All posts by Angela Rathmel

Silent Fireworks, HRC, and #ALAAC2017

Battling summer sinobronchitis — not allergies as it turns out — certainly puts a damper on conference travel.  It has also contributed to feeling less than celebratory leading up to the Independence Day holiday. The fact that July 4th fell on a Tuesday made celebrating all the more awkward.  This year I noticed recirculated articles advocating  silent fireworks which seemed an excellent alternative given the current mood, and certainly spares animals (and the rest of us) the anxiety.  Alternatively, quiet bursts of colorful light seem to aptly juxtapose my idyllic reminiscence of this holiday with the grief and frustration I’ve felt about the state of my country in the past year.

Similar highs and lows marked my experience of ALA Annual in Chicago the weeks prior.  I always hope, perhaps naively, that conferences will both reassure and challenge me as a professional.  These competing emotions are familiar companions to learning or undertaking anything enormous or new, and I can usually always find something new at ALA. This year there were only a few glimmers as far as programming and my usual professional networking.  I got much more out of the professional-social networking I experienced both online and  in serendipitous face-to-face meetings.

One particularly spectacular session I attended gave an overview of how libraries are supporting researchers’ text and data mining needs from both the licensing and technical ends.  While the session also had a good balance of presentation and discussion, I still left feeling like a whole pre-conference could be devoted to this topic.  The terrifyingly relevant session, Hacking the Web of Science data?…, also had me hanging on every word and  fighting the familiar existential dread.  Eamon Duede, executive director of Knowledge Lab & Metaknowledge Research Network at the University of Chicago,  analyzed particular combinations within the Web of Science haystack to discover patterns in the attention research gets versus the disruption it causes.  He found that big teams of researchers, who get a lot of attention and funding, aren’t the ones with disruptively new discoveries.  He also noted patterns that show the majority of biomedical funding goes to helping address lower-level societal suffering, rather than targeting society’s more critical ills.

On the networking side, I joined a social gathering of those interested in FOLIO development. In addition to free craft beer and grilled cheese shooters (brilliant!), I got to talk to a wide range of colleagues, from friends working very closely with FOLIO functionality, to meeting others with no idea what FOLIO is.  At an ACRL University Libraries Section social hour,  I met and talked shop with several very cool Arizonans, and got a tip on the “wild librarian party” underway in the ALA presidential suite.

On a more professional note, I had a successful discussion with one of the four big deal publishers with whom my library will be negotiating in the coming year.  I had intended to arrange this meeting in advance, but time got away from me.  So, I was impressed that I got two reps to sit down with me on the spot and have a productive discussion on some pretty complex issues.  Although it was just handshakes and elevator speeches to three other publishers,  I navigated the exhibits floor with a refreshing confidence for a change.

One of the more disappointing events, unfortunately, was the highly anticipated closing keynote by Hillary Rodham Clinton.  I decided to extend my trip and work in a visit to see my dad in southern Illinois where an extra overnight stay would be more manageable.  This meant a three-hour drive through farmland highways.  Since the weather and 55 mph roads permitted,  I had the windows down and filled up on the olfactory memories of my fourths of July spent here as a kid.  Perfectly timing my arrival back in Chicago just three minutes before the keynote start spared me the long line and still offered a pretty good seat up front.

Clinton’s keynote certainly sparked emotions, laughter, cheers, and even a bit of dancing.  Her calls to “fight to defend truth and reason, evidence and facts” were reflexively encouraging, but the rest was nothing I’d not already heard top-name speakers say to librarians before.  Given the brevity of the talk and without Q&A (but I get it), I just found it lacked the engagement and inspiration I had imagined. Call it silent fireworks, I guess just seeing the “first woman candidate of a major national party” in real life was apparently all there was to it.  I left asking myself, how did that even matter?

