I’ve spent the last few weeks of what has been an unusually hectic start to the semester thinking lots about Emily’s post from last month, Breaking the “Fake It” Habit. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend that you head on over and do, I can wait. Emily writes about fear of not knowing at work, especially topics or workflows that it seems like everyone else knows, and feeling the pressure to present ourselves as knowledgeable and competent (imposter syndrome, for example).
Emily’s terrific post hit home for me, and I’m planning to share it with all of my colleagues in the library where I work. As the director I strive to create an environment where all library workers in all of our various titles and full-time/part-time status can feel comfortable asking questions, making mistakes, learning and adding to our skill sets. I also struggle with the embarrassment that I’ve felt and feel when I make mistakes, am asked a question I don’t know the answer to, or realize that others around me seem to know something that I don’t. In my best moments I can stall for a bit of composure-regaining time with that classic reference interview opener, “that’s a good question!” But not-knowing is hard: it can make us feel exposed and unworthy, which is an uncomfortable place to be.
In trying to build a habit of being gentle with myself when I’m in that uncomfortable space, I’ve found it helpful to remember that our patrons likely have these same experiences. When we don’t know something we are just like our students, when they come to the library for the first time and aren’t sure how to find what they need. Or our faculty colleagues, who may be newly-hired with prior experience at very different institutions from our own, or who are so busy with their work that they haven’t been able to keep up with announcements about library resources and services.
The university system my college is part of is in the midst of our library services platform migration this year, which, while stressful in many ways, could give all of us the opportunity to build stamina around not-knowing. The system will be new to all of us and used by all of us, from the folx hired just this year to those with 30+ years under their belts, for public services and technical services and everything else our small but mighty library does. No one knows everything, and there are always opportunities for learning in library work. With the migration here I’m hoping we can all — myself included — ask questions when we need to learn more, ask for help when we need it, and be gentle with ourselves, our colleagues, and our patrons.
Emily concludes her post by discussing a new opportunity she’s taking on at her library, and vowing to ask questions and stand in the uncomfortable space of not-knowing. I’m drawing inspiration from her, pushing back on “fake it til you make it,” and reminding myself that we have already made it, because asking questions is part of the job.
Today, I thought I’d share a little bit about how we can do just that – supporting survivors who are colleagues by cultivating a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability in our libraries. These recommendations are based upon my personal experiences as a survivor who is also an academic librarian, my final project, and my upcoming book chapter in LIS Interrupted: The Intersections of Mental Illness and Library Work, titled “Surviving to Thriving: Creating a Culture of Radical Vulnerability in Libraries.” Here are five ways we can support colleagues who are survivors in academic libraries…
I recently had the opportunity to take a class on trauma-informed librarianship with S. Bryce Kozla. This course gave us the skills to describe the importance of trauma-informed care in library spaces and services, consider ways to keep an interaction from escalating (and to keep calm and present in a potentially stressful situation,) name some ways trauma-informed principles can be applied in libraries, identify the role of historical trauma and institutional oppression in trauma informed care, and reflect on the effects of trauma in the workplace and how a workplace can become trauma-informed. By the end of the course, we had developed a document, artifact, or action plan for the concepts learned in this course, going forward.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) “Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach”, an organization that is trauma-informed: “realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices, and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.” Based on this definition, I decided that my final project would be a presentation on “Supporting Survivors as Workers in the Academic Library,” which I will be presenting at Cornell University Library’s Engagement and Outreach Forum next month!
Today, I thought I’d share a little bit about how we can do just that – supporting survivors who are colleagues by cultivating a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability in our libraries. These recommendations are based upon my personal experiences as a survivor who is also an academic librarian, my final project, and my upcoming book chapter in LIS Interrupted: The Intersections of Mental Illness and Library Work, titled “Surviving to Thriving: Creating a Culture of Radical Vulnerability in Libraries.” Here are five ways we can support colleagues who are survivors in academic libraries:
1. Cultivating a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability
The expectation to perform sanity is stifling and isolating for those of us who are survivors. As librarians, we’re expected to put on a shining face for our patrons and colleagues rather than “cause discomfort” if they were actually faced with our real-life, human struggles (physically, emotionally, mentally, etc.) This prioritization of others’ potential discomfort with our very real anguish is dangerous, creating a culture of silencing, fear, and stigma. As a community, we need to foster a culture of radical empathy and vulnerability, without the fear of repercussions from colleagues, supervisors, and/or HR. This isn’t an easy task but it’s something to work toward. A little progress each day can add up to big changes in the lives of our peers and colleagues.
As librarians and library workers, we need to commit ourselves to creating a culture that radically celebrates vulnerability, compassion, and empathy – a culture that allows folks to bring their whole, authentic selves to work.
We need to show up for each other. I think sometimes people are afraid of doing it “wrong” – but showing up is what’s important, letting your colleague know they’re not alone, that you see them, and that you’re someone they can go to and trust. Doing so from a genuine place of care and concern is essential.
