A Weekly Log of an Atypical Month

I don’t know what to say about COVID-19, and all the different ways we are experiencing loss at this time. I thought writing about it would help me process and reflect, but I’ve been struggling to focus. I realized that all of the anxieties I have about being a new librarian on a contract has been exacerbated by all the uncertainty happening in the world. 

So, today I’m going to write about what work has looked like for me this past month and reflect on how things have changed so quickly. I’m not sure what a “typical” day or week is supposed to look like during this unprecedented extraordinary time. 

Week 1

Looking back, the first week of March for me was jam packed with lots of learning! I attended a webinar on career planning for early career librarians, went to a talk on archival optimism, listened to a colleague’s guest lecture, and learned about making accessible educational resources. I also FaceTimed with a library mentor, had a meeting with a colleague about library discovery and citation management tools, and had coffee with a colleague to ask about their experience with ACRL Immersion. On top of that, I had a reference shift everyday that week, so it was filled with lots of student interaction. I don’t remember the week as being busy or overwhelming though. I think it was a week where I felt energized and excited to learn. My agenda was filled with goals and todos, related to professional development this summer. This week was my last “business as usual” week. 

Week 2

Although my mom had been cautioning me about COVID-19 for weeks, particularly through relaying news about the situation in Korea, this was the week where I started to worry. Some conferences had started to cancel events, and some universities started to move classes online. I could no longer ignore the news. I had plans to attend and present at LILAC, an information literacy conference in the U.K. But with the escalating news about COVID-19 around the world, I became increasingly uneasy about the idea of travelling. I worried that I was overreacting, and that I was letting my impostor syndrome about presenting influence my decision. However, I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling, and ended up dropping out of the conference. 

It was strange trying to tamp down my increasing panic and worry, while doing my normal work. I taught two classes that week. Other than saying “wash your hands!” at the end, it was a regular information literacy session. While I went through the motions of my regular work week, answering reference questions, and pointing students to university web pages on COVID-19 updates, it was clear that things were evolving rapidly. 

Week 3

Monday, I went into work, mostly to pack up my things. The university had announced on Friday afternoon that classes would be moving online. The library was still open, but I could do my work from home. We had our first virtual team meeting that day, and much of the week was coming to terms with our new work environments and figuring out ways to stay in touch with one another. Because my classes had all wrapped up, I did not have to worry about moving my teaching online. Instead I reached out to instructors I had worked with, reminding them that online research help is available for students. The week was a blur, and I tried to give myself small concrete tasks, like making sure my stats were up to date, compiling online webinars and resources in a spreadsheet, and reading through student feedback forms. I was also on Twitter constantly throughout the week, looking for updates about library closures, at my place of work and elsewhere. The library finally closed on Friday.

Week 4

This week, things started to feel more settled — at least in terms of work. I had virtual meetings, check-ins, and lots of online lunches with colleagues. I’ve also had the time and space to think about scholarship and professional development. I’ve started looking into online classes, enrolled myself into webinars, and updated my CV. Coincidentally, I recently also got peer reviewer feedback on and article I submitted, and am beginning to revisit the article. My work consists of 70% professional practice and 30% of scholarship and service. I had always found it challenging to set aside time to read, think, and engage with scholarship while balancing my professional practice work. I’m hoping that being outside of my office will help me focus and dedicate actual time to reading and reflecting this spring and summer. 

That being said, I’m still very aware that we are living in a global pandemic, and that peoples lives are being uprooted. I’m glad to have a supportive community around me to help navigate how to be an academic librarian during this time. Hopefully my April will be less about anxiety and worry, and more about rebuilding and excitement about the future.

See y’all next month, and in the meanwhile take care and stay safe!

What the Numbers Say and Don’t Say

I am not a numbers person. Likely, due to my humanities background, I am unfamiliar with numbers and also suspicious of them. Yet, I find myself constantly thinking about numbers at work. I count: the number of classes I’ve taught, the number of consultations, the number of conferences I’m going to, the number of hours devoted to committees and service, etc. 

I stare at my current numbers and compare them to past and institutional numbers, which I use as a reference point (or in other words, a benchmark). For example, I noticed that the number of classes I’ve taught this year is less than the number taught in years prior. This drop in numbers bothered me. Am I not working hard enough, doing enough outreach, am I not supporting my colleagues enough, am I being a slacker? My goals as a librarian is focused on student learning and engagement, not increasing numbers, but I found it challenging to ignore what the numbers might say.

I think my preoccupation with numbers is somewhat due to the fact that I am a new librarian. I have no frame of reference, as I can’t draw on my previous experience. I do, however, have access to statistics that we gather about classes, workshops, and consultations, which are reported to the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). After every class, consultation, and reference interaction, I diligently enter stats into a form. I record things like how many students participated, the program/college associated with the interaction, and the duration of the interaction. 