Looking back,  I am realizing how this naive disappointment and my subsequent desire for an quieter 4th of July is nothing noble or humble.  In fact, I suspect it illustrates my own privileged denial and fears more than anything.  What’s worse, I know it perpetuates inaction.  With the help of my social networks, I’m impatiently trying to move beyond just thinking on this.  I do see ever deeper glimpses of privilege and the problem that presents to my professional values.  For starters, though, I’m pretty sure my introverted conference fatigue on day three is privileged. I haven’t unpacked many good practical actions in response yet.  But, I must now, knowing that this spark has been ignited for some time.

 

Confessions on Owning and Honing Your Weaknesses

The month of June marks the ramp up to fiscal close in my neck of the library wood.  In the otherwise quiet summer of academia there is this corner of buzzing frenzy. Staff work though last minute orders, pay invoices, troubleshoot problems, answer questions about the various statuses of the cash flow, and pull and prepare data to estimate a new year’s allocations.  In my role, I mostly coordinate various inter-dependencies of the workflows and people that must align for these numbers to be properly reconciled. Thankfully for all I’m not responsible for the number-crunching.

You see, I’ve never had the intuitive ease with numbers accountants, or it seems an acquisitions librarian, is expected to have.  I prefer to visualize and think around things rather than operate in the linear calculus that numbers require.  My analytical mind loves to think about cause and effect, and even the many complex inversions and formulas that produce usable data and its visualization. But producing those inversions on the spot, even in simple arithmetic, doesn’t come easy for me.  It explains why I was always terrible at timed math tests, but loved algebra and geometry.  I struggle with sewing patterns that instruct from the inside out, but love cooking, where I can follow strict instructions and play with them to my taste.

When I worked in serials, calculations took on linguistic obscurity when it came to publication frequencies and title changes.  “Is twice a month semi-monthly or bi-monthly?” Does continues mean what a title it used to be? Or what it will be going forward?”

And to this day, when gardening,  “Do annuals mean I plant them every year, or that they come back every year?!”

What gets me in trouble in all of this is my strong preference to operate intuitively and efficiently. This means I am often impatient with the extra time it takes me to slowly think through cost comparisons and reports. I know that extra time is necessary for me, though, to make sure it is done right.  Understanding of my own strengths and weaknesses in this way allows me to recognize the need to rely on other tools, systems, and people.  Relying on the strengths of others is not an excuse to avoid your weaknesses. In fact, identifying and using your particular strengths can be a tool to overcome weaknesses, and it can mean talking about those vulnerabilities in more empowering ways.

This important skill is perhaps most practically applied in job interviews, where some variation of “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” is no doubt asked. The best interviewers do this using behavioral questioning or appreciative inquiry techniques, which often ask for examples that demonstrate direct personal experience with particular skill or trait.  My first ever job interview was as a senior in high school, and I had no previous work experience.  So I had to answer questions about what I find difficult when working with others using only my school experience.  Thinking of various show choirs and musicals, where I had to practice and perform with my ex-boyfriend (among other  characters), I answered:

“Sometimes I have a hard time separating my personal life from my work.”

*crickets chirping*

Surprise! I did not get the job.  Not knowing a lot about myself at 17, I failed to realize my strength as a performer was precisely the fact that I actually can and do work with others, even those with whom ‘it’s complicated’, probably better than the average person.   Even though inside it was a hormonally-charged tornado of difficult emotion, I could summon my inner Olivia Newton John and nail Grease’s  “You’re the One That I Want” number with a smile on my face. With each interview I got a little stronger at framing my skills.  When interviewing for a waitress position, in which I did have some experience, I shared my thoughts about an unreasonably disgruntled customer, but described how I worked foremost to best meet that customer’s need.

