Things I Didn’t Know I Needed to Know

Hindsight is 20/20, right? In this collaborative post from our ACRLog team, we’re reflecting on the lessons and truths about libraries, librarianship, and higher ed that we wish we had come to understand sooner — the stuff we didn’t know to ask about earlier on in our careers, the stuff we didn’t know that we needed to know — and how our current understanding can perhaps help us to more clearly see the things we need to do differently. 

What’s something you wish someone had told you or that you wish you had asked in a job interview in order to get a clearer picture of the work, institution, or culture? 

[Alex] I wish I had the foresight to ask for more detail about what the tenure process looks like for a librarian, as this was not something I had encountered before. I had the rare opportunity to choose tenure-track or fixed-term when I was hired, and I assumed tenure-track was inherently the “better” choice and did not give it much critical consideration. 

[Hailley] A colleague and I were just talking about this recently – we wished we had asked about what the culture is around start and end times. At my current institution, we have a pretty standard 8:15-4:30 workday (university-wide). Knowing this might not change your mind to take or not to take a job, it is helpful to know what the general rule of thumb is before entering a new institution. 

[Veronica] It’s incredibly important to ask what the organization is doing to ensure their workplace is equitable, inclusive, and accessible. Both the answer, and the way that it is answered are especially important for librarians with marginalized identities, but should be a concern for all librarians. You can usually get a sense of a place by how the people you are talking to react to that question. 

What’s an unwritten rule at your current or past institution(s) or within your area of librarianship that you had to learn as you go?

[Alex] At each institution I’ve worked at, the unwritten rules are mostly workplace culture, processes for the way things are done. My best example is that I have had scheduled reference shifts at both of my librarian jobs, and it is done very differently at each: on a weekly basis vs. six months at a time; in hourly shifts vs. 90-minute shifts; all open hours vs. a six-hour period of the day on weekdays only. It demonstrated to me that not only are types of libraries very different, but so are individual locations. 

[Maura] When I started at my current institution as Instruction Coordinator 14 years ago, I also noted a few things about workplace culture that were perhaps a bit more formal than I expected. Most of my library colleagues dressed up a bit for reference shifts and teaching, and across the college when faculty referred to each other in front of students they tended to use “Professor So and so” rather than first names. The former has definitely changed somewhat since the pandemic though I’m not sure if the latter has.

[Jen] When I moved to my current institution to take on this job almost five years ago, it was my first time in a faculty position. I had already worked in libraries for a long time by that point but always in positions classified as staff. I didn’t take this job because it was classified as faculty; I saw it as a plus, but certainly not the deciding factor. It’s taken me some time to fully grasp what it means to have faculty status in terms of planning my work and organizing my time, as well as in terms of my opportunities and responsibilities–not only of the position itself, but also as a faculty member. Of course, faculty classification while working in a public service-oriented unit and also being an administrator and manager is different from a typical faculty role. But I think this vantage point has given me new perspective on what a position’s classification can mean with respect to autonomy, advocacy, and the like. Having worked from both sides of this coin now, though, I still believe that it is up to us to not only practice and embody the full potential of our roles, but to also challenge it (or, perhaps more accurately, to challenge others’ assumptions and expectations of our roles). Whether because or in spite of classifications, we can play a significant part in making our places in our library and institutional landscapes what we want them to be. 

What’s something simple or fundamental about higher ed, libraries, or your current/past job(s) that you wish you’d understood sooner?

[Hailley] Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how decisions are made. Overtime, and especially as a current middle manager, I can more clearly see the many people above me who might influence, inform, or make a decision. Even if I don’t love a decision, I try to keep in mind the bigger picture and context for that specific decision. 

[Angie]  Absolutely what Hailey points out. I try to share this perspective with others as well.  Another reality I wish I knew sooner is how people in higher ed – from students to faculty to administrators – understand so little about the work of libraries, and how even those who communicate well, it remains a constant endeavor.  I am starting to accept this as work that is never done.

[Jen] I decided to go to library school without much library work experience, really. I had a job at the circulation desk in my college library, but my experience doing research for my senior thesis played a much bigger part in prompting me to take this path. While in grad school, I worked at the reference desk in one of my university’s libraries. This was a valuable experience that helped me solidify my grad school (and job search) focus on reference, instruction, and outreach work in academic libraries, but I don’t think I gave other areas of librarianship as much thought as I should have. All that to say, I didn’t come to this field with much pre-existing foundational knowledge about libraries. I feel particularly lucky, then, to have had a supervisor in my first professional position (a one-year stint) who took great pains to connect me with colleagues and projects in a wide range of areas and departments to help expand my awareness and skill set. And I feel very lucky, too, to have spent a significant chunk of my career early on at a small liberal arts college library. Because our library team was relatively small, collegial, and collaborative (read: everyone wore a lot of hats), I had many opportunities to get involved in projects outside the scope of my specific position. Moreover, the daily work of each person and department was literally visible to me. As such, I feel like I got a broad view of how libraries work. My current position at a small branch of an enormous university library system still requires me to wear a lot of hats and also still regularly offers me new insight into how libraries–and higher ed–work, too. But had I started my career in a system of this size, I don’t think I would have had occasion to participate in or observe so many aspects of academic library work so closely. I would have very little understanding, for example, of the technical work of my cataloging, serials, and licensing colleagues or of what’s involved in implementing a new discovery system. I regularly rely and expand on the broader, foundational understanding those early positions afforded. I’m grateful for the opportunities I had to build it.

