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?

Milestone

Photo by Kyle Peyton on Unsplash

During an especially busy Fall—especially in my professional life—I got sick and took some days off work. During this time, along with not feeling great, I felt the crush of my busy Fall. I took time to reflect on what was all going on at work and where I could re-prioritize.

I was talking with a colleague, and she suggested focusing or reflecting on some good part of my day, big or small, which gives reprieve from focusing on work. It could be watching the sunrise, an especially good meal, or taking time to read an intriguing book, to give some examples.  

There are other good parts, though, good parts at work: the casual conversation with library staff, the feeling after a reference consultation that you’ve helped a student, an especially rewarding library instructional session.

There’s a big milestone for me—professionally—coming up next Spring as I complete my probationary period of two years and (hopefully) am offered a continuing position at my institution. But in a lot of ways, I feel this Fall has been a milestone, a precursor to what’s to come in my career.

Along with appreciating the small (or big) positive things in life, I found it helpful to reflect on progress I’ve made. I want to take the time to note a couple things I’ve learned, or been reminded of, over the past few months.

  1. Make Small Steps Toward Comfortability

As a liaison librarian who is relatively new to their subject areas, I’ve been hustling to get to know faculty and students in my departments. It takes time and this is something I’ve been having to acknowledge. Was Rome built in a day? I don’t think so and neither is my liaison outreach (but possibly just as impressive as the city of Rome).

You make slow progress; some increased in-class instruction, more student questions, faculty coming to you for help. It takes time to build connections and to learn your subject areas but pays off in a multitude of ways.

  1. Learn New Skills

As academic librarians, I feel a lot of us love to continually learn new things. We’re in a profession that makes it easy to do this; there’s so many webinars to attend, certificates to get, and conferences to go to. There’s many niche areas of academic librarianship and services that we offer (or could offer) that make it easy to learn something new. This semester I’ve been learning the basics of LaTeX and referencing with BibTeX, which is great to offer to help students, along with exploring different scholarly generative AI tools. Learning new skills not only benefits your students and faculty but feels rewarding to challenge yourself.

  1. You Don’t Have to Do It All

I really like being busy as an academic librarian and filling up my days with my liaison duties, service, and research. I find a lot of our job rewarding in different ways and being involved in different individual and collaborative work is great. But I’m learning to commit to what I can reasonably do; having enough time and capacity to take something on. No sense burning out early in your career (no sense burning out in any stage of your career!).

  1. Encourage Your Friends at Work (and Vice-Versa)

There’s something great about the power of friends at work. I feel fortunate to work with some great people, people to talk to about challenges, successes, or the latest episode you watched last night. I’ve written about this in the past and I still think it’s true; developing and sustaining friends is rewarding in so many ways. Not only does working with people you’re friendly with lead to better, more enjoyable work, but it’s fun.

I think even though we’re all really busy and try to put forward the best work we can, taking time to reflect on all you’ve done and learned helps get through the tougher, more challenging times. I know it’s helped me.

From Technician to Librarian

I graduated with my Library & Information Technology diploma in Spring 2013. I went to Red River College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, being the only library-related program in the province. I can remember, in a pre-interview to the program, one of the instructors asking me, “how come you don’t you get your MLIS instead?” Good question–I had thought about it, but there isn’t a graduate-level library school in my area, in my province even; I would’ve had to move.

I started in academic libraries as a library technician (‘library assistant’) in January 2015 at the University of Manitoba, and soon after began thinking about completing my Master’s degree. Two years prior, in 2013, the University of Alberta began an online, course-based MLIS program that students could complete entirely online. This program opened a door for me, where I could complete the degree part-time while continuing to work at the University of Manitoba full-time. I applied in Winter 2016 and started my Master’s program in Fall 2016. Of course, this was a busy time for me, working full-time, mainly evenings and weekends, going to grad school part-time, and with the birth of my son in 2017, my plate was full, but it was worth it—as after I graduated, I was doing the work I wanted to be doing.

Why had I been thinking of getting my MLIS so soon after starting work as an academic library tech? Immediately I saw the separation in job responsibilities of library assistants and librarians, and I knew I wanted to be a librarian to do the work of a librarian, things like library instruction and working on my own research.

There’s a major difference in the assigned duties to library technicians versus librarians. One of the major differences was technician duties were focused on day-to-day tasks, like staffing the public service desk, book pickup requests, and managing the reserves collection. As a tech, I would spend time making analytics reports in our ILS, Ex Libris’ Alma or contacting patrons with overdue fines. I also spent a lot of time troubleshooting and solving patron questions, either during shifts at the public service desk, on virtual reference, or helping a coworker. Sometimes these questions weren’t library-related, but I would do my best to find the right campus service or department that the patron needed; I don’t get those types of questions nearly as often as a librarian.

