Like so many of us in academic libraries and public higher education more generally, at my college and university we’ve experienced several successive years of budget cuts. My colleagues and I have done what we can to make changes that reduce costs with minimal impact to patrons, but unfortunately we are now at the point where it’s no longer possible to do more — or even the same — with less.
It’s challenging to do less with less in a profession that’s as focused on service as librarianship. My colleagues and I care about our students, each other, and our college community. We want to say yes, to offer support, to maintain our open hours, to teach that additional class. We need to keep our working hours realistic both for contractual reasons (library faculty and staff are unionized) and to stave off burnout; as the director, it’s important for me to take seriously the possibilities for burnout and low morale. When we reduce services and resources in the library we also experience a (completely understandable!) increase in complaints from students, which is an added emotional load on library workers.
It’s challenging to do less with less when we what we really want is to do more. My colleagues have expertise in and beyond their areas of focus in the library, and we’re interested in expanding our knowledge and skills as well. We know there are more services and resources we could offer in the library with increased funding, additional collaborations we could engage in with faculty and students, more work we could facilitate and support with facilities and infrastructure adequate to the campus population.
There’s no easy answer to budget cuts; while I continue to advocate for increased funding and to foreground student concerns, disinvestment in public higher education is not a problem that we in our library can solve. In working within and through the challenges of budget cuts we’re trying to identify the things that we do have control over, however small. I can’t add another floor to the library with more student seating, but we can revise and clarify our signage to make it easier for students to find what they need, especially during busy, crowded times. Keeping the front doors closed rather than propped open (with a sign that indicates that we’re open) this semester has helped cut down on the ambient noise from the hallways outside the library and has made it a little bit quieter overall, though we still lack a truly quiet study area.
Small changes don’t obviate the need for additional funding, nor my obligation to argue for it. It’s hard work keeping our chins up during times of austerity, and I want to acknowledge our feelings while we keep doing the best we can with the resources we have available, pushing for change while working within our current constraints.
Over the summer, we updated a small lounge area in my library. We had multiple goals for this project; chief among them was to add seats in our often packed-to-the-gills library and also reduce noise problems that the area seemed to foster. Previously, this area was home to two clusters of chairs separated by a tall double-sided bookcase. Each cluster included four lounge chairs and a coffee table. The updated area now seats twelve rather than eight (not a huge difference, but meaningful for our small library) with four work tables and eight chairs overlooking a courtyard plus four lounge chairs. We removed the bookcase that bisected the area and also repurposed the shelves lining the walls to now feature a browsing area of periodicals and displays, rather than the general collection, and an assortment of succulents. The new space is more open and brighter with a more modern sensibility.
Now that we’re a few months into the semester, it’s gratifying to see how consistently and heavily students are using the space and to observe significant changes in how they’re using the area. In the previous configuration, students who didn’t know each other would be reluctant to sit together in the clustered chairs so just one or two filled seats would deter students from using the other open seats. At other times, large groups of students would gather on and around the clustered chairs to loudly socialize, disrupting students working in nearby spaces. Now, it’s not unusual to find every seat in the area filled. Students appear to be using the space for various purposes in very close proximity: working individually or with a friend, tutoring each other, meeting with group project collaborators, and relaxing. When working or chatting with friends and collaborators, they generally speak in lower voices. While I expected the new furniture would have some impact, it’s been surprising to see the degree of impact. With just a few changes, the space has been transformed.
Meanwhile, other areas in our library continue to be beset by noise conflicts (which I’ve reflected on before). We are brainstorming other ways to improve our current space while also advocating to expand our library with a Learning Commons model in collaboration with our learning center and other departments. Reflecting on the aesthetic and configurations of our current and (hopefully) future spaces is making me think more and more about how space design influences users’ attitudes and guides their behavior.
I was chatting with a colleague in the English department recently about this and she offered this term: rhetoric of space. I find the phrase–new to me in this context–a meaningful lens because it helps me focus on the explicit and implicit messages embedded in our spaces. It helps me consider the values our spaces communicate, the behaviors and attitudes our spaces foster and impede, and the interactions our spaces support and hinder. I think frequently about how the configuration of a classroom impacts students’ participation or a meeting room impacts engagement between colleagues. But how do our other spaces also condition us? This means not only asking how our students want to use a space, but also how does the space shape their expectations and use?
What is the rhetoric of your spaces? What is the rhetoric of the spaces you want to create? If these spaces could speak, what would they say? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Recently, Facebook reminded me of a picture I posted when I was in undergrad. It’s a picture of my Google calendar, in the fall of 2012. I was a busy undergrad, especially that fall, but my caption when I reposted this picture was something like, “If only 2012 Hailley knew what 2019 Hailley’s calendar would look like.”
