The Meaning of Life (As it Applies to a First-Year Academic Librarian)

The title of this post isn’t exactly true: I’m not sure I’ll ever really know the meaning of life. But more importantly: I can now officially call myself a second-year librarian. Today is the anniversary of my start date in the world of academic librarianship. Coincidentally, I’m also teaching my first instruction session of the semester today. I didn’t plan it that way, but it seems appropriate, does it not? As I’ve been preparing for this first class and the start of the new semester, I’ve been thinking back to the amazing and overwhelming amount of information I’ve compiled in my head (and file cabinets) over the past year. To take a cue from last year’s guest poster, Lauren Jensen, I’d like to provide a brief summary of the most important things I’ve learned, in hopes that it will inspire the new batch of first-year academic librarians:

• Never be afraid to reach out to colleagues. I’ve sent “cold” emails to several librarians in the past year, asking about an instructional tool they’ve created, or an article they’ve written. Every response has been welcoming and helpful!

• Don’t underestimate your students. It’s possible, when starting out, that I pegged many students as having an “I could care less” attitude. I’ve learned that it’s not that they don’t want to learn, they just need to be engaged and challenged. I’m still learning how to accomplish that!

• Try [fill in the blank] at least once! You’ll never know if an idea will work if you don’t give it a shot. This could relate to a new way of assessing information literacy skills or a new service for faculty. At the very least, you’ll learn that you’re very good at revising. 🙂

• Just because you’re interested in publishing, doesn’t mean you have to start out with an article or a book. Try blogging, writing for your alumni newsletter, or contributing book or product reviews for a journal. These are all things I’ve accomplished in the last year, and now an article doesn’t seem quite so daunting.

• Take advantage of free online professional development! While I’m lucky that my institution will reimburse me for professional development relating to my job, I know that’s not something I can go crazy with. Thanks to the folks at SirsiDynix Institute, WebJunction, the TLT Group, and even ACRL, I’ve been able to attend dozens of free web seminars. These opportunities have definitely increased my awareness and made me a better librarian.

Well, that about does it for my final post. It’s been wonderful having the opportunity to share my thoughts and run my ideas by the ACRLog readers during my first year. Your insights and encouragement have been much appreciated, and I am happy to say that I’ve learned a thing or two from your comments. I need to thank Steven Bell, and the other regular ACRLog contributors, for occasionally adjusting their posting routine to give us new librarians a chance to contribute. On that note, I’d also like to congratulate my fellow new colleagues on successfully completing their first years! It’s been great knowing there are others out there just like me, and that although things have been both challenging and rewarding during our first years in the field, we can feel confident knowing that there is an amazing network of supportive colleagues only a phone call or email away. Have a great year everyone!

When Stereotypes No Longer Apply

During their last semester, students in the LIS program I attended had to take a one-credit class called “Issues in Library and Information Science.” It was designed to get us thinking about current trends in the profession we were about to (fingers crossed) find work in, as well as help us prepare for our comprehensive exam. The students in the class were divided into groups, and each group selected an “issue” from a list we all voted on. We researched the topic, prepared an annotated bibliography, and led our fellow students in a group discussion. Some topics (which I won’t mention specifically) did little to inspire debate. One topic that did get a rise out of this group of future librarians, not surprisingly, was the subject of the “stereotypical librarian” image.

Now, I know there’s been a lot of talk about the image of librarians on websites and blogs, in movies, and elsewhere. But what these venues primarily focus on, as did the discussion in my Issues class, is what a librarian looks or acts like: bun-wearing, finger-shushing, glasses-around-the-neck, doesn’t have any fun, reclusive, female, older, etc. What I find interesting is not so much the “changing face” of librarianship, but the changing philosophy of it. By this, I mean the change from Librarian as Keeper to Librarian as Advocate.

I started thinking about this after reading a book that had a passing mention of a librarian as a meek, but strict woman, always pushing in chairs and admonishing patrons when the library became loud or books were left around without care. And this wasn’t the first time I’d come across the suggestion that librarians have played the role of crypt-keeper, protecting the book and the library at all cost (remember Lt. Bookman, from Seinfeld?). Likewise, in the past, librarians have been seen as all-knowing authorities on what qualifies as a worthy or unworthy read: in a recent book review on, a 53-year old woman recalls a school librarian who objected “strenuously” to her science-fiction reading habits.

