Office Space

I’m not going to sit here and lie to all you loyal readers and say I haven’t had “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” by the Geto Boys playing in my head after I nail yet another info lit session, coming up with the perfect keywords and a search strategy chock full of Boolean operators, fields, and parentheses to do a live demonstration in Scopus, without Scopus freezing or needing to reload the screen once. Nor am I going to lie to you and say I haven’t daydreamed about taking our Kyocera TASKalfa combination photocopier and colour printer out to the fields on campus and hitting it repeatedly with a baseball bat because yet again, my carefully plotted out handouts on APA citations (7th edition) keep having their margins cut off.

But I think of Office Space, the 1999 cult classic by King of the Hill creator Mike Judge, when I think about my new working space; I hesitate to call it an office. I shouldn’t complain; many of you may actually be jealous of my new cubicle—I get lots of natural light as I gaze across twelve feet of unkempt jungle towards the limestone walls of our library’s storage facility, I can keep up with all of the latest library gossip as I can hear every conversation(s) happening in real time, I get lots of exercise by having to move to temporary meeting spaces to take any and all online meetings, and best of all, my coworkers can gaze in the wonder, splendor, and glory of my important library work since my monitors are visible to everyone all the time.

No, loyal readers, I’m not going to lie and say that it hasn’t entailed a shift in my mindset and getting used to how things will be in my new office space for the foreseeable future, as my science library goes through a two-year long renovation. I will say it’s not lost on me that after two (or three, or four?) years, I will be moving back to a shiny, new office space in the redeveloped science library. However, before that day dawns, I’ll be spending my working hours in an open office-style working space, with bookshelves making our cubicles three feet longer.

I joke, but it really isn’t that bad. It’s just a change in working space that will take time to adjust to, and there’s been changes that make working just a tiny bit more challenging. To be completely honest, the biggest change is how it is much more challenging to participate in online meetings and have private or sensitive conversations.

Open Offices and Flexible, Hybrid Work

In Steven J. Bell’s opinion article—which I personally think is indefensible and starts with a false premise: that somehow we must accommodate open offices rather than agree they’re terrible and moving away from them as much as humanly possible—he argues in defense of open offices, asking the reader to accept that open offices aren’t going anywhere. Rather than debate the merits of open offices (which I will note largely comes from administrators), he asks, “we should focus on how to make open office environments productive and satisfying for all library workers.” Um, hard no, Steven.

I will also note Steven comes from a library where flexible work arrangements are available. How about those who have little to no flexibility and work in an open office? He doesn’t address this directly while he spills a lot of ink claiming fewer and fewer library staff are working in-person due to hybrid work. I have to think, maybe library staff won’t want to come to an open office to work; classic chicken-and-egg situation there, Steven. Maybe to Steven, there won’t be library staff anymore, anywhere. I don’t think he actually thinks this, although his article is situated firmly in the context of saving the library’s money (“Building private offices is expensive for new projects, as well as far more expensive to remove for future projects”).

Meredith Farkas wrote an insightful response to Steven, noting his article isn’t supported by the literature (contradicting what he writes), writing “the scholarly consensus on open offices is uniformly negative and the move to open offices comes with many detrimental impacts on employee well-being, organizational health, and work output.” Meredith deftly addresses accessibility issues that are much more challenging in an open office environment, compared to a private office. Contrary to what Steven claims, Meredith makes a strong case that equal working spaces does not make equity for all, even if everyone, including administrators, work in an open office. Working from home or private offices can help alleviate different accommodations.

Online Meetings and Working From Home

As I said, one of the challenges of working in an open office is attending online meetings. It’s more challenging, for sure, compared to a private office. There are bookable spaces close to me that I can take my laptop to attend. I recently was leading an online library workshop. Compared to having my two-monitor setup at my desk, screensharing off a laptop is more difficult, but not impossible. Working from home alleviates some of this, which I do occasionally when I have a glut of online meetings or instruction.

The 2024 ACRL Top Trends speak to the growing trend of hybrid work environments. Like Meredith, the authors cite scholarship that confirms the benefits of remote work: “remote work offers benefits like greater productivity and reduced stress while onsite work fosters better onboarding, engagement, and team building.” However, the authors continue to say that “[t]his new hybrid environment may also require redesigning staff spaces and setting new priorities for onsite work.” When I look at the article they cite for “redesigning staff spaces” (Fayard, Weeks, & Khan, 2021), again the authors clamour for social spaces at work, a place for “unstructured collaboration” and “impromptu conversations.” Not again!

