Taking Care of my Mental Health

It’s not LIS Mental Health Week, but I’ve been thinking about mental health since starting my job as a librarian. In academic libraries, we work with students who are dealing with their own mental health issues. In my first, full semester as a librarian, I saw a student break down after she found out she failed a class and would not graduate on time; I talked to a student over chat who told me they were on the verge of tears because they weren’t prepared to do research for their project; I spoke with countless students on the phone who felt overwhelmed; and I’ve had grad students in my office who didn’t actually need help with research, but really needed encouragement and validation that they were doing alright. Beyond the university population, many of us work with the public and face the same traumas and difficult situations as our public library colleagues (I’ll never forget the  drunk individual who crashed my library instruction when I was a grad student, which is a story for another day). I often feel completely unprepared, but I do my best to keep learning and supporting the individuals in my library.

This can take its toll, but for me, figuring out how to support individuals struggling with their mental health is just one part of the equation. I also have my own mental health, including fear of inadequacy that will probably never go away, that I’m trying to take care of. I can only speak to my own experiences with things like panic attacks as a young adult, which disappeared after college, but came back during graduate school; or of lying awake at night, remembering everything I’ve ever done wrong and wondering why I’m the worst. Library school wasn’t the greatest time for my mental health, and studies have found that graduate students struggle with mental health issues at higher rates than the general population. I was worried and stressed out by a lot of things;  I worried I was inadequate, that I wouldn’t get a job, that I wasn’t doing enough, and that I would drown in my debt. I got sick and injured and fretted about healthcare. I cried a lot.

When I graduated and got a job, a lot of stress disappeared, but my mental health didn’t magically resolve itself. I found new things to worry about, which I imagine a lot of new professionals struggle with as well. It’s things like figuring out the politics people are playing, trying to gain the respect of your peers, unfamiliarity with tasks and processes that you’re now in charge of, paying back student loans, figuring out how to publish, starting a workplace revolution, wondering if you should be on more committees or in more organizations, and (at least for me) worrying if people even like you. I’ll also acknowledge that I’m a white female in a profession dominated by people that look like me. Librarians from diverse backgrounds have to navigate work spaces that uphold whiteness and engage in practices that are detrimental to their mental health, which is an added layer of crap some new professionals have to deal with. It’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of spiraling, negative thoughts that are difficult to interrupt.

For my own mental health, I decided to find a therapist. For the first time in a few years, I had stable healthcare. Unfortunately, I know that good healthcare is as a luxury in this country. It’s expensive, and it’s not accessible for a lot of people. When you do get things like sick days or time off, people can feel guilty using it. I also found out that I had my own stigma towards therapy. A lot of therapists in the area talked about helping those who were at a crisis point, and I didn’t feel like I was having a crisis. I started thinking that I didn’t really need a therapist, that I just needed to get out of my own head and sort myself out. Luckily, my fiance pushed me to find someone, and I requested an appointment with a therapist near me.

Having never gone to therapy, I didn’t know what to expect. I was super nervous to talk to a stranger about my feelings because I didn’t like acknowledging my own feelings in the first place. Now that I’ve been going to my therapist for a few months, I’m so happy that I contacted her. We get along really well, which is important in a therapeutic relationship. I’ve heard that some people have to visit a few therapists before they click with someone, and that’s totally normal.

The biggest thing my therapist has done for me is validated my feelings. Yes, it’s totally normal that I’m angry or upset about a situation at work. Anyone would feel that way! Academia is a weird place, and it’s fine to find things confusing. I’m allowed to feel stressed or scared or overwhelmed about things that happen to or around me. I just have to figure out how I want to respond to my feelings and the situation. She’s given me underlying theories about why people behave in certain ways, the evolution of emotions, interpersonal effectiveness, and the values we hold. I’ve been given strategies and homework to work on whatever I want to work on. Therapy has helped me feel less anxious and stressed, and given me the opportunity to explore who I am, what I value, and who I want to become.

Besides therapy, I try and make time to hang out with people I love. I ski and run and water plants and bring my dog to cool dog parks. I know other people who craft, learn new skills, read books, listen to music, and do whatever else makes them happy. Finding hobbies and doing things we enjoy are vital to good mental health. I hope that other new professionals find ways to take care of themselves, whether that’s through therapy or partaking in activities that relax them. This is the beginning of what is, hopefully, a long career.

How do you take care of your mental health?

Tales from an Unintentional Science Liaison

I’m sure this comes as a surprise to literally no one, but I have a B.A. in English Literature, which, along with History, is one of the most common, librarian backgrounds. Many of the librarians at my current workplace have a similar background to my own, though some librarians have second Master’s degrees in areas outside of librarianship. At my workplace, librarians are given collection development and liaison duties to different subject areas, and if you have a second Master’s degree in, say, Business Management, you’ll most likely be the liaison in that subject area. You’ll build relationships with faculty in that department, purchase materials related to that subject area, and teach information literacy to students taking classes in that subject. Librarians who have worked at the library for a while have obtained liaison duties in areas that fit their backgrounds or interests. As the newest librarian at my workplace, I was left with slim pickings, which is how I ended up as a liaison to biology and environmental science.

