past I might have had better recall, something about working from home makes it more difficult for me, so I make sure to jot notes while in meeting, if I have an idea while changing a diaper, I make sure I jot that down as well. I then transfer those notes/ideas into one notebook where I can then reference back to it.

While in the past I kept 2 separate calendars, one for home, where things like orthodontist appointments and school recitals were kept, and my office calendar.  Since the lines have been blurred between work life and home life, I now have a combined calendar. I find it easier to manage my time this way.  I have learned to also schedule things other than meetings, for example everything from my exercise to writing or helping with homework, I have even been known to schedule showers! Having a dedicated “time” on my calendar other than just meetings both keeps me accountable and takes the guess work out of when I will have time to do things.  If it is written down, I will do them.

Self-Care: Going back to school was a difficult decision, especially because I was also working full-time and I was a non-traditional student (read, OLDER!) So, I needed to take care of my mental and physical health. I did lots of yoga and ran. During this time of social distancing, I have also begun practicing meditation, and while I cannot get out and run as often as I would like to, I take advantage of the virtual work-outs my gym provides. There are also tons of free resources on You-tube for workouts and relaxation.

Give yourself some grace: When I was in graduate school, I soon realized I could not do it all nor do it perfectly every time. I am a perfectionist so If I received an A- because I could not get to all the readings, I had to tell myself that it was ok. If I had to take a day off work because my child was sick, and I missed an important meeting, I had to tell myself it was ok. This was always a hard thing for me to grapple with and this continues to be a very difficult thing for me to do. Now, more than ever it is important that we cut ourselves some slack. We cannot always get everything done on our to-do list when we are home. Things will come up at home that just don’t come up on campus. Take a deep breath and realize that this is only temporary, even though it feels like the end is far away. I found having an open and honest relationship with my co-workers and supervisor has helped.  You may find when you talk to others, they are feeling the same way.

Social Connections: In graduate school I had very little free time for friends, but I always made time for them because I know without that connection, I can get down.I cannot stress enough how important social connections have been to me during this time. I have been very cautious since March and have switched up my routines.  I order groceries through a delivery service. I do not go out to restaurants but have food delivered.  I have not really seen many people socially.  I was feeling very isolated but decided to make a habit of talking to a friend every evening.  I also have organized virtual game nights and social hours for my family, and I have taken advantage of some virtual trivia and Bingo games online. When the days run into each other, I find it helps me to have something to look forward to, even if it’s just a group chat with some old friends. If you are feeling isolated, I found some ways to interact virtually through my local library. They have had many “real-time” online activities, like crafting, book clubs and exercise classes. Humans are social creatures, and while many librarians are introverted by nature, we all need social interaction.

These are some lessons I have learned. Although I could likely share more, my next Zoom meeting is starting and it is suspiciously quiet in the house, which is never a good sign with young children. I wish all of us at this time good physical and mental health, and hopefully we will be all where we love to be soon, in the stacks.

Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect : An Update from Nisha Mody

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 Nisha Mody, Associate Director of the Network of the National Library of Medicine, Pacific Southwest Region at UCLA.


The question “Where am I now?” seems heavier that it might have felt a month ago, and way heavier had this been a year ago in the “before times.”

I have stayed true to my interest and commitment to social justice in libraries and in the world, which has made the past year, and this month, especially challenging in terms of doing the work and in terms of emotional regulation. Since I was an FYAL, I went to many conferences, presented, worked on great projects, and have had a chance to lead teams, but, in the end, so much of of my “progress” comes back to meeting myself where I’m at and allowing myself to (1) not know everything (2) take a break from being a “professional” when the world is overwhelming me and (3) ask for help.

With that being said, a few notable things have changed for me since I started at UCLA Library in 2017. I had the opportunity to become Team Lead of the Teaching and Learning Functional Team, and as of June 2020, I became the Associate Director of the Network of the National Library of Medicine, Pacific Southwest Region at UCLA. I feel like this all happened so quickly. However, I know that my pre-library experience in multiple settings equipped me with the tools to be in this position.

