From Cyber Attacks to Pandemics: Reflections on Trying to Work During Times of Crisis

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Melissa DeWitt, Research and Instruction Librarian at Regis University.

My final post as an FYAL blogger was in July of 2019. I ended that post on a reflective note, and like the themes I reflected on. In particular, I still believe that relationships are the most important thing, which I hope comes through in this post. While I liked those themes, there were some things I didn’t realize during my first year – mainly that my work life and personal life are not separate. That’s not to say that I don’t take time to myself or find ways to decompress (I love my hobbies, and I definitely know how to chill!). What I mean is that I am not a person that carefully tucks work into bed when I leave for the day, nor can I separate the ways my personal life affects my work. All facets of my life intertwine with and influence one another. I suspect that this is true for most people. Stacey Abrams, in a podcast with David Tennant, describes work/life balance as a myth. Instead, she equates it to a game of Jenga. You carefully stack and pull pieces out whenever you need them, hoping it all won’t come tumbling down, but the crash is inevitable. You have to put the pieces back together and try balancing everything all over again.

The goal of this series is to reflect on our trajectories since the first year, and I’m not sure how to reflect on my trajectory without providing some context. The truth is that reflecting on my work experience since I last posted is upsetting. Sometimes reflection is cathartic, but sometimes it’s like ripping the scab off a wound you’ve been trying to ignore. This reflection is a combination of both.

On August 22, 2019, three days before the beginning of the semester, my workplace detected an external security breach. We learned later in the day that we had experienced a cyber attack, and would eventually learn that it was ransomware.

I could spend hours talking about what happened next, but there’s not enough space in this post. Here’s a brief overview. We did not have systems back up for months. We used personal devices to perform our work. All data on my work computer was lost or unrecoverable. The library did not have access to databases or any online content, and so we contacted vendors, one-by-one, to ask for alternate access, which we listed on a password-protected spreadsheet. The research desk became an IT desk, as we spent hours helping students print and navigate research without purchased resources. We spent months without any of the tools we needed to do our jobs (because if it was tech, we did not have it), and yet we were still expected to do our jobs. My main takeaway from this experience? It was awful.

I mentioned that work and personal life affect one another because this was especially true during the cyber attack. Work became a low point for me and many of my colleagues, which affected my mood at home. Several people left during this time, morale was garbage, and I woke up every morning with a deep sense of dread. We did absolutely everything to try and provide the same services, but that was part of the problem. We should have been able to take a break, to look at the situation and say, “this isn’t sustainable.” Instead, we pretended that we could do the same work without any of the resources that made our work possible. There were also professional repercussions: we had layoffs, incentivized retirements, hiring freezes across many departments, and mergers between colleges. It felt like it would never end. The worst part was that no one outside my workplace really got it, so it felt like we were isolated in our little bubble of misery. That’s not to say that people were not supportive. When I reflect back on this time period, the one bright spot were the people in my personal and professional life that created an amazing support network. I do not know what I would have done without my people. Despite that network, it’s hard to relay the despair, fatigue, anger and poor morale I felt. It consumed all aspects of my life, and that semester is now a huge blur.

My world isn’t solely professional. In 2019, I attended three funerals for grandparents. Life didn’t stop just because work was shit. There were amazing things too. I attended my sister’s wedding, and I got engaged. I planned a wedding during the cyber attack and in between funerals, and then I took a break from the chaos of my workplace to get married in early February 2020. The pandemic was not quite on our radar, and I remember my wedding as the last real gathering with all of my friends and family before everything went down. We were incredibly lucky, and it’s an event I’ll never forget because it’s this amazing, bright and shiny spot on an otherwise miserable year.

Then the pandemic hit, and we all had to deal with it. The only saving grace was that, after working through a cyber attack, pivoting library work for the pandemic felt easy because I had the tools necessary to do my work. Except, this time, the crisis was present in every facet of our lives, and people were (and still are) dying. I won’t spend much time reflecting on the pandemic because, reader, you know what it’s like. Reflection is a process of looking back, but the pandemic is still happening. I don’t know how this ends yet. Instead, I’ll tell you about bright spots amidst the chaos.

