Work-From-Home: Part-Timers & Student Workers

Most academic library employees across the country have been working from home for the better part of two weeks now, and will be doing so for an unknown amount of time this spring (and summer?) due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What about our part-timers and student workers? In my library, I have two dozen part-time employees whose assigned job is exclusively working at the service desk when the rest of the staff has gone home for the evening/weekend. This is not work that can be done from home, or when the physical space of the library is not in use: checking in/out items, providing basic computer assistance to users, counting the cash drawer, etc. So what can they do?

I (like so many others) have been trying to think of work we can offer to these employees so we can justify paying them for tasks they can do from home. I realize that many of our institutions are taking a hard look at their budgets right now, and paying your part-timers and student workers for as many hours as you could before might not be feasible (or might not continue to be for the duration). But if you give them meaningful work to do now, they will look less expendable on paper.

A few days ago, our university libraries put out a call for student workers to start a project where they document their experiences during the pandemic/quarantine, in whatever medium they choose (print, video, art, etc.) and we can pay them for their contributions to the special collection these products will go into. (Take a moment to imagine the exhibit these will go into in a couple decades, perhaps alongside personal writings from the Spanish flu pandemic and the yellow fever outbreak! One second while I add a calendar reminder to check on that in, say, 2040?)

Because of the aforementioned potential budget changes, we can only offer so many hours per week to the student employees participating in this project, but I’ve been constantly vigilant for opportunities for my part-timers to work from home. A few ideas I’ve run across are:

  • Link-checking LibGuides
  • Contributing to new LibGuides of free online resources and COVID-19 resources
  • Assisting with responding to reference emails or participating in reference chat services
  • Plan displays/exhibits for when we return (book lists, graphic design, etc.)
  • Contribute to Library of Congress transcription projects
  • Relevant webinars/training (like Lynda/LinkedIn Learning)
  • Required or optional institutional training (compliance, cybersecurity, etc.)
  • Create a written guide on the tasks they normally perform, for future training purposes
  • Curate a list of the aforementioned trainings/readings for others to use
  • Weeding projects (based on booklists, not physical item’s condition, of course)
  • Manually extending interlibrary loan periods

Not all of these will work for us, but some are possibilities. Some would require getting access for them to systems they couldn’t normally access; most would require some degree of specialized training, and all would have to follow specific hours guidelines to ensure that we aren’t paying out more hours than we are budgeted for. If you’re worried about giving your employees something they aren’t prepared for, consider: you’ve heard about last-year medical and nursing students being called on to assist in the medical side of this crisis; surely your part-timers and student workers can be called upon to do more specialized tasks than they were doing before.

What tasks are you having your part-timers complete during this time, if any? What resources can you provide for them while they are essentially suspended from work? What other considerations do you have to incorporate (for example, do they need a VPN to get this work done, or can you provide laptops to them)?

Celebrate Your Cheerleaders!

Last month, we had a small reception in our library to celebrate a handful of individuals who are strong supporters of the library and promote the use of library resources and services by students, faculty, and staff. Despite being new to this library this year, I was familiar with this program, because the “READ” posters featuring last year’s recipients and the books they chose to highlight were hanging in the library. Now, those posters have been gifted to the individuals featured on them, and replaced on our walls by the new honorees’ posters. Starting this year, we are also adding the books chosen by the honorees to our collection, with a bookplate stating who they are and why they were recognized by the library.

It’s nice, right? I certainly thought so. People like to be recognized for their efforts. So I thought about how we hadn’t done anything official like this for the faculty and staff who really championed the library at my former job, even though I can easily name a dozen of our “cheerleaders” off the top of my head, even after being gone for a year now.

There are a lot of little ways we can thank the faculty and staff who make our jobs easier (by promoting the use of the library to their students and among their colleagues) and make our jobs harder in the good way (by increasing traffic to the library, making requests for collection development or instruction, utilizing our services, and so much more).

There are no-cost ways to recognize our “cheerleaders,” like posting about them and their work on our social media accounts, building displays centered around them, or simply writing them personal thank-you notes (and, if appropriate, copying their supervisors to extend the recognition beyond the library). There is also sometimes the opportunity to get involved in a project or service that is important to that faculty member, like assisting with a student group they work with, or volunteering library space for meetings of a committee or group they serve on at an institution where space is a hot commodity. Many institutions have a “kudos” system, where you can submit a person who is worthy of kudos and they receive some sort of recognition or reward for having a positive impact.

There are low-cost ways, too; our READ posters and small reception with cookies and coffee was not an extravagant affair (and everyone responds well to cookies and coffee). Purchasing copies of the faculty member’s publications to include in the library’s collection (if this is not already a given at your institution) is nice, and I would even ask them to sign the library’s copy, to make it a little more special. Even a simple gift (bookmarks seem like an appropriate choice, but use your imagination!) at the end of the year (calendar or academic) given out to a selected number of individuals in the institution who have supported the library in their own way would be a nice gesture of appreciation.

So in the spirit of the season of giving thanks, and giving gifts, consider implementing ways of celebrating those who celebrate you and your library!

