Every Year is Someone’s First Year in Academic Librarianship

With all of the changes in our work over the past year, I know I’m not the only one who’s spent lots of time recently thinking about both the pre-pandemic past as well as the always uncertain future. This historical turn has had the ACRLog blogteam thinking about the past and future of our First Year Academic Librarian Experience series, and we concluded that the slower summer months mark an opportune time for a retrospective FYAL post.

First initiated by ACRLoggers Marc Meola, Steven Bell, and Barbara Fister, the FYAL series began way back in the 2008-2009 academic year, with founding FYALers Olivia Nellums and Susanna Smith. Looking in on their terrific posts from that year it’s so interesting to see that while some things have changed, many, many other aspects of their time as early career librarians over a decade ago have stayed the same. Olivia’s post that touches on “other duties as assigned,” those times in our jobs when we’re doing work we never expected to do, seems especially resonant to me here in the second year of a global pandemic. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that the category of “other duties” has sometimes been even more time-consuming since last spring than our usual job responsibilities. I have similar feelings on re-reading Susanna’s consideration of the challenges of collection development with constrained budgets, especially for smaller libraries, a persistent issue even before we had to grapple with increased requests for ebooks as our physical spaces were made inaccessible last year.

After a short hiatus, the FYAL series restarted in the 2012-2013 academic year with FYALers Rebecca Halpern, Ian McCullough, and Kim Miller. Their first posts for the year also highlight themes in early-career academic librarianship that are evergreen: managing a career change (because one constant about academic librarianship is that almost everyone’s path to here is unique), working through the new job jitters (relevant at every stage of our careers, I think), and the transition from graduate school to a library position.

In subsequent years our 2-4 annual FYALers have blogged about a huge range of topics. Learning and getting comfortable with their new academic library job is a common theme, including the experience of some who are in a newly-created position, as was Lindsay O’Neill when she was hired as an instructional design librarian. Many of our FYAL bloggers have come from the instruction and reference side of the house, and we’ve heard from Ariana Santiago on the overlaps between outreach and instruction, and from Sarah Hare about bringing our whole selves into the classroom. On our regular blogteam we usually have fewer folx on the technical services side of the house, and I always appreciate hearing those perspectives on librarianship from our FYALers. Jason Dean shared his experiences as head of a cataloging unit, and Erin Miller took us through a few days in the life of an eresources librarian.

Conference wrapups and discussions about aspects of the research and writing process also make frequent appearances in the corpus of FYAL posts over the years, hardly a surprise since professional service and scholarship is required in many academic library positions. While certainly the biannual ACRL conference shows up in our ACRLog archives, we’ve also appreciated posts on other conferences of interest to academic librarians, including Zoe McLaughlin’s notes on the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color, and Nisha Mody’s thoughts on the annual meeting of the Medical Library Association. Many new academic librarians are in tenure-track positions, and Heidi Johnson shared her appreciation of the different aspects of her tenure-track role. Of course, research and writing isn’t the exclusive domain of those on the tenure track, and we heard from Abby Flanigan about her experiences getting started with scholarly writing. And one sure advantage that academic librarians have in our research process is our familiarity with the tools of the trade, as Lily Troia reminds us in her post discussing using Hypothes.is for web annotation

Our FYALers have also tackled more difficult topics while blogging with us. It can be hard to talk about rejection and failure, in any context and at any stage in our lives, and probably more so for folx who are new in their careers. I truly appreciated reading Quetzalli Barrientos’ post on rejection in librarianship, and Dylan Burns’ take on failure and when things don’t go as we hoped they would. Struggles with work-life balance are not unusual in the first year in a new position, and in higher education jobs more generally, and Chloe Horning reminds us to take opportunities for reflection and recalibration when possible. The stress of a new and demanding job can take a toll on our mental health, in our first year and beyond. I have so much gratitude for Callie Wiygul Branstiter’s post about the impacts of depression on our jobs, and Melissa DeWitt‘s sharing some of the ways she prioritizes her mental health; both posts are full of insightful truths for all of us, whether we’re in our first year or Nth year as academic librarians.

