All posts by Abby Flanigan

Hack the Stacks: Outreach and Activism in Patron Driven Acquisitions

As many others have said more eloquently than I could, everyday in libraries we make decisions about how to spend our resources: time, space, attention, but perhaps most obviously, money. In 2015, the average library expenditures for collections at doctoral institutions was over 5 million dollars. What we choose to spend that money on is an inherently political act. Recognizing it as a form of activism, students at the University of Virginia used our purchase request system to ask that the library add more materials by underrepresented voices to our collections.  I’ll describe the background, logistics, and outcomes of an event we organized to encourage and facilitate these requests.

As a subject librarian, collection development is a surprisingly small part of my job. A centralized collections team manages our approval plans and once a year subject liaisons review them to make sure they still align with departmental interests and priorities. We also have an automated purchase request system that patrons can use to request items for the library. These requests get sent to the collections team and the subject librarian in the area and we passively approve them (unless there’s a glaring reason not to purchase it, it goes through). Beyond those two responsibilities, my involvement in collection development is minimal.

UVA isn’t alone in changing the way it handles collection development from the selector/bibliographer to an outsourced model. Along with this operational shift, we’ve experienced a more philosophical one: budget and space constraints mean that we can no longer try to collect everything, and have had to refocus our efforts towards providing material as patrons explicitly need them, which is the same paradigm shift of “just-in-time” to “just-in-case” that many libraries are experiencing. We rely upon patron purchase requests to tell us when there’s a gap that needs to be filled, but sometimes students don’t know about that feature of the library website or how to use it.

A few weeks ago, a graduate student in the Music Department approached me about co-organizing an event to teach people how to use the purchase request feature while simultaneously requesting books by marginalized authors and independent presses be added to our collection. (Thank you to Aldona Dye of the UVA Music Department and Matthew Vest of UCLA who came up with this idea.) We decided to call it Hack the Stacks and partnered with the Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation, an interdisciplinary group formed  “with the goal of creating a campus environment where resources  for learning about and combating white supremacy (such as discussion forums; visiting scholar and activist talks; syllabi; direct actions; trainings; and safe and accountable spaces) are readily available.”

Prior to the event, we circulated a Google Doc and asked people to add books and presses they thought should be added to the library’s collections. The day of the event, we gave a presentation covering the library’s current method of collection development, emphasizing that purchase requests are the best way for patrons to influence what they think we should own, how to submit a purchase request, and describing what happens after a request is submitted. From the patron perspective, our collection development process is opaque and this discussion made it a lot more transparent. We posted large print-outs of the list on the wall and asked participants to check off items when they submitted a request. We also brought a blank sheet of paper for participants to add to if they submitted a request for a book that wasn’t on our list. Participants filtered in and out during the two hour event, with some staying and submitting multiple purchase requests and others dropping in to submit one or two. 

Our collections and acquisitions teams helped facilitate this event on the backend. Before the event, we talked about whether our normal purchase request budget would be sufficient to cover an event like this, and I shared the list with them in advance to give them a rough estimate of the number of requests to expect. During the event, I encouraged participants to track down the link to purchase the title they were interested in to make it easier on the acquisitions team and to use the “additional notes” field to justify the purchase, which is a practice our collections management team encourages for requests to be fulfilled more reliably. We also added a designation to each item that was requested so that the acquisitions team could track which requests were coming in as part of the event.

All told, we ended up submitting purchase requests for close to fifty items. Those requests are still being processed, so I can’t yet say how many will be added to our collection, but I’m hopeful that most of them will be purchased. Building diverse collections is, as AJ Robinson pointed out, imperative if we want to be the inclusive and welcoming institutions we strive to be. We need to have books by and about people from historically marginalized groups if we want them to feel as though the library is for them, too.  Having these materials on hand also means that more people will engage with them. We are undergoing the beginning of a renovation right now and through a series of preparatory focus groups and meetings many people have emphasized how essential browsing is to their research processes. Hopefully, by having these books in our catalog and on our shelves, faculty and students will be more likely to use them in their courses and research. This event also revealed gaps in our collection, particularly in disability and indigenous studies. I hope we can use this knowledge to revisit our approval plans to see how we could collect more intentionally in these areas.