I can’t say for sure whether or not all of these misconceptions were ever actually justifiable, but thank goodness librarians are no longer thought of in this way. Now, we have groups like the Social Responsibilities Round Table and the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (both created in the late 60’s). Librarians are still viewed as protectors, but now the objects of their protection are people and their right to information rather than just books. As our collections and resources become increasingly electronic, and the image of a “traditional library” continues to blur, one of the many roles I see modern-day librarians filling is that of an activist. I like the idea of removing ourselves from the idea of library as place, and providing access to users in ways our predecessors never would have imagined.

Whatever our reasons for becoming an academic librarian, I would imagine that many of us (myself included) chose this profession at least in part because of the opportunity to defend user rights and increase access to library resources (in whatever form they happen to take). My question to readers is this: how have you defied the stereotype of librarian as keeper? What kind of importance do you place in the role of librarian as advocate / provider / activist?

Why This is Important to YOU

Lately, I’ve been in a marketing frame of mind. The information literacy committee I’m on is busy coming up with ways to spread the information literacy word and develop new and exciting PR techniques. My regional library is just starting production of a newsletter, geared towards faculty (informational, but a marketing tool nonetheless). I’m brainstorming ideas for my tri-sided bulletin board in the library lobby. I’m even getting hit with marketing advice at conferences: a few weeks ago I attended my regional ACRL chapter conference and who should the keynote speaker be? None other than the chair of the marketing department at a local college.

It seems strange, because I’ve never really given marketing much conscious thought. It just seems to sort of happen. Of course I know that libraries, like any other “business,” have to “sell” their their services. But wait a minute: are libraries really businesses? Should they really have to convince people to use their services? These questions are loosely tied to the old Patron vs. Customer debate. At the ACRL chapter conference I attended, there were some rather strong opinions about college students being viewed as customers of the library, since they do pay enormous amounts for tuition. And I’ve seen this debate elsewhere, too (take a look at the Information Literacy Instruction listserv archives for a heated discussion on whether or not instruction librarians should treat their students as paying customers) . Some librarians think it’s outrageous to view students this way, while others think it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t really see the “library as a business” model as all that evil; in some ways, it even makes sense. Any organization that wants the population they serve to be aware of and use their products must find a way to let the population know about said products. This is the same regardless of whether or not your population pays for the services you provide. And there we have it: the essentials of marketing.

Now that I find myself actively involved in library marketing, I have to think about these issues. To be honest, I really don’t think it matters at all whether or not we call the people who come into our libraries “patrons” or “customers,” or even “users.” Even if I worked at some sort of fantasy free university (can you imagine??), I wouldn’t treat the students any differently (other than being slightly envious, as I contemplate my student loans waiting to be paid off). I’d still have to find some way to let them know about information literacy, or our workshops, or databases that will be of use to them. That’s why we’re here, right?

This brings me to my last thought. How do I get the point across that these are things they need to know? What kind of marketing works for this generation of students? My info lit committee has come up with numerous ideas, including YouTube videos (in the style of the DePauw Libraries Visual Resource Center) and having a weekly column in the student paper. We’re even considering something in the style of Lav Notes: a marketing tool that consists of flyers and advertisements posted to the doors of restroom stalls. I think we’re on the right track, but students can be a fickle bunch. While we struggle to find ways of telling them why information literacy, and whatever else, is relevant and important, some new style of media may be grabbing their attention. In the end, I just hope that they’ll be curious enough, desperate enough, or maybe just conscious of their financial investment, to be swayed by our marketing techniques and come by the library to see what we can offer them. But, hey, if all else fails, I guess they’ll always need to use the bathroom, right?

Time flies … or does it?

I’m always hearing people say things like “I can’t believe how fast [xxx] has gone” or “It’s that time already??” And I’m sometimes one of those people. In a few short days it will be June. That puts me only two and a half months from my one year library anniversary. In fact, at this exact time last year, I was interviewing for my job. I’m tempted to say that time has flown, and I can’t believe that I’ve already survived two full semesters of being an academic librarian. But as I look back on the past year, in some ways it has seemed excruciatingly slow. I’ve made the leap into librarianship fairly well, all things considering: I’ve joined committees, volunteered for programs, taken a swing at professional writing (thanks, ACRLog!), and faithfully continued my professional development. It’s my actual job that has slowed me down at times. There have been so many things to learn and figure out, and at times it has seemed overwhelming at best.

