Seven years later

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 Ian McCullough, Physical Sciences Librarian and Associate Professor of Bibliography at the University of Akron.

In 2012 I had the distinct pleasure of being a First Year Academic Librarian blogger for ACRLog. As part of this “where are they now” series, let’s talk about the years since I last blogged here.

One of the reasons I originally wanted to blog is I had absolutely no professional network as a new librarian. Librarianship was a second career and I worked in a lab while taking courses online at night. We had class meetups in Nashville, but the department was in Knoxville and things like collaboration, mentoring, and research opportunities were a step removed from campus. ACRLog got me the attention of people I still call friends. As a new and rootless academic librarian on the tenure trail, the blogging experience was incredibly helpful to me.

Since I stopped blogging in 2013, a lot of things have happened at University of Akron, many for the bad. Our enrollment has dropped by about 10,000 students total which caused predictable Survivor-style winnowing of the workforce via layoffs, not filling positions, and buyouts. There are about half the library faculty as when I arrived and a liaison system seems unrealistic given staffing levels that cannot support the number of subject librarians one would need to do the idea justice. I personally am liaison to nine departments, about 120 faculty and around 1,900 students. I remember being at a conference and someone saying they had 700 students they were liaison for and the room gasped. I was jealous.

I have had, as of now, five university presidents, three provosts, and two library deans. There were many retirements, one of which was my direct supervisor who retired at the end of 2015. I was asked if I would be interim head of the Science & Technology Library, which I agreed to and began in January 2016. A colleague who was more experienced turned down the opportunity, and I was the only other faculty in the branch at that moment. I took the job and had absolutely no reduction in my liaison librarian duties as physical sciences librarian.

I had more than five years of management experience going into the job, so the mechanical parts of management (budgeting and HR stuff) were pretty easy. But it was difficult to leave the faculty bargaining unit, my spot on Faculty Senate, and in general go over to “the other side”. I maintain that my most significant accomplishments as Interim head of the S&T Library are helping relocate the engineering tutoring program physically within the library and getting snack machines put outside the library entrance so students wouldn’t have to leave the building after hours for food. I believe students are more appreciative of the latter accomplishment. After a calm and relatively successful time in this position, another colleague left library management at University of Akron for library management at Harvard University – a career downgrade I still don’t understand. (Don’t send that email, it’s a joke.) Given the particular personal and professional dynamics of the workgroup, I was offered the opportunity to take over leadership of yet another unit. I accepted and became an assistant dean (“ass dean” of course) in December of 2017. If you are following along at home, this is lab rat to assistant dean in less than five and a half years. At the beginning of this position I had two staff, two contract professionals, and seven faculty librarians as direct reports.

When I took this new role, there was absolutely no reduction in my liaison librarian or interim department head duties. I was, quite simply, doing what had once been three jobs (actually more than three jobs, as the S&T Head had absorbed a third of a job before retirement). Also, I was on the tenure clock trying to produce an appropriate number of articles, presentations, and accomplishments in professional service to meet our promotion benchmarks. In this I was successful – I got tenure and promotion in July 2018. I would be curious to learn of other tenure track assistant deans who had the position without tenure yet. I gather it’s a very rare occurrence, but is also a sign of how much upheaval was happening at my place of work.

This is when burnout started to set in. I could do the job, or the three jobs, but I could not do the three jobs well. I was spinning plates, putting out fires, and other notable metaphors for spasmodic action. This period really sucked because working hard to be adequate is a poor trade. Department chairs had a group that met regularly and talked about common issues, not so with assistant deans. I felt my social world constrain at work, and being a manager is hard emotional labor. I learned about the fears, difficulties, illnesses, and family situations of my colleagues at a deeper level than I really wanted. Shouldering all that personal grief and pain for everyone was difficult, more so because the universe of people I could talk to about it was so, so small.

I also started having clashes with coworkers – sometimes about performance issues, sometimes about claims unbacked by facts, sometimes about the direction of the university and the library. It was honestly a miserable experience that I stayed in too long because of money (pro-tip – you make extra money in administration) and not wanting to abandon my dean who also has a huge workload. The final breaking point was an interim president seemingly hell-bent on making the worst decision possible, implemented and communicated in the worst and most aggressive way possible. I mulled it over for many months and asked to step down at the end of July 2019. When I told my wife about the decision, in part to apologize because we would be living leaner, she said, “Oh thank God.” The person who knows me best had been wishing for me to get out of the situation for months and was overjoyed.