As I’ve learned more about how my own strengths help my weaknesses, I know I thrive in project management roles because there is a framework to breakdown milestones, tasks, and timelines.  I thrive on learning to use new tools because they help me be more efficient and accurate.  Perhaps most importantly, I rely the strengths of the people with whom I work.  What is painstaking for one person is often the effortless strength of another who is happy to be asked to contribute what they do best.  When dealing with numbers, as I must inevitably do in the day-to-day work of acquisitions and resource sharing, I strategize (a strength of mine) to build in the extra time to sit with, play with, and picture data (my analytic strength).  I am constantly using my learning strength not just to find new tools that can help me, but to know more about myself and others.  I also have an individual relational strength that allows me to know and connect with other people and the unique strengths they offer.

In my seventeenth year experiencing and third year overseeing the fiscal close, I’m putting my anxiety around the numbers in better perspective. I’ve come to see that working through vulnerabilities and getting help where you need it is not abnormal at all. It’s what a responsible adult person would do.

Please tell me your favorite job interview story!  What would you do over, if you could, from a position of strength?

 

 

“Just…why?”: Coming to terms with ambiguity, resilience, and acceptance

As a former electronic resources librarian, along with what I’ll call my own unique set of life experiences, I’ve found the practice of radical acceptance has served me well.  Acceptance as an ongoing practice is not optimism or permissiveness, but healthily recognizing how and when to let go, and knowing that acceptance is not the same as approval.  This practice comes in handy, especially in life’s lemon-giving moments. I’ve mentioned a few  from the technical side of library work in previous posts.  Certainly the current sociopolitical climate is not at a loss for examples of this either.

When these “Seriously?” moments occur in my job, I am reminded of another idea, comfort with ambiguity, which frequently appears as a desirable skill in job advertisements, along with its companion resilience.  Both have been on my mind since attending a recent ACRL presentation,  Resilience, Grit, and Other Lies: Academic Libraries and the Myth of Resiliency.  As ubiquitous as both ambiguity and resilience are in my field, this presentation reminded me how poorly defined, misunderstood, and problematic they are when idealized professionally.  So I was thinking about how to unpack this concept related to my own academic librarianship and how a personal practice of acceptance (without approval) might play a helpful role.

It seems in the everyday ambiguity, as well as ambivalent with the same root, often describe something squishier.  For example, ambivalent is often misused to describe someone who is passively undecided or not invested in a particular outcome, rather than actually feeling multiple different ways about a thing. Similarly, ambiguity is often synonymous with an amorphous state of confusion than specific set of circumstances that make a solution unclear.

While inexactness and its synonyms might reflect this murky spirit, isn’t ambiguity really only inexact because it can’t be just one thing?  The fact that it can still be exactly many things is what I find interesting and overlooked in the experience of ambiguity.  Recognizing the possibility of multiple interpretations as specific, distinct avenues for action is especially important for efficiency and service in e-resources management.

Here’s a very basic example working with and a technical problem solving of e-resource access, which I repeatedly encountered when working with publishers’ technical support:

Me: Hi, My name is [me] from [my institution]. We have a current subscription to [your journal] but we’re not able access content online.

Tech Support:  What’s your institution’s [subscriber number, IP address, and other details]?

Me: *gives details*

Tech Support:  OK, it should be working now.

And that was it.  No explanation, no assurance it would not happen again, no way to plan workflow to prevent this very regular disruption.  Good problem solvers who thrive on the details of the problems and the solutions will no doubt feel frustrated and confused by this.  But the situation is no more a mystery than it is comfortable.  There likely is an exact cause for this problem. It’s just the cause is likely multiplicitous, complex, and in most cases less important than the fact that the problem is now fixed. So we move on.  In responding to the given ambiguous situation, we must accept the priorities of the current moment rather than the past or future.  This mindfulness of the present moment is a key part of the practice of acceptance.

Change may the new normal, but comfortable with ambiguity?

I think these tendencies show up in e-resources librarianship in particular because positions of this type developed from those which focused on the exacting and predictable realm of attention to detail.  Certainly the evolution of libraries content and services necessitates characterizing those details as now really messy and inexact.  But position descriptions mistakenly place this ambiguity in the context of a personal quality when it is really a quality of the environment.  To use such a problematic word, and to prefer people who are comfortable in that state, doesn’t say anything about how people should actually respond in these situations.  Expecting comfort in ambiguity falsely sets people up to stay in that state longer than may be necessary.

