The Chronicles of Academia

I had the great honor recently to be invited to speak to a class at my alma mater (the LEEP Program at the University of Illinois). The Instruction class, taught by Melissa Wong, was finishing up their work and had myself and Chad Kahl of Illinois State University dialed in for a little Q & A on the realities of instruction in academic libraries. I was definitely filling the “new guy” role, as Chad’s program at ISU has already reached the kinds of goals we’re still trying to aim for here at Norwich. But I’m fine playing the rookie, since I’m not too far removed from library school myself, and it has caused me (like Brett Bonfield recently) to marvel at what a long, strange year of transition it’s been.

The discussion varied from Chad and I each describing the kind of instruction we do and the programs at our schools, to the things we’ve learned along the way and our humorous anecdotes/war stories. We had questions on how we found ourselves in the profession, how we stay active and involved, and also what we enjoyed best about library school. The best question we received was asking the opposite, however: what was found to be missing from our library school experience as we moved into professional jobs?

The various thorny issues regarding the academic environment kept coming up as Chad and I each outlined our experiences in providing information literacy instruction at our separate institutions, but this question gave us the opportunity to speak directly to the fact that neither of us had a class that helped provide some kind of general academic library overview. We then got talking about what that class would look like, and about what aspects of working in academic libraries aren’t really covered in most library school classes. The scholarly publishing and research aspect should be covered a little by just being in a graduate-level program, and I personally learned a lot about how academic libraries work by just having a non-professional job at one while in school, so we returned to one main issue: working with faculty. We agreed that trying to make inroads with faculty regarding your instructional services and resources was one of the hardest parts of our jobs, and the part we were the least prepared for coming out of school. I remarked that when I started last fall I had assumed that I would be announced as the new Humanities Department Liaison, and then friendly faculty from the department would drop by the library to introduce themselves and chat about what kind of research help they and their students would need, possibly even taking me out to lunch after we’d been talking too long in my office. LOL, indeed.

Chad and I agreed that just having a few champions of library services can go a long way, but that being an effective academic librarian requires a lot of hard work in making your case with faculty again and again. I’ve learned, as simple as it sounds, that you really have to think about where they’re coming from and what’s important to them, and these are things that I’ve had to learn on the job and in the moment. I’m not certain that a library school class could be as effective as work experience, but it would be very valuable to incoming academic librarians to have more of a background in how the university environment functions (administration issues, inter- and intra-departmental issues, research versus teaching, budgets, faculty assumptions, campus hierarchy, etc.), as well as how librarians fit into the picture. Admittedly, the environment isn’t the same everywhere, but it’s a strange world that you will be thrust into at a whole new level (I worked in an academic library for almost four years but have a completely new perspective now that I’m a full capital-L Librarian) very quickly after graduation.

So, yes, it’s been a very fast and full first year for me. I wished the class good luck on their job searches, thankful that I’m through that uncertain phase and facing other challenges, including now serving on a search committee myself. And, I’ve got some faculty I need to sit down with before they disappear for the summer. I may get in a few more cracks before next fall’s crop of new academic librarian bloggers starts in, but thanks for reading if this is my final post.

Librarian 101 via English 101

So, my first semester as a professional academic librarian is over and our students will return for part two next week. I’m not sure I have much in the way of either highlights or low points, specifically, but I have gotten some good experience. My weeding project is continuing at a steady pace, I’ve had some good and bad reference interactions, and I’d like to work more closely with Humanities faculty as part of my liaison duties.

I received my best experience this fall by being thrown into instruction, specifically in our busy English 101 season. I had purposefully finished my MLIS program with an Instruction course so that I’d have it fresh in my mind once the fall semester began wherever I found employment. I figured that as an entry-level librarian I’d be doing some kind of basic instruction right away and while I got a little time to observe my colleagues, pretty soon I was up there by myself. I did eight English 101 class sessions this past semester, which is a fair amount at a small school like Norwich, and really enjoyed myself.