Librarians have day-to-day duties, of course, but in contrast, there’s a lot more long-term planning and project work; you’re removed, in a lot of ways, from the on-the-ground functioning of the library. There’s a lot more meetings, a lot more opportunities to plan or change how the library works, and a lot less of ‘keeping the lights on.’

There’s increased decision-making throughout my role as a librarian. I would often as a technician defer challenging or difficult questions to my supervisor. Now, I have the latitude to make judgement calls on my own. When I was working as a public-facing technician, there was a real team aspect to the work. We would debrief about challenging reference questions or give background to something we anticipated in the coming days or weeks, things like popular reserve items or students needing to complete an assignment by speaking with a particular librarian.  

Although I work as part of a team of science librarians, there’s much more independence in how you structure your week/month/year as a librarian—not to mention the lack of shift work. Independence makes it natural to look ahead to advancing throughout your career, with my professional performance, professional development, research, and service as a major function of this. I have more of a growth mindset as a librarian, compared to my work as a technician.

I can remember helping to put together our health sciences’ library newsletter, with several librarians. After a year or so of this work, one of the librarians thanked me profusely for my help, and asked if she could write me a formal thank you letter if that would be useful. As a library technician, I declined as I didn’t think it would be useful. As a librarian, I look for those physical acknowledgements of volunteerism and accomplishment, to use in future performance reviews and promotion packages. As a technician, I didn’t have that mindset since those formal processes of career advancement weren’t a part of the job. But thinking back on that offer, a physical recognition of dutiful and intentional work, even as a technician, should’ve been a priority of mine. Technicians can have growth mindsets as well, and advance through their career, even if there aren’t the same institutional markers, like promotion in rank, available.

I wanted to become a librarian not only because of the differences in duties and type of work, but I wanted to challenge myself. Like most people in our profession, I’m a lifelong learner, always wanting to learn something new and to challenge myself. And because I’m challenged more often, I have increased job satisfaction as a librarian, in addition to the differences I outlined above: independence, decision-making in my work and the work of my library system, and career advancement.

Claire Hill (2014), in her study exploring work relationships between library technicians and librarians, found 77% of survey respondents mention a need to improve relationships between the two groups. Examples from respondents include a need for mutual respect (regardless of educational qualification), more library technician professional development, and modern reworking of library technician scope-of-work and career advancement. Based on my experience, I never felt a lack of mutual respect—in fact I felt recognized by my librarian peers for my work as a technician, such as the librarian offering to write me a thank you letter for my work. I do think there could be more technician-focused professional development, but it’s out there if you look for it (and if you have the time and/or funding).  

But there certainly could be more done in rethinking technician work and career advancement. Personally, I think along with rethinking technician scope-of-work, there needs to be a shift from seeing library technicians as “paraprofessionals,” only useful to assist librarians. I’m a big fan of the phrase “library worker,” to encompass technicians and librarians alike.

New models of academic librarianship, such as the functional specialist model, threaten to sideline library technicians, disrupting their work as the academic library shifts to prioritize and restructure librarian work, and putting aside library technicians. This is an area where technicians can be involved in decision-making, and by extension, demonstrate mutual respect. Technicians can bring their professional interests and expertise to the forefront of functional work. As argued by Hoffmann and Carlisle-Johnston (2021) who write about librarians, but certainly can encompass technicians as well, in current or future reorganization, we can keep in mind foundations of liaison library work by “building relationships, anticipating and meeting needs, and drawing on specialized expertise” (Conclusion section, para. 1).

While it has now been some time since I worked as a technician, I still draw upon those experiences as a librarian; and of course, I remember the dull and gruelling shift work in the late evening and over the weekend. I certainly won’t forget the work or those I worked closely with any time soon.

How many of you are library technicians? Once were library technicians? It’s a surprisingly common career trajectory for librarians to have been library techs. Leave a comment, I’d be happy to hear from you. If you’re a library tech thinking about getting your MLIS and want to talk more, get in touch!

References
Hill, C. (2014). The professional divide: Examining workplace relationships between librarians and library technicians. The Australian Library Journal, 63(1), 23-34. https://doi.org/10.1080/00049670.2014.890020

Hoffmann, K. & Carlisle-Johnston, E. (2021, March 26). “Just like when i was a liaison”: Applying a liaison approach to functional library models. The Journal of Creative Library Practice. https://creativelibrarypractice.org/2021/03/26/just-like-when-i-was-a-liaison-applying-a-liaison-approach-to-functional-library-models/