2. Participating in mental health first aid
We can also participate in trainings on Mental Health First Aid or speak to our local survivor support organization or counseling center about how to best support colleagues if we’re nervous. These trainings should be offered periodically and everyone should be encouraged to attend to improve the overall health of our workplaces.
I’m incredibly grateful for the colleagues and comrades who have supported me in bringing my whole self to work. They’ve made it a possibility for me. I hope I can pay their kindness forward by cultivating a similar culture wherever I go.
3. Changing ableist language
Something that seems small, but that really affects me and many other survivors, is the usage of ableist slurs, such as crazy and insane, as descriptors – usually not in the positive sense, never in the reclaimed sense.
People have used these slurs to discredit me and my experiences as a crazy, disabled, and sick/chronically ill queer femme. They are both harmful and hurtful. It’s important to learn new language, to question why we feel it’s necessary to use ableist slurs, and to interrupt ourselves and others when we slip up.
There are many resources available to help us communicate more compassionately. Lydia X. Z. Brown of Austic Hoya has a fantastic resource on ableism and language. This living document they’ve created (with the help and input of many different disabled people,) is an ever-growing, expanding, and changing glossary that includes lists of ableist words and phrases (including slurs), as well as words which people can consider using instead.
4. Knowing your resources
One of the simplest things we can do as librarians for each other, for our patrons, and our communities, with the potential for the greatest impact is to know our resources (such as those related to mental health and sexual and domestic violence) both locally and nationally: What is their phone number? Where are they located? What services do they offer?
It’s absolutely crucial to be familiar with resources outside of the police (and forced/nonconsensual institutionalization) which can be violent and even deadly for marginalized communities such as disabled people, people of color, and queer and transgender folks.
When someone experiencing a mental health crisis is taken by police to the hospital, they may be forcibly stripped and injected with tranquilizers, as I have been before. This can be extremely traumatizing, especially if the person you’re “concerned” about is already a survivor. “What To Do Instead of Calling the Police: A Guide, A Syllabus, A Conversation, A Process” is a living document of resources on alternatives to policing, which range from the theoretical to practical, including best practices and guiding questions.
5. Practicing community care
During October, a month when my PTSD tends to worsen, my supervisor put together a community care shared document in which colleagues could sign up to assist me with various tasks to help make the month easier for me. Here’s an example of what one might look like:
These are just a few examples of ways you can support colleagues who are survivors at work. Support looks different for each and every one of us and it never hurts to ask what that might look like.
It’s the end of the year and all the things I expect are happening. Students are camping out in the library, I’m working on end-of-the-semester recaps, and I’m already thinking ahead to 2020. With the way the holiday lines up, I’ll leave campus before finals are over and graduation has occurred and when I return, it will be empty and quiet. Like many people, I’m looking forward to the break, turning on my out-of-office email and basking in several meeting-free days in a row.
As I gear up for this last week, I’m leaving 2019 with a lot of questions. Asking questions is part of my job but recently my questions have gotten harder to easily answer. You might have read my post in October, which raises a lot of questions about my type of librarianship. But beyond that I’m also thinking about:
What does space mean to us?
What does it mean to be productive in a capitalist society and what space lends itself to being productive?
I’m lucky I can talk through these questions with my friends in academia, my supervisor, my formal and informal mentors, the students I work with, and my colleagues. While sometimes it feels strange to have so many questions and so little direction on how to answer them, I wonder if this means I’m getting somewhere. Or maybe I’m just getting more seasoned. But I’m ready to unpack these questions in 2020. Stay tuned to see what I discover.
I put myself out there. A lot. I’ve lost count of the number of awards and scholarships I’ve applied to throughout my education and career. I do remember that I was rejected for every single one of them. I really love and recommend this free webinar by Dr. Kate Drabinski on dealing with rejection in academia. One of ACRLog’s former First-Year Academic Librarian bloggers, Quetzalli Barrientos, also wrote a fantastic post on getting rejected in the library world. While more and more of us are beginning to talk about rejection in academia, it’s still a fairly taboo topic that’s difficult and requires radical vulnerability to open up about. So this month, I want to discuss developing healthy coping strategies for getting comfortable with rejection. Here are five of my strategies for dealing with — and accepting — rejection in academic librarianship:
Keep an affirmations file
An affirmations file is a place to keep track of your successes: an e-mail congratulating you on a recent project from a colleague, an award you’ve won or been nominated for, and the positive things students and colleagues have said about you, for starters. Your affirmations file can be physical or digital; use whatever format you know you’ll return to when you need a quick hit of confidence and shot of self-esteem.
Be vulnerable and ask for help
I am a firm believer in the power of radical vulnerability. I think one of the bravest things we can do is ask for help. Whether you’re workshopping a potential journal article or writing a conference proposal, another person’s feedback can be invaluable as it lends a new lens to your work that can help you see things in new or different way and/or how you might improve your work. Find folks who are in your corner and are willing to help you with your work before you submit it – then return the favor when you’re able to, especially to new professionals!