When I was first hired, I asked about the possibility of teaching a credit-bearing class because creating a course was one of my professional goals. That goal came to fruition in fall 2020. The class was difficult to teach due to pandemic-related reasons, but also incredibly rewarding. I suspected that teaching a course outside the traditional, one-shot library session would foster my growth as a teacher, and this turned out to be true. I learned so much about myself, my capabilities as a teacher, and about students. Students are the reason I wanted to become an academic librarian in the first place, and teaching a class solidified all the warm fuzzy feelings I have towards them. I will never forget ending our last class of the semester and students remaining in the Zoom room because they did not want to leave. I cried. They cried and wrote the sweetest things I’ve ever read in a chat. There’s something about taking care of one another during a difficult time that brings you together. I also would not have been able to navigate this class without my friend and colleague who was my mentor while teaching the class. She answered all of my frantic emails with grace, and I probably would have melted into a puddle without her.

I also co-wrote my first publication, which was a source of angst during my first year. The timing was not ideal, but it got done. This was, again, not possible without the support of my co-writers. Writing is already challenging, but writing during a pandemic is something else. It’s nice to work with folks who keep you accountable but also understand that we’re all human beings just doing our best. First year me would be very proud. In addition, you can catch me all year presenting at conferences, including two pop culture conferences. I’ll be presenting with some really cool people.

Furthermore, I look forward to the progression of my teaching skills and the evolution of my pedagogy. Continuing my teaching adventures, I will co-teach a master’s level research course in March, which I’m really excited about. I will also teach writing and composition to first year students again in the fall. Teaching and working with students brings me joy in my work, so that’s what I’m going to keep doing.

Final Reflections

It was hard not to feel anger bubble up as I wrote 30 versions of this post (some a little spicier than others). I’m curious to see what my professional life will look like when I no longer have to perform during a crisis. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that institutions will do what’s best for them, not for you. I like my job and my work, but it doesn’t need to be this difficult. We can’t keep doing more with less and expect that to work forever. The professional accomplishments I’m proud of are in spite of my workplace, not because of it. It’s possible I would have published sooner, or achieved more of my goals if I hadn’t worked in a place that was weathering multiple crises. I am trying to acknowledge that impact and recognize that I am not above external factors. At the same time, I do not need to simply roll with the punches. Since my first year, I’m a little louder, a little more jaded, and a lot angrier. I’m less afraid and more confident about what kind of impact I want to make in my work and at my institution. The time since I wrote my last post was jammed with low points, and at some point, I’d like to take a nap. In the meantime, I’ll celebrate my accomplishments, lean on the strength of my relationships, and see what I do next.

Planning with Uncertainty

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Zoë McLaughlin, South and Southeast Asian Studies Librarian at Michigan State University Libraries. 

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the Virtual Minnesota Institute, which was a condensed form of the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians that was organized once it was clear that meeting in person wasn’t going to happen. As part of the institute, participants were asked to think about where they would like to be five years from now, along a variety of axes—professional and otherwise.

I found this exercise to be surprisingly eye-opening. While many of the things I want to have accomplished professionally over the next five years were easy to identify, I had a much more difficult time putting the pieces together into one cohesive narrative. I’d like to develop more subject expertise and significantly improve my abilities in a few regional languages and become involved in national conversations about accessibility. I’d like to contribute meaningfully to the professional organizations that have really supported me and engage community members and work seriously with librarians from overseas. All of these things are connected, but many of these things are connected only because they are all interests of mine.

In my final post for ACRLog in the first year academic librarian experience series, I wrote that one lesson I learned was to be intentional in selecting and agreeing to projects. Putting this lesson together with the five-year visioning exercise, I’ve come up with a new method that I’m at least trying to use to organize and prioritize my projects.

My job responsibilities are already organized into three main categories: collections, cataloging, and accessibility. I spent my first year trying to figure out how to balance these different responsibilities, and if I’m being honest, I’m still working on it. What I learned, though, is that it helps to really break down my projects into these separate categories so that I can make sure I’m spending time on everything. The new layer I’ve added on to this system is to think about goals within these separate categories. What do I want to have accomplished in my collecting five years from now? What competencies in accessibility do I want to have developed five years from now?

Thinking of concrete, long-term goals has been made trickier by the realization that nothing is certain. Back when I wrote my final blog post, I did not think that I’d be spending a year working remotely. Sometimes goals have to change. Imagining the long term, however, has also helped me to realign my work with my values. What will I be proud of accomplishing five years from now? That’s likely much more aligned with my values than all the emails I should be writing that I keep ignoring.

