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):
Up to you!
What are three words that sum up how you’re feeling about the 2020 election?
Tell us about the first time you voted and or an election that was (or is) important to you
What does activism mean to me?
How was your definition/meaning of activism changed over time?
What work is left to do?
What gives you hope for the future?
A shout out to my colleagues, Angel Diaz, Clara Drummond, andDanica White for collaborating on these events!I hope there are many more zine workshops in the future.
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.
I don’t know about everyone else, but writing has been tough for me during the pandemic. As I racked my mind for what to write about this month for ACRLog, I decided to make a zine instead. During the pandemic, I’ve found myself making a lot of these one page (turned into 8 pages) zine. My friends and I make them once a week, over Zoom, and each week I come up with a new theme. We’ve done pandemic check-ins, zines around spring, summer, and back to school, one about nostalgia, and another about Zoom. I also find myself folding one up when I have a bad day or have some thoughts I want to get out. I’ve amassed quite the collection so far.
At my institution, we’re two weeks into the fall semester. Below I capture some of the things I’ve heard, some of the things I miss, and some things bringing me joy.
If you’re looking for a weekend activity, a zine might be a craft project for you! If you make one about your fall semester, feel free to share online. Would love to see more zines!
My diversity fellowship at Cornell University has been such a transformative journey, with so many opportunities to learn, grow, and expand as an academic librarian. I spent the first six months of my fellowship working as an Assistant Archivist in Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC). During this time, I worked with the Human Sexuality Collection (HSC), cataloging visual resources to improve access and description for researchers and community members, processing collections, and working alongside the curator, Brenda Marston, to grow the HSC’s Instagram presence. Serving on RMC’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Task Force, I also co-authored a 40-page report on recommendations and best practices on our commitment to social justice (something I am passionate about and see as an integral common thread to all of our work).
I spent the rest of my fellowship working as an Instruction and Outreach Librarian at Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell’s library serving the College of Agriculture and LIfe Sciences students, staff, and faculty. Here, I rediscovered my passion for teaching (especially with zines!) and put my community organizing background and skills to use through creative outreach strategies and innovative programming. For example, I founded and facilitated a makers night for women, transgender, and femme makers – communities that have often been excluded from and left out by Makerspaces – at the mannUfactory (Mann Library’s Makerspace). This biweekly event introduced students to our Makerspace to build their skills (and confidence) as makers. I directly sought out the expertise and experiences of LGBTQ+ students on campus so we could plan projects they were enthusiastic and excited about, such as a gender-inclusive fashion night. I also built interdisciplinary, cross-campus, collaborations with staff, faculty, and graduate students to bring together a diverse array of skillsets, knowledges, and experiences.
Another project I undertook was co-founding the Equity and Empowerment Reading Group, a social justice reading group for librarians and library workers, with two of my amazing colleagues, Eliza Bettinger and Wendy Wilcox. Together, we created a set of collective guidelines to facilitate our discussions, picked an initial topic (recruiting diverse candidates for library jobs) and selected a few articles, booked a room, ordered food, and sent out an invitation to the library’s listserv. At the end of our first meeting and discussion, we solicited feedback from everyone about topics they’d like to read about and discuss in the future. Before COVID closed down our campus, we met at Olin Library, with anywhere from a dozen to twenty librarians and library workers trekking across campus to meet each month. Since then, we’ve begun meeting and facilitating the reading group via Zoom, which has been a successful experiment and transition. Together, we’ve been able to create a community within our library system that pulls people together around social justice across physical and disciplinary boundaries. I’ve had the opportunity to present on topics ranging from zines as an intervention in trauma recovery to queer worldmaking through art, as well as to teach webinars on trauma-informed librarianship and supporting survivors in libraries. And of course, to blog here at the ACRLog as a First-Year Academic LIbrarian blogger. During my year blogging here, I’ve explored topics such as trauma-informed librarianship, dealing with rejection, and radical vulnerability and empathy in libraries. As my year blogging at the ACRLog comes to a close, I want to reflect on – and share with you – the lessons I’m taking with me from my fellowship to wherever I may land next (I’m on the job market and excited about instruction, outreach, and student success positions in the Northeast).
