In search of community

I’ve always felt a strong sense of professional community as a librarian. I had a close local cohort of friends in my distance MLIS program, a fantastic group of ALA Spectrum Scholars who helped me feel accepted and included, and great colleagues. I’ve been lucky to have worked at institutions that invest in the professional development of their librarians (especially early-career folks) and therefore have been able to attend conferences, leadership institutes, and other learning experiences. I joined the social media platform formerly known as Twitter in 2008 and shared thoughts there and via my personal blog, connecting with librarians across the country on everything from critical information literacy to elder millennial jams.

Then the pandemic hit. We still had all the finest web-based apps needed to maintain our ability to work, but something about connecting online didn’t feel right anymore. It was simultaneously too much and not enough. I missed grabbing dinner with friends, going to yoga class in person, and visiting family (among all of the comforts of having a “normal” day-to-day life). The isolation was crushing. All of the fledgling communities I had started to build in a new city crumbled and the long standing professional community in LIS was struggling. We all trickled back into our “normal” routines eventually, but things were markedly different. We were different, and the communities that sustained us throughout the years of isolation were not necessarily the same ones we relied on pre-pandemic.

I finally left what was then still Twitter in 2023, as did many of my colleagues and friends. I’ve struggled to feel motivated enough to attend conferences and professional activities in person given the number of free or low-cost online offerings (book a flight and wait to be reimbursed? in this economy?). But I do miss being able to catch up with colleagues at other institutions in person. I miss the serendipitous collaborations that sprung for venting sessions over coffee or lunch after a thought-provoking presentation. I miss getting to know people outside of their identities as librarians. I don’t know where the librarians are online anymore, but I know that I miss them! Occasionally we see one another in professional service organization meetings, private-chatting each other via Zoom, but of course, it’s not quite the same.

I am very curious to discover what community looks like now for folks in LIS, especially early-career folks. I will admit that moving into a management position and recognizing that I’ve been in libraries for 17 years(!!!!) have also contributed to a shift in community for me, but it hasn’t changed the fact that I need a community. I think we all do. We all want to feel understood and valued in our profession. So what does librarian community look like now, and what can we make it?

Returning & Relearning

This month I returned to a yoga studio for the first time since March 2020. The studio I used to frequent did not make it through the pandemic, despite pivoting to online class offerings, so I spent the majority of the past 2.5 years with a fitness routine aimed primarily at boosting my mental health in the outdoors. It was a safer alternative and helped lessen the feeling of being cooped up at home.

This winter I finally felt like I was in a place to practice yoga in a studio (which I recognize is a decision each person needs to make for themselves). A new one opened up near me, and I decided to try it out for a month. I signed up for a beginners hot yoga class, knowing that it had literally been years since I’d had a solid yoga practice. When I entered the room on a Wednesday evening I was excited and nervous. The room was quiet, there was plenty of space between people, and I began to feel a familiar sense of calm.

The class began at a slow, beginner’s pace, with the instructor calling out modifications for those who needed them, as well as opportunities to up-level certain poses. I remembered most of the poses but my movements were stiff and clumsy. I didn’t have the balance or range of motion I had previously gained from practicing multiple times a week. My body was different, older, and my joints reminded me of that with a pop! every time I moved between certain poses. There were a few poses I couldn’t quite remember, so I relied on the guidance and example of the instructor and others in the class. There were some poses I remembered but just couldn’t do anymore.

I wasn’t a complete novice–I had a decent yoga practice before the pandemic–but I was returning to an activity that I hadn’t done in years. I needed a beginner’s pace, but not necessarily beginner instruction. I sometimes knew what to do but couldn’t quite make my body do it. I felt like I was relearning the flow of yoga: how to begin, transition, and end at my new pace. I need different supports (blocks, bolsters, etc.) at different points in class now, and I need time to work on my flexibility and ability to meditate.

This isn’t the first time that a yoga class has made me reflect on what it means to be a learner, but it did foster a different kind of understanding. In my department my colleagues and I often work with learners who are returning to the classroom after a significant amount of time away from university. They might be working on completing an undergraduate degree, or, more commonly, working on a graduate degree. They often bring a wealth of experience from their jobs and work in the community, but admit that the university, and the library, look very different from when they first attended. They grasp certain concepts quickly, while others require more time to internalize. Their research often benefits from their strong content knowledge and practical experience, however some are just beginning to flex their research, reading, and writing skills again.

As teaching librarians, it’s an interesting balance we need to strike with returning learners. We want to honor their existing knowledge but also can’t make assumptions about what they know or don’t know. We want to give them the space an opportunity to try things out on their own, but also want to be available for assistance as needed. There is no room for “You’re a graduate student so you should know this,” in this space. What I think it comes down to is an awareness and respect of what it means to be a learner returning to the classroom, nervously excited (or in a state of dread or somewhere in between), and wanting to be seen not as a novice but as a learner in a different state. I don’t think there is a good word for a returning student. “Relearner” sounds clunky and inaccurate. I don’t even necessarily think these learners require a label, as long as we remember to check our assumptions and hold space for all learners to begin from their own beginning points.

Recruiting New Librarians

It’s been such a tough pandemic for academic librarian job seekers, particularly new graduates. Enrollment declines led to shrinking budgets which in turn meant disappearing job opportunities when so many librarians needed them most. I feel very lucky to be in a library that has had the budget, personnel, and time to hire several new librarians this academic year. Later this summer I’ll be in a position to hire both a Teaching & Learning Librarian and a Student Success Librarian. I’ve been working on the job description and thinking a lot about the recruitment of new colleagues. I definitely have the usual concerns about the construction of the job advertisement:

  • Is the language used to describe the position responsibilities accessible to librarians new to the profession?
  • Are we including a salary range?
  • Am I asking too much under Required Qualifications?
  • Does the job ad emphasize our library’s commitment to anti-racism, equity, and inclusion?
  • Will the position description sound appealing and welcoming to librarians from different backgrounds and communities?
  • Does it make our department sound like a good place to work?