As I was thinking about this today, I happened to open my College & Research Libraries journal, and I came across a very timely and relevant article: “Adjusting to the Workplace: Transitions Faced by New Academic Librarians” by Joanne Oud (in the May 2008 volume, page 252). This article follows the experiences of librarians in their first years (three or less) as new academic librarians in Canada, and discusses things like pre-existing knowledge vs. reality in relation to issues such as job skills.

I found many of the comments from the librarians to be very familiar to my thought processes over the past year. One part of the study looked at differences from expectations prior to employment. Among the surprises, flexibility of duties and unstructured work days were frequently mentioned. For some, this was a good thing, for others, it was a struggle to know how best to fill up their “free” time. I’ve felt both ways since starting my job, and, again, it’s caused time to seemingly fly or drag. On the one hand, when I have projects to work on, I hardly look at the clock until quitting time. But other days, when things are a little slow, I have occasionally felt completely confused and at a loss as to what is expected of me. Luckily, I’m of the type that usually does more than is asked, and I’m not especially fond of just sitting around. So the “minutes ticking by” days are, for the most part, few and far between.

The study also asked new librarians the open-ended question, “What was the hardest thing for you to learn?” The most common responses ranged from “how to say no to assignments/projects” to “how to express disagreement effectively” to “getting things done.” I’ve always had trouble with refusing things (especially if a person asks nicely), but I know this is something I should get better at, as there are only so many things I can pile on my plate. Likewise, I need to work on properly expressing myself when I disagree with someone or something (and doing so without apologizing profusely). I do think I have the “getting things done” part down; thanks to my love of crossing things off the many to-do lists plastered around my desk.

I’d be interested in hearing comments by others who have read Oud’s article. If you’re a new librarian, do you agree with the comments in the study? If you’ve been in the profession longer than 3 years, do you remember these types of issues from your first years? I suspect the answer, for both questions, will be a resounding “yes.”

The Art of Questioning …

Well, I can now add “conference attendance” to my professional resume: I just got back from attending the LOEX Conference in Oak Brook, IL. Not that this is my first conference; I did attend the 2006 ALA Annual in New Orleans and the Louisiana Library Association Conference while in grad school. But as some of you might agree, I found it to be a quite difference experience now that I’m a librarian. As a student, I had trouble focusing in on which sessions would be the most beneficial. Now that I have a job, it’s a little easier; I can go to the sessions that correspond with my position and/or professional interests (which are, admittedly, somewhat varied). This was easy at LOEX, as everything had to do with library instruction and information literacy!

This conference came at a perfect time for me. Since there aren’t many summer classes offered at my university, I will get a break from teaching and have time to focus my energies on various projects that I’ve been adding to a list throughout the year. Among other things, I would like to find ways of improving our instruction program, and more specifically, how we can better engage students.

The theme of this year’s LOEX was “Librarian as Architect: Planning, Building, & Renewing,” which fits in quite nicely with my goals for the upcoming academic year. While I was very pleased with all of the sessions I attended (and believe me, it was hard to narrow it down!), I think my favorite was one entitled “The Art of Questioning in Instruction.” The presenter, Michelle Dubaj, from SUNY Fredonia, had attendees complete various activities designed to have us examine our current instructional styles. We brainstormed ways of passively/actively engaging with students prior to classes, took a quiz to see how often we recognize which students fall under different different categories (i.e. “are conversation hogs,” “are lost on their assignment,” or “will kill the mojo of group work”), and drew diagrams of our instructional spaces to see where our “active zones” and “blind spots” are. She also had the entire group come up with a list of possible questions to ask during instruction sessions, which she graciously offered to compile and send to us.

I will definitely be using Michelle’s suggestions and techniques when my next instruction sessions roll around. However, I don’t think the “art of questioning” has to be limited to instruction. Many of us engage students all day long, whether it’s in a reference transaction, at the circulation desk, or just walking around the library. And, going back to the title of the session, I do believe that questioning is an art, not a science. It can be hard and cumbersome to engage students, but this doesn’t mean it should be neglected. It may take a few questions and some gentle probing to get an answer, but in the end, I think the act of questioning makes our interactions with students much more worthwhile (on both sides).