While these numbers provide evidence of the work I’ve done in the past 7 months, in many ways they don’t say much. What is counted, documented, and recorded is limited. The statistics don’t capture the time and labour spent on preparing for and reflecting on a class. They don’t capture the often invisible, maintenance work that Veronica Arellano Douglas wrote about recently. While some qualitative information is recorded, the larger context surrounding a consultation, or a student’s learning journey within a class, or my own feelings and experience with a reference interaction is not accounted for. 

I’ve been getting to know and share the context of all these numbers through conversations with colleagues: sharing a quick anecdote from class, describing a new strategy or activity they tried, or discussing what’s been happening at the reference desk in weekly drop-in meetings. Even if these stories aren’t recorded or documented, they’ve given me a lot of insight into the work that’s happening, more so than the numbers have. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about a talk given by Donna Lanclos a couple months ago at my library about open-ended ethnographic research, and the problems of quantifying library work. In the talk, she points to how numbers are increasingly valued more than qualitative data, even though they provide an incomplete picture. Moreover, she mentions how these numbers are frequently used to make institutional decisions.

In fact, the province I’m located in has introduced a new government funding model based on performance metrics. Meaning numbers related to graduation, employability, skills and competencies, and other measurements will become increasingly important. 

I am not interested in librarianship and higher education that is governed solely by numbers. As I’ve gotten more settled into my work, I’ve spent less time worrying about numbers. I have a better idea of the ebbs and flows of an academic year, and I have my own experience to draw on as a guide. I’ve also been jotting down my experiences and reflections more. Currently, a lot of it is ad hoc, on various pages in my agenda, on sticky notes, and on these blog posts! Hopefully, by the time I write my annual report this summer, I’ll have amassed stories and narratives that will help me convey what the number’s don’t say.

Being okay with confusion

I do a one minute paper for most of my library instruction sessions, where I ask students: what was the most useful or interesting they learned, what remains confusing or unclear. I also give them the space to add any additional comments or questions they have. Most leave that section blank, or provide quick feedback, like good job! Or thanks for the presentation! One time, a student wrote that the session made them more confused and more stressed about their upcoming assignment than before — I felt awful, and worried that as an instructor, I failed the student.  

When I’m feeling insecure about my teaching, I worry about this a lot. I worry that I’ve made an information literacy concept too complex and too hard to digest. My worries aren’t limited to classroom teaching. I worry too, when I’m providing reference help, particularly when it feels like I did not give the student the answer or solution they were looking for. 

In response, I’ve thought a lot about how I can communicate more clearly, and simplify my explanations. I’ve worked to incorporate more examples and make my lessons easier to understand. But after this past month of teaching multiple information literacy sessions on source evaluation and identifying scholarly sources, I’ve been thinking a lot about how learning doesn’t necessarily lead to more clarity. 

Many of the undergraduate classes I visit, specify what type of source students should use for their assignment. These sources are also described in multiple ways: scholarly sources, academic sources, peer-reviewed sources, secondary sources, primary articles, etc. I find myself trying to interpret what each assignment requirement means, and it varies depending on the class and discipline. For example, are textbooks scholarly sources? What if your textbook is a scholarly monograph that’s designed for use in undergraduate classrooms? Is a peer-reviewed student journal a scholarly source? Is a research article a primary or secondary source (why does it change depending on the discipline)? If a theoretical text doesn’t have citations, is it not a scholarly source? Although I know what these sources are, the answer can be complex, involving a critical understanding of disciplinary context and how academia and society value specific types of authority. 

In an effort to make identifying scholarly sources easy to understand, I fear that a potential takeaway of my lesson was the sources (peer-reviewed articles) you need for your assignment is good and other sources are bad. If that’s the case, even if students feel like they have a clear understanding of scholarly sources, I feel like I’ve failed them as an instructor. 

I want to bring complexity and critical thinking into my classrooms, but I also don’t want students to be discouraged or lost when doing their assignments. Since I usually only see the students once, I feel added pressure to get it right (you get one shot!).  I think discomfort and confusion are part of the learning process, but how do you know when the confusion is not generative?  

With a semester of teaching under my belt, I thought teaching information literacy would become easier. I am more confident about teaching in some ways, but more confused and uncertain in other ways. I’m grappling with my own feelings of confusion and discomfort — particularly, when I feel a class or reference interaction didn’t go well. 

I’ve been experimenting with journaling and recording my reflections, and in that process, I’ve been reminding myself that even if it felt like the class didn’t go well, that doesn’t mean that learning didn’t happen. Learning is complex and messy for both instructors and students. I’m working through embracing the fact that confusion is stressful, but wading through that discomfort can be rewarding and transformative!

Reflecting on contract work and precarity

Like many others, as the year is coming to an end, I’ve been in a reflective mood. Last year around this time, I was anxious about graduating, the job hunting process, and the potential for un/underemployment in the spring.  A lot has changed since then. I left the city I lived in for over a decade to start my first academic librarian job. There’s been lots to celebrate! But I’m still kind of feeling anxious about the future. 