I shared my initial draft with our assistant department head and two new(ish) librarian colleagues who had recently been through the job search process. They offered helpful edits and suggestions, and I was able to pass on our draft to our Associate Dean for Organizational Development and Learning.

But there are the OTHER factors to consider when thinking about recruitment, ones inextricably linked to the pandemic, politics, and legislation. The last few years have been and continue to be difficult for people with disabilities, compromised immune systems, families, income precarity; and all of the most vulnerable individuals. Are new or experienced librarians in a position–financially, emotionally, personally–to move for a new job? What kind of support and flexibility can we offer to individuals who may have unique health, family, or other needs? Are we prepared to have those conversations when negotiating with potential candidates? I hope that we’re ready.

Living in Texas I’m familiar with the common refrains online urging people to either (a) get out and vote or (b) get up and move. Both make a lot of assumptions about finances, personal situations, and other extenuating circumstances. So as we are hiring I will continue to think about how we can make work as safe and welcoming a place as it can be for the people who work within it.

Are you also hiring and onboarding new librarians this year? If so, what’s been your approach?

Who Gets to be a Researcher?

One of my favorite days of the academic year is Undergraduate Research Day. The Honors College and the Libraries collaborate to showcase undergraduate student research done through various scholarship programs, experiential learning programs, and independent research with faculty mentors. Our main library’s second and third floors are filled with research posters from students in every discipline imaginable, and the students themselves are bouncing with enthusiasm and excitement. They’re eager to tell people about their research and are able to speak about their work with clarity and precision with fellow scholars. They also offer compelling narratives to a more general audience who might not be familiar with the conventions of the research in that discipline.

April 14 marked the 2022 Undergraduate Research Day, and it was so exciting to be back in person after 2 years of a virtual event. As I listened to a student talk about their work researching Spanish language newspapers in the U.S. during the 1918 influenza pandemic, I wondered what it would take to expand this kind of excitement and enthusiasm for research to a wider group of students. There were about 200 presenters this year, at a school that boasts an undergraduate population of over 37,000 students. Yes, there may be some students doing research who weren’t able to present or weren’t far enough along in their research to do so, and yes, there are students engaging in research in their classes, too. But there is something about making research public, having a conversation about what you’ve learned and what you still want to learn, that seems to foster a sense of enthusiasm and pride.

I would love for all of our undergraduate students to be able to proudly share their scholarly or creative output and say, “I did that!” It might not all be groundbreaking or revolutionary, but shouldn’t the work of novice researchers be celebrated, too? At my last place of work there was a day where all students in first-year seminars could share their coursework and/or research, projects, papers, etc. with the entire campus community. It was a way to celebrate the work of first-semester, first-year students, who all displayed a commitment to what they’d learned and excitement in sharing it with others. It was a way of planting the seed of research, investigation, curiosity, and knowledge building in these students, that they could then carry with them all the way to their senior thesis project.

How can we develop opportunities to recreate the kind of enthusiasm and curiosity that was present at that first-year student event and at Undergraduate Research Day? I’m interested in extending those experiences beyond a small, select group of students to a wider university population. I’ve sometimes heard the argument that some students just aren’t “ready” for research. This may or may not be accurate depending on the context, but what are we even doing if we aren’t entering teaching relationships with students assuming that they are intellectually curious? They might not have the scholarly background of an experienced researcher, but they may possess the same inquisitive spirit and excitement to learn. So where is their Undergraduate Research Day? How do we celebrate their work and progress? Are they not researchers as first-year students, writing their first synthesis paper or lab report? Who decides whose research is celebrated? In creating opportunities to do this we might then pave a pathway for those students to continue to research throughout their years in higher education and afterward.

A love letter to bell hooks

pink carnations resting on a tan envelope on a white background
Photo by Edward Howell on Unsplash

bell hooks died on December 15, 2021, at her home in Kentucky. I found out about her death on Twitter, then NPR. Like so many others, I was heartbroken. This brilliant woman I had never met fundamentally changed my approach to teaching and scholarship. In post after post people around the world have said the same, sharing their connection to her writing and her impact on them. It’s a testament to hooks’ ability to reach out from the page and screen and hold our hand, letting us know that we aren’t alone, that we are loved.

The first invited talk I ever gave, at the ACRL DVC Fall Forum, was called “A love letter to bell hooks.” It was an expression of connection to hooks as a writer, whose simplicity of expression highlighted the sophisticated connections she was able to make between pedagogy, culture, and interpersonal relationships. But it was also just my appreciation for her as a person, as a Black woman who brought race and ethnicity front and center in her work, and as someone whose joy and love came through in every written word.

In Teaching to Transgress, hooks wrote, “one may practice theorizing without ever knowing/possessing the term.” It was, to me, an invitation. This declaration that theory is not for just for others but for me, too. Her encouragement to view our lives, in my case, as a Latina, as sites of critical reflection and action was revolutionary. hooks notes that “theory is not inherently healing, liberatory, or revolutionary,” but that we have the opportunity and ability to make it so. In our work as teachers and librarians we have the capacity to demystify theory and encourage critical reflection, to show that you don’t have to know theory to have experienced it. We have the ability to make our work–librarianship, research, and service–meaningful in support of our communities and ourselves. hooks empowered me, much as I am certain she has empowered and inspired countless others.

I would love to hear from others who have made a strong connection to hooks’ writings. What are your favorite quotes of hers? Which of her books or essays will stay with you always? What did she teach you?