Lesson: Culture is Hungry

Two weeks ago, I attended the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians at the University of Minnesota. The Institute is a week-long program focusing upon academic librarians within their first three years of librarianship from diverse backgrounds. The main faculty are Kathryn Deiss and DeEtta Jones.

This week, I am writing my last post as a First Year Academic Experience blogger for ACRLog. I hope that my posts have been relatable and helpful for those of you in similar and dissimilar worlds. After working in multiple careers, I have learned is that some professional concepts are career-agnostic, and we can apply our career experiences to our personal lives and vice versa.

One of the biggest takeaways from the Institute was the following: Culture Eats Strategy (for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). When these words came out of DeEtta’s mouth, I had chills. The truth of this phrase rings true in our families, communities, work environments, and global society. No matter how we plan things, no matter what policies we create, no matter what the strategic plan may be, the culture of the environments we are in will drive what actually happens.

When I was little, my mom wrote daily to-do lists of chores for my brother and me over our summer breaks. We were old enough to stay home on our own but young enough to want to watch TV all day long. Every one of those summer days, around 3:30pm, we would scramble to look at the list and do as much as we could before my parents came home. I would frantically clean grains of rice or moong dal and cross off as much as I could on the list, hoping my mom wouldn’t notice that I gave a less than mediocre effort. My brother would vacuum the whole house haphazardly, hoping it looked cleaner than it did in the morning.  My mom came home, discovered our incomplete to-do list, and yelled at us about it every summer day.

I tell you this because it didn’t matter that the to-do list strategy existed. It didn’t matter that we made an average-ish effort. What mattered is that it was summer and we were kids and we wanted to watch TV and hang with friends. Culture ate strategy.

I see how, as libraries, we need policies and strategic plans. We need to have a direction and a way of doing things. I’m all for that. But the shroud of culture will always loom and outmaneuver the best of intentions. Nicky Andrews, who was in my ARL IRDW cohort, is an NCSU Fellow, and is a friend of mine, posted the following tweet during the Digital Pedagogy Lab this past week:

Tweet from Nicky Andrews @maraebrarian reads: “I wish we invested in emotional intelligence as much as we do artificial intelligence. #digped” – July 30, 2018
Tweet from Nicky Andrews @maraebrarian reads: “I wish we invested in emotional intelligence as much as we do artificial intelligence. #digped” – July 30, 2018

Her words go hand-in-hand with the implications of Culture Eats Strategy. A huge component of culture is emotional intelligence. It isn’t everything; however, it is a great place to start so we can become aware and improve upon ourselves and the larger culture. In a way, we can equate strategy with artificial intelligence. It may not be synonymous, but Nicky’s tweet reiterated to me that what we focus upon can take away from what makes the biggest difference.

Addressing culture in an organization, in a neighborhood, or in a family is not an easy task. But it is a necessary task for true forward progress and to address what is underneath the surface of the cultural iceberg.

A good friend of mine, Dr. Nazia Kazi, is an anthropology professor, and a few years ago she wrote an incredible status update on Facebook. It said, “The day I saw the video of the Walter Scott shooting was the same day a student spoke up about how unfeasible any type of reparations would be… ‘Where would we get the money from? How would we even decide who gets them? And if we pay reparations to black Americans, what about others America has wronged? It’s all just too complicated.’ Capitalism allows us to imagine – even desire – indoor ski resorts in Dubai, but makes something that would *begin* to address endemic racism seem ‘too complicated’. Where did we ‘get the money from’ when it was the banking industry or the war machine or the construction of a new prison? How have our young people already internalized such a treacherous script?”

The culture of capitalism, the culture of working in silos, the culture of hierarchy, and the culture of the larger organizations we serve, affect the work we do every day and can make it difficult to make an inch of progress. But that doesn’t make it unfeasible.

In the past year, I have learned how to conduct a systematic review, how to write effective learning outcomes, and how to check my voicemail. But, in the end, the most powerful lessons have nothing to do with my job. The most powerful lessons have been, and always will be, about the deeper ways we create and imagine, how we work with each other, questioning existing boundaries, and how to serve others with justice. And the bonus lesson is that I have extremely intelligent friends.

 

What is library space for?: Reflecting on space use and noise management

On some days, my library feels like it’s bursting at the seams with students. The library is a popular destination for students seeking space for their varying work needs, not to mention the myriad other reasons libraries make a great destination. Yet our space is quite small. And, as you might imagine, lots of people using a small space for different reasons presents challenges. Perhaps chief among those challenges is noise management. Handling noise conflicts is not fun or, at first glance, particularly interesting. But grappling with noise management and space use conflicts at my library this year has, I think, uncovered some interesting reactions, conversations, and questions.