Our most recent FYALers have had the difficult challenges of the covid19 pandemic to grapple with along with all of the other aspects of their new careers. As the pandemic was beginning to shut everything down in North America last March, Yoonhee Lee walked us through her new normal during remote work. And while the pandemic reshaped our academic librarian workplaces and practices more than we could have anticipated, there are constants in our work and in our FYALers’ experiences too. Valerie Moore shared honestly about her thoughts as she progresses on the tenure track, while Kevin Adams reminds us that collaboration is and continues to be critical in our work, and offers some strategies for success when we collaborate.

Finally, I know I speak for the entire ACRLog blogteam when I express my heartfelt appreciation to Jen Jarson for wrangling our Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect series. Thanks to Jen’s outreach there were 10 former FYALers who participated in this yearlong series during what ended up being the covid19 pandemic (the first post in the series was published on March 17, 2020). It was lovely to catch up with everyone who contributed a Where Are They Now? post, and to read their reflections on how their careers — both inside and outside academic libraries — have evolved.

It’s been so much fun for me to review our First Year Academic Librarian Experience series over the years, thanks for reading if you’ve made it this far! And if you’re starting your first year as an academic librarian we’d love to have you join us on ACRLog for next year as a FYAL blogger — keep an eye out for a call for applications to come later this summer.

Evaluating Evaluations During a Continuing Crisis

As we enter year two of this pandemic, I’m thinking about annual evaluations. At my university our annual evaluation schedule has library faculty writing our own annual reports and our appointments committee holding evaluation meetings in late Spring, and reappointment and tenure votes happen in the early Fall. And while schedules may differ at other colleges and universities, now that we’ve lived a full year with covid19 everyone has probably had an opportunity to go through the evaluation cycle at least once.

Last year there were lots of articles in higher education news outlets discussing the extraordinary circumstances of the abrupt shift to remote operations during the pandemic, and it seems like many (most?) institutions canceled student evaluations last Spring, as did my institution. While the college where I work extended due dates for faculty annual reports last year, they were still required, as were evaluation meetings and supervisor reports. This academic year our student evaluations of teaching are proceeding as usual, and all signs so far are that our annual reports and evaluations will be, too.

Librarians are faculty at my university and with the contractual requirements for evaluation dates and processes we’re not able to make changes at our local level in our library, so we’ll be going through the process the same way faculty in all departments are. But I still find myself wondering about the evaluation cycle this year. Should we be doing things the same way this year, when this year is still very much not the same as the pre-covid19 years? The uneven impact of pandemic on all aspects of academic life is well known by now, and especially for those already marginalized in higher education, including folx who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Abigail Goben and Nell Haynes are compiling a terrific bibliography of the effects of covid19 on women’s labor in particular, which has been especially concerning around time and resources for the research and scholarship often required for tenure and promotion. Just today there’s a new report from Ithaka S+R on the results of a survey that digs into the effects of the pandemic on women and caregivers, and the disparities in research and publishing are on stark display.

The faculty union at my university negotiated an optional tenure extension for those on the tenure track, and any faculty member can choose to extend their tenure clock by a year, to acknowledge the incredible disruptions of this past year. The process requires faculty to make that decision at the time that they come up for tenure, which to me has both strengths and weaknesses. It’s definitely true that for some untenured faculty, especially early career faculty, the pandemic might not end up having a big impact on their research and scholarship by the time they come up for tenure. Some may be working on research that can continue uninterrupted even with lockdowns and other restrictions, and others might have had to radically change or even cancel plans. Some may have newly available time and attention in their schedules to devote to their scholarship, without the need to commute, for example, while others have new responsibilities like homeschooling and other caregiving. Ithaka’s report highlights a similar decision at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that’s implemented differently: the one-year tenure deferment is automatic, and faculty who don’t want it can opt out.

I was glad to see annual evaluations as a topic of discussion at a recent department chairs meeting at my college; though I had to miss that meeting, a colleague attended in my place and brought back lots of useful notes. There seemed to be general agreement that extra attention is needed this year to be compassionate, constructive, and supportive in our evaluations. One chair noted that the annual evaluation is always a snapshot of a faculty member’s career – with faculty responsibilities in teaching, scholarship, and service, every year will not necessarily look the same even in non-pandemic times. I’m keeping in mind Dr. Amanda Visconti’s tweet during the CALM Conference earlier this month that quotes overhearing someone say “the pandemic is a stretch goal,” and I hope everyone who’s in the position of evaluator this year keeps that in mind, too. And with so much still uncertain for next year, as the vaccine rollout accelerates, as states take different approaches to getting back to “normal,” I hope the evaluation process can continue to adapt as the pandemic does, and continue to center support and compassion.