Being in administration has helped me examine how it feels to be someone who is in middle management, someone who has transitioned from being a librarian to a manager, and how to best embody my values as a leader and a person. While it has been exciting to be a leader, I miss engaging with students during teaching and research consultations. But I’m still glad to have the opportunity to teach a little bit in other venues.

In my post “I Liked, I Wished, I Wondered: A One-Year Review” from March 2018, a year after I started at UCLA, I closed with:

What Now?

I have always disliked the idea of having a 5-year or 10-year plan. I believe in intention, serendipitous moments, and blending that with your personal drive and abilities. I did not come to librarianship through a straight path, and, while I don’t want to change my career again, I am open to different possibilities that can harness and enhance my skill set. Writing this out has definitely forced me to reflect upon the past year, see how far I have come and what the future might hold. One year down and many more to go!


I still dislike a 5-year or 10-year plan, but I have come to a place where I can create goals based upon my values instead of quantitative outcomes. I recently wrote about creating values-oriented goals. While I still don’t care for 5- or 10-year plans, I do care about embodying my values in different areas of my life including my professional trajectory.

As I mentioned in the article, my core values are community, compassion, vulnerability, equity, curiosity, humility, creativity, and unlearning. In the context of my work, here are some ways I’d like to lead with these values.

  • Examine my biases toward my team, my institution, and the people I serve.
  • Imagine more community-based partnerships to serve marginalized communities.
  • Share my mistakes and hopes with people in all levels of my organization, especially when it comes to anti-racist work.
  • Unlearn traditional ways of leading when working with others as a leader or as a contributor.

I think these goals are useful regardless of my position. On the practical side, I had to truly take charge when it came to project management as I transitioned into leadership. I had no idea that I would be in my current position when I wrote about leadership and project management. And even though I had experience in the corporate world, it took a significant mental shift for me to implement project management concepts. But I’m glad that I was able to set up these structures because I noticed it created a lot of ease with my team, and for myself! Before I entered this role, I also had the opportunity to take DeEtta Jones’ Inclusive Manager Toolkit which was also very supportive for my values and my work.

This is definitely a journey, and I’m glad to have had so many opportunities to grow within one institution. With that being said, I started my career at the beginning of a problematic U.S. Presidency which shifted to COVID-19 and then to the events at the beginning of 2021. And I think this is important to name because the world still keeps going while we are working. And the beliefs that are projected on a global scale also exist on a local scale.

These are opportunities to take a look inward on an institutional level, on a work relationship level, and on a personal level. Some questions I have pondered are:

  • How does my positionality in terms of identity and hierarchy denote my privilege(s)?
  • When should I speak up? When should I stand down?
  • What does equity mean when everyone has different ways of working, needs, and professional goals?
  • How am I unintentionally speaking for others?
  • What am I being transparent about? What am I not being transparent about? What am I afraid of when I’m being transparent or not transparent?
  • Am I meeting the expectations others have of me? Do I need to meet those expectations? How do I acknowledge and/or reset expectations?

These questions come up a lot, and I think they are important to write about and discuss at different points in time during your career. The answers to these questions can help with setting your own expectations, communicating with people in your organization, and examining how your metaphorical and literal positions have changed over time.

If 2020 taught us anything, it is that time is relative and super weird. But it has also taught me to take a step back to reflect, reset, and rest. I hope that we can all find space to slow down, question urgency, and restore ourselves in the face of challenging times.

From the Other Side of the Table: Academic Search Committee from the Inside

This guest post comes to us from Ruth Monnier, who is an Assistant Professor and Learning Outreach Librarian at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas. She provides reference and instruction services and engages with the greater campus and community.

Last year, I was job hunting and, like many others, was worried about CVs, resumes, cover letters, tracking jobs, and application deadlines. Recently, I served on the other side of the table as a search committee member. In books, blogs, and Twitter feeds, everyone has advice to offer to the job seeker, and most of the advice is good. However, just because advice is given, does not mean the advice is taken. After being on the other side of the table, here are six pieces of advice I offer for anyone who is job searching.