Lesson #1: Ask for help
Asking for help is a sign of bravery, strength, and wisdom. I want to acknowledge that asking for help is really hard to do, especially as academics. However, I’ve found the benefits of reaching out for support far outweigh the challenges, both personally and professionally. Whether you’re having a hard time learning a new technology or struggling with your mental health, it’s important to reach out and ask for the support you need – and deserve.
For example, during the month of October, my post-traumatic stress disorder always worsens. Last year, I asked for help before the month started by reaching out to a person I felt safe and comfortable with, my supervisor, about getting accommodations for my disability. Not only was I able to get the help I needed to succeed professionally, my supervisor also looped in colleagues (with my consent) to set up a collective care document to help me through the month. Instead of just surviving that month at work, I was able to truly thrive as an academic librarian.
None of us can do this work all on our own, alone, or in isolation. I believe wholeheartedly in interdependence, which is one of the ten principles of disability justice. In an interview with writer and organizer Mia Mingus, she states that interdependency is “thinking about how […] we build relationships and how […] we build in such a way that really pushes back against the myth of independence and this myth that we can and should be able to do everything on our own. Or even this myth that that’s what everybody wants to do, that that’s what everybody desires, is to be independent.” Approaching our work and lives through the lens of interdependency acknowledges that we all bring unique experiences, wisdoms, and knowledges to the table, that we all have things to offer, and that we value everybody – because as people, we are inherently valuable. As I often remind my friends and colleagues (and myself!), you are not your productivity.
Lesson #2: Find your niche
When I started my diversity fellowship at Cornell, I had no idea what I wanted to do, outside of being an academic librarian. My past work experiences included managing an LGBTQ+ resource library, organizing library and information science conferences, and making my university’s special collections accessible as digital collections. It wasn’t until after I started teaching and doing outreach at Cornell that I realized that was what I wanted to do! I had always loved teaching but stopped pursuing an education degree due to my identity as a (gender)queer disabled femme after learning the realities of what queer, trans, and disabled K-12 teachers experience. Working as an Instruction and Outreach Librarian helped me rediscover my passion for teaching.
My background as an interdisciplinary artist and zinester led to me teaching classes from a variety of disciplines, ranging from communications courses to pre-med ones, using creative instructional tools and feminist pedagogies. I ended up receiving tons of instruction requests based on my reputation as the “zine librarian” at Cornell. This, in turn, led to receiving paid opportunities to educate professors about using zines as feminist pedagogical tools within their college classrooms.
Within my professional community, I began taking courses on and writing about trauma-informed librarianship. My work is informed both by my experiences as a survivor and by my education and professional research. Talking, writing, and even tweeting about trauma-informed librarianship led to paid speaking opportunities, such as webinars for professional library organizations. Having a niche can lead to a plethora of opportunities, including ones I hadn’t imagined for myself. Who thought I’d receive honorariums to talk about topics I love and am deeply passionate about? I certainly hadn’t!
Lesson #3: Build community
As an early-career librarian, it’s been especially important to build communities of practice and support. Twitter has been an invaluable tool in connecting with other librarians for me. While I was earning my MLIS, I knew that lots of librarians were active on Twitter, so I began following folks doing research I was interested in, who had jobs that seemed like something I wanted to pursue, and/or who shared identities with me and could relate to some of the struggles of being in this profession as someone who is trans, queer, and/or disabled. I reached out to folks, tweeted regularly, and built relationships, even friendships, with other librarians who have continued to help me as my career shifts, transforms, and evolves. As my fellowship comes to an end, so many other librarians have sent me relevant job opportunities, offered to help me practice interviewing, and edit cover letters, my CV, and so on. It’s easy to feel isolated within academia. Having a community, even an online one, is incredibly important.