What seems like a cliché and tired stereotype at this point, Steven notes during his library’s redesign, “the designers touted the potential benefits of open office environments, such as increased collaboration, serendipitous idea generation, or simply more opportunities for staff engagement.” I’m still waiting for all this collaboration and idea generation to happen, something that flies in the face of the scholarship that Meredith cites[1]. I’ll have to get back to you when I’m collaborating and generating ideas at a higher level in my open office.


[1] “It is a common misconception that moving to open offices will lead to increased communication and collaboration, based on the assumption that if people are in closer proximity, peers and organizational leaders will be more accessible. Not only has that not been borne out by research, but the exact opposite has been found” (Farkas, 2023).

Parenting as an Academic Librarian

Being a working parent is challenging; there’s a lot to manage and prioritize. Thinking of both your personal and professional lives — how do you make it work with an extremely busy schedule? I recently read Courtney Stine’s, Sarah Frankel’s, and Anita Hall’s interview “Parenting and the Academic Library” in C&RL News. Hearing about other parents’ experience is great to hear, and these three bring up a lot of salient points: work-life balance, childcare, academic library support for caregivers, and precarity.

I’ve done a fair amount of writing about being a parent, especially during the pandemic. My daughter was born in February 2020, as my son was two and a half years old. In 2022, I wrote about how important it is to feel a part of a community of parents, and connection more broadly:

I find comfort in the fact that I’m not alone in feeling challenged as a father and as a husband. I’ve felt this with other aspects of my life, like job searching or dealing with challenging parents and family. I like knowing there’s others with similar experiences to myself, others that are living parallel lives, with aspects of your lives matched up.

I want to know about other people’s lives and experiences, and get their perspective on similar situations that they’ve found themselves in; to know that it’s not just me, to hear their insight and advice, and to learn and grow.

It’s rooted in this sense of finding common, universal experience that I want to share with others and have others share with me. I learn so much from others and I really appreciate that. There’s solace to be found there, among others who find parenting challenging.

After attending a great writing workshop offered by my institution, “Writing Your Parenting Journey,” I’ve revisited some of my pandemic reflective writing. I’ve thought a lot about what’s required of you to be both a parent and a librarian (or, really any other profession). Working while parenting is challenging!

During a recent CALM 2024 presentation from Courtney Drysdale (“…Supporting Librarian Parents & Caregivers”), she outlined parental supports in academic libraries, specifically aimed at women caregivers. I was struck by how little maternity and paternity leave academic librarians get, especially in the United States. I’m very lucky that in Canada we have substantial maternal and parental leaves.

Through parenting two young kids while working as an academic librarian, here’s what I’ve learned and try to model:

Prioritize

You have limited time as an academic librarian parent. Okay, I’ll admit it, on occasion I work in the evenings. Sometimes it’s something time-sensitive, sometimes I didn’t have enough time at work to finish or work on something. It’s not common, though, and I prioritize my to-do items during the workday so this doesn’t become more common.

You have to prioritize what needs to get done, and what can be left for another day.

Ask For Help

Ask. For. Help. Always! I get help from a lot of different people in my life: my wife, my parents and in-laws, my friends, and of course my coworkers. My colleagues have helped me a lot in a lot of different ways: I’ve asked them for advice, I’ve leaned on them when I’ve been overloaded with work, and I’ve listened to –this can help you in immeasurable ways.

Sometimes just having someone you can talk with, and work something through, is enough.

Learn to Say No

This is something I struggle with and I’m sure it is something you have at times in your life. I’m working on getting better at saying no and figuring out where I want to put my energy.

As Sarah Frankel says, “learning how to say no is hard, but it does get easier. I value my job and the people I work with, but my family has to come first. As my kids get older, I may find myself with more time to do career-related things that I have had to put off since becoming a parent, so that is something to think about for the future.”

You don’t have to do everything or be everything to everyone.