  1. Reading Truly Matters

It seems obvious based on our profession’s stereotype, but it bears stating again: reading carefully truly matters. We, as a society, are trained to skim any text (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf). The committee can tell who is skimming the job posting, and particularly the job description. The job description lays out the expectations for the role and is the guiding document of the search. The committee uses the job description as a template for interview questions and to create a rubric for evaluating each candidate’s response. You should directly answer every job duty raised in the job description via CV or cover letter, especially if there are any unusual or nontraditional job duties. By directly addressing the listed duties, you eliminate any doubt committee members might have on your ability to complete job-related functions. The more uncertainty committee members have about a candidate, the less likely it is for the candidate to move on in the search process.

If you are a job seeker, take time to review your application documents and ask someone else to review them as well, especially if you are using a base template to apply for multiple positions. Do your cover letter and CV address every duty in the job description? Did you spell the institution’s name correctly? Does the job title match? Is your contact information correct?

  1. Selection of the Committee

Honestly, when I was a job seeker, I did not think about how individuals became a part of the search committee. However, understanding the search committee’s composition can assist you in the process. At my institution, per department policies, it is required that there be at least one staff person and three faculty members elected to the committee. The search committee makeup and the process will vary by institution. The important takeaways are to recognize that not all committee members will have a master’s degree in the field nor know all of the position’s day-to-day tasks. With your knowledge of the search committee composition, you can better understand their overall perspective on the institution and library department, terminology and acronym usage, and whom some of your questions should be directed towards. Be mindful of who is on the other side of the table throughout the interview process.

  1. Little Things Matter

Time and care should be taken to craft the initial interview documents, such as your cover letter, and to the interview process as a whole. Search committee members are interviewing multiple candidates back-to-back. Even with taking notes, candidates’ information can run together, which makes the little things stand out. Being prepared can help you stand out.

If you are interviewed, have questions ready to ask the search committee and for a campus interview, have questions to ask anyone. Also, feel free to re-ask previous questions from earlier stages in the interview to different individuals.Before the phone interview, write out key points and activities that you want to highlight to the committee, particularly for those commonly asked questions.It is easy to freeze up or stumble if you are nervous or not used to the technology. If possible, practice a phone/video interview with a friend or Career Services and use what you plan on having for the actual interview. During the phone interview, take notes on the questions asked and your responses as well as ask for time to process a question as needed. As the interview process changes due to budget constraints and a global pandemic, be prepared and familiarize yourself with multiple technology platforms. If you go for a campus visit, remember that you, as the candidate, are always being interviewed unless you are left completely alone. Your conversations in the car, at meals and breaks, and walking on campus are all being used to evaluate you, just as you are evaluating the position, committee, and institution.

  1. Take a Break

If you have an itinerary, check it. Are there breaks for you? Do you need to ask for anything to ensure a smoother interview? Whether participating in a phone interview, multi-hour video call, or visiting in-person, ensure breaks for yourself. For a phone interview, this might simply mean having water to drink while the committee is asking questions. For a longer interview process, advocating for a couple of quick breaks by yourself allows you to recharge. If you are given the opportunity for a break, take it. Breaks also allow search committee members an opportunity to check their email or complete other quick tasks. Depending on the candidate’s schedule, the search committee can feel fatigued too. Breaks benefit all involved to process information, relax, and recharge for the next portion of the day.

  1. Expenses

Typically, your expenses are paid if a search committee brings you physically to the campus. Frequently your expenses are reimbursed after the fact versus at the point of purchase. Before you arrive on campus, ask for clarification on the expense process (reimbursement or otherwise), including who is responsible for meals, receipts needed for reimbursement, and any other questions you have. If it is a financial burden for you to travel to campus and any of the related expenses, talk to the search committee’s chair. There may be ways to ease the up-front financial burden depending on the institution.

Be an advocate for yourself and communicate with the committee. Remember you are interviewing the committee as much as they are interviewing you, and no one wants an awkward or uncomfortable situation.

  1. Thank you

Common advice for any job seeker is to send a thank you note. The typical advice given is to send a handwritten note, but if a handwritten note will not arrive in time an email is also acceptable.

