Every Year is Someone’s First Year in Academic Librarianship

With all of the changes in our work over the past year, I know I’m not the only one who’s spent lots of time recently thinking about both the pre-pandemic past as well as the always uncertain future. This historical turn has had the ACRLog blogteam thinking about the past and future of our First Year Academic Librarian Experience series, and we concluded that the slower summer months mark an opportune time for a retrospective FYAL post.

First initiated by ACRLoggers Marc Meola, Steven Bell, and Barbara Fister, the FYAL series began way back in the 2008-2009 academic year, with founding FYALers Olivia Nellums and Susanna Smith. Looking in on their terrific posts from that year it’s so interesting to see that while some things have changed, many, many other aspects of their time as early career librarians over a decade ago have stayed the same. Olivia’s post that touches on “other duties as assigned,” those times in our jobs when we’re doing work we never expected to do, seems especially resonant to me here in the second year of a global pandemic. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that the category of “other duties” has sometimes been even more time-consuming since last spring than our usual job responsibilities. I have similar feelings on re-reading Susanna’s consideration of the challenges of collection development with constrained budgets, especially for smaller libraries, a persistent issue even before we had to grapple with increased requests for ebooks as our physical spaces were made inaccessible last year.

After a short hiatus, the FYAL series restarted in the 2012-2013 academic year with FYALers Rebecca Halpern, Ian McCullough, and Kim Miller. Their first posts for the year also highlight themes in early-career academic librarianship that are evergreen: managing a career change (because one constant about academic librarianship is that almost everyone’s path to here is unique), working through the new job jitters (relevant at every stage of our careers, I think), and the transition from graduate school to a library position.

In subsequent years our 2-4 annual FYALers have blogged about a huge range of topics. Learning and getting comfortable with their new academic library job is a common theme, including the experience of some who are in a newly-created position, as was Lindsay O’Neill when she was hired as an instructional design librarian. Many of our FYAL bloggers have come from the instruction and reference side of the house, and we’ve heard from Ariana Santiago on the overlaps between outreach and instruction, and from Sarah Hare about bringing our whole selves into the classroom. On our regular blogteam we usually have fewer folx on the technical services side of the house, and I always appreciate hearing those perspectives on librarianship from our FYALers. Jason Dean shared his experiences as head of a cataloging unit, and Erin Miller took us through a few days in the life of an eresources librarian.

Conference wrapups and discussions about aspects of the research and writing process also make frequent appearances in the corpus of FYAL posts over the years, hardly a surprise since professional service and scholarship is required in many academic library positions. While certainly the biannual ACRL conference shows up in our ACRLog archives, we’ve also appreciated posts on other conferences of interest to academic librarians, including Zoe McLaughlin’s notes on the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color, and Nisha Mody’s thoughts on the annual meeting of the Medical Library Association. Many new academic librarians are in tenure-track positions, and Heidi Johnson shared her appreciation of the different aspects of her tenure-track role. Of course, research and writing isn’t the exclusive domain of those on the tenure track, and we heard from Abby Flanigan about her experiences getting started with scholarly writing. And one sure advantage that academic librarians have in our research process is our familiarity with the tools of the trade, as Lily Troia reminds us in her post discussing using Hypothes.is for web annotation

Our FYALers have also tackled more difficult topics while blogging with us. It can be hard to talk about rejection and failure, in any context and at any stage in our lives, and probably more so for folx who are new in their careers. I truly appreciated reading Quetzalli Barrientos’ post on rejection in librarianship, and Dylan Burns’ take on failure and when things don’t go as we hoped they would. Struggles with work-life balance are not unusual in the first year in a new position, and in higher education jobs more generally, and Chloe Horning reminds us to take opportunities for reflection and recalibration when possible. The stress of a new and demanding job can take a toll on our mental health, in our first year and beyond. I have so much gratitude for Callie Wiygul Branstiter’s post about the impacts of depression on our jobs, and Melissa DeWitt‘s sharing some of the ways she prioritizes her mental health; both posts are full of insightful truths for all of us, whether we’re in our first year or Nth year as academic librarians.

Our most recent FYALers have had the difficult challenges of the covid19 pandemic to grapple with along with all of the other aspects of their new careers. As the pandemic was beginning to shut everything down in North America last March, Yoonhee Lee walked us through her new normal during remote work. And while the pandemic reshaped our academic librarian workplaces and practices more than we could have anticipated, there are constants in our work and in our FYALers’ experiences too. Valerie Moore shared honestly about her thoughts as she progresses on the tenure track, while Kevin Adams reminds us that collaboration is and continues to be critical in our work, and offers some strategies for success when we collaborate.

