Greenhorn mistake #1: Feeling responsible for everything

Recently I was able to put into words a nagging feeling that I was taking interactions at the reference desk too personally. The moment of clarity came when a patron nearly chewed me out because the library copier only takes coins, while printing from the computers is a separate payment system. I caught myself on the verge of apologizing profusely, realized there is a distinct difference between sympathy and mea culpa, & resorted to re-stating the facts until he accepted them and walked away to stew privately. And now I’m writing this. (Later I did nicely mention to tech support the copier/printer situation.)

Here are some other things I’ve taken responsibility for at the reference desk, but probably shouldn’t have:

-Frozen computers
-Lack of a change machine in the library
-Miscellaneous office supplies desperately needed
-General MS2007 incompatibility
-Power surges
-Corrupted files
-Buggy flash drives

Now, as my boss wisely points out, librarians do not exist to get stepped on. We are all trying to provide the best library service possible, but we are not doormats. There exists a line between being helpful and allowing ourselves to be the targets of indiscriminate blame.

But it’s so easy for me to get lost in the ephemera of students’ needs! I find myself taking up their causes for a  number of reasons:

First, I’m convinced the library is great, & I’m constantly trying to infect others with my enthusiasm. I’ll admit it: I want them to get excited about research tools and information in general, and I do think it’s possible. Hey, it happened to me. (Or will I later be referring to this as Greenhorn Mistake #564?)

Also, I’m always thinking that if I save the day and fix their computers, they’ll realize I can help with other things, such as their research. This thought makes climbing down on my hands and knees to check cables and wires and locations of USB ports SO much easier.

Lastly, and maybe this makes me a bad librarian (?) I am genuinely interested in whatever problems students bring to me, whether it be personal, absurdly vague, or blatantly impossible to fix. In general I like people, and I usually like the students at the community college where I work. I like being their advocate and helping to fix their problems. I think sometimes they come to school with an “us and them” mentality, where us=students and them=teachers & administration, and maybe this is naive but I’d like to transcend that barrier.

I recently read that the difference between a good and a great computer programmer is knowing when to write original code versus reuse someone else’s. Something similar may be true for librarians, in that the best librarians probably know precisely when they can be helpful, and when someone else would be more so. Admitting that I haven’t been doing this may be a step in the right direction…

Life, the Universe, and Everything

 I am looking forward to the coming months in many ways:  I finally have an Academic Library Job, I get to do a little bit of everything, and I am honored to be able to blog about my experiences here on the ACRLog.  On the flip side, I am also filled with deep concern and trepidation about the coming months: I am a one-person-library at a new branch campus of a regional community college, the library director AND his assistant have both just left for other positions, and I don’t want my posts to make ACRLog readers groan and ask, “who gave this nutcase a login here?”

Hopefully I’ll be able to bring a little bit of all these things to the table, and perhaps add a perspective that’s a bit unusual in the world of academic librarianship.  My greatest concern these days is not that I don’t currently have a boss down at the main campus – or even an administrative assistant who knows probably more than the boss did.  It’s not that I’m working in the brand new building of the brand new campus, struggling with the typical “start-up” issues that any new school facility might face.  No, my biggest worry is the fact that I’m *it* – I’m the lone librarian covering all the hours, handling all the responsibilities, answering all the questions, making all the collection development decisions… everything except the actual cataloging, which is handled elsewhere.  (But that’s a whole other post by this wanna-be cataloger!) 

I wonder how many one-person-libraries are out there these days?  I suppose I really can’t claim to be running the show solo – I do have colleagues at the other branches, and my books arrive already catalogued.  So I don’t actually do everything, just ALMOST everything.  But it’s still a struggle, even two months into the first semester.  I have to close the library to teach an instruction session.  I spend equal amounts of time showing students how to print from Word 2007 and teaching them how to do an effective database search.   I live in fear of the student who might come in with a complicated research problem, requiring all my time and concentration, only to be interrupted over and over to check out books, take money for printing, and to point the way to the copier.

So I hope that my posts will give encouragement to those in similar places, amusement to those who will laugh with me, and relief to those who are in better-staffed situations.  For me personally, I hope that these brief forays into my off-center mind will remind me continually that I really do love my job!  My current situation is overwhelming for someone fresh out of library school, but I will count enthusiasm (though not youth) in my favor, which makes it easy to get things done which really should be quite implausible.