[Veronica] Like Jen, I also spent a significant chunk of my career at a small liberal arts college library. What that time taught me, and what I wish I’d realized sooner, is that everyone in higher ed–staff, faculty (tenure track, adjuncts, lecturers), librarians–is trying to do their best with the limited time, bandwidth, and resources that we have. There can be this tendency in larger institutions to feel like it’s us versus them, or fall into victim-villain thinking, when in reality everyone is trying their best and no one is ignoring you on purpose. Yes, there will always be people who are rude, but the vast majority of folks are really just trying to get by as best as they can. I think the more that we can listen to our colleagues and get to know them and their wants, needs, worries, and hopes, the better we can support one another and show solidarity in higher education. 

What’s something in higher ed, libraries, or your area of librarianship that everyone just does but doesn’t work well or should be re-thought?

[Angie] I truly don’t understand how, especially as information scientists, we haven’t prioritized the problem that is email. When I first moved into my own place after college, I remember the internet offerings advertised “up to 5 email accounts!”, and I thought why would anyone need that many? In my work within technical services, we have more than that; I know their purpose, and still wonder why these systems can’t serve us better. Many band-aids out there endeavor to help us “manage” email, but not a lot of solutions recognize the problematic level of reliance on email in the workplace. I don’t want to manage email. As ubiquitous as email is, it ought to more effortlessly help or at least get out of the way.

[Maura] I am so grateful to my colleagues that we are a well-functioning, kind, and thoughtful team. Not that we don’t have challenges, because every workplace has challenges, but we’re committed to asking questions and taking responsibility for our inevitable mistakes (because everyone makes mistakes). I was in academia right after college and then took some time in the publishing industry before returning to academia as a librarian, and I’d forgotten about the conflict avoidance that seems endemic to so many academic settings. I wish that institutions offered more support for doing the necessary work of moving through conflict thoughtfully and respectfully.

[Jen] We need to increase transparency around salaries. To withhold salary information from position descriptions and during the interview process can make what is already a difficult undertaking even more uncertain and fraught–not to mention a waste of time for everyone involved if candidates drop out late in the process after finally learning that salaries don’t meet their needs. And then, once hired, the lack of communication within and across institutions about salary data leaves library workers siloed and in the dark about potential earnings equity issues and missing key information with which to advocate for themselves. On a related note, we need to create more internal advancement opportunities in libraries. It seems that the general thinking is that in order to move up, one has to move out. I agree with that approach to some degree–transition is typically healthy for an organization and individuals (fresh perspectives and new horizons!). However, the lack of growth potential for folks within an institution can result in stagnancy, frustration, and low morale. While an organizational culture that supports experimentation and innovation can keep motivated library workers interested and invested, the lack of structural elements to support such folks to move into new positions (with real salary growth) is hurting us on both individual and organizational levels.

[Veronica] Like Jen, I definitely feel as though pipelines to leadership are something that need to be addressed within libraries with equity in mind. There is a strong push towards diversifying the profession, but it often stops with the hiring and onboarding process. What happens after that? Why do people leave the organization or the profession? At my library we are looking into how to help all librarians access professional development and support that will help them advance their careers within our library or elsewhere. Some things we need to ask ourselves are: Who are we sharing leadership opportunities with and why? Who within the organization has access to training, mentoring, and coaching? Who is missing from conversations about leadership potential and career advancement? If we, as a profession, spent time on these ideas we might be able to ensure that people stay within librarianship.

What are some of the lessons and truths that hindsight has helped you to see better? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 

Apply to join the ACRLog Blog Team!

Interested in writing for ACRLog? We’re looking for a few new bloggers to join our team! 

We aim to have a group of bloggers who represent diverse perspectives on and career stages in academic librarianship. We are especially seeking librarians interested in writing about technical services, scholarly communication, technology, and related areas and/or those working at small colleges, community colleges, or private institutions, to balance the strengths of our other bloggers.

Members of the ACRLog blog team write on any issue or idea that impacts academic librarianship, from current news items to workflow and procedural topics to upcoming changes in the profession and more. 

