How are you doing? (redux)

Bird sitting outside a window
Photo by Ziba Maghrebi on Unsplash

We’re coming to the end of another year of grappling with pandemic-related changes across higher education, and the ACRLog blog team thought this might be a good time to check in on how things are going for all of us in our libraries, as we’ve done around this time for the past two years.

What’s the situation at your institution at the time of writing?

(Alex) As the College of Medicine’s library, we are attached to medical facilities and have the same masking requirements in place, visitors are still not permitted into academic spaces, and library employees are all still hybrid or entirely remote. The rest of our university, though, seems fairly back to normal; they don’t have the restrictions we do, but they do allow remote work on a case-by-case basis.

(Maura) Our campus and library fully reopened last Fall, and with the increase in in-person instruction at the college for the Spring we’re definitely seeing more students in the library than we did last semester. Still, it’s quieter than it was in the past, perhaps not surprising as about 50% of classes are still online this semester (we struggled a lot with crowding and noise pre-pandemic so this change is not entirely unwelcome). The university (and the college) lifted the mask requirement a little more than a month ago, though many folx are still masking on campus, both students and employees.

(Emily) We fully reopened last Fall as well, and in early March (coinciding with the CDC’s updated guidance), our school dropped the mask requirement, although as Maura said, many on our campus are still wearing masks indoors. Having more students on campus has meant more business for library services, both at the desk and over chat and email. I chalk it up to students becoming aware of our virtual communication options during the pandemic, and some finding that they prefer that mode even when face-to-face is available.

(Angie) My campus resumed in person classes last fall with a vaccine and mask mandate in place for a brief period. The summer prior, the Libraries began transitioning remote faculty and staff back to hybrid work that was at least 60% onsite. In the Spring semester mask mandates continued in all indoor campus spaces as Omicron was peaking. Then in March they became optional in non-classroom settings, and later that month became optional in classrooms. My impression of the physical spaces is they still seem sparsely populated by normal comparisons,  and request volume in technical services is still only 30-50% of pre-pandemic levels. We have had a lot of employee turnover and are in the middle of 3 of 5 faculty searches. This has definitely affected morale, especially since many, if not all, were already experiencing significant burnout before taking on additional duties these vacancies may have left to them. 

Do you anticipate changes in your library or campus situation in the Fall semester?

(Alex) We were recently asked how many days per week each person would like to work in-person after Labor Day, so the plans are being made for changes, but they aren’t finalized yet. It’s hard to say what other changes may come at that time.

(Angie) It’s hard to imagine *not* anticipating changes, right? But I hope the drive for normalcy will hold some sway in keeping major changes to a minimum. Orienting some new faculty and staff will bring positive, new change. In my area of the library we’re also seeing an urgency to support new orientation for all students – not just new ones. With the university experience of the past few years being so irregular, many haven’t had the chance to experience the usual things libraries offer students, like our spaces, the help desk, or ILL. Talking with my leadership, I’ve learned there is actually a campus-level priority to ramp up outreach as a matter of mental health as much as academic success. I love this acknowledgement of my favorite philosophical problem (not knowing what you don’t know) and the stakes and responsibility involved in helping solve it.

(Maura) We do anticipate that there will be more students on campus in the Fall, with an estimated 80% of classes scheduled fully in person or hybrid next semester (though that can certainly change as students continue to register throughout the summer). We’re starting a strategic planning process here in the Library that we aim to complete by the end of the Fall semester, so in many ways we’re not anticipating changes as much in the short term as we are thinking about changes we’d like to make in the next 3-5 years.

What pandemic-related challenges are you still facing in your library work?