This was my first experience doing outreach to encourage patron driven acquisition and using it as a tool to encourage more inclusive collections. I’m hopeful we can turn it into a larger effort to tap into patron expertise as we make decisions about how to allocate our limited resources and to incorporate what we learn into our long-term collections strategy.

Responding to Communities in Crisis

Charlottesville and the University of Virginia have been in the news a lot recently. In Summer 2017, a series of white supremacist rallies took place in Charlottesville, culminating in the August 2017 Unite the Right rally which erupted in violence between counter-protestors and the white supremacists. In 2014, UVA was the focal point of a conversation about sexual assault on campuses after an article in Rolling Stone detailed, and later retracted, a story titled “A Rape on Campus.” A few years before, UVA’s president was forced out by the board and later reinstated, resulting in national conversations about the future of higher education centered around the scandal at UVA. While it wasn’t specific to our institution, some also viewed the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath as a community crisis, since it was traumatizing for many people and resulted in local conflicts.

In light of this recent string of traumas, and our lack of clarity about what to do when they occur, my colleagues and I wanted to start a conversation with other academic librarians about how we can respond when our communities are in crisis. A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to travel to Knoxville, Tennessee for the Library Collective Conference, where we facilitated a roundtable discussion centered on crisis response in libraries informed by our own experiences as librarians at UVA.  I’ve been in Charlottesville for 14 months, so I was only personally present for the events of August 2017. I am very grateful to the colleagues I worked with on this session, Maggie Nunley, Paula Archey, Erin Pappas, and Jeremy Boggs, who were able to speak about their experiences at UVA during each of these events.

While Charlottesville has been the locus of a lot of national attention, campuses all over the country are dealing with crises in their local communities and the impacts of national events. We wanted to make this session an opportunity for people to talk about whatever type of incident they feel most impacted by or worried about, so we organized participants by type of institution and asked each group to choose a type of scenario they wanted to discuss.  We asked participants to consider a series of discussion questions related to their incident, taking into account institutional, personal, and collegial levels of response. After discussing and writing down their ideas, each group arranged their thoughts in an incident response matrix. An example of the matrix, which we filled out using August 12th as an example, is pictured below.

This outlines our imagined ideal response. The actions we actually took are highlighted.

We created this matrix after reflecting on our own response to the rallies in August 2017. Of all the events we discussed, this was the one we felt the most prepared for. The Library, in collaboration with the University, was planning to host a day of reflection and conversation on the day of the rallies, with speakers, discussions, film screenings, and a community potluck. Around noon, the governor called a state of emergency and the events had to be canceled, although the Library was kept open. While we had prepared an institutional pedagogical response, it became clear that we were not prepared on other levels. For example, we weren’t clear on our gun policy and there was confusion about whether or not weapons were allowed inside building on campus. Since then, we’ve clarified our policy, and signs have been posted outside buildings to clarify that guns are not allowed in our libraries. While it’s obviously impossible to prepare for every possibility, in hindsight, it may have been helpful to consider these different levels of response prior to that weekend’s events in order to fill some of the gaps.

We also asked participants to consider the constraints that might prevent them from achieving the ideal scenario outlined in their response matrix.  It will probably be no surprise to hear that participants had a lot of constraints to share, ranging from the constraints most libraries face all the time, like lack of resources, to more complicated problems of emotional labor, legal issues, power imbalances, and fear. Conversations like this one can be hard to have, because constraints vary so widely by institution and individual person, but it was interesting to hear the roadblocks that different people experience in trying to align their personal values with their professional responses. As each group reported out about their chosen scenarios, responses, and constraints, we asked them to also share actionable takeaways their group had generated.  The conversation constellated around a few key needs, which I hope library administrators may take into consideration as they think through these same issues:

  • To feel empowered to respond by administration without fear of retribution or judgement.
  • Proactive policies and procedures for crisis response.
  • Frequent trainings for library staff.
  • Space to reflect on and share experiences.