What was frustrating was trying to get past the preconceived notions others in the profession had given me about trying to teach research skills to college freshmen. I kept hearing things like “they can’t be taught,” or “just try to keep them awake” from some of the folks around me. I may have been just young and optimistic, but I really began the semester hoping to engage with the students and help them make the transition to college work. I think in many ways my lack of experience was a good thing, as it helped me be more loose and open with both what I was expecting from my students as well as how I structured my session (it also helps that I’m a fast-talking city boy who can cram a lot into 50 minutes). I’m not so naïve as to believe that I can relate to them as peers (I will be 30 this spring), but I hope to at least come off as approachable and knowledgeable while selling them our services as both pathways to success as well as time-savers. A former colleague of mine once told me that her goal in an English 101 one-shot was not to teach them a million things about research but just to appear friendly and open enough that the students would come back and seek her out once they were ready to use what we have to teach. That seems like a better strategy than throwing everything at them, worrying about keeping them awake, or assuming they’re too dense to get it in the first place.

There’s also a lot of educational theory that I learned last Spring that I should return to so that I can improve for this semester, but I’m glad that I got off to a good start and still have some enthusiasm for working with our students. I hope I can retain that enthusiasm through the fall as I’ve now been asked to work with the English faculty responsible for the 101 curriculum and insure that our information literacy component is at least present in every section and increased where it already exists.

Thanks again for your support, and I’ll see you at Midwinter next week!

Attempt at Midwinter

In youthful naiveté, I assumed being a new member of the profession (and ALA) that I would just go to Midwinter, attend some stuff, get involved, etc. My brother moved to Philadelphia a few months ago so it sounded like a great time to make a visit to him and attend my first ALA conference as a professional. So why do I get the feeling I’m not actually invited?

ALA does make a big deal about saying that Midwinter is for “handling the business of the association” so I wasn’t in the dark about that; I just somehow assumed that by being a member I was therefore a part of said “business.” Now, I’ve never been to Midwinter of course, but it seems from looking at the bits of program information I can see online that there are plenty of meetings going on hosted by various sections – but am I allowed to go to any of them? I am a member of ACRL of course, and even of a specific section as well, but I’m not even sure if anyone would let me in the doors of their business meetings. Would it be a waste of my time (and travel budget) to go at all?

Again, I’m new here, so I’m still figuring out how all this works. But it does seem to me that more could be done to encourage new members to get involved. I have received a newsletter and invitation to events from my section (thanks, LES), but I don’t really know if I would have anything else to go to if I made the trip. From this distance it almost seems like Midwinter is an exclusive club closed off with bouncers and a velvet rope – Sorry, Josh, you’re not on the list.

I joined ALA and ACRL as a new professional specifically because I wanted to get involved. I’m aware that there are grumblings in the blogosphere (and regular-sphere) about how ALA doesn’t actually return any real benefits to its members, and I’m also aware of the discussions of how virtual conferences and committee participation need to be embraced by the Association. I’m not old and cynical enough about the profession to think things like Midwinter are pointless yet – I’m here, I’m new, I have energy, and I’d like to get involved, so why is that so hard to do? It took a good deal of poking around to even find the ACRL New Member Wiki, which did have some decent information, but I feel like all the Associations could do a better job of telling their new members (once they’re in the door) how exactly it is they can really get involved. Perhaps a more pointed email could be sent to new members describing the workings of the Association, how committees are structured, what they do, how to get involved, and what exactly goes on with the “business” of Midwinter. I feel like I know nothing about what I can do at this conference, yet it’s the only one I can go to this year (Anaheim? Are you joking?)

So, seasoned friends, should I bother taking the train (12 hours, though it is my preference) down to Philly? Will you let me lurk in your meetings or will beefy librarians toss me out on my ear? I have this platform to query the ACRLog readership, but what about the rest of the MLS class of ’07 that has the enthusiasm but no clue how to get started?

Adventures in Conferenceland

I recently returned from attending my first conference as a capital “L” Librarian, but it was momentous for another reason: I was actually a speaker. If you’re wondering how exactly a “first-year nothing” ends up speaking at a national conference, well, press on, dear reader.