By being on the other side of the table, I was surprised at how few thank you emails and notes were sent. Thank you notes reiterate your interest in the position, provide an additional opportunity to clarify an answer to an interview question you may have not answered to the best of your ability, and can make you stand out to the committee. It is one more time that the committee is seeing your name and interest in the position.

Each institution is different, but being prepared and following through gives you the best opportunity of landing the position. Good luck!

Privacy, Consent, and the Virtual One-Shot

Guest poster Nora Almeida is an instruction and outreach librarian at the New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and a volunteer at Interference Archive. Nora researches and writes about critical pedagogy, social justice, neoliberalism, performance, and place. You can find her on twitter: @nora_almeida.

In April 2020, when the City University of New York (CUNY) shifted classes and student services online, the one-shot library instruction sessions mostly stopped all together. I sent out a few emails during the early days of the COVID-19 lock down in NYC as I deleted most of the now obsolete notations in my calendar while doom-scrolling and listening to perpetual ambulance sirens. But everyone’s semester had been thrown so wildly off-course and midterms had already ended and the consensus seemed to be to try to get through the semester and then reset for fall. In truth, most of the faculty that I emailed never even replied to my messages.

I did teach two virtual guest lectures in May and thought nothing of the fact that the instructors recorded them—something we’d discussed in advance and which seemed important given the emergency outside of all of our apartments and the very real technology barriers that students at CUNY face.

Then in the summer when both courses ran again and the instructors emailed to ask if I could reprise my guest lectures, they both indicated they could also just use the recordings from spring if I was busy or away. I responded immediately that either was fine as though we all implicitly understood that in virtual education contexts, ourselves and our pre-recorded simulacra are basically the same. Aren’t they?

But then, upon further reflection, I felt a little odd and I began to wonder how many MP4s of me had been recorded or shared since the pandemic had started. I thought of a virtual conference panel I participated in, which I learned was being live-streamed to YouTube only after the session had commenced: “thousands of people are watching right now,” one of the organizers said, proudly. Then in June, I was asked by a faculty member who I’d worked with before to do virtual library instruction for a research-intensive course and was startled to join a Zoom session and see the red recording button blinking before I opened my mouth.

I wondered then, gloomily, if part of the natural progression of higher education in this moment is not only the loss of corporeality but the end of the ephemeral educational encounter altogether. Or perhaps we are all experiencing some kind of temporal implosion in which college exists both nowhere and everywhere, and classes are attended by black boxes on a screen, which may or may not represent the attention and presence of actual students, and the teacher might be ported in from another time and place.

When it became clear that we weren’t going back to campus in the fall, I started to talk about the recording issue with colleagues, suggesting maybe we should create a departmental policy. Then, as the new semester approached, CUNY released their own policy, which importantly considers the privacy of students and requires explicit student consent for video recording of synchronous course sessions. The policy trickled down to the campuses a little late but I believed that perhaps it would make some difference.

In our department we planned to go forward with our usual instruction program with some changes to accommodate asynchronous classes. We provide library instruction for all of the first-year composition courses at our college in addition to discipline-specific instruction upon request—amounting to about 35 sessions per semester for the average instruction librarian. I carefully added language about video recording to the email template that I use to correspond with faculty. If they wanted synchronous instruction, I requested that they let me know if they record their classes (presumably with consent from their students). If they wanted to record the one-shot, I asked them to let me manage and share the recording if their teaching platform allows it (Zoom does but Blackboard, our institutional LMS, does not). If they were teaching using a platform that doesn’t allow a guest to maintain control over recording, I asked to opt-out.