Must Teaching and Learning Research Skills be Boring?

Olivia Nellums blogs about her first year experience as a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Camden County College in New Jersey.

Even though I’m a young librarian, I can’t remember not knowing how to use the library. I learned gradually, through a process of trial and error, and then by going to library school.

This leaves me in a curious spot as an instruction librarian: A class comes to the library to learn how to do research for a particular assignment, and basically I communicate what I’ve learned so far about how to effectively use a library. Then, unless they find me later at the reference desk, I don’t see them again. Broadly speaking, library instruction seems to be regarded as skills-based: The librarian demonstrates the skills, and the students are supposed to absorb them in that traditional way that equates their brains with sponges. The library is relevant to them only in the context of their course, and I can tell they’d like me to hurry up and get it over with so they can get back to the competing concerns of their class.

So, as many instruction librarians before me, I’ve turned to learning theories for guidance. Here’s what I’m gathering:
-I should leave students wanting to strike out independently to learn more about information and information-gathering, but without omitting essential points in my lecture.
-I should encourage students to be curious about how to solve an information problem. Also I should nurture them into reconsidering what they think they know about information.
-I should assist with the above in a patient, encouraging, and overall enthusiastic manner.

Now, before I started this job my biggest worries were that I talk too fast and might be mistaken for a student rather than a librarian. On the bright side, I’m glad to see I can set aside those trivialities. I’m also glad that the ideas above are really part of information literacy, which seems to be getting an increasing amount of attention from the academy at large.

As for other past concerns – mainly that I’m in charge of helping students learn every little thing about the library, and that it’s a personal failure if they don’t get it – maybe what I ought to be supporting is a framework of information and the basics of how to find it. So, here’s my summary of that earlier list (borrowing slightly from Ken Bain‘s What the Best College Teachers Do):
-I should promote a natural critical learning environment where students can confront beautiful and intriguing information problems, yet not make it so theoretical that they throw rotten tomatoes at me.

I’m on it.

Introducing Our New First Year Bloggers – Dealing With Vegetable Bribes

We’ve selected two new librarians, Susanna Smith and Olivia Nellums, to blog about their experiences during their first year in academic libraries.

Here’s one of the winning posts, from Susanna Smith of Gadsden State Community College in Alabama. Susanna says,

I work at a community college library, which comes with its own sets of challenges. I just transferred up to a new campus, and am the quintessential “one-person library”, doing a little bit of everything. Also, I share a frustration that many just out of library school share – the college hired me as a “Library Specialist” (non-faculty, support staff classification) yet I still do everything the librarians do (or more!). Many of us take any job in a library we can find, hopeful that we can build a resume to be promoted or find a “true” librarian position.

In her post, Susanna writes about the awkwardness of receiving gifts from patrons. Olivia’s post will follow. Please welcome them both to ACRLog!

I’ve been working here at the community college library since November. I’ve had all sorts of strange requests and questions and completely “off-topic” conversations with patrons who just needed to vent their spleens about something completely unrelated to library services. My prior experience in bookstore management and customer service prepared me well for those things, but today was a first. It was bribery – of a sort that I was completely unable to refuse.

During my shift I helped this very nice lady find some books on nutrition. She was quite energetic, and excited that we had a large selection (we have a nursing program so most of what we have is more technically-oriented than for a layman’s consumption). She also had a very thick accent, and so it was a bit of struggle for both of us at first to figure out what each other was saying. Finally we got to the section she was looking for, and I had to leave her there because I was the only one working the front desk and had someone else waiting.

She came down with an armload of books, ranging from a juicing guide to a nursing-and-nutrition title. She thanked me profusely and headed out the door. Just minutes later she popped back in with a bag, and proceeded to hand me some tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. “I have a garden, and I have enough to share! Thank you so much! I will bring you more when I bring back your books!” I gave her my heartfelt thanks and told her it really wasn’t necessary to bring more vegetables, but she said “No, you helped me! I will bring more!” So how do you handle a patron who insists on bribing you with fresh vegetables??!?

Our college has a very strict policy about accepting gifts from vendors and other “people of influence”, but I don’t think patrons count. And on the whole I thought it would be quite rude to turn down this kind lady’s offer, and I must admit if she brings some zucchini I couldn’t say no to that either.