You Can Only Lend a Helping Hand if Your Hands Aren’t Full

Self-care is so important. I think we’ve all learned that in one way or another over the past year. We’ve also learned that there are a lot of different types of self-care: responsibilities to ourselves (eat right, get exercise, sleep the right amount), doing fun things (eat your favorite food without thinking about calories for once, splurge on the thing you’ve been eyeing for a while), and recognizing and respecting your limits (take a mental health day, avoid energy vampires, learn when to say no).

I want to look at a related scenario: recognizing when you’re actually in a good place right now, and finding ways to help the people who aren’t.

If you aren’t in a good place right now, put on your own mask before helping others with theirs. (The metaphor isn’t great during COVID… don’t touch others’ actual masks.) If you aren’t in a situation where you can add to your plate, this post is not about you. Come back to this when you’re ready. Stop reading, put on a lo-fi playlist, and have some hot chocolate.

If you look around right now and think, “I’m feeling pretty good right now: I’m not overwhelmed by my workload, responsibilities, or emotions,” that’s great! You’re in a position to offer to help out your colleagues who don’t currently feel that way. Don’t forget, though: these feelings come and go. Next week you might find that your workload is piled high again. In a couple days, you could take stock and realize, “This is too much for me right now.” And that is totally fine. You have moved into the previous paragraph, and should join them until you’re ready to come back. (I hear they have hot chocolate. Maybe they’ll share.)

Before you start looking for opportunities to help others, I want you to promise to do the following:

  • Protect your own boundaries. People who volunteer for everything, I’m looking at you. (And at a mirror, because… been there, done that.) If you try to help with everything, you’ll quickly overdo it and wind up needing more help than you can give. That is not the goal here.
  • Protect your energy. Along those same lines, don’t pick up tasks that drain you. If there’s someone you find it emotionally taxing, don’t volunteer to work closely with them.
  • Protect others. Make it clear that you aren’t making offers on behalf of the library, your colleagues, your supervisor, your direct reports, or your successor whenever you leave your position. Protect future-you as well: make offers specific to avoid getting stuck with an ongoing responsibility you weren’t planning on.

Now that I know you’re going to continue to take care of yourself, here is some guidance for offering to help your coworkers out of a tough time:

  • Don’t babysit or nag them. You are not taking it upon yourself to decide what they can and cannot handle. If they decline your offer, it is declined. This doesn’t mean you can never offer again, but don’t bug them constantly… that is adding to their plate, not removing from it.
  • Know their preferences about offers. Some people like their schedule or to-do list to stay as it was when they came in that morning, or when it was set weeks ago. Others welcome the opportunity to make last-minute changes. Know who falls into which category and time your offers appropriately.
  • Know their preferences about tasks. The same concept applies to the tasks and schedules you’re offering to help with. I think of Friday afternoon reference shifts as unappealing. As the person who makes the reference schedule, if I took that shift from someone to help ease their burdens, but they think of that shift as protected time to work on something else while reference traffic is slow, I’ve caused a negative effect where I thought I was causing a positive one. (Even worse if I gave that shift to someone who dislikes it… Now I’ve made things worse for two people!)
  • Be specific. This falls under “protect your own boundaries” too: Make an exact offer so the parameters are known. “I can help you plan that workshop when you’re ready,” could come back to bite you if “when you’re ready” happens to coincide with a time when you suddenly get busy with other tasks. “I can meet with you this Thursday afternoon to plan that workshop,” makes it clear that the offer does not necessarily stand for other days or weeks, or even this Thursday morning.
  • Make it about you (a little). This is confusing advice, so let me clarify. A person who might say no to, “Do you want to take a break? I can go for a walk with you if you like,” might say yes to, “Would you like to go for a walk with me? I need a break.” (This is another time to know their preferences though, because some people might say yes in an attempt to help you, even though they are swamped.)
  • Spread out the pain. If you’re in a position where you make schedules or assign tasks, try to share the load across as many people as possible. Don’t always schedule the same person for the busiest shift (unless they prefer it for some reason). If there’s a difficult or annoying ongoing task to be done, rotate the responsibility for it in an equitable way.

A lot of those depend on knowing things about other people that they may not share readily. Personally, I’m always going on about how much I love to make a PowerPoint or take notes during a meeting, so people ask me to do those things and I’m happy to. Others aren’t as obnoxious as I am about their favorite work tasks, so if you don’t know… ask! Communication is always better than assumptions.

