Responding to Communities in Crisis

Charlottesville and the University of Virginia have been in the news a lot recently. In Summer 2017, a series of white supremacist rallies took place in Charlottesville, culminating in the August 2017 Unite the Right rally which erupted in violence between counter-protestors and the white supremacists. In 2014, UVA was the focal point of a conversation about sexual assault on campuses after an article in Rolling Stone detailed, and later retracted, a story titled “A Rape on Campus.” A few years before, UVA’s president was forced out by the board and later reinstated, resulting in national conversations about the future of higher education centered around the scandal at UVA. While it wasn’t specific to our institution, some also viewed the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath as a community crisis, since it was traumatizing for many people and resulted in local conflicts.

In light of this recent string of traumas, and our lack of clarity about what to do when they occur, my colleagues and I wanted to start a conversation with other academic librarians about how we can respond when our communities are in crisis. A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to travel to Knoxville, Tennessee for the Library Collective Conference, where we facilitated a roundtable discussion centered on crisis response in libraries informed by our own experiences as librarians at UVA.  I’ve been in Charlottesville for 14 months, so I was only personally present for the events of August 2017. I am very grateful to the colleagues I worked with on this session, Maggie Nunley, Paula Archey, Erin Pappas, and Jeremy Boggs, who were able to speak about their experiences at UVA during each of these events.

While Charlottesville has been the locus of a lot of national attention, campuses all over the country are dealing with crises in their local communities and the impacts of national events. We wanted to make this session an opportunity for people to talk about whatever type of incident they feel most impacted by or worried about, so we organized participants by type of institution and asked each group to choose a type of scenario they wanted to discuss.  We asked participants to consider a series of discussion questions related to their incident, taking into account institutional, personal, and collegial levels of response. After discussing and writing down their ideas, each group arranged their thoughts in an incident response matrix. An example of the matrix, which we filled out using August 12th as an example, is pictured below.

This outlines our imagined ideal response. The actions we actually took are highlighted.

We created this matrix after reflecting on our own response to the rallies in August 2017. Of all the events we discussed, this was the one we felt the most prepared for. The Library, in collaboration with the University, was planning to host a day of reflection and conversation on the day of the rallies, with speakers, discussions, film screenings, and a community potluck. Around noon, the governor called a state of emergency and the events had to be canceled, although the Library was kept open. While we had prepared an institutional pedagogical response, it became clear that we were not prepared on other levels. For example, we weren’t clear on our gun policy and there was confusion about whether or not weapons were allowed inside building on campus. Since then, we’ve clarified our policy, and signs have been posted outside buildings to clarify that guns are not allowed in our libraries. While it’s obviously impossible to prepare for every possibility, in hindsight, it may have been helpful to consider these different levels of response prior to that weekend’s events in order to fill some of the gaps.

We also asked participants to consider the constraints that might prevent them from achieving the ideal scenario outlined in their response matrix.  It will probably be no surprise to hear that participants had a lot of constraints to share, ranging from the constraints most libraries face all the time, like lack of resources, to more complicated problems of emotional labor, legal issues, power imbalances, and fear. Conversations like this one can be hard to have, because constraints vary so widely by institution and individual person, but it was interesting to hear the roadblocks that different people experience in trying to align their personal values with their professional responses. As each group reported out about their chosen scenarios, responses, and constraints, we asked them to also share actionable takeaways their group had generated.  The conversation constellated around a few key needs, which I hope library administrators may take into consideration as they think through these same issues:

  • To feel empowered to respond by administration without fear of retribution or judgement.
  • Proactive policies and procedures for crisis response.
  • Frequent trainings for library staff.
  • Space to reflect on and share experiences.

While there are no right answers to a lot of the questions we discussed, this session made it clear that many of us feel unprepared in the face of crisis and that there’s a lot of interest in starting these types of conversations. I appreciate everyone who shared their insights with us and hope it will be part of an ongoing conversation about how we can support our communities and colleagues while practicing self care during times of crisis.

Librarianship and Project Management Skills

I am almost a year into my tenure as a Health & Life Sciences Librarian at UCLA, so I’m starting to get a hang of things. I have a better understanding of our resources, I am able to dissect a research question more efficiently, and I am figuring out how my library actually works. My guess is that all of these, and more, will become even easier while providing more challenges along the way.