And this is where the problem of resilience comes in.  As the ACRL presentation I mentioned notes, research shows resilience often normalizes oppression of marginalized groups.  Systemically, I wonder how resilience hinders innovation, preventing us from answering the question “what can we stop doing?”.


So since, as a colleague once reminded me, the privileged have to be uncomfortable to recognize oppression, it is useful to discard a preference for comfort in the face of ambiguity.  Resilience or grit may help us more than comfort, as long as it is focused in the direction of action.  It should not be the normal or preferred quality of an individual professionally.

The idea of resilience as oppression also reminded me of another “What fresh h*!! is this?” experience working as an elementary music teacher.  At one of the two inner-city schools I was assigned, the music room was the stage in the gym’s auditorium. A burlap-like stage curtain was the only barrier between my music classes and the screaming, sneaker-squeaking, ball-bouncing, whistle-blowing activity of PE.  I often preface my sharing of this experience with disbelief that this was a reality to describe – it seemed so obviously nonsensical and in need of a solution.  So, I once spent a week’s planning periods reworking the entire school schedule so that all teachers still got their planning period during elective classes, but in a way that PE and music didn’t overlap.  Working out those complexities was frustrating and certainly not comfortable.  At the same time, I was driven to resist normalizing the resilience expected of the situation.  I knew this was more than a personal preference of the [should-be librarian] music teacher than the institution was leading me to believe.  Before leaving this job, I don’t think I ever gave these alternatives to my principal, but succeeded in getting a new curtain for the stage. When I noted to the principal that the change didn’t block sound as I’d hoped, I’ll never forget her response.

“Why do you care, since you won’t be here any longer?”

On one hand her response demonstrated everything that’s wrong with institutional resiliency.  At the same time I can also see it as an honest statement of my own realm of control.  When work and life inevitably boil down to “Just…what? Why is this normal?”, a practice of acceptance means neither normalizing nor pursuing crazy to find resolution.

The circus has left town

Image CC BY 2.0 with attribution:  matthew_pennell “The circus has left town”

If there is a proactive path through ambiguity or resilience, then I believe the skill we’re really after is how to recognize, reassess, and negotiate our power to influence and control.  This requires a constant give and take of our experience of that control as anxiety or relief.  It means exactly both action and letting go and not necessarily having to choose between the two.  When requiring choice, it means knowing how not to wrestle very long in the choosing.

My Peeps, My Conference #acrl2017

Feeling so fortunate for the opportunity to attend ACRL in Baltimore, especially to meet my fellow ACRLoggers face-to-face!   With a plethora of conferences and development opportunities, it can be hard to justify attendance at a conference most people perceive as out of scope for a technical services librarian.  In a technical service-focused session I attended,  one librarian introduced herself by qualifying for the audience that her primary library association was ALCTS (Association of Library Collections and Technical Services).  I too have found some excellent development resources in the ALCTS community and established some professional scholarship there.  But  I’ve never felt my particular brand of technical services quite fit here.   This librarian’s certainty in her professional community had me pondering my ACRL conference experience and what sets it apart. [cue: David Byrne*]

How did I get here?
What is my conference?
Who is my community?

Most colleagues think I’m crazy, but I love ALA!  The community and the conference.  I love the size.  I love the ability to experience perspectives from all different kinds of libraries and all different parts of a library.  I love the chance to talk to vendors and (now, as a parent) the abundance of affordable souvenirs.  As a librarian responsible for budget matters, though, the timing of this conference becomes problematic, as it usually falls during our fiscal close.  So, although its provides good service opportunities, and the broadest professional network, this is not usually my conference.