Between working in Admissions, being a writing tutor, sitting on two committees, being a part of student government and a literary journal, taking four classes, and clarinet lessons, I was never bored. Back in 2012, it was normal for days to stretch from 8 AM until 9 PM. The day wasn’t even officially done at 9 PM: that just meant it was time for readings, homework, or hanging out with friends. I felt busy, and at times, busier than than my friends, but overall, the pace of my schedule felt normal and what it should be like as an undergrad.
These days, a meeting ending at 9 PM seems “late.” I was on campus walking with friends to a play and overheard a student say they had a meeting starting at 9 PM. My friends and I shared a look that said, “I would not want to start a meeting at 9.” College can be a time when traditional 9-5 is lost. If you’re awake, a meeting can happen.
As the Student Engagement Coordinator, working with undergraduates is a fundamental part of my job. It has always felt normal for me to stay late, to host a workshop after dinner, meet with a student group, or run a Pop Up Library. And when I saw that Facebook memory pop up this time, I started to think about who else (faculty, staff) had to stay late when I was in college to support my student engagement. In some ways, it’s all coming full circle, as I stay late to support a new group of students.
I also feel like there is an expectation that I’ll stay late. Part of that pressure is internal, because I remember what it was like to be a student and trying to find time to meet with faculty or advisors during the day (see calendar above). Part of that is my personality, and the ways that I let my personal and professional life bleed together. Part of that also comes from my first experience at Penn State, where I worked from 1-10 PM and saw how the library changed after 5 PM, when the “day folks” left and something new settled in its place. Part of that pressure comes from my conditioning to be helpful, as a woman in a service-orientated profession (Harris, 1992; Hicks, 2014) and some of that pressure is probably imagined.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this pressure and how my ability to stay late is partially built on my identity. I’m a young, single lady with no dependents. I’m often (in both positive and negative connotations) told that I have a lot of energy. The undercurrent of some of these statements imply that with that energy I’m well-suited to work with undergraduates. I feel that these characteristics make people think that of course, I’ll always stay late, handle that evening workshop, or be okay with an after-dinner meeting. They assume that my lack of any dependents means my evenings are always open. If this is the logic, what does it mean when my life inevitably changes? Does the pressure go away? Do I stop staying late or doing workshops on the weekends? Is it implied that eventually I’ll move away from “after hours”? If I move away from that work, will I lose touch with the undergraduates I serve? And if I do stop staying late, how will that change my work (and impact) with undergraduate students?
In a recent study, Lily Todorinova (2018) examined job position descriptions for undergraduate and first year librarian positions. In this process, she discovered that between 2014 and 2016, these types of positions were on the rise. Many of those positions were listed as entry-level and were offered entry-level salaries, for example, lower than the average salary in 2016 (Todorinova, 2018, p. 209). What does this trend mean for the profession? If we want these positions to recognize and respond to movements within higher education and find ways to integrate the library (broadly: information literacy, instruction, services, etc.) more meaningfully into student life, how are we supporting these new professionals? And how are we being flexible in that support, so that these colleagues are not regularly working 12 hour days, as they accommodate both the traditional work hours and the student hours? Do we allow for time to be flexed in these positions? Do we force our colleagues in these positions to “grow” out of them?
These structures and this tension aren’t limited to academic librarians in engagement and first-year positions; student affairs professionals also have a high burnout rate (Marshall, Gardner, Hughes, & Lowery, 2016; Mullen, Malone, Denney, & Dietz, 2018). Many of the reasons why student affairs professionals leave are due to long hours and the struggle to maintain a work-life balance (Marshall et al., 2016). In a study done on new student affairs professionals, one respondent mentioned the long hours were a sacrifice that would result in long-term payoffs (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008). But that also feels problematic, especially in thinking of a library setting: if I set a precedent, what structure am I putting into place for those who do this work after me? Is that a tradition I want to instill?
So, what helps keep you student-centered, while setting boundaries and without it consuming your entire schedule? My thinking these days is remembering what it was like to be a student, who posted that picture of her calendar on Facebook because she was feeling overwhelmed, personally and academically. To remember those people who supported me in college and find ways to give that back, to a new group of students. And probably most importantly, to keep asking questions to the students I work with about their day-to-day. What does it mean to be a college student at Penn State? As Todorinova discovered, many librarians in engagement positions feel that they responsibility is to leverage student experiences (something I strongly agree with), and there has to be a way to get that insight, both within traditional working hours and sometimes, after 5.
At the end of the day, students will still meet at the end of their day. In wanting to support students, folks in these positions will work outside the bounds of 9-5. What we can do, both as employees and supervisors of these types of positions? I don’t have any firm answers but I do have a lot of thoughts. Currently they include:
Articulate our values and how those plays out in our work. If we want to be student-centered, what does that look like, for us as an organization?