This is also about the time where I reflect on the coulda, woulda, shouldas from library school. While I did work at a library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I didn’t work there enough to truly understand how the library worked as a system and how individuals were serving this system. And while I stick by the benefits of laziness, especially in graduate school, there is one class I wish I took in my program: Administration & Management of Libraries and Information Centers (I especially wish I could have taken it with the amazing instructor Melissa Wong!)

First, I will first explain why I didn’t take it:

  1. I wanted to graduate ASAP. So I took enough classes to meet the minimum credit requirement.
  2. I wasn’t sure if I needed this class given my experience in the corporate world.
  3. I was (and still am) interested in reference and instruction, so I was afraid this would veer away from that focus.
  4. I wasn’t even thinking about being a manager in library school – my brain wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I was just trying to learn as much as I could about my interests as well as the mushy stuff (theory, library history, etc.) that I wouldn’t necessarily learn on the job.

Now, I shall debunk the above (hindsight is always 20/20):

  1. Yes, I did want to graduate ASAP, and I did enjoy all the classes I took, but there are one or two I could have done without.
  2. Experience in the corporate world ? libraries. Also, the individuals working in the corporate world are different than those working in libraries, especially when it comes to project management. I will expand on this more later.
  3. Understanding how libraries are administered and managed is the oxygen to navigating a library system. I didn’t really connect this before, but if I’m going to do reference or instruction or collections or whatever, these functions rely upon a larger structure which is essential to understand and critique.
  4. I did enjoy the mushy stuff. However, I think it would have benefited me to be a little more practical and learn the nuts and bolts about the administration of libraries. After all, if we think about the world and how socioeconomics, identity, and global politics affect us today, our place in the world starts becoming a little more situated as opposed to feeling independent or out of context. My point is, structure matters.

I want to talk about project management and librarians a little here. Keep in mind, this is based upon my less than two years experience working part-time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and less than one year at UCLA. These are large academic research libraries. My experience is limited, however, I do think I’m onto something here. And that is: Most people do not initially go into librarianship to lead or manage.

I think many of us have had pretty library fantasies that are indeed wonderful. And I fully support this because this is where we came from. But we need to go back to Ranganathan’s fifth law of library science: a library is a growing organism. Libraries are different today than they were 10 years ago and 10 years before that and so on. Technology has accelerated the capabilities and possibilities for libraries, however, it is difficult to keep up. Because of this, project management skills are necessary. My first foray with project management was when I dove into my first job out of college as an IT consultant. I was slammed with project management methodology and project managers that were successful implementers. While there were, and still are, many things I despised about the corporate world, project management is a great skill for any individual to have within any type of organization.

I have noticed that many librarians (myself included) can get bogged down in the details of tasks instead of zooming out, looking at the landscape of a project, sketching out a timeline, determining project phases, corresponding tasks, and project members. However, those that work in corporations, especially consultancies, go into these fields to be project managers. I don’t think it’s bad that this isn’t the first priority of many librarians, but I do think it’s bad to ignore its importance.

When I go to conferences, I haven’t see many papers or lightning talks about project management specifically, and I wonder how librarianship could evolve if this was a focus. I have seen plenty about specific projects, but not as much about the tools they used to manage and implement them. The Project Management Institute has a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. This is a certification that helps people make the big bucks and in companies. Is there an equivalent for libraries? Can there be one? Also, how can this be harmonized with leadership institutes and meeting the needs of marginalized populations? Is there a way that library science graduate programs can include this in curriculum?

It’s very possible that taking Administration & Management in Libraries and Information Centers would not have given me project management expertise. However, I do think it would have led me there earlier if I did take the course. Either way, I am glad I have been able to process and integrate my different career experiences to my work today. So far, my career in librarianship has been very rewarding, and I am confident that learning and building upon project management skills will make me a stronger librarian.

Have you had experience with project management programs? What are your thoughts about integrating these concepts with librarianship?

 

Developing a Peer Support Group

There’s been a lot written here on ACRLog about the importance of mentorship, and I echo what many others have said: there is enormous value in learning from and being supporting by experienced librarians. There’s a separate kind of mentorship, one that doesn’t necessarily fall under the traditional mentor-mentee model, that has also been hugely beneficial to me as a first-year librarian: peer support. Quetzalli wrote a few weeks ago about the value of peer-to-peer relationships, and it inspired me to reflect on my own experience as a member of a newly formed Early to Mid-Career Librarian Support Group at my library.  

