All posts by Maura Smale

About Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

Failure and Feelings

This semester I’m co-teaching a graduate class at my university in a certificate program in interactive technology and pedagogy. It’s a course I’ve taught before, though it changes somewhat each time I teach it, in part because it rotates between several different faculty members every year or so. The course focuses on the practice of teaching and learning with technology, and this week, our last “content” week before our students’ final presentations, the topic was failure.

We’ve had a session on failure during the other times I’ve taught the course, though I believe this is the first time that failure is leading us into the final presentations (and papers due soon after). Our discussion this week was terrific — the students and my co-teacher and I brought our own experiences with failure inside and outside the classroom to bear on our conversation, and we talked through both logistical/practical and emotional aspects of failure in academic contexts generally as well as around their projects specifically. An article by Alison Carr, In Support of Failure, was the focus of much of our discussion, especially about the emotions around failure.

It’s not yet the end of the semester (my college’s semesters go very late — 11 more days!), and I’m thinking about failure too. I’d meant to write more often on ACRLog this semester, but failed to do it. I’d meant to find something more interesting or relevant to write a post about today, but failed to do it. I’m thinking about failure that’s both general and specific: it’s not that I don’t have ideas for topics to write on, but that the topics seem either too well-trodden or too local. There’s a lot going on right now, though I do have time to write, but I’ve failed to take that time to write. I’m feeling all kinds of emotions around these kinds of failure, most of them of the mopey variety, though I also realize that here near the end of the semester it’s not unusual to have more feelings than usual.

When we were talking through classroom failures in class earlier this week, we talked a bit about failure in research and library instruction and how some experiences that might initially seem like failures can actually be pretty valuable for students. The pre-planned vs. spontaneous approach to teaching about keyword searching is a great example of the way a failure can be a useful learning experience. Students are unlikely to find exactly what they’re searching for the first time around, and for a librarian to model (in front of the whole class) that process of searching, not getting useful results, and refining your keywords and strategy to search again is much more realistic for students to see. And (I hope) it makes them feel less anxious about doing their searching “the right way.”

Thinking on this more today I’ve realized that a successful spontaneous search in an instruction session is somewhat choreographed, and still has some measure of control that prevents it from being a true failure. There is that element of uncertainty — it brings me some discomfort to be spontaneous in front of an entire class because what if it doesn’t actually work? What if we refine keywords again and again and still don’t find anything useful? There’s a right way and a wrong way to fail in the library classroom, which seems tied to control. I wonder, if we’re willing to give up some of that need for control, is it still possible to fail in the right way?

Puzzling Over Interdisciplinary Publishing

This semester I’ve been working on an article sharing the results of the research I did while on sabbatical last year. I was interested in how undergraduates access and complete (or don’t complete) their course reading, and I interviewed students at three colleges in my urban public university to learn about their experiences. My interest in this topic is multifaceted: I’m interested both as a librarian at a library that offers (some) textbooks on reserve for students and has a robust OER initiative underway, and also as a teacher who wonders why students don’t always complete the reading in courses I’ve taught, and also as a faculty member who hears similar questions about reading completion from my colleagues on campus (and honestly? also a little bit as parent of a junior in high school who’s starting to think about college).

This topic, like most of the research that most interests me, is interdisciplinary. While it’s library and information science-relevant it’s not solely relevant to LIS; it’s educational research but I don’t have a degree (at any level) in education, and folks who work in student or academic support services might find it of interest, too. As I gather and update sources in my literature review, initially compiled almost two years ago when I prepared my sabbatical application, I’m also thinking about where to submit the article. What journal should I aim for? Where’s the best home for this work?

Interdisciplinary research is interesting if challenging. I find that it stretches my brain in lots of ways — my lack of prior knowledge of the scholars and journals outside of LIS and a few other fields can make it hard to find sources, though as a librarian with a public services background my instruction/reference skills are helpful. Even so, sometimes finding keywords to describe a topic outside of my expertise is a puzzle. We academics love our jargon, and jargon often differs between fields even when describing the same subject or topic (information literacy, anyone?). Spoiler alert: our students recognize this as a barrier, too — during my interviews I often heard that students sometimes struggled with the reading in general education courses outside their majors and felt that their instructors assumed prior knowledge of the topic that students did not have.