ACRLog blog team members typically publish individual posts every 6-8 weeks and sometimes collaborate with other blog team members on co-authored posts. Blog team members also contribute to the work of blog promotion and management (e.g., participate in 2-3 blog team meetings every year). 

If you’re interested in joining the ACRLog blog team, please complete our application form. Applications are due January 31, 2022. 

Proposals will be evaluated by the existing ACRLog blog team. We will strive to consider:

  • Diversity of race/ethnicity/sexual orientation/ability
  • Voices from a range of academic institutions (for example, community colleges, small colleges) and job responsibilities within academic libraries (for example, cataloging, scholarly communications, etc.)
  • Clear and compelling writing style
  • Connection between day-to-day work and bigger conversations around theory, practice, criticism, LIS education, and other issues

Please send any questions to Jen Jarson at jmj12@psu.edu. We’re looking forward to hearing from you! 

Things I mean to know

I’m a big fan of using low-stakes passive engagement activities to informally gather student perspectives. For me, this has most often been simply posting a question or poll related to a timely topic on a strategically-positioned whiteboard. I’m always interested to see what students post–I look eagerly for new responses every time I pass a board–and I try to think carefully about the insight their responses can offer. 

At my current library, we’ve used these questions or polls most often to gauge students’ preferences for services or features we’re planning, such as new furniture or space changes. We’ve also used them as a small way to promote well-being or students’ sense of connections, such as by inviting students to share study tips, messages of goodwill, or plans for the break at the end of the semester. Pre-pandemic, we posted these polls or questions on a regular basis, often weekly. But in the past year and a half, we have gotten away from this practice. First, because our campus was physically closed due to the pandemic, then because of concerns about handling shared materials (like the markers students would use to post their responses), and more recently because we’ve just been out of the habit of doing it.

I’ve been feeling the itch to start this up again so last week I posted a prompt asking students what questions or topics they’ve been researching this semester. I like the range of responses so far: from phyllosilicates to Tyrion Lannister. I posted this particular prompt partly because I’m just interested in the work students are doing. But I also hope that seeing this prompt–their fellow students’ research topics, but also just the question itself–might plant a seed to inspire their own curiosity. It’s just one question on a whiteboard, of course, but you never know what gets someone thinking.

In fact, this little whiteboard question has made me reflect anew not just on the professional and personal topics I’ve researched this semester, but also on my own inquiry mindset. My own research is more often than not driven by an imminent deadline or in reaction to an issue or problem that has arisen in my work or life, rather than because of innate curiosity in a topic. Rarely do I find myself exploring a question for its own sake just because I was interested. I think time/workload are partly to blame, but I’ve long framed this as a personal shortcoming. I think often about how much I admire–envy, even–people with a strong naturally inquisitive nature and their drive to satisfy their curiosity. 

This all got me thinking about a podcast episode I listened to some years ago. My memory of it is spotty, but the episode had something to do with the theme “things I mean to know.” I think the idea was more or less about getting to the bottom of the facts about the world that we take for granted: how do we really know they’re true? At the time, I was inspired to generate my own list of facts and universal truths that I wanted to investigate. I felt enlivened by the sense of inquiry and optimism that having such a list engendered. It felt like the beginning of something exciting. But the sad truth is that I let my list quickly fall by the wayside; I don’t know where it is now and I don’t think I made much, if any, progress on answering the questions I brainstormed.

As I survey today’s additions to the what-are-you-researching whiteboard prompt, I’m thinking about a still more abstract goal at the core of this little exercise. I also posed this question because I’m always looking for little ways to expand students’ understanding and awareness of research–big and small, academic and otherwise–as relevant to their interactions and experiences in the world, to see themselves in that word. And the same goes for me, really. The reflection brought about by writing this post first led me to think that perhaps I should generate a fresh list of “things I mean to know.” Surely, articulating a list of topics to pursue and questions to answer will invigorate me and offer a renewed sense of purpose, I thought. And that’s likely true, for a time. But, turning this lens on myself, I can see with fresh appreciation where my more innate inquiry tendencies–strengths, even?–lie. As a “process person,” I often relish uncovering, understanding, and effectively navigating the steps and behaviors that make up the path to a goal or product. I’ve long recognized and valued how empowering it can feel to have an understanding of the process–the how. I have typically used this as a guiding principle for my librarianship and focused on growing students’ awareness of process in order to support and advance their inquiry experiences. It’s been some time since I saw this spark, this drive as the way I motivate my own research, as a mark of my own curiosity.

Join the ACRLog Blog Team!

Interested in writing for ACRLog? We’re looking for a few new bloggers to join our team! 