Last semester, a few of my colleagues at the University of Virginia convened a group for early- to mid-career librarians to share advice, ideas, and support. The group operates autonomously and informally. We meet every few weeks for a discussion, and anyone can contribute to the agenda or propose a project.  Our first meeting was a chance to introduce ourselves and discuss our career trajectory and what we wanted to get out of the group. While some people were looking simply for camaraderie and support, others were looking for more concrete advice on how to do to do things like pursue a research agenda or how to more purposefully develop their career. These early conversations have informed the direction the group has since gone. We’ve surveyed group members about their research interests, invited senior administrators to discuss professional development, and coalesced around some bigger documentation projects that I will discuss below.

While plenty of opportunities for collaboration and support arise naturally throughout the course of my daily work, having a more formalized avenue for this kind of peer support is especially valuable. Because of the size of my organization, there are people I still haven’t met yet, particularly in departments that I don’t work with closely. This group allowed me to connect with people across areas of the library that I wouldn’t normally encounter in the course of my workday. It’s also a great way for me to avoid some of the isolation that I can sometimes experience in a small branch library. Because meetings are kept collegial and informal, I’m able to start building some of the relationships that happen more easily if you see someone in an office every day.

Finally, conversations in this group have led to projects that would be overwhelming undertakings without the support of many people. For example, one of the most consistent themes that came from our early conversations was a desire for more robust documentation, especially among newer employees of the library. As we compared our on-boarding experiences, it became clear that we had all experienced some version of the same thing: not feeling sure how to do something and asking around until being directed to email a certain person or pointed towards documentation somewhere we never would have thought to look. As a group, we decided to pool our collective knowledge and document everything we wish we had known for future new employees. Working together, we compiled information about the University, the Library, digital spaces, physical spaces, money, time, and travel, for future employees to reference during the on-boarding process. The resulting document lists basic information like where to find forms or how to get access to certain pieces of software, but it also explicitly outlines some of the library’s conventions, like when to use which communication tool, that are not immediately obvious to people who are new to the organization.

While this type of documentation is often compiled by supervisors or administrators, it was actually really useful for it to be generated by people so close to the experience of being new, because we were able to remember what we had to figure out on our own. It’s easy to forget how overwhelming it is to be brand new to an organization, and easy to forget all the things we expect people to know without explicitly telling them.  The group dynamic also really helped us flesh out this document, since we all had overlapping but not quite identical lists of things we thought needed to go into it. Whether or not documentation like this already exists at your institution, I think there is value in asking newer employees what they wish had been spelled out for them when they started and sharing it with new hires. Having a pre-formed group that you can consult with will make this process that much easier.

Creating space in your organization for peer support groups can lead to collaborative projects, like this one, that might not have happened without all of us getting together and talking through some of the challenges we’ve experienced as early career librarians. It can also make employees who work in isolation, physical or otherwise, feel less alone, and open up space for us to ask questions and bounce ideas off each that we might not yet feel comfortable discussing with mentors who are more experienced. I imagine it could also be a useful concept to apply at all levels of experience, such as first-time managers or administrators, as they navigate new challenges. Do you have a peer support group, formal or informal, at your institution?

Narrative as Evidence

This past week I attended the MLGSCA & NCNMLG Joint Meeting in Scottsdale, AZ. What do all these letters mean, you ask? They stand for the Medical Library Group of Southern California and Arizona and Northern California and Nevada Medical Library Group. So basically it was a western regional meeting of medical librarians. I attended sessions covering topics including survey design, information literacy assessment, National Library of Medicine updates, using Python to navigate e-mail reference, systematic reviews, and so many engaging posters! Of course, it was also an excellent opportunity to network with others and learn what different institutions are doing.

The survey design course was especially informative. As we know, surveys are a critical tool used by librarians. I learned how certain question types (ranking, for example) can be misleading, how to avoid asking double-barreled questions, and how to not ask a leading question (i.e. Do you really really love the library?!?) Of course, these survey design practices reduce bias and attempt to represent the most accurate results. The instructor, Deborah Charbonneau, reiterated that you can only do the best you can with surveys. And while this seems obvious, I feel that librarians can be a little perfectionistic. But let’s be real. It’s hard to know exactly what everyone thinks and wants through a survey. So yes, you can only do the best you can.