Being Pro-Pronouns

October is a time for National Coming Out Day, International Pronouns Day, and also happened to be the month in which I was added to our institution’s Diversity Council and attended my first meeting thereof. So I’ve been thinking about pronouns more than usual (which is actually pretty often to begin with) for a few weeks.

I think it’s fairly common knowledge now that including your pronouns as part of your introduction is a simple practice that we can all participate in, that makes everyone (especially the trans community) feel more welcome in any space. We as a profession (and as a society) are talking more about doing this, including here on ACRLog, with mentions in posts like this one from guest poster Adrianna Martinez, and this one from Emily Hampton Haynes.

One of the first things I noticed when I was offered my new job (I haven’t been here a year, it still counts as “new,” right?) was that the person in human resources who was sending me paperwork and instructions had included her pronouns in her email signature, and I thought that was great. One of the first things I did when I got my institutional email account set up was to write my email signature, and deliberate for a solid five minutes over where my pronouns should go in said signature. (Under my name? Under the wall of text that is my contact information? On a line unto itself, separated from both name and contact information by a blank line?)

I have seen many email signatures from people across the institution and outside our institution with their pronouns in their email signatures. I have seen conference nametags that provide space for your pronouns, and I’ve seen people add their pronouns to conference nametags that did not provide that designated space. I have seen one or two people with colorful buttons on their lanyards declaring their pronouns.

Honestly, at first, the English major that still resides inside of me was just really excited that so many people can identify a part of speech so readily. But then I also got really excited that normalizing the sharing of pronouns is really happening. The first few times I brought it up (in meetings, in conference presentations, in introductions to new people) it felt clunky and awkward, but now it’s a more natural thing to do. I like to introduce myself first or early when we “go around the room” in a meeting, because if I start the trend, others will follow my pattern: name, pronouns, job title.

To give you context for the rest of this paragraph, I am a cisgender woman. My name is Alex, as you may have noticed. Fun fact about me: my husband’s name is also Alex. So, clearly, I am very aware that our first name is a unisex name. But I’m also very aware that most people’s default assumption is that someone named Alex is male. Even with my pronouns listed in my email signature, I get email replies addressed to “Mr. Harrington.” (To be entirely fair, I also get email replies addressed to “Alexandria,” since my institutional Outlook listing uses “Alexandra” instead of “Alex.”) Also, for a few months after I got married, some people who knew my husband’s name called me “Mrs. [Husband’s last name]” even though I frequently made jokes about how I didn’t change my last name only because paperwork would be a nightmare if we both had the same first AND last names. Honestly, none of these things bothered me very much, because I don’t really care if people think I prefer “Mr.” over “Mrs.” or that my first name has an “i” in it, or that I took my husband’s last name. However, this is not all about me. It can be very upsetting, for example, for a trans or genderfluid person to be referred to as the incorrect gender, or for a woman in a same-sex marriage to be assumed to have taken her spouse’s last name.

The only point I have here is really just that we should all commit to paying attention. My rule of thumb has always been to address someone in an email however they signed their last email to me. This has also unfailingly helped me navigate issues like whether someone prefers to be called by their first name or “Dr. Last Name.” If I don’t have that option (I haven’t received an email from them before; they didn’t sign their email; I’m communicating in a different medium) I default to gender-neutral language whenever possible and address them by first name, risking informality over choosing the wrong title (Mr., Ms., Mrs., Dr., etc).

This is the first step of the conversation. In the past few days alone, I’ve heard or read people arguing over things like, “Jonathan van Ness identifies as non-binary, you can’t say ‘him’!” when he has gone on record as preferring he/him but being fine with she/her or they/them pronouns. It also seems like every week or so, I see another discussion of how “they” can’t be a singular pronoun, even though it has been in use that way for ages. (If you need an example, ask yourself where an unidentified person is going. Didn’t it feel natural to say, “Where are they going?”) If we start by paying attention to what others want to be called (whether that’s “Rob” versus “Robert” or “they” instead of “he” or “she”) we can move toward better understanding for everyone.

So, happy belated International Pronouns Day to all!

“One: Librarians Are Not Wearing Enough Hats”

If you’re familiar with Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life,” you might recognize this joke. For the uninitiated, here’s the relevant clip, (less than two minutes), but I’ll explain. In a boardroom, there is a report being given about a team’s findings on the meaning of life thus far, and it starts with, “One: people aren’t wearing enough hats.” It goes on to be philosophical and I won’t ruin the rest of the joke because they tell it better than I ever could, but suffice it to say that I’ve been thinking about hats a lot lately.

I mean “hats” in the metaphorical sense, where they are equated with discrete jobs. I’ve been trying on a lot of these hats recently, because I have found a lot of opportunities to do things that are not in the traditional jurisdiction of a librarian.

I’ve been interviewing applicants to our MD program. I enjoy it because I get to talk to a diverse group of very intelligent, personable, and driven young people who want to pursue a very challenging and rewarding career in medicine. The college benefits because I am helping them identify the applicants who are most likely to succeed not only as students but as doctors, finding qualities such as empathy, integrity, and tenacity in addition to their academic and service achievements.