The libraries I’ve worked in previously were large, even huge. Their ample square footage, multiple floors, and layouts provided natural zones that lent themselves to differing uses and inherently provided sound barriers. Even with those advantages, though, we still sometimes struggled with noise problems. I’ve been working at my current library for just about eight months so its particular noise challenges are relatively new to me. We’re lucky to have such an aesthetically pleasing space with attractive furnishings and lots of natural light. The architect made good use of the space, creatively lining the walls with the collection to maximize work/seating areas. Despite these assets, we are still hampered by its size (did I mention it’s small?) and open layout (essentially a string of rectangular classrooms with the walls removed). Noise carries across the space with surprising ease.

Students come to our library for many of the same reasons they visit any library: to find a quiet, even silent, space to study; to work with a partner or group; to do individual work, but in a group setting; to borrow library materials; to ask library staff for assistance; to use our computers, printers, and scanners; to socialize; to nap or relax; and more. Our small size inhibits our ability to be a place for all of these things for our students, but we’re trying to do our best. We have, for example, attempted to create zones designated for silent study and collaborative study at opposite ends of the space to help reduce noise contamination. We have experimented with a variety of approaches to noise management: signage, active monitoring of noise levels and intervention when noise spikes, white noise machines to help drown out noise, and so on. Noise still bleeds throughout the library’s close quarters.

Since I’ve joined this library, I’ve had a number of conversations with students about their space frustrations and needs. Because space is tight, I think students’ uses of the library space are more often subject to scrutiny and judgement by others seeking space for their own needs. I’ve been rather surprised by some students’ requests that library staff police and restrict access to the library space, set strict policies governing use, and impose harsh punishments for violating said policies. Why, some have inquired for example, should students be permitted to nap or relax in the lounge area when others need space for academic work? On a campus where space is such a hot commodity and silence is so hard to find, some have suggested, why isn’t the library entirely devoted to silent study?

These noise management challenges and conflicts over space use have led me to reflect on and question my values and assumptions regarding library space. What responsibilities do library staff have for policing students’ uses of the library? What library space needs and uses should take priority? What is library space for? So far I’ve landed here… I care and am concerned about our students’ needs. I want our library to be responsive to our students. Yet I’m wary of taking any steps that limit the library’s function as a learning space. As educators and leaders on our campus, I think it’s our responsibility to promote a more multi-faceted vision of what learning means and looks like, and all the ways library space is learning space. I think it’s our responsibility to work to balance students’ differing needs and make the space as welcoming and usable as possible for as many students as possible.

How do you manage noise challenges in your library? How do you balance and promote library space as learning space for various needs? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

On Leadership: Doing it Right, but Dancing

Lots of things leading up to a post on leadership lately, such as contemplating my own privilege, planning strategic priorities, and experiencing the challenges of parenting tweenagers. But mostly, I think this post is in typical response to evaluation time, which requires me to describe competencies and expectations of leadership, both for managers and  for staff and faculty without management or supervision responsibilities.

What I hate most about leadership conversations is what I see as an arbitrary division between leadership and management. I particularly dislike the adage that addresses these differences as:

Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing.

I don’t believe in this division, probably because when I was as a manager, I did all kinds of things wrong, and as a leader I never feel like there is a clear right answer to things. My personal philosophy of leadership is more fluid. Ultimately, I believe we all practice a little of both.  As a librarian, especially, this comes from my observation that library managers and leaders typically come up from the ranks of library workers. In my experience, this places a high value on skills of librarianship over the particular skills of leadership, or in the management of library process over the relational management of people or teams. I admit this is perhaps just as oversimplified as the former adage, but does help me with a point.

The danger I see in the phenomenon of manager-heavy leaders in libraries is a tendency to devalue inspiring and motivating aspects of leadership.  There is also the risk of micromanagement when scaling effective management of processes to people. When I was a staff member in the ranks, I felt the biggest issue of leadership and management had to do with opportunities for development, organizational communication, and curbing supervisory micromanagement. As a leader, I still hear the call for better communication and less micromanagement, but at the same time there remains a preference for managers who are leaders and experts in doing, and a general distaste for too much touchy-feely inspiring and motivation. Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Certainly people skills and leadership skills come just as the practical librarian skills come, with both learning and doing.  This has been true for me, especially with respect to gaining confidence in my relational side, improving my communication, and managing stress.  I also recognize my strengths in learning and analytical thinking, which plays out in a constant cycle of reflection, learning, and self-correction. A necessary part learning from doing is how it prompts a realization for development and how we make time for meeting that need.

