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.

Diversity Fellowships: Finding Your Place in Academic Librarianship

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Karina Hagelin, Outreach and Instruction Librarian and Diversity Fellow at Cornell University Library.

Hello there, colleagues and comrades. I’m Karina and I’m one of your new First-Year Academic Librarian bloggers! I’m currently a Diversity Fellow and Outreach and Instruction Librarian at Cornell University Library (CUL). For my first post, I thought I’d introduce myself and share about what being a diversity fellow is like. 

Outside of my position as a librarian, I am also an artist and organizer. I create art, especially zines, centered around radical vulnerability, queer femme joy, and healing as resistance. I love cats; I adopted two kittens a day after I started working at Cornell and volunteer as a “feline friend” at the shelter I adopted them from. I think it’s extremely important to have a life and identity outside of librarianship. I enjoy writing snail mail to my penpals, collecting unicorns, reading, bullet journaling, and being crafty/crafting in general.

Many diversity fellows are structured around rotations, giving the fellow the opportunity to explore several departments. My fellowship at Cornell is similar, allowing me to learn more about academic libraries while building on core competencies and skills in instruction, scholarship, and research. My fellowship is supported through a mentoring program, continuing education, professional development, specialized training, and participation on library committees. Since I knew I wanted to be an academic librarian – but I didn’t know what I wanted to focus on just yet – this fellowship was an ideal fit for me. 

I spent my first rotation working in Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC) where I focused on working with our Human Sexuality Collection through archival processing and metadata creation, policy, and procedure. I was also trained on the reference desk with specific attention to the special collections and archives environment I was working in.

During this time, I processed my first archival collection – the James D. Merritt Collection – which includes the personal journals, correspondence, and other personal papers of Dr. Merritt. I utilized my knowledge of this collection (obtained through research and archival methodology) to arrange the materials from this collection (ranging from photographs to fifty years of journaling to bags of hair and dirt to social justice and activist papers) to facilitate research access and long-term preservation of the records. After I finished rearranging and rehousing the materials from this collection, I prepared a finding aid for use by scholars, using current technology, descriptive standards, and techniques (like Encoded Archival Description aka EAD). I also prepared scope and content notes for this collection. 

My primary focus was making digitized photographs from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Collection accessible by creating metadata for each of the 600+ images that had been digitized. Around the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, my hard work paid off and the photographs were finally available to the public via Cornell’s Digital Collections.

And of course, what is librarianship without committee and service work? I also was active on the Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DIB) Council, RMC’s DIB Task Force, as well as a few subcommittees dedicated to specific projects, like creating research and resource guides on diversity. With RMC’s DIB Task Force, we collaborated to create a 40+ page “best practices” guide for our department, covering topics from social media to events and programming and instruction. 

Eventually, it was time to move on from RMC, although I still collaborate with Brenda Marston, the curator of the Human Sexuality Collection, on a regular basis. My next rotation and current rotation is at Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University’s library that serves students in our College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, where I will be finishing my fellowship. I focus on instruction informed by queer and feminist pedagogies, outreach to marginalized campus communities, our Makerspace, and social justice advocacy.

In this time, along with two fellow colleagues, I co-founded the Equity and Empowerment Reading Group, a monthly social justice reading group focused on libraries for librarians and library workers. So far, we’ve read articles about and discussed topics such as recruiting and retaining marginalized librarians, salary transparency and wage equity, the invisibility of race in library and information studies, and sexism in women-majority workplaces. These sessions have proved valuable for cultivating rich discussions and building community at CUL.

I also founded the Women, Trans, Femme, and Nonbinary Makers Night: a biweekly meeting where all are welcome to come learn about making in our Makerspace. We recently collaborated with a LGBTQIA2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Two-Spirit, and the countless affirmative ways in which people choose to self-identify) student group, as well as Fiber Science and Apparel Design students, to host a gender-affirmative fashion night, where we shared our sewing skills and made, mended, and altered clothes together. It was a really fun and engaging evening!

This week, I’m reflecting on a First-Year Writing Seminar session I led on creating zines about Black feminist icons, activists, and organizations, focusing on organizing a disability justice event for the library system, working on coursework for a class on Trauma-Informed Care in Libraries, researching starting a zine collection at my library, and shadowing my colleagues as they lead instruction sessions. I appreciate the ability to explore and try out new things, learn from my brilliant colleagues, and do work on subjects I’m passionate about. 

If you’re interested in learning more about diversity fellowships, I recommend checking out the ACRL Residency Interest Group which “provides opportunities and a platform for current and former resident librarians and other interested parties to share their experiences, research, and availability of library residencies.”

Karina Hagelin is an artist, community organizer, and Outreach and Instruction Librarian and Diversity Fellow at Cornell University Library. You can find them tweeting about critical librarianship and cats under @karinahagelin or more about their work at KarinaKilljoy.com. They can be reached at karina.hagelin@cornell.edu

Doing Less with Less

Like so many of us in academic libraries and public higher education more generally, at my college and university we’ve experienced several successive years of budget cuts. My colleagues and I have done what we can to make changes that reduce costs with minimal impact to patrons, but unfortunately we are now at the point where it’s no longer possible to do more — or even the same — with less.

It’s challenging to do less with less in a profession that’s as focused on service as librarianship. My colleagues and I care about our students, each other, and our college community. We want to say yes, to offer support, to maintain our open hours, to teach that additional class. We need to keep our working hours realistic both for contractual reasons (library faculty and staff are unionized) and to stave off burnout; as the director, it’s important for me to take seriously the possibilities for burnout and low morale. When we reduce services and resources in the library we also experience a (completely understandable!) increase in complaints from students, which is an added emotional load on library workers.

It’s challenging to do less with less when we what we really want is to do more. My colleagues have expertise in and beyond their areas of focus in the library, and we’re interested in expanding our knowledge and skills as well. We know there are more services and resources we could offer in the library with increased funding, additional collaborations we could engage in with faculty and students, more work we could facilitate and support with facilities and infrastructure adequate to the campus population.

There’s no easy answer to budget cuts; while I continue to advocate for increased funding and to foreground student concerns, disinvestment in public higher education is not a problem that we in our library can solve. In working within and through the challenges of budget cuts we’re trying to identify the things that we do have control over, however small. I can’t add another floor to the library with more student seating, but we can revise and clarify our signage to make it easier for students to find what they need, especially during busy, crowded times. Keeping the front doors closed rather than propped open (with a sign that indicates that we’re open) this semester has helped cut down on the ambient noise from the hallways outside the library and has made it a little bit quieter overall, though we still lack a truly quiet study area.

Small changes don’t obviate the need for additional funding, nor my obligation to argue for it. It’s hard work keeping our chins up during times of austerity, and I want to acknowledge our feelings while we keep doing the best we can with the resources we have available, pushing for change while working within our current constraints.