Lesson #4: Explore the world outside of your bubble
Establishing your niche is important – but so is getting outside of your bubble! Academic librarianship can be so siloed; it can sometimes be difficult to break outside of our expertise or speciality area. I’ve found some of the best learning and professional development opportunities I’ve had, though, have happened when I stepped outside of my comfort zone to try something new.
If you have the funding available, make a case to explore a conference, class, or workshop outside of your area. I’ve found attending conferences like Creating Change, an organizing and skill-building conference for the LGBTQ+ community and our allies, and Allied Media Conference, a conference focused on relationship-building across issues, identities, organizing practices and creative mediums, to be incredibly useful for shaping my practice as an academic librarian. (Bonus: the Allied Media Conference typically has a Radical Libraries, Archives, and Museums track too!) If attending a conference outside of your field is out of the question, try exploring an offering at a conference you’re already attending that sparks joy or interest for you.
Unfortunately, many of us are having our professional development funding gutted or lack this crucial resource altogether. If you’re in a similar boat, I suggest checking out blogs, articles, or Twitter chats on topics that may not seem to be directly “relevant” to your work but are something you care about. Jessica Dai, a Resident Librarian at West Virginia University, has graciously put together a directory of free webinars and trainings for academic librarian workers, organized by topic, that you can learn from as well!
My fellowship has taught me so much – and I hope that I’ve been able to teach my amazing colleagues at Cornell a few things too.
Thank you all for reading along with my adventures – and struggles – this incredible year at both the ACRLog and Cornell. I want to leave you with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Anaïs Nin:
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
Before the pandemic turned our world upside down, I was working on some space-related projects at my library. A recent update to a small lounge area had a notable payoff. Collaboration with my colleague in the Learning Center was making slow but steady progress toward a renovation to expand and enhance our spaces and services in a Learning Commons model. The need for and value of this work were clear. The progress and outcomes were gratifying.
I’ve written a few times about some of this work and the opportunities and challenges of my lovely but tiny library space. The public health crisis has cast our space and these efforts to improve it, like pretty much everything, in new light. Obviously, slashed higher ed budgets and broader economic challenges suggest that there will be increased competition for limited resources to fund any space project, particularly a large and pricey one like our Learning Commons proposal. But the pandemic will affect higher education’s short-, medium- and long-term future in many arenas, not just fiscal; the impact on demand for and nature of library space is difficult to anticipate, reducing our ability to plan and advocate strategically.
In the short-term, space has featured prominently in the many meetings about the fall semester at my commuter campus and across my institution. Currently, my institution is planning for a mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote courses. At the core of our many space-related conversations has been the recognition that access to physical space matters even in this very virtual incarnation of higher ed, particularly for our most vulnerable students. On a practical level, we need to offer on-campus space (and resources) to students who don’t have access to reliable technology at home or whose home environments aren’t productive or safe. We also need to offer on-campus space for students to participate in Zoom classes sandwiched between in-person classes. Like many folks, we’re working out how to safely open and manage access to our space.
Then, there are the more theoretical conversations about the sense of identity and community that physical (library) space fosters. We’ve cast our proposed Learning Commons, for example, as a welcoming learner-centered space where students can focus, study, collaborate, and access academic assistance. In our advocacy, we’ve cited the impact of the library’s and learning center’s physical constraints on students; they have had to vie for limited space or even leave campus, thereby missing out on opportunities to engage with services, programs, faculty and staff, and peers. We’ve argued that these missed opportunities reduce their ability to make connections on campus and build community. Library space helps our students dig in, connect, and belong. How can we attempt to recover or replace what we’re losing during this time? While perhaps not our most pressing concern given all the demands of planning for fall classes, it’s still an important one–for this coming semester and beyond.
The medium- and long-term vision for our space projects, then, feels murky. Surely, expanding the physical library with more square footage would mean that we could accommodate more library users while complying with physical distancing guidelines. But it’s more than that. In our newly upended world, the assets and liabilities of all public space are thrown into sharp relief. The pandemic calls on us to reconsider how spaces are designed and how they’re used. How do we plan for library space projects in this time of uncertainty not just in higher ed but in our world? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.