So then how have I moved from thinking about goals and values to organizing my day-to-day work? Essentially, every time a project or task comes up, I ask myself whether it advances my progress toward one of my goals. If it does, great! I say yes to working on the project and I make a note of which goal the project relates to. If something isn’t actually related to my goals, then that’s a good sign that I should be saying no. Of course, I can’t say no to everything (I really do have to write all of those emails), but it is a way to make me feel a lot better about declining to participate on another committee or deciding not to submit to a semi-interesting conference.

This summer, I’m going to hit three years in this position, which means that I need to start thinking about promotion and tenure. My hope is that in conceptualizing my day-to-day work in terms of long-term goals, I’ll also be able to build a cohesive and logical promotion/tenure dossier. Thinking about how each task I complete relates to a larger plan means that all my tasks are building upon one another and that I am continuing to make progress, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

So where am I now? Like everyone else, the past year has hit me hard. But I’m lucky enough to still have a job and with a fair amount of security and the space to work from home comfortably. I’ve had to make adjustments and relearn aspects of my job when I’d only just felt like I’d gotten my feet under me, but I do feel like I’m learning and growing and am more confident in my work. I’m excited to see what the future holds for me.

And for you? It’s a new year, so now might be the perfect time to look at your own goals and consider the ways in which you can make your everyday work align with your values.

Where Have I Been?

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Quetzalli Barrientos, Student Success Librarian at Tufts University.

Hello! I am so glad to be back at ACRLog. It has been a couple of years since I have written a post, but I always think back to my very first ACRLog post that I wrote in the Fall of 2015. That fall, I began my first professional librarian job as a resident librarian at a small, private university in Washington, D.C. I was new, eager, terrified, and more lost than I’d like to admit. 

It has been five years and much has changed since then. I spent three years in D.C. and once my residency ended, I moved to Massachusetts. I started as the Arts and Humanities Research and Instruction Librarian at Tufts University. Recently, due to a reorganization at our library, I am now the Student Success Librarian. When thinking of what I would write for this post, I thought that maybe I would talk more about new job duties, expectations, projects, etc. However, the more I thought about it, the more I reflected on where I truly am as a librarian and as a person. 

The past five years have been a continuous wave of changes, both exciting and hard. I’d like to say that the past five years have been amazing, but to be honest, it has been a struggle. While my work in D.C. led to my position at Tufts, the road was paved with stress, anxiety, and learning to maintain an actual work-life balance. 

While as a resident librarian, I was overwhelmed with stress and a growing anxiety that I did not understand. While on the outside, one might think that I had it together, I did not. I overworked myself, I kept myself busy with conferences and presentations, and I navigated work-place politics that had a negative effect on my mental health and well-being. Since the end of my residency in 2018, I have learned invaluable skills. I want to share some of them:

  • I have learned to stand up for myself. For me, standing up for yourself is different than advocating for yourself. I learned early on in my residency that I would have to be the one to speak up about the type of work I wanted to do. Standing up for yourself meant respectfully speaking up when faced with conflicts within the organization or when disrespected, belittled, or treated in a condescending way. I am not someone who likes conflict or seeks out conflict, but over the years, I have finally learned to stand up for myself and use my voice to defend myself. That being said, I was also careful not to burn bridges. After all, the reality is that the library world is small and very chatty. 
  • I have learned to say no to others and to myself. I often found myself taking on new projects and saying yes to everything, because I knew it would look good on my resume. While I don’t regret most of these experiences, it was hard for me to find a balance. Now that I find myself more settled in the work I want to be doing, I am a little more particular about what I spend my time on. I give myself time to decide if I want to take on a big project and try to be more realistic about workload or other events. 
  • I have discovered and rediscovered passions. I have discovered that I love liaison librarianship and teaching subject-specific library instruction sessions. At Tufts, I was liaison to the history department and while it was intimidating at first, I learned to love it. I loved working with the history faculty, learning about their research/scholarship, and I loved working with history students. I continue to teach first-year writing library sessions and continue to experiment with active learning activities and assessment. While sometimes it gets repetitive, it is the freshman students who make it worth it. Every fall semester, I look forward to their new faces and excitement. 

Something I am still working on: 

  • Taking care of my mental health will always be ongoing, but I am happy and on the right track. I realized a while ago that my trouble with mental health was also related to work and when I moved to Massachusetts, I was determined to change that. I had to be intentional about forming a good work/life balance for myself. I made my mental health and well-being my number one priority, not only for my sake, but for the sake of my partner, relationships with colleagues, and friends. 

In conclusion, I look back at my position as a resident librarian and for the most part, I am fond of it. I met colleagues who have become close friends and am part of a community of resident librarians (past and present) that uplift me and everyone else. I am excited about my work and I hope that wherever you are in your career, that you care for yourself and know that I am rooting for you. 