The classic union song, “Which Side Are You On” was written by Florence Reece in 1931. My dad was an autoworker and union activist and I remember seeing Pete Seeger sing this evergreen tune live in Detroit. To say that unionism is part of my life is an understatement – it’s a bedrock element of my identity. Increasingly, while a dean, I felt that I was on the wrong side. The university response to economic crisis was, to me, authoritarian and inexplicable, explanations didn’t make sense and discussion was not welcome. The herky-jerky management led to a lot of wasted effort around the university as plans had to be discarded almost as fast as you could attempt implementation. If you do go into academic leadership, you are carrying water for the upper leadership and their decisions – you don’t get to hide when you disagree and leaving the position is the most honest thing you can do if you don’t like what’s happening. I think the only thing I really miss is the occasional (and very flattering) head hunter emails I used to get. Right after I left management, we hired a new university president who is, so far, “pinch yourself, am I dreaming” good. His wizardly move? Running the university like other institutions.

Since leaving management I have become union liaison for University Libraries and was then elected to the Akron-AAUP executive committee. Guess I just like being in the middle of things. I’ve been able to refocus on my librarianship, which I only had three years to figure out before taking on managerial duties, and reconnect with faculty friends. I’ve been able to refocus on previous projects I had to drop before – like learning more about data. I am happier and get more enjoyment from my job. Ultimately, my stint as an assistant dean didn’t suit my values and that internal conflict started leaking out in my disposition. I don’t think the state of Ohio or the university is well-served by eliminating traditional majors and steering students into class delivery modes, and possibly majors, they don’t really prefer. Right now there’s a risk of universities outsourcing their teaching to a cyborg nightmare of Pearson, Cengage, and Blackboard due to financial desperation. That is a future worth fighting against.

Which side are you on?

Invisible Disabilities, Self Care, and a Generous Heart

This has all been said before, and better than by me. Not to bury the lede – practice self care and have a generous heart.

One of the insights I’ve gained as I’ve grown older, is how deeply and comprehensively injuries and illness can effect someone. Or non medical issues – the regular ups and downs of life. Especially on the job.

A few weeks ago a friend called out a scholar for not caring about their research. The presentation was bad, they were unenthusiastic and, frankly, it sounds like it sucked. It sucked for my friend to sit through it. Maybe the presenter doesn’t care, and if a presenter doesn’t care it’s hard for anyone else to care. But I kept defending this unknown person, thinking maybe they were doing the absolute best they could and we just don’t know what is going on.

What if they have plantar fasciitis and standing is painful? Or if they have a bulging disc between their vertebra that is pressing directly on a nerve? What if they suffer depression – that wounds so many, kills some, and hides in plain sight?

What if they have lost someone?

What if they have an autoimmune disorder that is causing a cascade of seemingly unconnected problems that just makes them tired and miserable? Maybe their doctor thinks they are a hypochondriac.



Muscular sclerosis.


Prescription drug side effects.

Nonacceptance of gender identity.

A belittling, tyrannical supervisor.

Their child is being bullied.


Marital problems.

Financial troubles.

Sick family.


You get the idea.

There are a nearly infinite number of reasons someone might be flat or uninspired that have nothing to do with their passion for a subject. Personal matters and illness can intersect in ways both traumatic and invisible that harm our work performance – and I mean the affective state we try to project.

As I age and endure some of these issues I usually choose not to share my troubles with coworkers. I imagine they are doing the same – the best they can. (EDIT – a friend notes this suggests that people normally and perhaps should hide their problems. She is right, and that is not what I wanted to communicate. I was speaking to my tendency to not share. Sharing of problems can be therapeutic and I hope people can seek help and not be isolated by the problems they face.) I  have had to become better at self care to combat the little aches that accrue as my birthdays pile up. I get off lightly and I never will know what others are enduring. Maybe you are healthy and happy in your job – awesome! But please have a generous heart and at least assume others are doing their best within the framework of their life. And of course, practice self care to the extent you can.

First Year Wrap

So on July 23rd, the 2012-13 first year academic experience bloggers got this from blogging dynamo Maura Smale, “If you’d like to write a summing up post sometime this summer, that would be great –” . This was good news; I did want to summarize my experiences for new librarians before the school year. I had the mental outline of a post and then came my first retention narrative (warning, sound).  I thought at that point it would be easy to do what I had been doing the first year – knock out a blog post over a few slow info shifts. How very much things have changed.

Last year set the stage for a much, much busier second year. My outreach efforts generated many, many more instruction sessions. – all of which had to be prepared from scratch. My service duties had also ballooned – I’m now on two university committees, and have completed two faculty searches. Finally, I’m gearing up to turn my research into research products. In other words what I thought was a deep end introduction to my job turned out to be relatively easy in retrospect.

Failing in the “Summer” part of the request, and having rewritten this a couple times, my take home from the first year is that my liaison work gave my subject departments the confidence to gift me with a success problem. I didn’t expect the workload of this semester, but I had some wise advice about setting boundaries and sticking to them early that has made this year manageable. I told people early I couldn’t do document delivery, much to the lament of six departments worth of graduate students. But if I scanned articles regularly, I wouldn’t have time to plan a gallery opening or perhaps hatch an open access initiative – activities which should benefit Akron more in the long run.