Similarities and Differences

I’ve spent all semester struggling with writer’s block here at ACRLog, feeling a lack of both focus and ideas. Which is not at all surprising (or unique to me) given the many crises unfolding simultaneously in the U.S. and the world right now. I think what I keep getting stuck on is the desire to write something useful, a piece with practical suggestions and ideas for how to make our experiences in our libraries and institutions this semester just a little bit better and easier, for us and our patrons. I sometimes feel like I should be writing more here about library leadership, shining light on my day to day tasks as a library director. But there have been so many terrific articles and blog posts and twitter threads about managing with compassion during this time of remote work and multiple crises. What could I possibly have to add to the conversation, surely everything has already been said?

At my college and university our physical libraries are still closed, and my colleagues and I are all working remotely. It strikes me that while so much of what I do in my day to day is different with our continuing remote work — from spending hours figuring out how to share and sign PDFs across each of my and my colleagues’ different home computer setups, to trying to figure out at least semi-reasonable lighting for my many zoom meetings — lots of what I do is the same as in the beforetimes. I still meet monthly with each library faculty and staff member I supervise, to catch up on their projects and see if there’s anything they need (and brief meetings are still okay). We still have a meeting for all library faculty and staff, and I still share as much information as I can about the budget, campus planning, and the promotion and tenure process. My tenure-track and promotion-seeking colleagues and I still try to hold coworking space for a few hours each month to support each other as we make some progress on our research, writing, and scholarly reading.

There are differences, though what’s feeling most different right now are mostly the details. I send a very brief update email to my colleagues each morning to let us all know if anyone’s scheduled out and to share other information when I have it. We’re now having our all library meeting every other week rather than once a month, just to make sure we all have a chance to share anything that’s coming up in our day to day (and if those meetings are brief that’s fine). Zoom fatigue is real, so it’s not ever a requirement for my colleagues to turn on cameras or to be participating in meetings on a computer — calling in is just fine, listening is just fine. I will admit that one detail I didn’t consider at the beginning of the semester when scheduling meetings is what it would feel like to me to have multiple back-to-back zooms. That is not a mistake I will make again next semester, for sure.

I appreciate all of our work in the library to support our patrons while remote. But it’s still hard, even 8+ months in. The college and university where I work decided several weeks ago that next semester will again be held overwhelmingly online, and like most of the other campuses our library will not be open to patrons next semester, nor will library faculty and staff be required to work onsite. I’m so grateful that we’ll be able to work safely off-campus next semester, though I miss working in person with everyone, so much.

I’m not sure that I’m leaving us with anything useful at the end of this post, despite my intentions. It’s easy for me to focus on the differences, the difficult differences in the ways we are all having to work together now. Though in writing this I’m reminded of how much is the same in our work, a reminder that’s helpful to me, and perhaps to you, too.

Open Libraries, Closed Spaces

Though we’re a month into this unprecedented continuing pandemic semester at the college and university where I work, I’m still finding myself getting used to these remote working conditions. I work at a commuter college in New York City; at our university campuses have been mostly closed since last March, and we’re offering classes overwhelmingly online this semester. At my college there are a few health sciences courses that require specialized equipment that are being held on campus, adhering to social distancing and health reporting requirements from the state, but other than that our campus is inaccessible to our 16,000 students, including the physical library.

Among all of my other thoughts and feelings, I’ve been mulling over how very strange it is that I’ve spent over a decade researching how and where students study in (and beyond) our libraries, and now there are no students studying in our library. I’ve been in the library sporadically to check on the facilities, and while it’s odd to be in the completely empty space, I’m grateful for my office there as an occasional complement to my workspace setup at home. I also appreciate that my 2BR apartment has enough space for my spouse, kid, and I to each work mostly privately if need be (though I wouldn’t say no to an extra room if one were to spontaneously appear). Walking or biking to work is an option for me, so I’m lucky to be able to avoid public transportation, too.