While there are no right answers to a lot of the questions we discussed, this session made it clear that many of us feel unprepared in the face of crisis and that there’s a lot of interest in starting these types of conversations. I appreciate everyone who shared their insights with us and hope it will be part of an ongoing conversation about how we can support our communities and colleagues while practicing self care during times of crisis.

Developing a Peer Support Group

There’s been a lot written here on ACRLog about the importance of mentorship, and I echo what many others have said: there is enormous value in learning from and being supporting by experienced librarians. There’s a separate kind of mentorship, one that doesn’t necessarily fall under the traditional mentor-mentee model, that has also been hugely beneficial to me as a first-year librarian: peer support. Quetzalli wrote a few weeks ago about the value of peer-to-peer relationships, and it inspired me to reflect on my own experience as a member of a newly formed Early to Mid-Career Librarian Support Group at my library.  

Last semester, a few of my colleagues at the University of Virginia convened a group for early- to mid-career librarians to share advice, ideas, and support. The group operates autonomously and informally. We meet every few weeks for a discussion, and anyone can contribute to the agenda or propose a project.  Our first meeting was a chance to introduce ourselves and discuss our career trajectory and what we wanted to get out of the group. While some people were looking simply for camaraderie and support, others were looking for more concrete advice on how to do to do things like pursue a research agenda or how to more purposefully develop their career. These early conversations have informed the direction the group has since gone. We’ve surveyed group members about their research interests, invited senior administrators to discuss professional development, and coalesced around some bigger documentation projects that I will discuss below.

While plenty of opportunities for collaboration and support arise naturally throughout the course of my daily work, having a more formalized avenue for this kind of peer support is especially valuable. Because of the size of my organization, there are people I still haven’t met yet, particularly in departments that I don’t work with closely. This group allowed me to connect with people across areas of the library that I wouldn’t normally encounter in the course of my workday. It’s also a great way for me to avoid some of the isolation that I can sometimes experience in a small branch library. Because meetings are kept collegial and informal, I’m able to start building some of the relationships that happen more easily if you see someone in an office every day.

Finally, conversations in this group have led to projects that would be overwhelming undertakings without the support of many people. For example, one of the most consistent themes that came from our early conversations was a desire for more robust documentation, especially among newer employees of the library. As we compared our on-boarding experiences, it became clear that we had all experienced some version of the same thing: not feeling sure how to do something and asking around until being directed to email a certain person or pointed towards documentation somewhere we never would have thought to look. As a group, we decided to pool our collective knowledge and document everything we wish we had known for future new employees. Working together, we compiled information about the University, the Library, digital spaces, physical spaces, money, time, and travel, for future employees to reference during the on-boarding process. The resulting document lists basic information like where to find forms or how to get access to certain pieces of software, but it also explicitly outlines some of the library’s conventions, like when to use which communication tool, that are not immediately obvious to people who are new to the organization.

While this type of documentation is often compiled by supervisors or administrators, it was actually really useful for it to be generated by people so close to the experience of being new, because we were able to remember what we had to figure out on our own. It’s easy to forget how overwhelming it is to be brand new to an organization, and easy to forget all the things we expect people to know without explicitly telling them.  The group dynamic also really helped us flesh out this document, since we all had overlapping but not quite identical lists of things we thought needed to go into it. Whether or not documentation like this already exists at your institution, I think there is value in asking newer employees what they wish had been spelled out for them when they started and sharing it with new hires. Having a pre-formed group that you can consult with will make this process that much easier.

Creating space in your organization for peer support groups can lead to collaborative projects, like this one, that might not have happened without all of us getting together and talking through some of the challenges we’ve experienced as early career librarians. It can also make employees who work in isolation, physical or otherwise, feel less alone, and open up space for us to ask questions and bounce ideas off each that we might not yet feel comfortable discussing with mentors who are more experienced. I imagine it could also be a useful concept to apply at all levels of experience, such as first-time managers or administrators, as they navigate new challenges. Do you have a peer support group, formal or informal, at your institution?