I’m also finding it challenging to find open access journals that fit my interdisciplinary leanings. At this point I’m tenured and not aiming for another promotion, and I’m even more committed to publishing only in open access journals. Open access coverage is highly variable between fields, still. I’ve become so spoiled by the wide range of OA journals in LIS that I’m somewhat shocked when looking for journals in other disciplines. There are lots of fantastic OA options in LIS, but that’s not always the case in other disciplines.

In recent years I’ve begun to wonder whether the journal itself isn’t somewhat of a dinosaur, at least for interdisciplinary work. I use Twitter plus uploading to my university’s institutional repository as my primary means of self-promotion, hoping that the range of scholars who I follow and am followed by will help my work get to anyone who might be interested in it, both inside and outside LIS. In my own research process I rarely read entire issues of scholarly journals anymore, or even table of contents updates, with a few exceptions (that include those journals I regularly peer review for). A journal can be and represent a disciplinary community, but must it always be? There are multiple means of discovery — our usual library databases, social media, the various search engines — for scholarly articles. Is the journal as container for research still the best model, especially if it can’t easily accommodate research that doesn’t fit neatly into disciplinary categories?

On the Mend: Falling Into and Out of Overwork

I’d meant to write this post earlier in the week. Actually I’d meant to write an entirely different post earlier in the week. But after weeks of avoiding the winter cold going around at the end of last semester, and weeks of colder than usual temperatures where I live, last week my time was up. I’m fortunate that I don’t tend to get sick all that often, and fortunate to have paid sick time, too. Which I needed last week for multiple days of bundling up in blankets with congestion, fever, coughing, and aches.

I’m mostly better this week though still playing catchup from having been out. So I want to write a bit about self care and overwork and libraries. We’ve written about the importance of self care on ACRLog in the past. Quetzalli’s post a couple of years ago highlighted both the need for self care and some of her own strategies. And Ian’s post from a bit earlier reminds us that just as we may be dealing with issues that are invisible from the outside, so too are other folks, and it’s important to practice self care and have a generous heart (a lovely term).

I am not always the best at self care. Historically, I’ve sometimes struggled to use my sick days (when I’ve had them) for anything but the very worst illness. Some of this is my own internal work mindset — I’ve worked in academia for a long time, and the siren song of just one more project/article to read/grant or conference to apply for can be tough for me to resist. I’ve tried to be much more intentional about self care in the past few years. Some of this is a natural side effect of getting older, but also because I do feel that self care is important for everyone, as much as I still sometimes struggle myself. I need to use my sick days when I’m sick, not only because it’s better for me to rest and recuperate (and keep my contagions to myself), but also because I want to be sure that my coworkers feel comfortable using their sick days, too. A sick boss is not the best boss, on multiple levels.

Last week Abby wrote about vocational awe and our professional identity as librarians, discussing Fobazi Ettarh’s terrific recent article in which she defines and explores vocational awe in libraries (a term she developed). Fobazi and Abby both point out that vocational awe can lead to overwork and burnout in libraries, and I agree. Vocational awe contributes to making it hard for me to use my sick days. I’m working on it. I’ve been thinking a bit about bibliographic emergencies — the library is not a hospital, and there are thankfully very few situations or issues that cannot wait while someone takes a sick day. Our work is important, but it’s also important to put our own masks on first before helping others.

Personal Development As Professional Development

Like many of us I was dismayed by the results of the last US presidential election, and at one year in I’m even more concerned for the nation and the people who live here. One of the things I resolved to do in the aftermath was to make the time for some training that I’d long been interested in but hadn’t prioritized. Over the course of this year I’ve taken a bystander intervention workshop as well as a 5-week self-defense course, both facilitated by a local organization that focuses on violence prevention programs for marginalized communities. I also attended a one-day medical first aid training session offered by my university, and a one-day mental health first aid training held at my local public library and provided by the NYC Department of Health.