Lily Troia Asks: Who are We When We Leave “The Library”?

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Lily Troia, Solutions Account Manager at Digital Science.

When invited to write this former first-year librarian “where are you now” post some questions immediately popped into my head: What does it mean to be “a librarian;” is it synonymous with practicing “librarianship;” and perhaps, what most would assume — does it require you to work IN a library? Ironically, these were questions we often debated when I was earning my MLIS with a focus on archival practice — what were archivists? Were WE librarians, working in special collections, sometimes with “Librarian” in our title, yet technically members of an entirely different praxis? What about embedded librarians or those working for corporations, law firms, or (gasp) publishers? 

I look now at the circuitous path my career has taken and I see much more intersection and overlap than the converse — and find many ‘former’ librarians like me, who seem very much to live and breathe librarianship in all they do professionally. When folks ask me what I do for a living (pre-COVID), I always reply, “Oh, I’m a traveling librarian,” intended to sound seemingly oxymoronic, and always a conversation starter. Regardless, I love my job. 

For the past three and a half years I’ve been fortunate to be “at” Digital Science, working remotely and on the road, first as Engagement Manager for Altmetric — or as I liked to describe the position, an instruction and advocacy librarian to our global user base, supporting those interested in richer, more contextual bibliometrics, with an eye on connecting research visibility to broader impact. Now I specifically help research and scholarly institutions in this hemisphere develop frameworks for digital solutions that meet their unique needs — a role very similar to that of the electronic resources and scholarly communication librarians with whom I often work, only speaking from the solution-provider perspective. 

I cannot exaggerate how lucky I am to have found a company headquartered in London, providing me with numerous opportunities to explore the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany — plus time frequenting some of the most impressive cities North America offers: Toronto, Boston, Washington D.C., Montreal, etc. and exploring those less-appreciated but worth discovery, like Cincinnati, OH, Rochester, NY, and London, Ontario (“the other London”). The privilege of zipping cross time zones on a weekly basis is not lost on me, nor was it a lifestyle I’d ever previously enjoyed. And all this while working with exciting new technologies, furthering my own scholarly and professional pursuits, and diving deeper into a global community committed to open science and scholarship. 

When I was officially a First Year Librarian for ACRLog I worked in an actual academic library at William and Mary, where I helped launch research data management for the campus and digital services for the VIrginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). This was an amazing position for me coming out of Simmons, where I balanced a pastiche of part-time digital asset management and scholarly communication jobs. I got to spend time on open access advocacy, work directly with researchers, and get involved with organization-wide committees and a taskforce focused on aligning technical services across campus, thanks to the keen leadership of a director who ensured the library was engaged in broader discussions at the institution. 

Did I mention the corner office with a view of the York River and the occasional dolphin sighting?  

It is more coincidence and circumstance that I ended up leaving. I began researching altmetrics when tasked with assessing ways of measuring broader social impact at VIMS, and serendipitously found Altmetric’s job ad when the time was right for me to move. A position that splits remote work and travel is not for everyone but suddenly in today’s shifted, crisis-mode climate, getting accustomed to working from home seems an apt skill to have developed in advance. 

I realize I am a vendor — in sales even — maybe the furthest thing from what most would view as a librarian, but I am a part of the same ecosystem, and at the very least library-adjacent. I speak and work with librarians every day, not across but at the same table, working to develop and seek the best solutions for each institution. I still speak at conferences and webinars, publish posters and contribute to literature in the LIS field and beyond. I am collaborating with librarians, IT, research administrators, scholars, faculty affairs, and more — just like before. 

It’s hard not to see how I practice library and information science every day, from the skills I learned while earning my MLIS — information management, metadata, copyright and instruction — to my approaches to librarianship, scholarship, responsible metrics: I bring my librarian self into everything I do. Whether helping the Ohio Innovation Exchange craft a job posting for a Library Engagement Strategist or blogging for my own company about cross-organizational efforts around managing faculty data

Yes, I work for a commercial company, but I feel genuinely proud to work at Digital Science, an organization started by researchers and scientists, employing more than a few librarians, each functioning in a unique role of librarianship — from systems project management, to bibliometrics, data curation, or metadata mapping — skill sets valued by our peers, and seen as unique and critical to our successes. Further, we are a team committed to supporting the scholarly community via direct partnerships, free offerings, and continued technological developments and insights that enhance and improve our shared landscape.  