Vocational Awe and Professional Identity

A few days ago, In the Library with the Lead Pipe published an article by Fobazi Ettarh titled Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves. Ettarh uses the term “vocational awe” to “refer to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” Her article masterfully traces the root of this vocational awe, from the intertwining history of faith and librarianship to our current state, where librarians are expected to literally save lives. Ettarh argues that vocational awe leads to some of the structural problems in our profession, like lack of diversity, undercompensation, and burnout.

I will admit that I initially felt some defensiveness when I started reading this article. One of the reasons I became a librarian is because I wanted to care about and be engaged with the mission of my work, and I do deeply believe in the values that libraries try to uphold. When I got past that initial reaction, I realized how Ettarh’s research allows us to talk about our profession more honestly. As the author clearly states, the article doesn’t ask librarians not to take pride in their work. Nor is it an indictment of our core values (although it does, rightly, point out they are inequitably distributed across society).  Rather, it encourages us to challenge the idea that our profession is beyond critique, and therefore opens up space for us to better it.

Although this is not its primary intent, I wonder whether this research direction will help us resolve some of our own tortured professional identity issues. I am among those who became a librarian partly out of passion and partly out of convenience. I didn’t feel called to the profession. Instead, I made a conscious decision based on my interests and the sort of life I wanted for myself. I knew I wanted to be in a job where I would be helping people, with the opportunity for intellectual growth, and that I wanted to have a stable job with a balance between work and my other personal interests. Librarianship seemed like a very natural fit. But the vocational awe in librarianship means that you’re surrounded by the idea that being a good librarian means being driven solely by passion. Heidi Johnson previously wrote about the isolating feeling of not being a “born librarian” here at ACRLog, and I remember this post resonating deeply with me when I first started to become self-conscious that my professional identity was built less on my sacred calling to it than some of my peers. I think that unpacking the vocational awe that makes us feel this way might help to dispel some of the professional identity issues that so many librarians, and particularly new ones, seem to have.

As I was thinking about this article, I also realized that my own version of vocational awe usually manifests when I’m talking to non-librarians. Telling people I’m a librarian produces surprisingly revealing responses. Some people respond a well-meaning, but misinformed, “how fun! I wish I could read books all day, while others respond with some variation of “but aren’t libraries dying?” I suspect that this is partially a result of the slew of articles that are published every year on the decline of libraries and the death of librarianship. After responses like this, I feel compelled to defend librarianship in the strongest terms. I talk about information literacy, intellectual freedom, public spaces, privacy, access to information, democracy, you name it. I turn into a library evangelist. None of my own hesitations, challenges, or frustrations find their way into these conversations. Several people have already written about the exhaustion of constantly defending and explaining our profession. But this article made me wonder if there is some connection between how often we find ourselves needing to defend what we do — to friends, to faculty, to funding agencies, to the public — and tendency to resist the idea that there is a lot of internal work we need to do to truly uphold the values we claim. Ettarh’s article made me think about how to balance these two ideas: believing in and advocating for my profession, while working to make it better for the people in it.

What does that look like? I’m not entirely sure yet. But I think it entails being more honest. It means advocating for our value, but not pretending that we can do everything. And it means contributing to a culture that doesn’t valorize martyrdom. For me, that means saying no if I don’t have the bandwidth for a project. It means using my all my vacation time, and stopping using busyness as a measure of worth. There is much more to the article than I can unpack here, and I hope that everyone will go read it. I’m looking forward to hearing other people’s thoughts on how vocational awe impacts our profession, and how we might work to stop using it, as Ettarh puts it, as the only way to be a librarian.