Beyond demonstrating the value of leadership development, it is extremely challenging to build in time for this. Especially as leaders come from within the ranks, rarely is there a swift and seamless transition of duties.  It is often hard to let go of former responsibilities.  Not only are we increasingly asked to do more with less, but many find the certainty of former tasks a necessary coping mechanism during the change and uncertainty of a new leadership role. Yet some of the most excellent leaders I’ve known can be so heavily bogged down with their doing that they unintentionally give themselves and their staff the perception that they are too busy to bother with people-concerns, or for training that does not appear directly tied to doing. Finding a better balance remains an imperative for doing the right thing by the people I lead. But, I know the solution consists of something more than just good delegation.

In a Covey training I was once tasked to put my personal philosophy into a single word, for which I chose dance.  This word — and I went a step further with a theme song — best reflects the ebb and flow of leadership for me. Doing it right, but dancing. This helps me see leadership as a more nebulous evolution between structured intention and carving out time (choreography), learning and development (feeling the music), and the need to just do something (dance!).  I’m learning that you can’t take away too much doing from leadership.  Staff don’t respect it, and library leaders and managers don’t function well as leaders without it.  So, I’m trying to find good ways to facilitate managers and staff to embrace delegation of the doing, nurture an ongoing development of strengths and weaknesses, while giving plenty of a space for dancing.

What is your current leadership/management philosophy?  How do you, or your leaders and managers, balance doing things right and doing right by people?

Please share theme songs if you’ve got ‘em!
Want more on leadership? See http://acrlog.org/tag/leadership/

Does this post make me look vulnerable? Vulnerability and Leadership

ACRLog welcomes guest co-author Michelle Millet, Library Director at John Carroll University.

Maura:

As so often happens to me, the idea for this post began with a conversation on Twitter.

When I read Michelle’s tweet my first thought was about a recent conversation I had during a meeting of our Library Appointments Committee. During our appointments meeting I remarked that it can sometimes be challenging for us tenured folks to remember how vulnerable it can feel to be untenured, because we feel so much more secure once tenure’s been granted. I was still untenured when I became a director two and a half years ago; my first year as Chief Librarian was my tenure vote year. I shared with the committee that I too felt vulnerable in my last untenured year. Even though I knew intellectually that my tenure was highly likely, since I’d been appointed Chief Librarian, there was a small but persistent nagging doubt until my tenure was actually approved. I almost surprised myself by sharing that in our committee meeting, but it seemed important to our discussion to remind ourselves how our untenured colleagues might feel, even though I felt somewhat vulnerable to say it.

Michelle:

I feel vulnerable, as a Director, about showing emotions now that I’m a Director. It’s hard when you think you’re doing your best in a job but you don’t think people like you. But, once you’re the Director, you have to assume that people at times will not agree with you or even like you, but you have to get over it. Emotion is something that we’re shamed for. “Don’t be such a girl. Don’t be so emotional,” are things that a lot of women have heard for a long time. So, I hide my emotion at work, lest I seem too vulnerable. Is there a too vulnerable?

If I had to pinpoint a specific time when I felt extremely vulnerable, even with tenure, even with a supportive supervisor, it was when an article about gender and leadership I wrote with a colleague was published. As soon as it “hit” online, I literally become sick to my stomach and thought I would get fired. Nothing in that article was untrue. Gender and leadership is a problem in libraries. Leadership, and assumptions about leaders, are very gendered everywhere. My experiences noted in the article were true, yet vague enough not to embarrass an individual person. Yet they were also real enough to probably cause pause. But, I got through it. Colleagues on campus were positive about it. Most never said a word.

Maura:

As Michelle and I talked more on Twitter and email, we realized that we wanted to explore our thoughts about vulnerability in leadership. It probably speaks volumes to share that it’s taken us a long time from our initial brainstorming (“hey, let’s write a post about this!”) to get to writing and publishing this post. Vulnerability can be challenging and scary.

Michelle:

We probably struggle everyday as leaders who believe that vulnerability is a positive characteristic, but I think very strongly there is value for our colleagues and staff in this. I want my staff to know that I am a real person, with real, complicated emotions and that I feel vulnerable, too. I believe that showing vulnerability is a key to feminist leadership. I am vulnerable, like you, and I see us as all moving towards a collective goal.

But there’s a push-pull. There is always is, for women especially. I want to seem human and show that I’m here to lead us all to work together, but I don’t want that appeal for collaboration and unity to come across as weak. I want to show my vulnerability, but not seem as too soft. I want to be comfortable showing my vulnerabilities, but not have that lead to doing all of the emotional labor at work.