So meet everyone, make connections, and be persistent. Not everyone appreciates my “just barge in on them” method of liaison librarianship but most do and it is effective, especially for the lab sciences where you should have no expectation of ever seeing a faculty member in the library. If my first year on the tenure track is at all typical your work week and your home life will become increasingly blurred… he typed during his holiday vacation.

Ebooks Are not Electronic Journals

As a physical science librarian I know journals are the primary form of scholarly communication in the sciences. While the particle physicists have arXiv and some of the cool-kids will tout non-traditional knowledge transfer though social media, my chemists use journals and are pretty comfortable with that. Of course, electronic journals are greatly preferred – it’s easy to print and you can grab articles off the web and file them away for the rest of your career. No photocopying or waiting – and your graduate students can practically live in the lab.

This shouldn’t be news to any academic librarian (really, it shouldn’t be). But what might be news is the same scientists are not nearly as interested in ebooks. Ebooks take a text, put it online and allow scientists to access the information utilizing an Internet browser. So why have I had users asking me to purchase physical copies of ebooks in our collection?

Some of the problem is platform – by which I mean Ebrary. Most scientists don’t read articles online; they download them, print them, and then read. Most of the science monographs I purchase are edited works on a topic and each chapter is, effectively, like a journal article in terms of length and topic coverage. Ebrary presents the electronic text as a book and only allows users to download 60 pages as a PDF. This is a problem if you want a large review article or more than one chapter; then the ebook is suddenly less useful then a print book, because you can’t even copy it. When I polled my faculty earlier this year, some said they always prefer ebooks. But among those who conditionally preferred an ebook, all of them preferred chapters arranged as PDFs with unlimited downloads. The actual ebook – an electronic text meant to be viewed only on a screen – has very little support. So Ebrary is the main option I have for purchasing ebooks, but my patrons like Ebrary’s model the least.

Another platform problem is viewing platform; not everyone has a dedicated electronic reader to make ebooks pleasant and even if you have one, it may be a hassle to view. Ebrary for Kindles and iPads require additional software, but hey – it’s only a 14-16 step process. Without a tablet of some sort, you’re stuck with a laptop screen that cannot comfortably view a whole page at once or a desktop monitor that may be ill suited to reading. My real issue with the variety of experience ebooks provide is it makes your collection decisions inherently classist – your patrons with the wealth to afford a nice tablet have a better experience than your less privileged patrons. Print books have downsides, but using them doesn’t inherently reinforce inequality.

So as beloved as electronic journal are, I just cannot say the same for the ebook. And until the vendor platform offers ebooks my patrons want, I can’t say I’ll be buying many.

The Romanian Patent From Hell

(tl;dr version – tell students to look up this patent if they ever claim, like Thomas Friedman, that “Everything is on Google.”)

A few weeks ago, in my SciFinder key contact role I received this innocuous request:


This is the lowest hanging fruit among my reference requests – click the “Full Text” link, another click to Espacenet, download the full-text, send to graduate student, log the transaction. Read to finish time – under two minutes.

But Espacenet, had a grey font where the “Original document” link resides – the original was not available. Well, that’s sad, but hey – I’m a professional librarian. I found and searched the Romanian patent agency.


I also tried the Derwent Patent Index (through Thomson Reuters for us) and Google Patents – I got an abstract from Derwent, but no full text.

So I invoked the nuclear option – an open question on the Chemical Information Sources Discussion List. This invaluable treasure has taught me well, and I once answered a query off list. But there was some trepidation about asking such a learned cadre of science librarians because, frankly, there might be some easy answer I missed which would make me feel dumb. But I decided this was the best-case scenario because I would learn something; so I asked the group mind.

What came back was ninja-level patent advice, but all for naught –

There are few remaining options – a document delivery service like FIZ AutoDoc or ordering the patent file wrapper of the citing U.S. patent, (RO89171 might be included in the original filing materials). But these services are relatively expensive compared to what we will generally pay, so I would have to kick it back to the user – which feels like defeat.

Yes, I have anthropomorphized a reference request into my nemesis.

This is really the first time I’m staring down a patent retrieval defeat – and it’s chafing a little. But in terms of my duties, I have a collection to analyze, my first convention coming up (cough, cough), and the metastasizing committee responsibilities inherent to the tenure track. Among other things (like the cold call that just eroded 5 minutes of productivity). I don’t think I’m going to “win” this one and I’ve probably spent too much time on it already.

So if you ever need something ungoogleable for a demonstration, trot out Romanian patent 89171 – at least until someone gets around to scanning it.