Some faculty have responded thoughtfully to my message and have worked carefully to ensure that student needs are accommodated and that everyone can consent to or opt-out of recording. Some have ignored my message altogether. Some have been confused and thought that I wanted to keep the recordings for myself. Some faculty don’t have the technological capacity to honor my request or to change the settings on their Zoom account to ensure that students can’t record one-another. Some have pedantically referenced the CUNY policy and indicated (incorrectly) that any kind of recording isn’t permitted. Three-times I have joined a class and, after being confronted by the red blinking light, I have requested firmly and politely that I manage the recording and share a link later. This past week, I taught a one-shot for a faculty member who I had to email six times before they sent me a link to access their course and then they recorded me without my consent. I didn’t say anything in part because I felt weird that I had sent this person so many emails. They had acted as though they were doing me some large favor by sharing a link to their course so I could help their students do research and I thought I might alienate them further by insisting I maintain control over my own intellectual property.

I don’t know exactly what I’m worried will happen with the videos, which are not exciting and I can’t imagine many people rewatching. I certainly would never rewatch them, in part because they are, with some small deviations, almost identical. In the background are small personal details-—a framed May Day poster a friend designed, a dying succulent, my swimsuit drying on a door-knob, my husband walking by. Parts of the videos are potentially dangerous out of context in that they are mildly political; almost all students in first year composition courses are researching social and political issues. It’s unlikely but not impossible that pieces of the videos could be recontextualized and weaponized by alt-right cyber-trolls who spend their days harassing and doxxing liberal academics and students of color (the majority of students at the CUNY campus where I work are Black and Hispanic).

Certainly, the videos could be reused later, without my consent or when the information they contain is out of date. Zoom, the primary platform that faculty at my institution are using for remote instruction, can also access videos and other content that is recorded and stored on their cloud servers (or the cloud servers they license from 4th parties, mostly Amazon). According to their privacy policy, Zoom does “not guarantee that any customer content you or any user provides to the Services will not be viewed by unauthorized persons” and even they recommend that we “should be cautious about the access [we] provide to others.”

Beyond these privacy concerns are larger, scarier labor concerns. While I am a full-time (untenured) faculty member at CUNY with enough job security to write a blog post like this, many of the people who teach one-shots in the CUNY library system are adjuncts. The post-COVID fiscal crisis has severely impacted CUNY and New York state, which the university counts on for 60% of its operational budget, has opted to only release funds to the university on a month-to-month basis. This funding model has put contingent employees within the libraries, in an especially precarious position. If an adjunct librarian teaches an instruction session that is recorded this week, and they are fired at the end of the month, their video simulacrum might actually replace them. As increased austerity seems likely and rumors of more layoffs and retrenchments circulate, it seems important that we all consider how the digital learning objects we’re creating can and might be used by the university in the future. Even if CUNY’s IP Policy indicates that our pedagogy belongs to us, the policy does nothing to address circumstances where our own IP isn’t even accessible to us. 

At the end of a day when I teach two or three one-shots to the void of Zoom boxes that may or not be listening, I feel perhaps that I’m not all that different from my simulacrum after all. We repeat the same phrases. We tell the same jokes. We have the same teaching assistant (my cat, Goose). Today we are more animated or tired. Today some of the Zoom boxes contain videos of real students. I hear some of their voices. Some of them type in the chat box and I type back. But these are small signs of engagement and even before the pandemic, I had my doubts about the one-shot. Most of these students have never even been on campus, many of them have never used an academic library and it’s unclear how much an hour-long virtual instruction session really helps. It’s hard to be interactive or check to make sure students are following along. Sometimes mid-session, when I feel like I’m truly just speaking into the void, I ask, are you guys still with me? Some days I wonder: if I shared my screen and just pressed play on a pre-recorded one-shot would anyone even notice?

I wonder why I feel so protective of something that probably matters so little. Especially when so few people around me seem to share my concerns. Perhaps my little cloud folder of carefully labelled un-downloadable videos that will become unavailable on the last day of final exams is a way for me to assert control during a time when so much seems far beyond my control. Or perhaps my attempts to control recordings of my teaching is a small protest against a culture that devalues and erases library labor and the labor of contingent workers.

If nothing else, I hope that by making some noise about these issues more people will start to think about privacy, consent, and labor in relation to digital education. I hope that more university systems will create spaces for faculty to discuss and learn more about privacy and consent. And I hope, most of all, that more educators start to talk about these issues with one another and with their students.