Maura:

I agree that showing our vulnerability as leaders at work can be positive — I hope it makes me more approachable to my colleagues and emphasizes our shared humanity. I also hope it encourages collaboration, especially in a smaller library with a relatively flat organizational structure like where I work, as we all work together towards our common goal of making the library the best it can be for our college community. However, I sometimes feel that it can be difficult to balance confidence and vulnerability. I don’t have all the answers — no one does. And that’s okay. Part of being a leader is encouraging an environment where it feels safe to ask questions, and working together to figure out answers and solutions.

Michelle:

There’s also our work to do outside of the library and this group is one we often feel most vulnerable with. They are other Deans, Assistant Vice Presidents, Provosts, and the like. Do we show them the same vulnerabilities? Or do we have more of a facade and confidence?

Working on this post made me think about how I’ve reacted to other women leaders I know during times when they’ve been extremely vulnerable in front of me. It’s uncomfortable. You don’t know how to react at first. But then you find some empathy.

Maura:

I’ve had similar concerns about being vulnerable as a leader in public. Twitter (the only social media platform I use) is a perfect example. I want to be a real person on Twitter, especially since I interact with friends (and occasionally family) there. But I’m also an experienced professional and scholar, and I want that to be evident as well. I think there’s value in being that real person on Twitter, though in many ways that makes me feel more vulnerable than if I had a strictly professional persona — those typically feel very corporate to me. That said, I absolutely think more about what I tweet than I did before I was a director, and I do consider my vulnerability more than I did before, too.

Michelle:

As an administrator, I feel like I am vulnerable within my librarian community. Am I still a real librarian? I feel vulnerable in my teaching, because I’m not still “in the trenches” as much. I feel vulnerable in leadership positions within my profession because I’m “too real or too honest” and not just some talking head that represents my school.

Maura:

Over the course of writing this post it’s become clear just how meta the topic of vulnerability in leadership can be for library directors. Both Michelle and I struggled with the writing, feeling vulnerable in this act of discussing vulnerability. Ultimately we found many similarities in our individual experiences with vulnerability as leaders, and we both strongly feel that vulnerability is an important part of our leadership roles.

We’re interested to hear about your experiences with vulnerability, both in your own leadership work and in your libraries. Drop us a line in the comments.

Director at the Desk

This week I’m trying something I’ve never done before: I’m working one evening and one weekend shift at our Reference Desk. All librarians in the library where I work take a few short Friday evening shifts, including me, but until this semester I’d not yet done reference up to our later weeknight closing or all day on Saturday (though in the past I’ve taught classes at both times).

My main interest in taking these shifts is to learn more about what the library’s like during our evening and Saturday hours. We do a full headcount multiple times each semester of everyone using the library, and keep the usual statistics about reference transactions, circulation, and printing, so we do have some sense of how the library’s used when the full-timers aren’t there. And of course our evening and Saturday library faculty and staff share any concerns or news with us, too. But as both a library director and a researcher interested in how students do their academic work, I’ve been more and more curious to see for myself. How are students using the library outside of the standard work week? What areas of the library see the most use, and are there bottlenecks (if any)? Are there services or sections of the library that aren’t used in these off-hours?

I admit that I was somewhat nervous in the run up to this week. It’s not that I’m concerned about making grave errors — our work is important, but the library’s not an emergency room. But since I’m not on the desk often I feel like my reference skills are somewhat rusty. Our discovery layer was added after I became a director (and stopped teaching regularly), so I’m much less practiced at using it than I was with our online catalog. Technology questions can be tricky, too; I’m grateful that we’ve added a dedicated tech support staff member at the reference desk, which is a huge help for the inevitable questions about campus wifi or using the LMS, not to mention printer jams.

I drafted this post during the second half of my evening shift, and I was delighted to be there! I’m a little bit out of practice in explaining the research process clearly and concisely, but I’m getting better with each question. Midterms are only just over a week away so I’ve had a fair number of research consultations in between requests for the stapler and scanners. It’s been interesting to see the ebbs and flows — we are really, really busy during the 5-6pm class break, especially with students printing out assignments and readings before class, but then things slow down considerably. The quiet floor is quieter than during the day, and the talking floor is quieter, too. I still miss the regular interaction with students that I had before I became Chief Librarian, and it’s been great to have that experience again this week.

Other than scheduling enough time for me to eat before my shift started (which was entirely my own fault), I’m chalking up my stint at reference earlier this week as a success. Tomorrow’s Saturday, and I’m looking forward to going back for more.