Seeking Creativity in the Pandemic

I have always struggled with forced creativity. Working in an office, working at a desk, working at a computer have always been stifling. Good thing I chose to be a librarian, right? Of course, I have developed several strategies to help cope with this and inspire creativity and positivity in my work: multitasking, going for short walks, breathing exercises, and perhaps most importantly, listening to music. In high school I discovered that I did my best, most focused school work when I blasted music.

Music sooths my anxiety, allows me to focus, and inspires creativity when I need it most. This has led me down some fascinating music rabbit holes and to develop quite the record collection. As the pandemic began and I transitioned to working from home, I quickly realized a silver lining: I’d be able to listen to my records while working. In fact, I am currently spinning David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Working from home has opened the door to other new paths to inspiring creativity. A couple of weeks ago I attended an LIS Pedagogy Chat moderated by Lisa Hinchliffe. I have been extremely grateful for each LIS Pedagogy Chat that I’ve been able to make this semester, but there were a couple of discussion points from this one that really hit home. The session titled “What’s Going Well?” encouraged all sixty or so participants to share what had been working for them this semester. I didn’t have the energy to weigh in during this session, but listening to the successes of the other participants was a nourishing experience. For me, the question that brought out the most inspiring and relatable answers was, “What environments bring out your best work?”

The answers to this question included a variety of environments and actions that ranged from taking a nap after an instruction session to baking cookies while brainstorming. The librarians sharing their experiences not only portrayed these practices as legitimate but in some cases as necessary. This broader understanding of work environments and practices has been helpful to understanding the ways in which I work best.

Throughout the work day I often get urges to get up and cook, water my plants, take a shower, walk my dog, or generally get out in nature. In the past this has felt like some kind of breach of professionalism. And, while I have felt apprehensive about giving myself over to these meanderings, I have found that my most productive and creative brainstorming frequently occurs in environments that do not include the cold light of my computer screen. Taking a moment to unpack this, I realized that the act of doing something creative but relatively mindless, like cooking, triggers my creativity in ways that a standard work environment does not. Alternatively, less creative, but physically active measures keep both my mind and body from stagnation.

I’ve felt guilty about my wandering path to creativity and productivity, but hearing from other librarians that this can be a legitimate strategy has allowed me to embrace that work can take different forms and my best work doesn’t always happen in the conventional work environment associated with academia.

Transitioning Supervision Models

Three years ago I would start my day by opening a restaurant – taking down the chairs, laying out the silverware, starting the coffee, turning on the food warmers, setting up the bar, and commiserating with coworkers. On long days, I would end my day 14 hours later closing up a different restaurant – putting up the chairs, rushing the silverware back to the dish pit, dumping out the old coffee, tearing down the server station, and sweeping the floors. In those moments, I was quietly working by myself or catching up with a coworker. In either case, I was free from supervision – the front of house manager was usually counting money somewhere or just relaxing in an office with a coffee or beer depending on the shift. I mostly enjoyed working in the food service industry, particularly in the moments when my coworkers and I were free to exist and work without being monitored and surveilled.

There are a myriad of difficulties that come with transitioning from food service industry work to library and information science work, but one of the most bizarre has been the transition away from a strict supervision model. As a food service industry worker I was often micro-managed in my work and there were specific workflows. There was little room for creativity or taking time for self-care. As I transitioned to a gig as a reference graduate assistant, I found that I had more freedom but still had guidance. Projects and tasks were defined for me, workflows were mostly established without my input, but I was not micromanaged or surveilled. I enjoyed the work that I did and I learned a ton, but I still longed to define my own projects and workflows.

As it turns out, that freedom is a bit of a double edged sword. In my current role as a librarian, I have generally defined goals from the strategic plan of our library and my job posting, but my path is totally up to me. This has been a little anxiety inducing. While I know that I could reach out to my colleagues at any time, the nagging thoughts loom: You’re doing it wrong! You don’t know what you’re doing! Shouldn’t you have someone check your work?! These thoughts are vestiges from work and education experiences past. The reality is, I know that in choosing my own projects and pursuing my own workflows, I am able to bring a unique and valuable approach to the tasks at hand. But how do I ward off those nagging thoughts?

A few strategies have been helpful in combatting the ever present self-doubt. One is regular communication with my colleagues and peers. It has been particularly encouraging to have honest conversations with folks that have more experience. One of my colleagues told me they regularly ask themselves what the heck they are doing. Which helps remind me that being cautious and critical is natural and can be positive!

I’ve also found it helpful to stay connected with librarians through social media and regional and national library organizations. I’ve been able to ask questions when I need to, but often times I find that just reading and hearing that other librarians are struggling with similar issues and even making similar decisions has been helpful.

I do miss the work I did as a food service industry worker, but I don’t miss the strict supervision model. Librarianship comes with its own responsibilities and challenges, but also rewards! Some have said that imposter syndrome never really goes away. While I hope that this is not true, I suspect that I wouldn’t be a critical and creative librarian without a good healthy dose of self-doubt.

Re-envisioning an Instruction Program with Critical Information Literacy in Mind

My name is Kevin Adams and I am one of the new First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) bloggers! My pronouns are he/him/his. I am interested in critical information literacy, pedagogy, all things punk, and a bunch of other stuff. I am so happy to be writing for this blog and I hope that by sharing some of my experiences I can spark some fun conversations or just brighten somebody’s day.