(Maura) Librarians and staff are required to work at least 70% in person this semester, which has made scheduling somewhat complex, especially for service desk shifts. We’re managing it, though it took a few weeks to settle into our new routines. It’s not clear what the requirement for on-campus work will be for fall, but we’re keeping an eye on that. It’s also been somewhat challenging this year to reach students who started at the college last year and to raise their awareness of library services and resources. While that group did have information literacy instruction in their English Composition I course, as all students do, since those courses were fully online last year they didn’t have the opportunity to come to the physical library. We’re continuing to do outreach to all students and hopefully have reached at least some of that cohort with in-person instruction in their Comp 2 class this year. 

(Emily) The library staff where I work are all facing burnout and morale-related challenges, caused by negotiating telework and on-desk scheduling, feeling unrecognized by campus administration, and a protracted expectation to “keep the trains running” over the last 2 years. In light of this, our library director has instructed us to treat this summer as a period of recovery, urging us to take vacation time and avoid piling on extra projects like a usual summer. I’m hoping that this recovery period, combined with a reconsideration of some of our processes, will be enough to improve our overall morale.

(Angie) Hybrid schedules have turned out to be really challenging, both for those onsite who rely on others’ consistent onsite availability and for those who feel their work could continue to be done entirely remote. Selfish example: it has been much more difficult to grab coffee with my work bestie on a whim! The freedom we have been given to set the type of hybrid schedule is certainly nice, but it has proven practically at odds with rebuilding the kind of serendipitous connection for which it was intended. The variety of schedules means fewer people in the office at the same time for serendipity, or even intentional connection, to take place. The supportive technology onsite for hybrid meeting rooms is necessary but still kind of awkward – I think we prefer seeing each other in individual Zoom boxes rather than a combination of seeing individual’s boxes with another box of people distantly meeting in another room. I’m observing (guilty of) remote attendance at meetings happening from an individual desk in the same room! And maybe that’s OK. Maybe that is what we learned is necessary to preserve from remote work after all. I do worry that people’s pandemic-related burnout has been exacerbated, rather than eased (yet) by a logistical “return to normal.” The motions may be mostly normal, but people’s lived experiences have not returned to normal, and this makes it very difficult to authentically connect at large –  as a team, as an organization. Wherever our library has created those very intentional opportunities to connect, even in a hybrid way – award ceremonies, holiday parties, all staff meetings – this has seemed to help the most. It’s curious, right? That intentionality should be the necessary ingredient for serendipity.  

What positive changes have you seen this year in the ways your library supports the mission of the institution?

(Alex) We don’t hesitate to make changes that we think will benefit our users. I wouldn’t say we were “afraid” to make change before, but I think we’ve grown accustomed to pivoting (ugh that word) at the drop of a hat, so saying things like “let’s change this policy, it isn’t fitting students’ use of our resources” or “should our hours be this way, or can we adjust them to work better for us?” has become easier.

(Maura) We’ve also seen what Alex highlights — my colleagues and I are definitely more amenable to making changes in library services to align them more closely with what students and other library patrons seem to need, even if it’s different from what we’ve done before, or a change in the middle of the semester. We’ve adjusted printing limits to better accommodate students who are coming to campus less often, and shifted our study room policy to allow single-student use for taking online classes. We’ll be thinking about how students and faculty use the library now as we head into our strategic planning process, too, and will hopefully hold some focus groups in the Fall to help us learn more.

(Angie) At both our Library and University levels, there has been intentional effort by the administration to address salaries and diverse hiring in meaningful ways. We have had three different tiers of staff already getting across the board increases based on market studies. In my experience it is the hiring process that provides the most intentional and practical avenue for scaling awareness and development of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Given that we are doing so much hiring, and that those serving on search committees are experiencing that process, these are both positive changes to increasing DEIB awareness and (hopefully!) growth into other areas.

We’d love to hear how things are going in your library, please drop us a line in the comments.