Don’t forget to ask when you are the one who needs a hand. If you’re the person who offers when others need help, you’re more likely to get a positive response when you need it. (Which is not the only reason you should do it, but a nice perk!)

Finding the “yes and…” and getting out of my head

As the semester and end of the year approaches, I find myself reflecting on this question more frequently:

“Am I currently just trying to make it through the day or do I have the capacity and bandwidth to do other things?”   

I, like many of you reading this post, am tired. I feel like I’m doing just enough to stay a few steps ahead of everything. My best days are when I focus on one project and make slow and steady progress. I’m frustrated and anxious and that has bled into the ways I feel about work and the people I work with. I have felt stuck, in many ways, this fall. The jazzy Hailley some of you know can be a bit harder to find some days. 

What I’m slowly realizing is that my best strategy for handling these feelings is to step outside the library. Earlier this week, I attended another meeting of the Improv & Pedagogy Teaching Community, a group funded by our center for teaching excellence and led by faculty members who also are founders for a local improv group, Happy Valley Improv (HVI). 

Now, for some context, you should know I took an improv class with HVI at the start of 2020 (which seems like another lifetime ago). I had several motivations for taking the course, but mainly I wanted to try something new and was able to take the course with a close friend (shout out to my gal, Giorgia!). What I didn’t expect was that I truly loved doing improv. In an improv space, you’re asked to trust the people around you, get into the flow and energy of that group, and know that you’ll be accepted for whatever ideas you put forward. Everyone has agreed to the “Yes and…” philosophy and you make it work, with whatever you have been presented. While taking the in-person classes, I found it refreshing to turn the part of my brain that thinks about the next 10 moves and tap into my creative side, coming up with stories and backstories on the spot. I enjoyed the class so much, I had signed up for level 2 but obviously, the pandemic got in the way. 

So when I got the email about the fall meetings for the Improv & Pedagogy Teaching Community, I figured this was my way back into improv. I attended a session about a month ago and left the session feeling happier and more energetic than I had been in a while. It wasn’t a large group of us, no more than 12. We talked about our position at the university and how it’s related to teaching, and what we were experiencing in our virtual classrooms. During that first happy hour, we played a few games, where we got to rename ourselves, pass around the ball of energy, and dream up some new characters. 

When the next happy hour came around this past week, I thought about skipping it. There was a lot of library drama this week and I felt weighed down by everything. However, I reminded myself that I would probably feel better if I logged on. So, as 4:30 rolled around, I got onto Zoom and as soon as I got into the room, I started to smile. What struck me about this happy hour was that it was refreshing to talk to people not deeply interconnected with the library. Widening my group of colleagues gave me a new perspective I needed. As we sat in that Zoom room, we were all educators, sharing our experiences, testing out some games, solving problems, and thinking about our teaching pedagogy and how improv plays a role in our work. Sure it wasn’t quite the same as standing in the ballet studio HVI used for their classes but the way the happy hour helped me and my brain definitely felt the same. I feel lucky to have this teaching community and am appreciative that this space is available to me.

Upon further reflection, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the ethos of “Yes and…” plays into my student engagement and outreach work. I’ve always seen myself as a connector and the “yes and…” helps bring new ideas, events, and workshops to life. In two meetings this week, after the improv happy hour, I found myself taking the “yes and…” stance. The first came in a conversation with two groups of colleagues, where we were connecting two peer mentoring services and imagining new ways to bring them together and provide instruction. The second was with two colleagues in Outdoor Adventures, as we began to finalize a semester-long Wikipedia Edit-a-thon to increase the coverage of POCs who are involved in the outdoor industry. In both situations, I felt that spark of making connections and building something I didn’t anticipate when I entered the meeting. It will definitely be this sort of work that sustains me, during this pandemic and beyond. And this week has been about clarifying what that dynamic is, so I know how to get back to that space when I need it.  

I’m curious if any readers have something like improv that helps you? Both for getting out of your head but also might have applications to your work? Would love to hear how others are continuing to grapple with today’s reality (and if there are any other library improv folks out there!).  