NASIG (former acronym for North American Serials Interest Group) was probably the first specifically-focused professional community that really spoke my language.  I could dive deeper into world of serials librarianship, vendors, and systems in order to solve real work problems.  Similarly, as I became an e-resources librarian, ER&L was (and continues to be) one of my favorite professional communities for those same reasons.  Besides the added perk of being in beautiful Austin, TX each year, it also offers that user experience focus I am always seeking as a bridge from technical to public services. Both these communities see themselves as part of something bigger, despite the specialized name and audience they tend to attract.  Even so, the familiarity of a such specialized-focused conferences can at times be a crutch for broadening my perspective.

Hard as it may be to justify to my peeps here at home, I’m pretty sure my conference, my community is ACRL.  I say that not just because I blog here, and it’s more than just because I work in an academic library.  I do confess, it is in part resonant with Carla Hayden (ACRL Keynote and Librarian of Congress) declaring: “You all have the hippest conferences!”

ACRL Baltimore was only my second ACRL conference.  I first feel in love with ACRL 2015 in Portland, realizing it has a similar and unmistakeable “part of something big” feel as ALA, but with a greater chance of running into people I actually know.  I like ACRL because the language of research and academia is both familiar and challenging; the user focus I crave is meaningful and accessible; and I am often stretched in other areas, like leadership, political advocacy, and transforming shame into action.  I think (also like ER&L) I appreciate how this community of librarians challenge the norm.  As StevenB wrote of 2011’s conference, ACRL takes risks. Carla Hayden also recognized this, noting with appreciation that the conference was kept in Baltimore given all that was happening within this community.

ACRL librarians seem risk takers in their own right. They want to make a difference in what is otherwise perceived as an unchanging, institutionalized academia.  This year’s call for proposals asked for representation from the technical services perspective, perhaps challenging the perception that ACRL is overly-focused on scholarly communication and instruction.  Part of justifying my own attendance alongside all the other faculty who more obviously call this their conference their home means giving fresh eyes to how these issues matter in technical services and visa versa.

My strongest takeaways from this year’s conference were not scholarly community and instruction, but data analysis and visualization.  Opening keynote speaker, David McCandless, provided interactive, fun, complex, and thought-provoking data visualizations.  He explained why information is beautiful and also necessary at this particular time in our society.  I was surprised that this beauty, even in the most concerning analyses, felt primarily (and strangely) soothing.  That sense of calm resonates with McCandless’ assertion that visualizations allow you to simultaneously absorb and understand massive amounts of information, rather than become overwhelmed by it.  McCandless spoke our language when illustrating how easy and accessible the starting point is to such complex beauty — it begins with questions.  What do I want to know? What data might tell me about that?  What can it reveal?  Building on this keynote, I attended other sessions on communicating real value with data.   More than just making pictures from data we are asked to collect, I saw how concerted, beautiful design in visualization allows us to ask new questions.

I found “my peeps” are the ones always asking and welcoming questions.  ACRL allowed us to inquire a lot about equity and inclusion in our academic spaces.  Sessions and speakers offered perspective on this from the lens of scholarly access, to how we meet diverse instruction needs, to how we understand biases in our own scholarship, to service to our patrons, and in our personal and professional relationships.  Roxanne Gay, gave an amazing keynote and Q&A session to challenge my thinking on this.  Others, especially (I worried about) those chastised by #acrl2017 twitter afterwards, will hopefully see that challenge themselves and remain open to keep seeking too.

While uncomfortable, sure, that chastising (and don’t miss this other recap  too) demonstrates how the ACRL community challenges not just the institutional norm, but each other, individually.  I just find that refreshing.  It is a reminder that we definitely aren’t perfect, but we are always, must always be learning.

We do honor and openly appreciate each other publicly as well!  “Your peeps” was how final keynote speaker Carla Hayden acknowledged the various applause and shout-outs librarians received in the Q&A portion of her keynote.   So refreshingly approachable and energizing, her keynote challenged me to be more aware, to remember to explore the “more to everyone’s story”.  How she described the key factors motivating her to accept the position as Librarian of Congress reminded me of the necessity for transformation, while remaining true to ourselves and our service mission as librarians.