Finally, I know I speak for the entire ACRLog blogteam when I express my heartfelt appreciation to Jen Jarson for wrangling our Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect series. Thanks to Jen’s outreach there were 10 former FYALers who participated in this yearlong series during what ended up being the covid19 pandemic (the first post in the series was published on March 17, 2020). It was lovely to catch up with everyone who contributed a Where Are They Now? post, and to read their reflections on how their careers — both inside and outside academic libraries — have evolved.

It’s been so much fun for me to review our First Year Academic Librarian Experience series over the years, thanks for reading if you’ve made it this far! And if you’re starting your first year as an academic librarian we’d love to have you join us on ACRLog for next year as a FYAL blogger — keep an eye out for a call for applications to come later this summer.

The End of the Beginning

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Winston Churchill

Today marks the end of our school year at Prairie State College, and the end of my first school year as an academic librarian. In the meantime, I took an online instruction course that emphasized reflective writing. Therefore, as an ACRLog FYAL blogger and in the spirit of reflective writing, I would like to reflect on my first year.

In the beginning of the school year my daughter and I were wrapping up our fourth trimester. She was the only one in the house who was well rested and my husband and I were bleary eyed and foggy. I have ample events that I did things, but I don’t remember doing them. Fast forward a couple of months and by late October, early November she was sleeping through the night.

It took about a month for my brain to work again and I have a better recollection of the end of the fall semester than the beginning. With remote work, regular communication to faculty and students was critical. To accomplish this I picked a number of modalities, hoping that one would “stick.” We now have a monthly faculty newsletter (which apparently are trendy again?), a blog for students with practical tips on how to navigate college, regular social media posts, events (currently done online), and a book club. I attended a number of webinars and a couple of conferences virtually. Between austerity measures at Prairie State and the fact that I’m nursing, I was able to attend these events because they were virtual. My hope is that even after the world is a little safer this will still be an option as it removes some boundaries to conferences.

As far as my role as an instructor librarian, I think my first year went about as well as it could during a pandemic professionally. I’m proud of the work that I have done and think that I have laid a solid foundation for the next few years of “new normal.” (Whatever that means.)

As was evident from many of my entries, personally I struggled. I should say that I am in many ways privileged and even with this, it was a tough and scary environment to launch into my new career. I knew many people who got sick and one who died. We had one COVID-19 scare and have been tested multiple times. I’m not the healthiest person and I was petrified to find out what would happen if I got sick. What would happen to my daughter? My vaccine has given me reassurance and the littlest bit of freedom. My fear though is that we won’t take any lessons from this time and will simply move on as though nothing happened. This brings me back to this Winston Churchill quote. This is the end of the beginning of both the pandemic and my new career. The work continues.


Reflections on ACRL 2021

As I logged into the ACRL 2021 Virtual Conference Opening Keynote, I was excited and nervous for the conference. I didn’t know what to expect. Would I find new and inspiring ideas? Would I find old and tired conversations that I’ve participated in over and over again? Would I find the virtual format engaging? Who would I be hearing from? How difficult would it be to find non-dominant voices?

My recent focus in research has primarily been on critical librarianship, information literacy, and open pedagogy. These subjects were well represented on the calendar. And, in the actual sessions, I found perspectives and conversations that were entirely new to me. Now, this isn’t true across the board, but the virtual conference allowed me to watch other sessions if I didn’t find the discussion in a given session to be meaningful.

From the opening keynote with Tressie McMillan Cottom and conversations about information and platform capitalism, to a deconstruction of imposter syndrome by former library pages, I found many of the new perspectives to which I was exposed to be helpful and well-grounded in a critical theoretical framework. The critical perspectives brought by the presenters helped me to articulate some of the challenges that I have been wrestling with recently: feeling gas lit by higher education conversations focused on productivity rather than recovery and healing, an alarming preference for surveillance of students rather than connection with students, and the continued omission of critical anti-racist approaches from conversations about progress. Luckily, I haven’t felt this in my library specifically, but I have found the broader discourse in higher education to be discouraging, especially since the start of the spring semester.

In addition to McMillan Cottom’s keynote, the session with We Here, “Systemic Oppression Requires Systemic Change,” highlighted specific instances of racism and oppression in librarianship. Recently, I’ve often felt as if I am blindly gesturing at these issues on a strictly theoretical level. For the most part when I speak about the systemic racism of libraries, I get a few nods, but more blank stares. The presentation underscored that there are concrete and present manifestations of white supremacy in academic librarianship, and it is not strictly an obscured, ominous force that is difficult to uncover. While many conversations about anti-racist work have died out since the summer, this presentation encouraged me to continue seeking anti-racist organization within librarianship and without.