I may not be working out of one library, but we all know today that librarians have roles across a litany of professional fields, and many of us are taking our degrees and turning librarianship into something new that works for us. For that, I am proud to still call myself a librarian. 

Reflecting on Seven Years of Librarianship

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now?: Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Ariana Santiago, Open Educational Resources Coordinator at the University of Houston.

Just over seven years ago, I began my career as an academic librarian. I also had the opportunity to write for the ACRLog First Year Academic Librarian Experience series. I’m so glad I did, because writing a monthly post motivated me to assess and reflect, and now I’m thankful that my old posts capture the unique experience of my first year on the job. So what have I been up to since then? And how have things changed?

Let’s start at the beginning

I started as the Residency Librarian for Undergraduate Services at the University of Iowa in August 2013. In my undergraduate services role, I focused on library outreach and information literacy instruction, and had a lot of flexibility to try things out so that I could make the most of my residency program. I got involved in campus committees, collaborated on outreach and programming events, was introduced to critical librarianship, and dove into learning about instructional design. I participated in professional development programs that had long lasting impacts on me, specifically ACRL Immersion: Intentional Teaching and the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians from Traditionally Underrepresented Groups. I also dealt with uncertainty, knowing that I didn’t yet understand the full picture – of the library and university where I worked, and academia more broadly. I struggled with imposter syndrome, especially when it came to teaching, and hadn’t yet figured out how to ask for the help that I needed. I definitely didn’t have a long-term plan for my career, but I knew I wanted to improve and excel at what I was doing. 

Finding my niche with a side of burnout

After my residency, I moved to the University of Houston where I started as the Instruction Librarian in 2015. By this time I had gotten a lot more comfortable and confident with instruction, and really enjoyed not just being in the classroom and working with students, but the problem-solving nature of figuring out how to teach and engage students in different learning contexts. It was around this time that I started to realize my facilitation skills and that I really wanted to facilitate others’ success, whether through IL instruction, working with colleagues on their teaching, or leading a library project or committee. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize I was headed towards burnout. I got increasingly involved in professional service, started presenting and publishing as I prepared for eventual promotion, and was working on a second master’s degree (M.A. in Applied Learning and Instruction, which I completed in 2017), all the while maintaining a heavy teaching load. I think it’s safe to say I still hadn’t figured out how to ask for help, or even admit when I was struggling and needed help. 

Then in 2018, I got the opportunity to move into a new position at the University of Houston, and started as the Open Educational Resources (OER) Coordinator. I’ve read my fellow former FYAL’s posts and they all speak of the inspirations that shaped their career paths and landed them where they are today. For me, this part of my career trajectory was far less intentional. I had the opportunity to take on this position, though to be completely honest, at the time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. But I took a chance, and I’m definitely glad that I did. 

Although an OER position wasn’t something I had been purposefully working towards, I’m now 2+ years into it and clearly see how this work builds on my previous experience and strengths. I’m contributing to improving teaching and learning by helping instructors incorporate OER into their courses, allowing students to have free and immediate access to course materials. I get to incorporate elements of instructional design and campus outreach, and there’s no shortage of problem-solving on a regular basis. I enjoy working closely with instructors to support them in reaching their instructional goals, and further facilitating student success. 

However, because I didn’t start with a strong background in OER, I often went back to feelings of imposter syndrome. When I transitioned into this new area, I was reminded of how it feels to truly step outside of your comfort zone and became painfully aware of how much I didn’t know or understand yet. Fortunately, by this time (or perhaps because of this experience) I had gotten a lot better at identifying when I needed help and asking for it. In recent years, I’ve also practiced my ability to say “no” to things. Earlier on, my eagerness to get involved and help out wherever help was needed led to burnout from taking on too much. Now I know the value of my time and to be more selective about the commitments I take on. 

Still figuring it out

In my very last FYAL post, I gave the following advice: don’t take on too much, ask for help, and keep the big picture in mind. Turns out this was pretty good advice for me to listen to throughout the years! To add on to that advice now: it’s okay to not have things all figured out. I admire people who know exactly where they’re headed and what they want out of their careers, but I’m not that person (at least not right now), and I think it’s okay to figure things out as you go. 

Along with everyone else right now, I don’t know what the future holds. I know that I’m about to submit my portfolio for promotion, and that I’ll continue to work from home for the immediate future, but that’s about it. I don’t know what the next seven years will bring, but I’m excited to find out!