I have a tiny bit of background in environmental science from my work with both the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management while getting my MLIS; however, it wasn’t the sciency stuff I was doing. I created online content and digital collections, which was super cool and in line with my library degree, but gave me no understanding of mechanical girdling and bark beetle fungi. As for biology, the last class I’d taken in that subject area was my freshman year of high school. Suffice it to say that these liaison subjects are not in my wheelhouse. Goodbye, Austen; hello, Darwin.

When I was first given biology and environmental science as liaison areas, I felt, and still do feel, that I would face some challenges establishing myself as the go-to person in these areas. For example, I was told that that library hadn’t done instruction in these subjects for a while, so it might be hard to get into classes. I had no idea how I was supposed to purchase books for biology because I wasn’t sure how to assess our current collection. Biology is basically every living thing ever, so it felt daunting to try and build a collection that encompassed all areas of life with such a limited budget. I also wasn’t sure how I’d connect to faculty with a PhD in areas I knew little about. At first I thought, maybe I’ll learn some stuff about plants so that I can contribute to a conversation. This turned out to be a bad idea because I can name about four houseplants while one faculty member was able to identify every type of grass on campus by sight. As Zoë recently talked about, the liaison imposter syndrome was real. How was I supposed to become a science liaison?

At the beginning of the semester, I decided to individually email all faculty members in my liaison area to introduce myself, let them know I would buy them stuff, and offer to come to their classes and talk to their students about research. This kind of worked. I got some responses thanking me, some requesting a particular book, and one or two who seemed interested in having me come to a class. I found the most luck in a new faculty group. Any faculty member who was new to campus was invited to a retreat and a learning community so that we could get to know the university and each other. There were three biology faculty in this group, and I was able to talk to and get to know them over the course of several days. They later invited me to their classes. Building in-person relationships was valuable to establishing myself as a liaison.

Building relationships with faculty is important to me, but I really wanted to support students and their information needs. I was initially concerned that students would balk at my un-scientific background and I felt most nervous about teaching a Master’s in Biomedical Sciences class at the beginning of the semester. I was to talk to them about scientific, primary literature, which I know a lot about, but I definitely felt out of my element talking to students who were working in medical fields and knew much more about bio-med than I did. It turns out, I didn’t need to worry. After teaching the class, multiple students scheduled consultations with me, not because they needed my limited knowledge about biology, but because they were still not confident they could identify primary, scientific literature; weren’t sure how to narrow down their topics; needed help with APA; or wanted help organizing their research.

What I learned from these consultations is that I don’t need to be an expert in biology to talk about research and information literacy to biology students (though I know our field is divided about who gets to be qualified for science librarianship). This was true for master’s students, and I had one memorable consultation with a student where we were trying to find information on receptors, and both outwardly cringed at a very jargon-heavy article title. We were instantly on the same page; neither of us wanted to click on that article because the title sucked and we had no idea what it was talking about. For the freshman biology courses I taught, I needed even less subject-specific knowledge because I know about as much about biology as freshmen do. What does a biology freshman need to know about research anyway? Probably the same as freshmen in other fields, which includes finding, identifying, understanding, and synthesizing sources into their own research (amongst other information skills).

I also realized that I know more about my liaison areas than I thought I did. For instance, I may not be able to describe every scientific fact driving climate change, but I am familiar with the conversations surrounding climate change, the change in terminology over time, the contentious and political nature of the subject, and that there is a scientific consensus that climate change is happening. I also know that genetics, CBD receptors, concussions, maternal mortality in the US, polio reemergence, cancer immunotherapy, antibiotic resistance, and renewable energy are hot topics right now as well. Guess what students are writing about? If I remain up-to-date on scientific news and understand the general conversations surrounding those topics, I’ll know what students care about researching. If I don’t know something about a subject, students have been really cool about sharing their own knowledge about a topic, and I get to learn something new.

Remaining up-to-date with student work and research trends is something that I can do on my own campus as well. I think it’s important for me to support student and faculty scholarship, especially in my liaison areas. I recently attended an event where students in science departments shared posters of the research they’d conducted over the semester. Biology faculty were there and several students I’d worked with over the semester were sharing their work. They were very excited to talk to me about their research and some students recognized me from classes or consultations. In fact, one of the biology faculty members introduced me to a student as the biology librarian, and the student responded, “I know. She talked to my class about primary research.” I’m considering everything about that interaction as a win.

Though I’m achieving small victories and growing my confidence that I can be a good liaison, most days, I feel a little anxious and unsure about what I’m doing. Collection development is still tricky, but luckily, I have colleagues that know this subject area fairly well and can help, and faculty in biology have made their own requests for materials. There’s also subject lists and all sorts of resources to help me figure out what materials to purchase. I still haven’t connected with every faculty member in my liaison area, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to. Despite the challenges, I’m enjoying science liaisonship more than I thought I would. I hope that my confidence continues to grow and I become even better at supporting the research needs of my institution.