Thinking About Space, Still

About a year ago I was knee-deep in scheduling focus group sessions with students at one of the colleges at my university, along with my fellow team members as part of our Data Doubles research. The focus groups were terrific — I always appreciate the chance to talk with students and hear their perspectives, in this case on data privacy and learning analytics. Recently I’ve found myself thinking about one student in particular. We’d shifted the focus groups from in person to online, and with campus access still restricted at our university last Spring, most of the students were zooming in from off-campus, some from laptops, others from phones. As we progressed through the questions and discussion in one focus group, I noticed that one of the students had moved from sitting at a table to walking outside. And a few minutes later, that student climbed onto a bus, swiped their MetroCard, and sat down with their phone and laptop, all the while continuing to participate in the focus group during their bus commute.

I’m sharing this anecdote in part because it’s still, even nearly a year later, amazing to me that the student could so seamlessly move into a commute while thoughtfully considering and responding in our discussion. But now that we’re back on campus more fully, I’m also thinking more about space, and how the library’s spaces can meet needs for students that may have changed since the pandemic began.

ACRLoggers have written a lot about space over the years, both before and since the pandemic, and I confess that I am almost always thinking about space when I’m in the library where I work. Like so many academic libraries at institutions with high enrollments and space constraints (sometimes but not always in urban areas), pre-pandemic we were regularly one of the most crowded spots on campus; at our busiest students sat on the floors when all chairs were occupied. Pre-pandemic we were also a nearly completely in-person college, with I believe less than 10% of courses offered fully online. This semester we’re closer to 50% in-person, 50% online, and while it has been truly lovely to see more students in the library space this year, our onsite use is not nearly what it was before March 2020. And in many ways that’s fine — every student who wants a seat can get one, and it’s much quieter in the library, too, which I know many students really appreciate.

Perhaps the biggest shift we’ve seen (and I’m sure we’re not alone in this) is the drastic reduction in demand for our physical computer labs in the library. I’ve heard from the director of academic technology that she’s seeing something similar in the other computer labs on campus, too. While a huge change (and, honestly, a relief from the long lines we used to have), it’s not entirely surprising to see this shift: lab use is down, but we have many, many more students bringing their own laptops to work in the library. Printing is also down, and it’s clear that our terrific tech team’s efforts to implement printing from students’ own devices, beginning before the pandemic, are meeting the needs of students who do still want to print their course materials.

The return to our physical space has also meant a return to students sharing feedback with us. It’s been gratifying to read students’ comments, which have been overwhelmingly appreciative sprinkled with occasional grumbling about the noise of students taking their online courses in the library (and we’re likely going to restart lending headphones). We’re also back to our pre-pandemic practices of walking through the library to take a headcount a few times each day, and continuing to observe how students are using the space. It’s clear to us that students who are taking both in person and online classes aren’t necessarily coming to campus as often as they did before the pandemic, how can we shift services and spaces to better meet their needs? And the library is still in need of a renovation. I’m looking forward to revisiting our renovation proposal — especially for one underused area that might be reimagined for more student seating — and thinking about ways that we might make our space more accommodating and flexible for multiple different kinds of use by students.

Mentoring Musing

We are still in the winter intersession at the college where I work, and I’m trying to use some of these quieter January days to work on projects that take a bit more focus (though I admit that focus is definitely a challenge right now with so much Covid uncertainty). I’m working with several colleagues across my university on plans for a pilot mentoring initiative, which has got me reading about and thinking about mentoring in all its forms — formal and informal, peer and nonpeer, the roles of mentor and mentee — more than usual.

When I first started at the college where I work almost 14 (!) years ago as Head of Instruction, there was a formal mentoring program for new faculty in the Library and other departments. I participated in that during my first year — I was paired for a few lunches and meetings with a tenured faculty member in another department, and it was useful to learn from her perspectives on the college. While the college no longer has the same formal mentoring program, a new faculty orientation program has been developed that I think meets many of the same mentoring goals. Faculty in the Library and other departments move through a daylong orientation in late summer, and come back together for several additional meetings with more experienced faculty throughout their first year. This programming helps new faculty learn more about the expectations for their work, including service and scholarship, and also helps build a cohort of faculty from different departments in the college, which I think is especially valuable for Library faculty.