My job is a “contractually limited appointment,” meaning it’s a fixed-term position with an end date. I still have many more months to go before my contract ends, but it’s something that’s frequently on my mind. In particular, whenever there’s discussions about long-term projects and planning or relationship building, I become aware of the temporality of my position. I think, will I be here next year?

While I was in school, I was warned that it may be several years before I find an ongoing permanent position, as lots of the jobs out there are part-time, or full-time contracts. According to Brons, Henninger, Riley, & Lin (2019), 46% of academic librarian jobs advertised on the Partnership job board (a Canadian library job board) were precarious. It seems like contract work is or becoming the norm for many early career librarians. When I was job hunting, I framed these positions in my mind as opportunities to get my foot in the door or a chance to try a new aspect of librarianship. But now that I have my foot in the door with my dream job(!), I am realizing that contract work is more challenging that I had thought.  

In their article “Job Precarity, Contract Work, and Self Care,” Lacey (2019) points to financial insecurity and the emotional and mental costs of precarious work. In particular, their discussion about the cyclical stress of acclimatizing to a new organizational culture and place, including establishing relationships, resonated with me. Being on a contract means, you’re constantly looking for work, trying to orient yourself to a new job, city, and leaving behind relationships. 

I’m very lucky in that I didn’t need to move far for my current position. It’s only a short bus or train ride away, although some days it feels very far.  I’m also very lucky in that I have super supportive colleagues who have gone out of their way to make me feel at home and a valued member of the library. I feel guilty about not focusing on the present and being fixated on the future, thinking about when I should start job hunting or where I’ll be living next year. 

What has been helpful is knowing that I’m not alone in feeling this way. I’m encouraged by the growing conversations about precarious work in libraries. For example, I’m excited about projects focused on contingent labour in libraries, archives, and museums like the Collective Responsibility: National Forum on Labor Practices for Grant-Funded Digital Positions, the Precarity in Libraries research project, or the @OrganizingLIS twitter account.

Looking at the current climate with the rise of the gig economy, it feels like part-time and contract work in librarianship is not going to go away. But, I’m also feeling very hopeful! I am looking forward to learning more about shared experiences of precarity and collectively working towards better conditions for library workers.

Feeling my way as a teacher

This month, I’ve been participating in the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW), an intensive three-day program that involves presenting mini-lessons, peer feedback, and discussions on learner-centred teaching practices.  

My experience with teaching is not extensive. While I did have opportunities to assist with library instruction and co-teach some classes in library school, I had never designed or developed an information literacy (IL) lesson before starting my current position. While I had crammed as much as I could about learning outcomes, active learning techniques, frameworks and standards, and educational philosophies, the idea of creating an IL lesson on my own was daunting. 

When I first started my position in the summer, I had grand plans to explore and be creative in my teaching, and spent time perusing Project CORA, ACRL Framework for Information Literacy Sandbox, and various library instruction books and guides, particularly around critical approaches. But when September rolled around and my calendar started filling up, exploration and creativity went out the window! As a new librarian, lesson planning took longer than I had anticipated, filled with constant questions of “am I doing this right? Is this going to work?”

I was extremely grateful to my colleague who shared their detailed lesson plans with me, and I heavily relied on what they had already created and delivered. While it was amazing to not have to create lessons from scratch and approach faculty with IL lessons that they were already familiar with, I also felt that I wasn’t developing my own teaching style and philosophy. I was reluctant to take risks or try anything new.

While the ISW program isn’t focused on information literacy, it’s been a valuable opportunity for me to learn and to try out (and fail at!) new teaching techniques and learning activities in a relatively risk-free environment. For example, I’ve explored looking at evaluating sources and peer review through online recipes, which was a fun for me because I got to talk about my current obsession with Bon Appétit! Last week I tried designing a 10-minute lesson around mapping out research journeys and exploring research strategies based on everyone’s personal journey. I ran out of time and didn’t feel super great about how the lesson went, but it was a great opportunity to experiment with learning activities that involve giving over control to the learners.

I’m not entirely sure if I’m going to try to take any big risks in my IL classes next semester. In the ISW, I didn’t have to consider what faculty want, the pressures of an assignment, or even the challenges of teaching in a large classroom. The context of the one-shot class is another thing to consider when thinking about experimenting with new teaching techniques. As a new librarian, I’m still feeling my way. But I did gain a bit more confidence in my teaching while participating in the ISW, and the opportunity to try new things was invigorating. I’m hoping that confidence will encourage me to try new things, however small, in my IL classes. 

One of the small goals for my teaching next semester is a suggestion one of the ISW facilitators made: make the implicit explicit. I hope to make my teaching decisions (the why am I doing this) more transparent to the classroom and also for myself through written reflection. 

I have one more ISW session left this upcoming Friday. While I won’t miss watching recordings of myself teaching, I will miss the dedicated time spent on talking about teaching. I’m definitely going to try and find more opportunities to share teaching practices with my colleagues, other librarians, and other instructors.