I am the Information Literacy Librarian at Alfred University. Alfred University is a small private university in a little village in upstate New York. The closest city of note is Rochester. Because Alfred University is so small, I am one of eight librarians (including the dean and director). I don’t want to speak too much to other librarians’ workloads, but suffice to say we all have a lot of different responsibilities. One responsibility that we all share is instruction, and in my new position I find myself leading the instruction team. In this post I want to share my experience navigating reconstructing an information literacy program shaped by Critical Information Literacy. I hope to share what my goals are, what some of my strategies are, and the challenges I have faced.

Goals

The United States is a hell scape. Late stage capitalism is siphoning money from the working and middle class folks in this country to support billionaires’ and corporations’ hoarding habits; cops are continuing to murder innocent black and brown folks with no significant repercussions; climate change is driving natural disasters that are forcing people from their homes; innocent immigrants are being held in concentration camps where agents of the state are carrying out forced sterilizations; over 200,000 people have died in the United States from COVID-19; and the list goes on. I am aware of this, my colleagues are aware of this, other teaching faculty at my university are aware of this, and students are ABSOLUTELY aware of this. So, creating a standard information literacy program that doesn’t recognize what is going on in the world felt totally useless. For this reason, and others, I am trying to create an information literacy program that integrates Critical Information Literacy (CIL) throughout the instruction design and delivery process.

CIL is not the answer to all of the problems that I have listed above, but it is an approach that does not actively ignore the situation that we find ourselves in. CIL is an approach to information literacy that is informed by critical theory and critical pedagogy. It recognizes that information is not neutral or objective; rather, it reflects social, political, and economic power systems and privileges. CIL engages with learners as contributors in the classroom to investigate, understand, and use the contours of information structures and manifestations (Wong and Saunders, 2020). In many ways, this is an approach to information literacy that uses a social justice lens. 

This approach has two elements: 1) a deep understanding that information and libraries are not neutral, and 2) a centering of students in the classroom stemming from an understanding that students are important, active agents in the classroom. This agency allows students to contribute their ideas, experiences, and even expertise.

Strategies

When I applied and interviewed for this position, I centered my commitment to an inclusive information literacy program that, if possible, would implement CIL. Keeping this method front and center in my communications with potential new colleagues set the stage for me to have challenging conversations about neutrality and the role of instruction librarians as I began my new position.

Fast forward to my first month on the job. After getting acclimated to the new culture and climate of the position as best I could over Zoom, I started putting together a written Information Literacy Plan. I found myself in a unique position. Due to some shifts in the library prior to my joining, the previous instruction models were still primarily based on the ACRL Standards. This created a need for a new plan that centered the ACRL Framework. In filling this need, I saw an opportunity to incorporate CIL as a basic tenet of the Information Literacy Plan.

In order to tie the Information Literacy Plan into the values of my library and university, I consulted the strategic plans and mission and values statements for each. Alfred University strives to be “outside of ordinary” and uses language about inclusivity and diversity, affecting individual students, and changing the world for the better. While this type of branding sometimes leaves an unsavory taste in my mouth, it has allowed me to connect the CIL goals of social justice and inclusivity to the broader goals of the university. This has proven to be a failsafe as the White House has released statements that attack Critical Race Theory, an important theoretical foundation for CIL.

Implementing a plan for information literacy that negates that libraries and information are neutral from the very first page might not be possible at all institutions and might be highly controversial at others. In addition to creating a plan that ties in the values of the university, I worked closely with library administration. The Dean of Libraries at my institution is very sympathetic to social justice issues and information literacy. He has provided ample support for this idea from the outset. This has been extremely helpful in drumming up support for the idea amongst the other librarians, all of whom have been very receptive.

CIL does not exist in a vacuum. I was thrilled to find that AU libraries were actively working on a commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression. In this commitment the librarians showed that they were already thinking about many of the concepts that inform a CIL approach, for example anti-racism, false neutrality in academic spaces, the history of white supremacy in libraries, etc. Finding ways to talk to fellow librarians about these topics created fertile ground for the seeds of CIL.

Challenges

A little over a month ago I introduced the librarians to the Information Literacy Plan. The plan is still a living document and will be adapted as necessary, but it lays out a shared groundwork that can inform each librarian’s instruction practice. The plan was so well received that I nearly cried after sharing. It can be difficult to find high points this semester, but that was certainly one of them.

In spite of how well received the plan was, explaining and implementing it is and will continue to be challenging. Most of the instruction practices at my institution have, up until recently, been primarily informed by the ACRL Standards. Updating the program to include both the ACRL Frameworks and CIL is a dramatic shift. While working with fellow librarians that are excited and curious, I continue to find myself asking and answering new questions about how to best connect with and platform students in the classroom.

These challenges are compounded by the fact that all our instruction sessions have been online this semester. Centering students in a meaningful way during a one shot can be challenging in any circumstance. Add to that Zoom fatigue, frequent technical difficulties, and all the social, political, and environmental challenges weighing on our minds in 2020. JEEZE. It is not easy, and feeling encouraged by or excited about a session is becoming a rare occurrence.

I am still figuring out new strategies to overcome these challenges. I am excited to continue to share about this and other new developments in my first year as an academic librarian! I would be thrilled to speak with anyone about what this process has looked like, share strategies, or just commiserate. You can reach me by email, or hit me up on twitter @a_rad_librarian.