In my own work in the Library as a supervisor, mentoring is a huge component of my job and something that I really enjoy. We don’t have a formal mentoring program in the library, in part because there are many folx in our library who are a department of one, and it’s proven more useful for librarians in those roles to connect with colleagues at the other libraries in our consortial university who do similar work. My colleagues and I all engage in informal peer mentoring — I’ve written a bit in the past on the ways we try to support library faculty research and scholarship — and we discuss service opportunities (and challenges) both formally during my meetings with colleagues and informally in department meetings or otherwise. I try to plan a meeting at least once a year to check in and see where folx are at in their mentoring wants and needs, and to talk about changes we might make to help meet them.

As I draft these plans for the pilot mentoring initiative I’ve also been paying more attention to myself as a mentee or potential mentee. At this point in my career there seems to be lots of overlap between mentoring and networking (maybe that Venn diagram is trending toward a circle?). I have definitely appreciated colleagues in leadership roles who’ve discussed their and my careers with me, discussions that do have a mentoring feel to them. And while I admit that Twitter’s been more challenging than usual for me recently (see above re: Covid uncertainty), as a longtime Twitter user I’m so appreciative of Library Twitter which I think can also allow for informal mentoring (and mentee-ing). I try to be available on Twitter in that way, especially when jobs are posted at my college or university.

I’m excited about the pilot mentoring program my colleagues and I are planning, and am looking forward to moving it forward this semester. Have you had good (or even not so good) experiences as a mentor or mentee? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Hiring During and Beyond the Pandemic

We’re welcoming a new colleague to our library this semester. I’ve read some great pieces about transitioning to a new position this very unusual year, including from fellow ACRLogger Hailley Fargo. And I think that much of what I’ve read and what we’ve done at my place of work in the pre-pandemic years still holds true. But amidst the onboarding and orientation I’m finding myself reflecting on how the hiring process has changed (and where it didn’t change) during this second year of the pandemic.

Like many institutions, hiring across the university was mostly frozen last academic year. I was so grateful when the freeze was lifted and we were able to list our position soon after the Spring semester ended. As is common in academic library job searches and as has been our practice in the past, once our position had been posted and we’d had our interview pool approved, we began with first round interviews of about 30 minute in length. In prior years we’d held these interviews on the phone, and more recently on Skype; of course now that we’re all on Zoom all the time that’s what we used for this round. For this round (and subsequent Zoom interviews) the biggest difference was all of us on the search committee zooming in from our homes or offices, rather than sitting together in a group in the Library’s projection room as we’d done in the past.

The second round interviews with the smaller pool of candidates, on the other hand, were very different from our prepandemic practice. These interviews used to include a presentation and a longer interview with the search committee, both on campus and in the Library. This time around we were again on Zoom, beginning with the presentation and continuing to the interview with the search committee. While we did have a library visit eventually, because of pandemic restrictions and what at that time was still limited access to our campus, we pushed that visit to the very end of the process and invited only our finalist candidate for a visit. For this search our finalist was local so we didn’t need to discuss relocation, though if we’d had a finalist from out of town we would certainly have arranged a visit as well.

While the search process was definitely different than for prior searches, there were also some definite advantages to nearly-completely online hiring. We invite all library faculty and staff to the semifinalist candidate presentations, and value this as an opportunity for staff that the librarian in this position supervises to meet the candidates. With these presentations online while our library wasn’t yet open to patrons, it was easier for all faculty and staff to attend. And with most personnel still working remotely it was also slightly easier to schedule some interviews, though the timing of the search over the summer months meant we were dodging vacation time for the search committee (which is the same with summer searches we’ve run prepandemic).