My colleagues and I are hearing from students on chat reference and via email and social media, many with the kinds of questions we’ve come to expect: Can I return my book? (if you can, please hold onto it until campus reopens) Am I being fined for returning books late? (no, we’re waiving fines while campus libraries are closed) Can I access databases and ebooks from home? (yes, here’s how to login). And while we have had a few students seeking access to our physical space for studying and computer use, those requests have been much less numerous than I would expect given what my research partner and I have learned about the challenges our commuter students face in doing coursework at home. The general caution among many NYC residents after the enormous toll that Covid19 took on the city last spring is probably a factor, as is the college’s location in downtown Brooklyn; while we’re very convenient to public transit, not everyone is comfortable returning to the subways and buses yet.

I suspect that the pre-pandemic challenges that our students shared around finding a suitable location to read and study for their classes, and to research and write papers and assignments, have grown enormously for them in the past six months. They may have inadequate computer or internet access at home, and shared technology may be even more stretched as siblings, parents, roommates, and others need access for their school or work (though I should note that the university has provided laptops and hotspots to many students). More people in the same amount of space for more time means more activity and noise (in our neighbors’ apartments, too), making it even harder for students to find a distraction-free space for studying. And the virus is still with us — students and their loved ones may be sick. I look at the empty carrels in the library and think about the appreciation so many students expressed for them, how the enclosed desk afforded them the privacy and interruption-free space they needed to focus on their academic work.

How can we support students’ need for study spaces while campuses are closed? Here in NYC there are still limited indoor spaces open, so many of the third places students may otherwise have had access to are still unavailable. There are outdoor locations with wifi, plazas and parks, and I’m sure some students are studying there. Are there digital ways we can support students, virtual study groups, perhaps, or would that just lead to more Zoom overwhelm?

It’s hard to figure out how to fill some of those academic needs that our physical library space satisfied for our students. While the college has faced budget cuts this year, we’ve been able to keep some of our part-time library assistants this semester working remotely. Many are students or former students, and I’m hoping to find time this semester to plan a few informal meetings with them, if they’re amenable, and to listen and learn from them about what their academic experience has been like, and how the library might support them in digital spaces while we wait until it’s safe to return to our physical spaces.

We Have Already Made It

I’ve spent the last few weeks of what has been an unusually hectic start to the semester thinking lots about Emily’s post from last month, Breaking the “Fake It” Habit. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend that you head on over and do, I can wait. Emily writes about fear of not knowing at work, especially topics or workflows that it seems like everyone else knows, and feeling the pressure to present ourselves as knowledgeable and competent (imposter syndrome, for example).

Emily’s terrific post hit home for me, and I’m planning to share it with all of my colleagues in the library where I work. As the director I strive to create an environment where all library workers in all of our various titles and full-time/part-time status can feel comfortable asking questions, making mistakes, learning and adding to our skill sets. I also struggle with the embarrassment that I’ve felt and feel when I make mistakes, am asked a question I don’t know the answer to, or realize that others around me seem to know something that I don’t. In my best moments I can stall for a bit of composure-regaining time with that classic reference interview opener, “that’s a good question!” But not-knowing is hard: it can make us feel exposed and unworthy, which is an uncomfortable place to be.

In trying to build a habit of being gentle with myself when I’m in that uncomfortable space, I’ve found it helpful to remember that our patrons likely have these same experiences. When we don’t know something we are just like our students, when they come to the library for the first time and aren’t sure how to find what they need. Or our faculty colleagues, who may be newly-hired with prior experience at very different institutions from our own, or who are so busy with their work that they haven’t been able to keep up with announcements about library resources and services.

The university system my college is part of is in the midst of our library services platform migration this year, which, while stressful in many ways, could give all of us the opportunity to build stamina around not-knowing. The system will be new to all of us and used by all of us, from the folx hired just this year to those with 30+ years under their belts, for public services and technical services and everything else our small but mighty library does. No one knows everything, and there are always opportunities for learning in library work. With the migration here I’m hoping we can all — myself included — ask questions when we need to learn more, ask for help when we need it, and be gentle with ourselves, our colleagues, and our patrons.

Emily concludes her post by discussing a new opportunity she’s taking on at her library, and vowing to ask questions and stand in the uncomfortable space of not-knowing. I’m drawing inspiration from her, pushing back on “fake it til you make it,” and reminding myself that we have already made it, because asking questions is part of the job.