I owe a great deal of thanks to my colleague Meredith Farkas, who essentially roped me into it. She was asked to fill in for a last minute cancellation less than two months before the conference, and said she’d do it if she could split the time with someone else. She then informed me that I was that someone else. After some mild protestations (well, OK, tears and shouting) I agreed to do it. We set about putting together a presentation on user generated content and split up our allotted time. We brainstormed points and examples, and borrowed some slides from another talk she’d given recently on a related topic. After that, I just practiced my part and hoped it would all be over soon.

Of course, in the end the talk went very well – it was probably a review for some people, but seemed to be enlightening for others. I spoke a little too fast (like always) but had energy and humor that were hopefully appreciated. Above all I learned not to be afraid of all of you out there. We really are all in this together, and we move the profession forward by sharing, networking, and working together. I’m not sure if I would have applied to speak on my own, but I believe I ended up giving a positive contribution (however minor) to the conference, despite my previous underestimation of my abilities. I suppose this is all to say that all of you out there who can’t see themselves putting together a presentation or speaking at a conference should reconsider what you have to offer. I don’t know that I would have done it without a push from Meredith, so I hope this meager blog entry will inspire someone else out there to give it a try.

Aside from that, the conference was great. I quite enjoyed reading Joe Janes’ stuff while in library school, so it was great to meet him very briefly before his keynote (thanks, Hilary!). Casey Bisson is just down the road for me in NH, but I first heard him discuss his Scriblio project in California last week. I did meet a lot of new people, both friends of friends as well as others that came to my talk, and while I’m not exactly sure how all that networking will pay off, I did finally feel like a real member of the profession. I’m looking forward to attending and participating further in what we do for academic librarianship outside of our offices, and am now thinking about putting together a presentation on my own – but what do I talk about? Do I examine something my library’s doing and see if it would help others, or do I try to develop something new and ambitious? I understand that sometimes there can be quite a bit of tension between one’s daily duties and a perceived responsibility to the profession at large – anyone have any suggestions to a newbie on how to best navigate this?

Tales of a First Year Nothing

The first installment from Josh Petrusa, in his first year as E-Resources Librarian at Norwich University.

So here I am, almost three months into my first professional position, and the rehearsals are over. Four years of non-professional work, two years of library school, six months of a job search, and a month of getting accustomed to my new surroundings, and now I’m facing live ammo, to use the parlance of my new institution. I’ve got real research questions from real students, faculty to meet, instruction to teach, two weeding projects that need my attention, electronic access modes to tweak, and a budget line in my discretion waiting to be spent. It feels like I woke up from a long dream and found myself to be a responsible professional academic librarian (and being called “Sir,” no less) with colleagues, students and faculty treating me as such.

I won’t argue that I’m not deserving, or not ready, but it does seem odd to now be on the other side of conversations and issues I’ve observed in my non-professional capacity – my opinions have value all of a sudden (insert debate here regarding the quality of today’s LIS education). That’s not to say that I won’t be careful when making decisions or in acting on my goals for our library’s services – I do have responsible colleagues with input to offer as well, but it is a blessing being at a small library where an idea can be put into action fairly quickly, and with an almost immediate benefit to our patrons. I’ve seen plenty of projects I’d like to take on, but I also want to heed the advice I’ve been given by many colleagues to take it slow my first year and do a lot of watching and learning. Perhaps it’s just first year hubris talking, but I believe I can make a difference here and I’m foolish enough to believe I have the youthfulness to reach our undergrads (I’ve still got a few months left before 30). My title is Electronic Resources Librarian, and while I know I’ll be looking into further e-journal subscriptions and doing chat reference, my eyes are opening to everything else academic librarians have to do every day that aren’t exactly in our job descriptions – hey, I’ve already fixed my first printer jam.

Anyway, I look forward to sharing my hopefully coherent insights on what I’m learning in my first year as well as what I’m observing about the profession from my new professional position over the next year. Thanks for reading this far and I’ll check in again next month, but in the meantime please enjoy the work of my other colleagues reporting soon.