The posters and presentations about systematic reviews covered evidence-based medicine. As I discussed in my previous post, the evidence-based pyramid prioritizes research that reduces bias. Sackett, Rosenberg, Gray, Haynes, and Richardson (1996) helped to conceptualize the three-legged stool of evidence based practice. Essentially, evidence-based clinical decisions should consider the best of (1) the best research evidence, (2) clinical expertise, and (3) patient values and preferences. As medical librarians we generally focus on delivering strategies for the best research evidence. Simple enough, right? Overall, the conference was informative, social, and not overwhelming – three things I enjoy.

On my flight home, my center shifted from medical librarianship to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The only essay I had previously read in this collection of essays was “On Keeping a Notebook”. I had been assigned this essay for a memoir writing class I took a few years ago. (I promise this is going somewhere.)  In this essay, Didion discusses how she has kept a form of a notebook, not a diary, since she was a child. Within these notebooks were random notes about people or things she saw, heard, and perhaps they included a time/location. These tidbits couldn’t possibly mean anything to anyone else except her. And that was the point. The pieces of information she jotted down over the years gave her reminders of who she was at that time. How she felt.

I took this memoir class in 2015 at Story Studio Chicago, a lofty spot in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. It was trendy and up and coming. At the time, I had just gotten divorced, my dad had died two years prior, and I discovered my passion for writing at the age of 33. So, I was certainly feeling quite up and coming (and hopefully I was also trendy). Her essay was powerful and resonated with me (as it has for so many others). After I started library school, I slowed down with my personal writing and focused on working and getting my degree, allowing me to land a fantastic job at UCLA! Now that I’m mostly settled in to all the newness, I have renewed my commitment to writing and reading memoir/creative non-fiction. I feel up and coming once again after all these new changes in my life.

As my plane ascended, I opened the book and saw that I had left off right at this essay. I found myself quietly verbalizing “Wow” and “Yeah” multiples times during my flight. I was grateful that the hum of the plane drowned out my voice, but I also didn’t care if anyone heard me. Because if they did, I would tell them why. I would say that the memories we have are really defined by who we were at that time. I would add that memory recall is actually not that reliable. Ultimately, our personal narrative is based upon the scatterplot of our lives: our actual past, present, future; our imagined past, present, future; our fantasized past, present, and future. As Didion (2000) states:

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. (p. 124)

What does this have to do with evidence-based medicine? Well, leaving a medical library conference and floating into this essay felt like polar opposites. But were they? While re-reading this essay, I found myself considering how reducing bias (or increasing perspectives) in research evidence and personal narrative can be connected. They may not seem so, but they are really part of a larger scholarly conversation. While medical librarians focus upon the research aspect of this three-legged stool, we cannot forget that clinical expertise (based upon personal experience) and patient perspective (also based upon personal experience) provide the remaining foundation for this stool.

I also wonder about how our experiences are reflected. Are we remembering who we were when we decided to become librarians? What were our goals? Hopes? Dreams? Look back at that essay you wrote when you applied to school. Look back at a picture of yourself from that time. Who were you? What did you want? Who was annoying you? What were you really yearning to purchase at the time? Did Netflix or Amazon Prime even exist?? Keeping on “nodding terms” with these people allows us to not let these former selves “turn up unannounced”. It allows us to ground ourselves and remember where we came from and how we came to be. And it is a good reminder that our narratives are our personal evidence, and they affect how we perceive and deliver “unbiased” information. I believe that the library is never neutral. So I am always wary to claim a lack of bias with research, no matter what. I prefer to be transparent about the strengths of evidence-based research and its pitfalls.

A couple creative ways I have seen this reflected in medicine is through narrative medicine, JAMA Poetry and Medicine, and Expert Opinions, the bottom of the evidence-based pyramid, in journals. Yes, these are biased. But I think it’s critical that we not forget that medicine ultimately heals the human body which is comprised of the human experience. Greenhalgh and Hurwitz (1999) propose:

At its most arid, modern medicine lacks a metric for existential qualities such as the inner hurt, despair, hope, grief, and moral pain that frequently accompany, and often indeed constitute, the illnesses from which people suffer. The relentless substitution during the course of medical training of skills deemed “scientific”—those that are eminently measurable but unavoidably reductionist—for those that are fundamentally linguistic, empathic, and interpretive should be seen as anything but a successful feature of the modern curriculum. (p. 50)

Medical librarians are not doctors. But librarians are purveyors of stories, so I do think we reside in more legs of this evidence-based stool. I would encourage all types of librarians to seek these outside perspectives to ground themselves in the everyday stories of healthcare professionals, patients, and of ourselves.