Similarities and Differences

I’ve spent all semester struggling with writer’s block here at ACRLog, feeling a lack of both focus and ideas. Which is not at all surprising (or unique to me) given the many crises unfolding simultaneously in the U.S. and the world right now. I think what I keep getting stuck on is the desire to write something useful, a piece with practical suggestions and ideas for how to make our experiences in our libraries and institutions this semester just a little bit better and easier, for us and our patrons. I sometimes feel like I should be writing more here about library leadership, shining light on my day to day tasks as a library director. But there have been so many terrific articles and blog posts and twitter threads about managing with compassion during this time of remote work and multiple crises. What could I possibly have to add to the conversation, surely everything has already been said?

At my college and university our physical libraries are still closed, and my colleagues and I are all working remotely. It strikes me that while so much of what I do in my day to day is different with our continuing remote work — from spending hours figuring out how to share and sign PDFs across each of my and my colleagues’ different home computer setups, to trying to figure out at least semi-reasonable lighting for my many zoom meetings — lots of what I do is the same as in the beforetimes. I still meet monthly with each library faculty and staff member I supervise, to catch up on their projects and see if there’s anything they need (and brief meetings are still okay). We still have a meeting for all library faculty and staff, and I still share as much information as I can about the budget, campus planning, and the promotion and tenure process. My tenure-track and promotion-seeking colleagues and I still try to hold coworking space for a few hours each month to support each other as we make some progress on our research, writing, and scholarly reading.

There are differences, though what’s feeling most different right now are mostly the details. I send a very brief update email to my colleagues each morning to let us all know if anyone’s scheduled out and to share other information when I have it. We’re now having our all library meeting every other week rather than once a month, just to make sure we all have a chance to share anything that’s coming up in our day to day (and if those meetings are brief that’s fine). Zoom fatigue is real, so it’s not ever a requirement for my colleagues to turn on cameras or to be participating in meetings on a computer — calling in is just fine, listening is just fine. I will admit that one detail I didn’t consider at the beginning of the semester when scheduling meetings is what it would feel like to me to have multiple back-to-back zooms. That is not a mistake I will make again next semester, for sure.

I appreciate all of our work in the library to support our patrons while remote. But it’s still hard, even 8+ months in. The college and university where I work decided several weeks ago that next semester will again be held overwhelmingly online, and like most of the other campuses our library will not be open to patrons next semester, nor will library faculty and staff be required to work onsite. I’m so grateful that we’ll be able to work safely off-campus next semester, though I miss working in person with everyone, so much.

I’m not sure that I’m leaving us with anything useful at the end of this post, despite my intentions. It’s easy for me to focus on the differences, the difficult differences in the ways we are all having to work together now. Though in writing this I’m reminded of how much is the same in our work, a reminder that’s helpful to me, and perhaps to you, too.

Student clubs and making zines

Slowly but surely we’re making it through this fall semester. For a librarian focused on student engagement and outreach, this semester has been a pivot (probably a large understatement). As Valerie discusses in her first FYAL post, part of the challenge for our work is finding ways to connect with our students. With limited hours and closed spaces, our normal outreach strategy “Let’s host an event, market it, but also know some students will wander in” doesn’t work. It’s been a moment to stop and reset. I’ve tried to ask myself (and the students I work with) what do they need to survive this semester. In asking those questions, some events we would normally host in-person get cut. At the same time, I’ve hosted events this semester and sat patiently in a Zoom room for 15 minutes with no other participants, before calling it off. I’m sure I’m not alone in that experience. All of this is to say I’ve been thinking a lot about how outreach and student engagement work tie into the larger university experience. How do we create programs that help our students do the things they value doing, especially in a moment where our uncertainty for 2020 and 2021 is visible and present in every meeting and interaction? 

One way we’ve been exploring these ideas is through direct programs for student clubs. We were lucky that the past two years our student engagement & outreach intern (and colleague), Lily, built relationships with a couple of active student clubs, Triota and Schreyer for Women. In pre-pandemic times, we hosted book clubs and zine workshops with these students. We always had a good turnout and the students seemed excited to partner with the Libraries. As the fall semester began, we turned out attention to finding a way to do at least one program with these clubs. Some colleagues and I got together to plan these events. We chose zines and specifically thinking about ways to tie it in with women’s activism and voting, due to the impending election and a theme around women’s activism that is being sponsored by our Liberal Arts College. Our plan was to host a virtual zine workshop and include scanned copies of materials from our Special Collections and university archives. We figured we could put together packets of zine-making materials and either send them to students or coordinate a pick-up time if the student was on campus. 