I consider these workshops to be more for my own personal than professional development: they were programs I attended on my own time rather than work time, and I’ve felt generally safer and more aware since, which I appreciate. But I definitely think these experiences have been useful for my work in the library, too. As a workshop participant I’m focused on listening to and learning the content, but I also pay attention to how the facilitators run the program. Do they lecture, use slides or handouts, or show video clips? For longer trainings, how often do they intersperse opportunities to participate in an activity (and breaks) with sitting and listening? How do they handle groups with folks who are reluctant to answer questions, or folks who take up more than their share of conversational space? I’ve learned so much about strategies for effective workshops from watching successful (and less-successful) facilitators work, strategies that I can bring to my work when I teach, lead a meeting or workshop, or give a presentation.

Most valuable, I think, is the opportunity these programs have given me to think about my community, both narrowly — family, friends, colleagues — and broadly, in my neighborhood and city. I’m more introvert than not, and talking about or working through sometimes sensitive topics with a group of people I’ve never met before is somewhat daunting to me. But for all of my hesitation I’ve appreciated the opportunity to listen to and learn from my fellow participants, diverse in age, experience, and background.

I went to these trainings because I wanted to learn strategies to deal with multiple kinds of potentially scary situations, but I’m grateful that they also provided me the chance to build empathy. The end of the semester is approaching with speed, the political situation continues to be disturbing, and everyone is stressed. I was struck last week by a Twitter thread by a social worker that reminded me how important it is, especially right now, to start with empathy. Let’s commit to being gentle with ourselves, our colleagues, our students, and our communities in this busy time of year.

Reflecting on Reference Services

A colleague recently invited me to speak in an LIS graduate class she teaches on information services. I was delighted to have the chance to talk with her students; it was even more of a treat since I attended the same graduate program for my MLIS, and the information services course was the very first course I took in my program (mumble-mumble) years ago.

The students in the course are varied in their career goals, and not all are aiming for academic librarianship or public services work. So while I did speak about how my coworkers at City Tech and I think about reference work in the library at our large, public, technical and professional degree granting college in New York City, I also tried to contextualize reference services not just within the organization of the library, but also within the college, university, and city.

As I’m sure is not unusual for colleges like City Tech, reference for us is not just about answering questions about staplers and printers, or helping students navigate databases and the catalog to find sources for their research projects. Reference at City Tech also involves questions about the college and university. The library is the only place on campus that is open for many hours in the evenings and weekends (and we don’t even have overnight hours). We’re also one of the few spots on campus with a person sitting at a desk that’s highly visible (our reference desk is just inside the library entrance), and that features a sign that directs folks to ask for help (ours reads “Ask a Librarian”). At our reference desk we get all the questions: about technology, logging into wifi, the learning management system, registering for classes, filling out financial aid forms, etc.

So lots of what we do at the reference desk at my college looks like answering questions though also sending students to other places on campus. And that has led to discussion among our library faculty; do we still need a traditional reference desk when traditional reference questions are not always the kinds of questions we get?

Lots of academic libraries have shifted to reference by appointment only, or personal librarians, or other models, but at this point we don’t feel that those models will best serve our students at City Tech. Most of our students have come straight from the NYC public high schools, where they may not have had a school librarian. Many are in low-income households, or are in the first generation of their families to attend college. Some have library anxiety — City Tech’s library is only two floors in the middle of a building and can seem so small and unassuming to me, but I have heard students say that they found it to be big and confusing when they first got to the college. Having a staffed reference desk can help the library feel like a welcoming place for students, especially new students.

We schedule a library faculty member at the reference desk during all hours that the library is open while classes are in session, and most hours during semester breaks. That said, we have made some changes over the past couple of years. Moving a technical support staff member to a slightly different location allowed us to reduce staffing by library faculty at the reference desk from two librarians to one. This arrangement definitely serves students better, and relieves librarians of having to spend lots of time reviewing details of our printing system with students (as I alluded to in a post last year). This change has also proved helpful in accommodating some expected and unexpected staffing shortages this semester.

However, there is still some tension in managing information services in relation to everything else that my colleagues and I want librarians and the library to do with our campus community. I’m not quite sure how things will change for us in the future — while we are interested in doing more course-integrated instruction and other information services work with City Tech students, faculty, and staff, it’s unclear whether we’ll need to shift reference, too.