 

References

  1. Didion, J. (2000). Slouching towards Bethlehem. New York: Modern Library.
  2. Greenhalgh, T., & Hurwitz, B. (1999). Why study narrative? BMJ: British Medical Journal, 318(7175), 48–50.
  3. Sackett D.L., Rosenberg W.M., Gray J.A., Haynes R.B., & Richardson W.S. (1996). Evidence based medicine: What it is and what it isn’t. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 312(7023), 71–2. doi: 10.1136/bmj.312.7023.71.

 

Vocational Awe and Professional Identity

A few days ago, In the Library with the Lead Pipe published an article by Fobazi Ettarh titled Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves. Ettarh uses the term “vocational awe” to “refer to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” Her article masterfully traces the root of this vocational awe, from the intertwining history of faith and librarianship to our current state, where librarians are expected to literally save lives. Ettarh argues that vocational awe leads to some of the structural problems in our profession, like lack of diversity, undercompensation, and burnout.

I will admit that I initially felt some defensiveness when I started reading this article. One of the reasons I became a librarian is because I wanted to care about and be engaged with the mission of my work, and I do deeply believe in the values that libraries try to uphold. When I got past that initial reaction, I realized how Ettarh’s research allows us to talk about our profession more honestly. As the author clearly states, the article doesn’t ask librarians not to take pride in their work. Nor is it an indictment of our core values (although it does, rightly, point out they are inequitably distributed across society).  Rather, it encourages us to challenge the idea that our profession is beyond critique, and therefore opens up space for us to better it.

Although this is not its primary intent, I wonder whether this research direction will help us resolve some of our own tortured professional identity issues. I am among those who became a librarian partly out of passion and partly out of convenience. I didn’t feel called to the profession. Instead, I made a conscious decision based on my interests and the sort of life I wanted for myself. I knew I wanted to be in a job where I would be helping people, with the opportunity for intellectual growth, and that I wanted to have a stable job with a balance between work and my other personal interests. Librarianship seemed like a very natural fit. But the vocational awe in librarianship means that you’re surrounded by the idea that being a good librarian means being driven solely by passion. Heidi Johnson previously wrote about the isolating feeling of not being a “born librarian” here at ACRLog, and I remember this post resonating deeply with me when I first started to become self-conscious that my professional identity was built less on my sacred calling to it than some of my peers. I think that unpacking the vocational awe that makes us feel this way might help to dispel some of the professional identity issues that so many librarians, and particularly new ones, seem to have.

As I was thinking about this article, I also realized that my own version of vocational awe usually manifests when I’m talking to non-librarians. Telling people I’m a librarian produces surprisingly revealing responses. Some people respond a well-meaning, but misinformed, “how fun! I wish I could read books all day, while others respond with some variation of “but aren’t libraries dying?” I suspect that this is partially a result of the slew of articles that are published every year on the decline of libraries and the death of librarianship. After responses like this, I feel compelled to defend librarianship in the strongest terms. I talk about information literacy, intellectual freedom, public spaces, privacy, access to information, democracy, you name it. I turn into a library evangelist. None of my own hesitations, challenges, or frustrations find their way into these conversations. Several people have already written about the exhaustion of constantly defending and explaining our profession. But this article made me wonder if there is some connection between how often we find ourselves needing to defend what we do — to friends, to faculty, to funding agencies, to the public — and tendency to resist the idea that there is a lot of internal work we need to do to truly uphold the values we claim. Ettarh’s article made me think about how to balance these two ideas: believing in and advocating for my profession, while working to make it better for the people in it.

What does that look like? I’m not entirely sure yet. But I think it entails being more honest. It means advocating for our value, but not pretending that we can do everything. And it means contributing to a culture that doesn’t valorize martyrdom. For me, that means saying no if I don’t have the bandwidth for a project. It means using my all my vacation time, and stopping using busyness as a measure of worth. There is much more to the article than I can unpack here, and I hope that everyone will go read it. I’m looking forward to hearing other people’s thoughts on how vocational awe impacts our profession, and how we might work to stop using it, as Ettarh puts it, as the only way to be a librarian.