Are you a subject liaison? What are your experiences with librarian liaison roles?

Valuing Student Experience

Discussions surrounding student experiences and how to incorporate those experiences during library instruction have been a hot topic in library land and is something I’ve thought about as well. How can I best value student experiences and ensure that what I’m teaching is relevant to them? What do I need to do to make my teaching student-centered?  When I think about student experiences, I think about the unique backgrounds, perspectives, ideas, beliefs, identities, and skills that students bring into the classroom. I think about what I bring to the classroom as well and what all of this might mean for library instruction.

Student experience is at the forefront of my mind – now more than ever – because I work for a Jesuit university. Though Jesuit pedagogy is built on religious foundations, you don’t have to be religious to understand and adopt the pieces that work for your own teaching practice. Jesuit education is based on the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm (IPP). I’m not an expert on IPP since I was only introduced to the concept a few months ago, but there are a few things I’ve been able to take away from this approach to teaching. I’ve found it a useful framework when thinking about how to bring student experience into the library classroom, especially in a one-shot setting.

In IPP, experience is labelled as context. On page 10, section 35 of the IPP document, context is explained as this:

Since human experience, always the starting point in an Ignatian pedagogy, never occurs in a vacuum, we must know as much as we can about the actual context within which teaching and learning take place. As teachers, therefore, we need to understand the world of the student, including the ways in which family, friends, peers, youth culture and mores as well as social pressures, school life, politics, economics, religion, media, art, music, and other realities impact that world and affect the student for better or worse. Indeed, from time to time we should work seriously with students to reflect on the contextual realities of both our worlds. (IPP, p. 10)

Essentially, we need to understand the world surrounding students and how that world works for or against them. I don’t think there’s an easy, one-size fits all approach to doing this. If critically reflecting on and incorporating student experiences into library instruction were easy, everyone would do it right now; however, there are many ways we can value students. For me, the first step to valuing a student’s context is to not make assumptions about their world. I can’t assume that every student has the same educational background, cultural identity, socioeconomic status, experience with technology, or beliefs about a subject. If I do make those assumptions, I’m already de-valuing the experiences a student brings into my classroom; I’m forcing my own experiences and understandings of the world onto them. I have to actively practice this because I have my own implicit biases that affect my worldview and how I interact with students. Reshaping the way we think about students, what they bring to the classroom, and what we think they know is an active and ongoing process.

Since many librarians teach one-shots, or sessions that are shorter than the typical for-credit class, it can be difficult to really get to know the students in our classrooms. With these constraints, I really struggle with the question of how to build context with such little time because I want to build continuing relationships and strong connections, which are not possible in one, 75 minute class. I think context can be built in smaller ways. Conversations with faculty before library instruction help build context. We can understand the class students are in, the topics that they are studying, and the assignment that they are working on. We can also be aware of campus, state, country, and worldwide issues that affect student lives.

Within library instruction, there are ways that we can continue to value student experiences. One way to do this is with short questions at the beginning of class such as asking students if they’ve been to the library before, what their major is, or who they go to for research help. Any information about what students know and where they are coming from is useful. Using varied and inclusive examples can also ensure that multiple backgrounds are valued. I also try to make references students can connect to, and I’ll check in with students to make sure they are still relevant (Do you all use Twitter? Is SparkNotes still a thing?). I think it’s also important to connect new concepts or tools to things that students already know because that acknowledges their life outside the classroom. If students use Google, let’s talk about Google and how that relates to library research.

Thinking back to the context section of the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm, one thing I find helpful are the questions posed at the end of the paragraph such as, “How do world experiences affect the very way in which students learn, helping to mold their habitual patterns of thinking and acting?” Class discussions are a place where students can both share their own experiences and also critically reflect on how their own lives influence their understanding of information. This is, again, difficult in a one-shot setting because we have to take the time to build familiarity with students so they feel comfortable talking to and with us. Luckily, I had several opportunities to work with a class multiple times throughout the semester, which allowed for more open conversations surrounding power, belief systems, and how that relates to information. I hope multiple instruction sessions become more of a norm for libraries in the future.

The last idea surrounding student experiences that I’ve been thinking about is how context-building goes beyond a library instruction session. I struggled with how to check-in with students after instruction, and one of my colleagues mentioned that she offers a follow-up email later in the semester to any student who wants one. It’s a simple idea, and it works. At the end of instruction, I pass a sheet around for any student who wants to write down their email for a check-in. A week later, I’ll send them an email asking how they are doing and let them know that they can contact me at any time if they need help. Most students don’t reply, but I’m surprised by the amount that do (especially once assignments are due!). It allows an opportunity to continue working outside of the classroom, learn more about students, and engage one-on-one. Beyond email follow-ups, attending student presentations and speeches, events, and celebrations on campus show students that we care about their lives and experiences.

Students are at the center of our work in academic libraries, and we should value the different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences that they bring into the classroom. There’s no singular way to build or establish context, which can feel daunting, but we can start with smaller ideas, both inside and outside the library.

How do you recognize student experiences in library instruction?