Take Advantage of Flexible/Remote Work (If You Can)

Those of us lucky enough to have some sort of remote work arrangement or having flexible schedules should take full advantage of those perks. Pick up from childcare, early soccer practices and dance lessons, your kid’s doctor’s appointments – it never stops.

For all those administrators, managers, and supervisors who don’t recognize how nice it is for your employees to have flexibility on your schedule – you do now! Flexible and remote work don’t fix everything, but it helps. I’m working on a research project that explores engagement, burnout, and the effect of remote work and flexible scheduling on academic librarians. Stay tuned!

In her closing keynote to CALM 2024, Katherine Goldstein says she “normalizes caregiving through sharing stories.” I think we’ve all got a story to tell. What’s yours?

Work in Progress

Next month marks an important stage of my career, as I anticipate completing my two-year probation and entering a continuing appointment at my institution. This gives me a real sense of permanency, a role I can work in indefinitely, and a commitment to myself as librarian. Do you remember what it was like entering into new stages of your career? Being promoted, being granted tenure, being offered a new position; I guess you never really stop moving as an academic librarian.

Recently I read Richard Wilbur’s excellent poem, “The Writer”. The poem sees the narrator—who I see as a writer, but isn’t actually specified—looking somewhat condescendingly on his daughter, as she writes and creates “a commotion of typewriter-keys/Like a chain hauled over a gunwale”. Terrible noises, as seen from the narrator’s perspective early in the poem—something that would make a great many librarians ‘shush’ at, certainly. The narrator patronizingly muses, “Young as she is, the stuff/Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:/I wish her a lucky passage”.

By the end of the poem, the narrator sees their error and can’t help but see their daughter as becoming independent and capable: “It is always a matter, my darling,/Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish/What I wished you before, but harder”. The issues the narrator’s daughter is dealing with, however trivial or small they actually are, are “matter[s]…of life or death” to teenagers. The issues that new librarians deal with are “matter[s]…of life or death.”

In my professional life, I feel like a work in progress. I’ve made significant steps in my professional life: from my liaison duties—library instruction, collections management, research services, and reference services—to research and service opportunities, but you never stop working on yourself.

I look at Wilbur’s “The Writer” and envision myself as both child and as narrator. I am simultaneously continually learning and growing, something I don’t think I’ll stop doing throughout my career, a work in progress. But also, being “the writer” (i.e. narrator) in my career, recognizing that I can see others’ perspectives and imagine how much the issues of ‘life or death’ do matter to those experiencing them. Thinking in terms of the dyad in librarianship, or any profession more broadly, we are at times both teacher-student, librarian-patron, and parent-child.

I like to think that’s a trajectory a lot of us follow, but maybe we forget what it once was like being new and being in precarious work, not being seen as an expert, not knowing the right people; not being “the writer.” But the more you think about, “the writer” in the poem is both the narrator and daughter, both being equal in their pursuit of writing for a living.

As I move closer to a new stage of my career, I don’t want to forget what it once was like being new to the profession. I want to be able to identify with perspectives different than mine, especially as I hope to take on roles with greater responsibility, as I think this moves the profession holistically forward.

It is always a matter…of life or death as I had forgotten. I wish what I wished you before, but harder.

Dwindling Reference Questions

“If you build it, [will] they will come[?]”

As another season of baseball is just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about ways to get hits and avoid strikes—so decided to break out a classic quotation from Field of Dreams and apply it to academic libraries. In recent years, our library has seen dwindling reference questions. We’re not getting nearly the number of students at our front desk asking questions, nor making as many appointments with librarians, compared to pre-pandemic.

I’m not totally sure what to make of this. I can’t imagine students not needing library services, such as help with literature searching, questions about using databases, or help with citation management software. Not to pump our tires up too much, but these skills typically don’t come intuitively or out of thin air—at least at the level academic librarians support students. Our help is still needed, but without students seeking us out to get that help, we’re missing out on a huge number of opportunities to make students’ lives easier. We want to help.

I suspect that in our post-pandemic era, a ‘generation’ of students don’t have the same familiarity with libraries as they did in previous generations. Did these students miss out on using their high school libraries when they were completing high school largely from home? Did social interactions change post-pandemic? Do students prefer online reference questions and consultations, rather than in-person? And is this affecting the number of questions we’d normally get?