There is so much more to share from this conference — on technical services and public services interdependencies, on interlibrary loan and SciHub, and on important leadership and organizational management issues related to resilience, gender, and innovation. Watch for another post (either here or or on my own blog ) on these soon!

*Corrected misspelling with sincere apologies to the singer and his fans for the editorial slight.

On Leadership: Doing it Right, but Dancing

Lots of things leading up to a post on leadership lately, such as contemplating my own privilege, planning strategic priorities, and experiencing the challenges of parenting tweenagers. But mostly, I think this post is in typical response to evaluation time, which requires me to describe competencies and expectations of leadership, both for managers and  for staff and faculty without management or supervision responsibilities.

What I hate most about leadership conversations is what I see as an arbitrary division between leadership and management. I particularly dislike the adage that addresses these differences as:

Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing.

I don’t believe in this division, probably because when I was as a manager, I did all kinds of things wrong, and as a leader I never feel like there is a clear right answer to things. My personal philosophy of leadership is more fluid. Ultimately, I believe we all practice a little of both.  As a librarian, especially, this comes from my observation that library managers and leaders typically come up from the ranks of library workers. In my experience, this places a high value on skills of librarianship over the particular skills of leadership, or in the management of library process over the relational management of people or teams. I admit this is perhaps just as oversimplified as the former adage, but does help me with a point.

The danger I see in the phenomenon of manager-heavy leaders in libraries is a tendency to devalue inspiring and motivating aspects of leadership.  There is also the risk of micromanagement when scaling effective management of processes to people. When I was a staff member in the ranks, I felt the biggest issue of leadership and management had to do with opportunities for development, organizational communication, and curbing supervisory micromanagement. As a leader, I still hear the call for better communication and less micromanagement, but at the same time there remains a preference for managers who are leaders and experts in doing, and a general distaste for too much touchy-feely inspiring and motivation. Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Certainly people skills and leadership skills come just as the practical librarian skills come, with both learning and doing.  This has been true for me, especially with respect to gaining confidence in my relational side, improving my communication, and managing stress.  I also recognize my strengths in learning and analytical thinking, which plays out in a constant cycle of reflection, learning, and self-correction. A necessary part learning from doing is how it prompts a realization for development and how we make time for meeting that need.

Beyond demonstrating the value of leadership development, it is extremely challenging to build in time for this. Especially as leaders come from within the ranks, rarely is there a swift and seamless transition of duties.  It is often hard to let go of former responsibilities.  Not only are we increasingly asked to do more with less, but many find the certainty of former tasks a necessary coping mechanism during the change and uncertainty of a new leadership role. Yet some of the most excellent leaders I’ve known can be so heavily bogged down with their doing that they unintentionally give themselves and their staff the perception that they are too busy to bother with people-concerns, or for training that does not appear directly tied to doing. Finding a better balance remains an imperative for doing the right thing by the people I lead. But, I know the solution consists of something more than just good delegation.

In a Covey training I was once tasked to put my personal philosophy into a single word, for which I chose dance.  This word — and I went a step further with a theme song — best reflects the ebb and flow of leadership for me. Doing it right, but dancing. This helps me see leadership as a more nebulous evolution between structured intention and carving out time (choreography), learning and development (feeling the music), and the need to just do something (dance!).  I’m learning that you can’t take away too much doing from leadership.  Staff don’t respect it, and library leaders and managers don’t function well as leaders without it.  So, I’m trying to find good ways to facilitate managers and staff to embrace delegation of the doing, nurture an ongoing development of strengths and weaknesses, while giving plenty of a space for dancing.

What is your current leadership/management philosophy?  How do you, or your leaders and managers, balance doing things right and doing right by people?

Please share theme songs if you’ve got ‘em!
Want more on leadership? See http://acrlog.org/tag/leadership/