Both clubs were interested and we got to work setting up Zoom registration links and zine-making packets. This past week we led the two workshops and it was wonderful to spend an hour with these students. We made zines, talked about Halloween costumes, and discussed our voting plans. We laughed, had moments of silence, and shared stories with one another. Our hour together flew by and I got off each call feeling more hopeful than I had been when I logged on. It was nice to craft and to mentally prepare for whatever next week will bring. I’m sharing my papers from my zine below, along with the prompts in case you too are interested in making a zine. Figuring out new ways to do outreach and engagement definitely keeps me on my toes but at the end of the day, it’s always nice to connect with our students. 



Our zine prompts (for an 8 page zine):

 Guided question
Cover Up to you!
#2What are three words that sum up how you’re feeling about the 2020 election?
#3Tell us about the first time you voted and or an election that was (or is) important to you
#4What does activism mean to me?
#5
#6How was your definition/meaning of activism changed over time?
#7What work is left to do?
BackWhat gives you hope for the future?

A shout out to my colleagues, Angel Diaz, Clara Drummond, and Danica White for collaborating on these events! I hope there are many more zine workshops in the future.

Open Libraries, Closed Spaces

Though we’re a month into this unprecedented continuing pandemic semester at the college and university where I work, I’m still finding myself getting used to these remote working conditions. I work at a commuter college in New York City; at our university campuses have been mostly closed since last March, and we’re offering classes overwhelmingly online this semester. At my college there are a few health sciences courses that require specialized equipment that are being held on campus, adhering to social distancing and health reporting requirements from the state, but other than that our campus is inaccessible to our 16,000 students, including the physical library.

Among all of my other thoughts and feelings, I’ve been mulling over how very strange it is that I’ve spent over a decade researching how and where students study in (and beyond) our libraries, and now there are no students studying in our library. I’ve been in the library sporadically to check on the facilities, and while it’s odd to be in the completely empty space, I’m grateful for my office there as an occasional complement to my workspace setup at home. I also appreciate that my 2BR apartment has enough space for my spouse, kid, and I to each work mostly privately if need be (though I wouldn’t say no to an extra room if one were to spontaneously appear). Walking or biking to work is an option for me, so I’m lucky to be able to avoid public transportation, too.

My colleagues and I are hearing from students on chat reference and via email and social media, many with the kinds of questions we’ve come to expect: Can I return my book? (if you can, please hold onto it until campus reopens) Am I being fined for returning books late? (no, we’re waiving fines while campus libraries are closed) Can I access databases and ebooks from home? (yes, here’s how to login). And while we have had a few students seeking access to our physical space for studying and computer use, those requests have been much less numerous than I would expect given what my research partner and I have learned about the challenges our commuter students face in doing coursework at home. The general caution among many NYC residents after the enormous toll that Covid19 took on the city last spring is probably a factor, as is the college’s location in downtown Brooklyn; while we’re very convenient to public transit, not everyone is comfortable returning to the subways and buses yet.

I suspect that the pre-pandemic challenges that our students shared around finding a suitable location to read and study for their classes, and to research and write papers and assignments, have grown enormously for them in the past six months. They may have inadequate computer or internet access at home, and shared technology may be even more stretched as siblings, parents, roommates, and others need access for their school or work (though I should note that the university has provided laptops and hotspots to many students). More people in the same amount of space for more time means more activity and noise (in our neighbors’ apartments, too), making it even harder for students to find a distraction-free space for studying. And the virus is still with us — students and their loved ones may be sick. I look at the empty carrels in the library and think about the appreciation so many students expressed for them, how the enclosed desk afforded them the privacy and interruption-free space they needed to focus on their academic work.

How can we support students’ need for study spaces while campuses are closed? Here in NYC there are still limited indoor spaces open, so many of the third places students may otherwise have had access to are still unavailable. There are outdoor locations with wifi, plazas and parks, and I’m sure some students are studying there. Are there digital ways we can support students, virtual study groups, perhaps, or would that just lead to more Zoom overwhelm?

It’s hard to figure out how to fill some of those academic needs that our physical library space satisfied for our students. While the college has faced budget cuts this year, we’ve been able to keep some of our part-time library assistants this semester working remotely. Many are students or former students, and I’m hoping to find time this semester to plan a few informal meetings with them, if they’re amenable, and to listen and learn from them about what their academic experience has been like, and how the library might support them in digital spaces while we wait until it’s safe to return to our physical spaces.