While this is a problem, there’s also opportunity; opportunity to devote more time to seeking in-class instruction—where you seek students out and not vice-versa; opportunity to work on offering enhanced library services; opportunity to plan library events; and more.

I’ve thought about how to address shrinking reference questions. If you assess the number and type of reference questions you’re getting, and it’s different from before—such as fewer or simpler questions—in broad strokes you can approach the issue from a couple perspectives:

  • You can make decisions reactively (e.g. less library staff at the front desk, shorter library or front desk hours), or
  • You can make decisions proactively (e.g. broad, university-wide promotion strategies to inform students what library staff can do for them, reinforce there are no stupid questions and it’s worth getting help from library staff).

Whichever approach you take, you need to think about your goal: are you reacting to fewer reference questions to maintain the status quo or are you proactively trying strategies to ensure students are getting the help they need, and meeting them where you are?

I always think that if we build it, they will come. But maybe we have to tell them what we’ve built. And one thing’s for sure: we must think hard about what to build.

Contract Positions and Leave Coverage for Academic Librarians

Contract and term positions are all too common for early-career academic librarians. Shrinking post-secondary budgets, demand for academic librarian positions, doing more with less, and persistent vacant positions means landing a permanent and continuing position can be challenging. Job precarity is a reality for many of our early-career colleagues.

Sajni Lacey, in the article “Job Precarity, Contract Work, and Self-Care,” convincingly writes that employers must do more to look after their precarious employees, including caring for and supporting contract library workers. Lacey’s powerful final lines read, “[w]e need to hold each other accountable for how and why we use precarious work in libraries.”

Lacey’s final line is prescient when looking at my library at the University of Manitoba. Several years ago, our librarians discussed our usage of contract positions to cover for librarians on leave– whether that’s research, administrative, sick, or parental leave. We were wondering if there was a better way to cover for librarians who go on leave than relying on term positions. A committee was struck to survey how other Canadian academic libraries handle leaves, document our current process, and to offer recommendations.

I volunteered for the committee since at the time, I recently obtained a continuing position; prior to this I was working in a term position. In this term position, I was in a newly-created position at our library: a Leave/Vacancy Replacement Librarian. These positions are intended to swap in and out of our different libraries, covering the duties of librarians who are on leave or for vacant positions. The job description is very general, as you could be placed in pretty much any library or unit in our system. Though on contract, it’s a faculty-level position, giving you a fair salary and health benefits, although you need to go through the faculty-level interview process to get the position—as well as each time to interview for future continuing positions.

Our committee’s process was to see what other Canadian academic libraries do to cover leaves—if anything—, identify the core work of librarians that needs coverage, and provide recommendations to how this work will best be covered. Some of the questions our committee asked were: What’s common at other Canadian academic libraries? What are the core duties that could (or should) be performed by coworkers and those by a replacement? Is there a way to transition from term to continuing positions? What would this look like for covering leaves?

One suggestion, and the suggestion that led to the committee’s formation in the first place, was to make the term coverage positions continuing. Since librarians on leave still receive their salary, this makes it difficult to hire continuing coverage librarians. As well, as someone who had recently been in this position, I couldn’t imagine being a coverage librarian permanently; it’s disruptive to move positions every six months to a year.

After our committee surveyed other Canadian academic libraries—many of whom do not cover leaves at all—and discussed various issues specific to our institution, we collaboratively wrote up our findings in a report and fine-tuned our conclusions and recommendations. Ultimately, we were going to continue with our faculty-level term positions for covering librarians on leave. Thankfully, these positions provide health benefits, vacation time, and PD funding, all things that Yoonhee Lee touches on in an American Libraries article, despite these positions being precarious.    

After our research, discussions, and writing, we realized that the status quo is the solution – and that’s okay; “[p]recarity within and outside of libraries is tied to larger structural forces, and no one library or librarian can craft a universal solution,” Lee writes. We did thoughtful and intentioned problem solving, in earnest, and continuing to cover leaves with librarians on term was the most realistic answer to our committee’s question.  Sometimes the best way forward is to continue doing what you’ve been doing. Our committee did make progress, though; you don’t know if the way you’re currently going is the best way, if you don’t look deeper into it.  

How does your library handle contract or part-time library work? I’m interested to know if you get leaves at your library, and if so, whether your library covers for librarians on leave?