Keeping Track of Your Commitments

I’m not the first FYAL blogger to note this, but there are significant differences between professional and student life. Lindsay O’Neill previously wrote about the culture shock of academic life, as well as her techniques for time management, and how the amount of freedom you have to shape your own days is both liberating and overwhelming. I’ve noticed many similar differences. When you’re a student, the semester feels like a sprint towards the finish line. When I became a librarian, there was suddenly a vast amount of time stretching out before me, and it was up to me to figure out how to fill it. As a student, assignments and deadlines are clearly defined for you by somebody else. Now, a lot of the work I do is self-generated and much less defined in its contours.  In this post, I wanted to discuss some of the strategies and tools I’ve used to adjust to this environment.

Last year, I received the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen as a gift (and a subtle hint, perhaps). I’m naturally averse to most things that seem like they’d be found on a CEO’s bookshelf, but this book has actually proved to be helpful as I’ve transitioned into my new job. Although I was able to define some big picture projects and goals for myself when I started, I wasn’t quite sure how to accomplish them. When a goal is as loosely-defined as “figure out how to support graduate students” or “plan successful outreach initiatives”, the next steps are not immediately obvious. More than once, I found myself feeling stressed or anxious about projects I was working on outside of work or while I was falling asleep, without making much progress on them while at work because I wasn’t exactly sure how to move forward.

Allen posits that the stress most people experience comes from “inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept” (Allen 13). Whether these commitments are with yourself or someone else, they generate “open loops” that need to be attended to. His system for managing commitments requires three basic tasks:

  1. Capture anything that is unfinished in a collection tool.
  2. Clarify your commitment and what you have to do to make progress towards it.
  3. Keep reminders of the actions you need to take in a system you review regularly.

I decided to commit to Allen’s system. I downloaded the task management application Wunderlist, where I keep both a list of ongoing projects and a list of immediate to-do items. For any given project, I spend a few moments thinking about what a successful outcome would look like, what the next actionable step I can take to get there is, and capture it in my to-do list. Allen’s book helped me see that this kind of work — planning, clarifying, and prioritizing — is, actually, work. This was a revelation to me, as I had previously felt that unless I was producing something, I wasn’t really working.

This system makes it much more manageable to keep track of long-term or bigger projects by breaking them into smaller, actionable pieces. If the next step on a project requires action from another person, I can transfer that to-do item into my “waiting for” list, so that I know where the project stands, and that I’m not personally responsible for the next action. It’s helped me keep track of ongoing or informal responsibilities, too. For example, I have a recurring weekly reminder to input my reference and teaching stats, so I don’t forget and try to do them all at the end of the semester. If I say “oh, I’ll email that to you!” to someone, I put it on my to-do list so I don’t forget. I also have a space to keep track of the things that need doing in my personal life, like “schedule dentist appointment” or “oil change” (both real life items from my current to-do list — very glamorous).

Another thing I’ve learned about the pacing of academic life, and working life in general, is that you cannot work at your full capacity all of the time. There are natural dips in energy and motivation, and allowing for those is a necessary part of avoiding burnout. I select items to work on from my to-do list based on how I’m feeling and how much time I have before the next meeting or appointment. On a Friday afternoon, when I’m feeling bleary and my brain is turning off, I might choose to update links on a LibGuide. On a Monday afternoon, when I’ve just had my post-lunch coffee, I’ll tackle a writing project or draft a particularly complicated email. Having a list of all the things I’m on the hook for helps me make those decisions more easily.

Breaking bigger projects down into actionable items and writing down what those next steps are has helped me immeasurably. If this is sounding very common sense to you, I imagine you are a more naturally organized person than I am. My personal organizational system prior to reading this book was to keep about five different to-do lists at any time, scattered throughout different notebooks and digital spaces. I generally used to-do lists as a tool to review my commitments in that current moment, but rarely referred back to them. The mental energy I was expending on storing all of the things I had to do in my brain was enormous, and not particularly efficient or effective. Now, I’ve outsourced this memory work, and it’s helped me feel more at ease with long-term or big picture projects. For any given project, I’ve identified a next step, and it’s on my to-do list.

What are your techniques for moving forward with gooey projects? How do you manage your time and stay productive in a less regimented environment?

Works Cited

Allen, David. Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. Penguin, 2015.