Proctoring exams is another opportunity I’ve recently accepted. The library provides an ideal space for taking exams, and it takes little time and effort for me to set up a space for an exam-taker and ensure that their test-taking conditions are met.

I’ll be wearing three hats at once tonight when I combine my hobby of running, my employment at Penn State Hershey, and my position as a urology resident’s spouse, to participate in a 5K for prostate cancer awareness with a very large team that includes most of the urology department. I mention them specifically because while this activity may seem the least related to my librarian role, of these examples, it might be the closest, since I am the library’s liaison to all the surgical specialties. I doubt we’ll discuss their research needs on our three-mile trek, but making the connections is important, however you do it.

I’m not counting various committees I’ve joined, because I do think that, for example, being on the Diversity Committee is a part of library work, because I’m representing our library there and bringing diversity matters back to the library to integrate them into our resources and services. Being in the Group for Women in Medicine and Science strengthens the partnership the library already has with that group, and I am, again, representing the library there.

I know I’m not unusual in this hat-wearing regard: most librarians do “non-library” things in the course of their work. So I’m not arguing that we don’t wear enough of these hats, despite the Python quote (in fact, a lot of us probably have to juggle too many hats), but I am pointing out that wearing them gets the library’s face out there and shows that we are just as integrated into the fabric of the college (or other institutions you may be a part of or partnered with) as any other department.

What fun, non-library-specific “hats” do you love to wear?

Am I Productive or Just Busy?

Since I’m new to medical libraries / academic medical centers this year, my summer takes a slightly different shape from what I’m used to. We get waves of new users starting at the end of June when the new residents show up, then a new group (nursing, PAs, etc.) every few weeks or so until we also get new undergrad students when the rest of the university does. So we still get the cycle of, “Summer is here; I can finally get everything done; wait, where did the summer go?” but it’s condensed. Late July feels like summer outside but like September in the library!

So I was thinking about how college librarians tend to think of summer as this magical time when we “won’t be busy” and can “get things done.”

I started thinking about this several years ago, when I was just starting to pick up bigger projects, earn more responsibility, present at conferences, etc. Everyone was always talking about how busy they were, and how tiring and stressful it could be, and that they couldn’t get anything done because they were so busy.

Wait… if you’re busy, shouldn’t that mean that you’re getting things done?

Well, no. This may seem obvious, but for confirmation, let’s turn to our good friend, the OED:

  • Busy, adj. “Occupied with or concentrating on a particular activity; actively engaged; doing something that engrosses the attention.”
  • Productive, adj. “Having the quality of producing something, typically through effort or work; that produces, esp. some significant amount or result; creative, generative”

So being busy (without being productive) really is a problem. Playing Sudoku or binge-watching “Stranger Things” counts as “busy.” But to be “productive,” I need to actually be getting things done… with the added caveat that they should be things that need to get done, like research, writing, answering reference questions, teaching classes, etc.

Whenever I catch myself about to say, “I’m so busy!” or “What a busy day I had today,” I stop and ask myself, am I busy or am I actually productive? Ideally, I’ll be able to say “productive” more often than not, and it feels so much more satisfying than saying I’m just busy. Everyone has days where they keep spinning their wheels and nothing gets done. Maybe the internet goes out and prevents you from getting anything done, or there are a lot of little fires to put out. And that’s okay. The goal is to have more actually-productive days than just-busy days.

How you go about making that a reality is, ultimately, up to you. There are as many systems for organization and task/time management as there are people. I, for example, combine the forces of Google calendar, Outlook, and bullet journalling to create a monstrosity of planning that intimidates most who see it. However, when I have too much on my plate, or can’t focus for one reason or another, or have had too many “just-busy” days and not enough “actually-productive” days lately, I condense everything into one Post-It note with five things I really need to buckle down and get done that day. (It’s worth mentioning that I usually combine work and home tasks on Post-It days… for example, one day this week I had this Post-It: “Outline conference proposal; edit ACRLog post; meeting; clean cat litter; mail rent check.”) But this won’t work for everyone, so if you don’t already have a way to keep yourself productive, there are a ton of systems for you to try.

I also use other strategies, like the dedicated Spotify playlist I listen to if I’m writing or editing, getting up and taking a walk, and occasionally when I really need to get something written, Write or Die, which I found thanks to NaNoWriMo a few years ago… you set your own parameters (amount of time, how much needs to be written, and the consequences (like annoying sounds) or rewards (like photos of cute puppies)).

Better bloggers than myself have touched on this topic before right here at ACRLog, so I recommend checking out When Busy Leads to Block; Self-Care: Focusing on You; to consider the difference between busy and productive in the context of meetings, A World with No Meetings?!; and one of the posts that got me thinking about this topic several years ago with the sentence, “Busy-ness is just another social competition,” Lost Time Is Never Found.

What techniques work for you? What have you tried and found wasn’t a good fit for you?