We aim to have a group of bloggers who represent diverse perspectives on and career stages in academic librarianship. We are especially seeking librarians interested in writing about technical services, scholarly communication, technology, and related areas and/or those working at small colleges, community colleges, or private institutions, to balance the strengths of our other bloggers.

Members of the ACRLog blog team write on any issue or idea that impacts academic librarianship, from current news items to workflow and procedural topics to upcoming changes in the profession and more. 

ACRLog blog team members typically publish individual posts every 6-8 weeks and sometimes collaborate with other blog team members on co-authored posts. Blog team members also contribute to the work of blog promotion and management (e.g., participate in 2-3 blog team meetings every year). 

If you’re interested in joining the ACRLog blog team, please complete our application form. Applications are due January 31, 2022. 

Proposals will be evaluated by the existing ACRLog blog team. We will strive to consider:

  • Diversity of race/ethnicity/sexual orientation/ability
  • Voices from a range of academic institutions (for example, community colleges, small colleges) and job responsibilities within academic libraries (for example, cataloging, scholarly communications, etc.)
  • Clear and compelling writing style
  • Connection between day-to-day work and bigger conversations around theory, practice, criticism, LIS education, and other issues

Please send any questions to Jen Jarson at jmj12@psu.edu. We’re looking forward to hearing from you! 

From clicks toward concepts in the information literacy classroom

I was mindlessly scrolling through Twitter the other day when a tweet caught my eye. I wish I could find it again to do it justice, but it was essentially a critique of the author’s missteps in the classroom early in their career by way of a funny apology to students. It immediately transported me back to some of the most disappointing and embarrassing teaching experiences in my own early career days. My whole body still cringes when I remember those moments: the one-shots where, for example, I droned on about database navigation and put students, and myself, to sleep; the ones where I stuffed every minute of class, often with insignificant minutiae, thereby camouflaging what really mattered. I didn’t know how to prioritize or pace instruction, much less how to engage students. 

I’m grateful to say that almost everything about my teaching has changed since then, and for the better. Now, more than a decade later, my teaching is much more grounded in constructivist pedagogy and organized around cultivating students’ awareness and understanding of their research processes. My approach then could perhaps be described as tool-driven and largely based in demonstration. It was common for me to develop some kind of resource guide for the course–essentially a long list of links to recommended databases, books, websites, etc.–and then to spend our time in class focused on modeling and practicing effective use of those tools. Of course, there are still plenty of occasions when it makes sense to orient students to effectively using library databases. But now uncovering, conceptualizing, and shaping the process of research–the methods, stages, and purpose–is my organizational blueprint. Today–guided by constructivist and metacognitive principles, active learning pedagogy, and formative assessment techniques–my teaching is much less about tools and much more about strategies, much less about clicks and much more about concepts. 

While the impact of this long transformation has reaped many rewards in student engagement and learning, as well as my personal interest and satisfaction, I know there are many ways I could further improve what I’m doing and the way I’m doing it. I hope to keep iterating and advancing. Specifically, I’m thinking about a technique that I’ve long recognized as a weak spot in my teaching and that could support this road from clicks to concepts: storytelling. 

I’m using the word storytelling quite broadly for my purposes. Perhaps examples is more accurate (and less lofty and self-aggrandizing)? Yet examples feels just a bit narrow. I’m not referring only to developing instructive sample searches to demonstrate how to keep keywords simple yet precise or selecting the ideal sample article to model how to effectively organize a literature review. Of course, those are important kinds of examples and, when done well, very impactful ones. But when I say I want to use storytelling or examples, I’m thinking more about allegories, anecdotes, and analogies, case studies and real-world problems to wrap around the research strategies and concepts at the core of each class. I’m imagining that such storytelling techniques could extend or enhance information literacy teaching and learning by making abstract or technical concepts more accessible and concrete, facilitating recall, demonstrating relevance and impact, prompting reflection and meaning-making, not to mention simply providing inspiration or general interest. I’ve so far been thinking of these as discrete stories to insert at key moments in class to illustrate a point, hook a students’ interest, or propel us all toward moments of understanding.

The small amount of reading on this topic that I’ve done thus far seems to affirm the effectiveness of storytelling and precise, compelling examples in teaching (not to mention other domains like management and leadership). And the tips I’ve stumbled on so far suggest that, like many things in teaching, it’s best to start small by focusing on a single area or concept that students regularly struggle with in order to integrate storytelling where it’s most needed. Otherwise, I’m still a bit at sea here on how to do this best. It’s one thing to be able to identify where a story would be most helpful; it’s another to compose a compelling story that helps students reach a meaningful takeaway and recognize why that takeaway matters. I certainly need to do more research and thinking, but I’m curious about your experience. Have you incorporated storytelling and examples in your teaching? What kinds of stories? And to what effect? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.