And I was pleased and relieved to see that many of the changes we’d put in place to make our Library’s recruitment and hiring practices more equitable served us well during the almost-all-remote search process, too. We continue to list librarian positions at both Assistant Professor and Instructor rank; the latter requires the successful hire to earn a second graduate degree within 5 years, which they can do at our university (with tuition remission). We also send the detailed schedule and interview questions to candidates in advance, and share information about the faculty union and salary schedules as well. I continue to be grateful for Angela Pashia’s terrific blog post with suggestions (and further reading) on ensuring a diverse pool of candidates for librarian jobs, which has been so useful for my colleagues and I as we’ve rethought our processes over the years.

It has been truly delightful to welcome our new colleague. If you’ve taken a new job during the pandemic, or been on a search committee during this time, we’d love to hear about your experience — drop us a line in the comments below.

Short Cuts for the Easily Distracted

I’m a couple of weeks later than I’d hoped to be with this blogpost, one result of what’s continuing to be an unusually hectic and unusually uncertain semester for me (and probably for many of you, too). But I had a thought on my morning commute-substitute walk today: why not write small amounts on a few different library topics that have been bouncing around my brain recently? So here are some short cuts, for (and from) the busy and distracted.

Hybrid is not the same as remote or onsite

This semester at the college where I work, library faculty and staff are working partially in person at the Library and partially remote, a situation that we usually describe as hybrid when referring to classes. I will admit that one of the things I’ve learned since the pandemic began last year is that I don’t prefer a 100% online job, and I’m grateful to be working in my office on campus 3 days/week. But it’s been surprising to me how much administrative overhead our new hybrid work environment involves. Last year when we went into lockdown it seemed to take ages for us to figure out some of our new processes and workflows; I especially remember the pain point of trying to figure out how to get PDFs signed and shared between multiple people who were all working on different devices at home. There are definitely administrative advantages to being on campus part-time — three cheers for easy access to printing and scanning! But it has taken more time than I anticipated to fully grasp which tasks are best done onsite and which I can still easily complete at home. On the (very) plus side: as long as the weather holds it’s possible to have face to face meetings outside on days when my colleagues and I are in at the same time, and that has been amazing.

Terrific award news

Library Twitter blew up on earlier this week with the news that Safiya Noble, among lots of other amazing and smart folx, has been named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. If you’ve not read her 2018 book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, I strongly recommend it, or you can search up videos of one of the many, many talks she’s given in recent years. I remember being so disappointed that I had to miss her invited paper at the ACRL Conference in Portland in 2015 because my own session was scheduled at the same time, and my City University of New York colleagues and I were delighted that she gave the keynote at the CUNY IT Conference in 2017. Noble’s work is timely and necessary, and this recognition is so well-deserved.

Thinking about teaching and libraries and interdisciplinarity

As soon as I saw the MacArthur news I posted it in the Slack workspace for the course I’m teaching this semester in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Interactive Technology and Pedagogy program. We’d started the semester reading Noble’s chapter Toward a Critical Black Digital Humanities which provoked a robust discussion in class, and our students are looking forward to returning to her work later in the semester too. I’ve blogged a bit in the past about teaching in this program; students come to this program from graduate departments in a variety of different disciplines, and the course is a great opportunity to think through using technology in teaching and research from multiple perspectives. I appreciate that I always seem to learn so much every time I teach it, both from my coteacher (this semester, a colleague in English) and from our students, who are often also teaching undergraduate courses at CUNY colleges themselves. This is my first time teaching the course fully online, and I’m also appreciating the opportunities to have even more discussion about open digital pedagogy and scholarship than we do usually, and to be able to bring the work of libraries into the course as well.

Ending with gratitude

It’s a tough semester all around on campuses and in libraries, I expect, with the pandemic far from over, and I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the things I’m grateful for, large and small: the clouds and sky on my walk to work in the morning, sharing physically-distanced bagels in the library with colleagues last week, and the time I carve out (almost) each day for meditation (thanks to the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course I took last year). And I’m aiming for a longer, less-distracted cut here next time around.