I walked away from the ACRL Virtual Conference with new ideas, a handful of lesson plan sketches, and a re-assurance that I am not the only one trying to have conversations about critical librarianship. In fact, the ability to quickly move between virtual sessions allowed me to find something that really felt like a community. I only wish I had the opportunity to build more connections with that community. At future ACRL conferences, whether virtual or in person, I am excited to find ways to intentionally build relationships.

How to avoid spreading myself too thin (and still get tenure)

My position is on the tenure track. Our process is shorter than usual at only three years, but there isn’t an expectation of publication. The tenure process revolves around learning to be a better instructor and librarian. Essentially the process is designed to help you grow into your role. I do not have a PhD, and came to librarianship from a different field, so I don’t have experience with academic publishing. During my first master’s, my thesis advisor recommended publishing a portion, but I felt that nobody would take me seriously and never pursued it further. While I would like to continue some of the work I started in my MSLIS and collaborate with colleagues, I was relieved that I would not be on the hamster wheel of “publish or perish” to pay my mortgage.

I still feel pressure though. This pressure isn’t necessarily even coming from my department. I’m a tightly wound person living in late stage capitalism and I do feel pressure to produce. I also have so many more substantial opportunities in my current position than I ever had in my previous field. I can take classes and attend webinars. I have had the opportunity to attend a few conferences between a scholarship and my alma mater. As a result, I’ve spread myself very thin by joining every committee, attending every webinar, and generally saying “yes AND.”

This school year is quickly coming to a close and I have come to two conclusions from saying, “yes AND” to everything:

1) I have learned a tremendous amount
2) I cannot spread myself so thin and do good work or take care of myself

How can I accomplish this?

By the end of this school year I will have put many programs into place; establishing them is the hard part. Maintaining them will be easier.

I created instructional sessions from scratch. Refining them will be easier.

I should not automatically volunteer and instead pause, and let others go first. (I did this for the first time late last week and it felt strange, but I did not take on anything else.)

Ask, “do I really need to join this committee?” I’m new and it is okay to learn how to do my job before joining everything.

Make big goals for the future and put them on the calendar. I want to collaborate with a certain colleague. I put it on the calendar for 2022. There’s a committee I have been eyeing and I put it on the calendar for 2023. Making goals is wonderful, but there is no need to do everything now.

While I know memes are not facts, my various algorithms on social media keep reminding me that perfectionism and ultra independence are trauma responses. Simply because I was required to be perfect in my past career doesn’t mean that I have to be now. It was in the past that I was relied on to do everything. I am being given the permission and ability to learn to do my job and I need to take that and not run with it.

It’s The End Of The World as We Know It, and I’m Not Fine

This is a hard time of year even under better circumstances in Chicago. We are over winter, but winter isn’t over us. Spring is such a tease with a week of blue skies and sunshine, followed by one of sleet. These beautiful days give us a false sense of hope, leading to a harder betrayal when ice freezes to my windshield. During a more typical year, we are all in a poor mindset after having our hopes toyed with by the weather gods.

This is not a typical year, and we arrive into March already burned out and tired from the pandemic. Living in a constant state of fear has left the best of us shell shocked. Meanwhile the weather and the vaccine availability tease us that better days are ahead. Then reality comes crashing through the door–it isn’t really spring yet. and as of my writing we have 538,269 dead. How do you even begin to process a number like that? More vaccines are rolling out, but that doesn’t help if you can’t get an appointment.

Last semester, lots of the faculty made cold calls to students who had yet to enroll for spring 2021. I signed up to help, nervous, and expecting an earful. I was having flashbacks to my early days of fundraising when I was cursed at, told off, and once mistaken for a middle schooler. (Being mistaken for a 12-year-old when I had a master’s hurt far more than being called names.) The student reactions surprised me: they were happy to talk. They thanked me for calling. Most had good reasons for waiting to register and they had questions. And as a group…they were not okay.

I think these calls were part of the inspiration for my monthly student blog. Students needed a space where it was okay to not be okay, and they needed practical advice on college as a concept. The bulk of Prairie State College students are first generation, meaning that they don’t have a parent they can ask about the day-to-day of being a student. Everyone they could ask is connected to the school, and that could be uncomfortable if they already don’t feel like they belong. I wanted the blog to be a space where they were welcome to come as they are.

With the framing that it is okay not to be okay, I have created this month’s blog space for our students to write and reflect on their semester so far. I recognize that I’m writing about writing for the sake of writing. Cheap? Meta? You decide. My hope, though, is that this can help our students work through their feelings, their schoolwork, or whatever they need. I wanted it to be open ended so they could use it best. 

My hope is that writing can help us to be okay not being okay. I want us to be able to find hope in the writing itself, but if all it does is pass the time until the world opens up just a little more, then that’s still a win. After all, spring is here, and we don’t have to be alright.