Understand that just because you have “engagement” or “first-year” in your title, doesn’t mean that you’re the only person who can support the entire student population. This work has to be done collectively and not placed solely on one individual.
Recognition that everyone’s time (ours, others, students, etc.) is valuable. It’s not a competition of who works the most, but instead an understanding that we all have things we care about and want to pursue outside our work responsibilities.
Identify your colleagues that work outside the bounds of 9-5. Articulate why that is (position type, job description, population to serve, etc.) and reflect on something you’re doing to support their schedule. If you’re not sure of your answer, ask that person what’s one new way you can support their schedule.
I see and feel the tension, and don’t know exactly how those feelings and tension will change over the next few years. But I’m reflecting on these structures and trying to sort it out. I’m curious about what others think about these ideas and strategies around this topic.
Harris, R.M. (1992). Librarianship: The Erosion of a Woman’s Profession. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp.
Hicks, D. (2014). The Construction of Librarians’ Professional Identities: A Discourse Analysis / La construction de l’identité professionnelle du bibliothécaire?: Une analyse de discours. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science, 38(4), 251–270. https://doi.org/10.1353/ils.2014.0017
Marshall, S. M., Gardner, M. M., Hughes, C., & Lowery, U. (2016). Attrition from Student Affairs: Perspectives from Those Who Exited the Profession. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 53(2), 146–159. https://doi.org/10.1080/19496591.2016.1147359
Mullen, P. R., Malone, A., Denney, A., & Dietz, S. S. (2018). Job Stress, Burnout, Job Satisfaction, and Turnover Intention Among Student Affairs Professionals. College Student Affairs Journal, 36(1), 94–108. https://doi.org/10.1353/csj.2018.0006
Renn, K. A., & Jessup-Anger, E. R. (2008). Preparing New Professionals: Lessons for Graduate Preparation Programs from the National Study of New Professionals in Student Affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 49(4), 319–335. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.0.0022
Todorinova, L. (2018). A Mixed-Method Study of Undergraduate and First Year Librarian Positions in Academic Libraries in the United States. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 44(2), 207–215. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2018.02.005
As a community college librarian, I was interested to read a study with community college students in mind. While our population overlaps with 4-year institutions, it’s meaningful to see the experiences of community college students examined here specifically. The researchers found that students “see the library not only as an informational resource, an academic resource, or simply a quiet place to study, but also as a community resource within the campus context.”
I think that’s the part some readers are taking issue with: the idea that students see the library as the place for both academic support and personal assistance with things like childcare, wifi hotspots, and help navigating college.
I recognize the anxiety that comes up when strapped librarians read a report that says students would like to find social services and childcare at the library. There’s a legitimate fear that the library’s mission will become so broad in scope that our original vision is obscured, and that expanding our services will come at the cost of burned-out library workers.
But I think we should be redirecting the conclusions of this report outside the library; share these results with our larger institution or funding body as an indication that the library needs more resources to provide or host desired services. It’s certainly not the intentions of the co-authors of this report to suggest that libraries must become all things to all people; they’re quoted in Inside Higher Edas saying libraries shouldn’t take all of these ideas literally.
A report is just that: it reports on the state of things, in this case what students need. Students say the library is one of the most likely places they’d go for non-curricular help. If that is the case, then we should think creatively about how that help can be waiting for them where they are seeking it. I’m not threatened by these conclusions because my first thought when I hear that a student would access a social worker’s services if they were in the library is “Great, let’s collaborate with a social worker,” not “Oh, I guess I have to become a social worker now.” As Christine Wolff-Eisenberg said in that same IHE piece:
“A lot of these services are going to require deep collaboration so the library is not reinventing the wheel when other resources exist.”
The ideas in this report spark my imagination more than my temper, but maybe I’m just in a particularly optimistic mood. Has your library tried or considered any programs like the service concepts posed in this report?
Counter-narrative comes from Critical Race Theory, and is rooted in the idea that power creates a dominant story that is accepted as Truth. Through counter-narrative, groups of people who have been marginalized have the power to resist dominant ideology and tell the story of Truth from their (our) own perspective and experience. An excellent example of counter-narrative in action is the 1619 Project spearheaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones at The New York Times. This project “is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” I had the honor of hearing Nikole Hannah-Jones and Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw speak at IDEAL 2019 and both stressed the importance of the stories we tell and the way that narrative shapes our reality.
What narratives and ideologies have we bought into in our own work in academic libraries? What have we simply accepted as Truth without bothering to question, poke holes in, and dismantle? There’s this unfortunate narrative that critical inquiry is about posing problems without offering any form of solution. To respond to that, I’ll borrow from Prof. Kimberlé Crenshaw and say that “There is power in naming.” There is power in storytelling, in pointing out problems, and in developing a discourse of dissent. What can you question? What kind of counter-narrative can you give to our profession?