Talk about it
Talking about rejection is crucial. Talking about the things we’re ashamed and fearful of or that are simply taboo is a way to take that power away from them while creating a space for others to share their stories and experiences as well. Ask your colleagues about how they deal with rejection.These conversations about rejections can also lend to new ideas and collaborative partnerships. You never know what might be born from a rejection!
Collaboration over competition
It’s easy to see our colleagues as our competition when we have a scarcity mindset (the belief that there will never be enough, thus our thoughts and actions stem from a place/fear of lack.) Capitalism encourages this. Academia does too, convincing us that our colleagues are our enemies, rather than potential allies and advocates, to keep us from building collective power. While not everyone has our best interests at heart, many of our colleagues could be fantastic co-conspirators, collaborators, and partners in projects, papers, or proposals. I would especially encourage more seasoned librarians to reach out to early-career librarians and ask them what their research interests and career goals are, with the end goal of partnering on a paper or project in mind. On our own, we can only do so much. Together, whether as collaborators, co-conspirators, and/or as a collective, we can create real change.
View rejection as a learning opportunity and keep going!
After being rejected for so, so, SO, many scholarships to attend conferences, I finally started asking for feedback on what would make my application stronger from the awards committee. Thanks to their generous feedback, I learned a lot about what I could do to not only write better statements but to make myself a stronger candidate for awards and scholarships. Finally, this year, I was awarded my first conference scholarship – the ACRL/NY 2019 Symposium Early-Career Librarian scholarship award!
In the comments section, I encourage you to share what feelings rejection brings up for you, as well as your own tips for coping with rejection.
Karina Hagelin is an artist, community organizer, and Outreach and Instruction Librarian and Diversity Fellow at Cornell University Library. You can find them tweeting about critical librarianship and cats under @karinahagelin or more about their work at KarinaKilljoy.com. They can be reached at email@example.com.
My work dramatically changed when I dropped scholarly communication for liaison librarianship last Spring. It has not been a clean break. I was a functional specialist with liaison duties at Utah State and I find myself a liaison with functional duties at the University of Washington. In part because my former job gives me an area of expertise that is helpful to the departments I serve. This has made me think about the role of expertise in our climate of academic librarianship. What are we expected to know for faculty and students? What should a reference librarian know about specialties and how do we balance these different experiences?
The idea of the two roles of academic librarianship, split between functional and subject related expertise, is something explored in library literature since at least the 1980s and 1990s. Sometimes, this is the introduction of “non-librarians” into library employment (Lihua and Guogang 2013) but more often this distinction has been brought up in the changing roles of subject librarians. Most fundamental to my understanding of my role as a humanities subject librarian has been the decreased emphasis on subject expertise as a requirement, as indicated in reports like Ithaka S+R’s Rethinking Liaison Programs for the Humanities from July 2017.
In this report, Cooper and Schonfeld comment that because of demand-driven acquisitions “the role of subject expertise is less needed for selection of general materials” as librarians have moved from a traditional “bibliographer” role into liaison positions (2). The transition from subject librarian to liaison librarian marks a departure from the subject expertise once necessary to build large reflective disciplinary collections into a sort of go-between between department and library. This isn’t to suggest that subject expertise is completely unnecessary for our positions only that it is less important in our most traditional role as collection managers. Cooper and Shonfeld suggest that having subject expertise is important for helping provide the services libraries are growing in specialized and research-oriented areas. An example is that knowing how a discipline does research is essential to meeting student and faculty expectations (2). Furthermore, this expertise can blend into more functional areas according to Cooper and Shonfeld such as “geospatial, statistical and data, digital humanities, and other forms of expertise, including undergraduate instruction and information literacy,” beyond the traditional expectations of reference librarianship (2).
In some ways, I believe that this meets our users where they need us; they need experience in digital humanities for example because of burgeoning scholarly interest in many humanities disciplines. But we also have to think about our ongoing budget constraints and “do more with less” attitudes, that have dominated libraries, and the public sector as a whole, following the economic slowdowns of 2001 and 2008. Gwen Evans, in a chapter on using student staff to do programming work, connects this to Claude Levi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage (Evans 2011, 229). Levi-Strauss writes:
The Bricoleur is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project…but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions of destructions. (Levi-Strauss 22)
Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1966, 22
Bricoleur has no real English equivalent but Levi-Strauss likens it to “handy man.” The connections between this and contemporary library field are clear. We make do with what we have and, when it comes to liaison positions, we have risen to meet the challenges without the means to hire staff to cover all the needs. Instead the transition away from traditional subject librarianship to liaison librarianship has opened reference librarians to a world of new technologies and responsibilities. In this case the “whatever is at hand” happens to be the liaison librarian positions we find at every academic library, as the library moves away from the PhD Librarian bibliographer. Undoubtedly, this leads to the doubling up of positions as institutions, especially those with large FTE but small budgets, combine positions beyond what might be possible for a single person to handle.
Unfortunately, I think that it is necessary in a lot of ways, as Cooper and Shonfeld state, to understand how research is being done in our fields is to be conversant in new technologies and research applications. Yet much of this is grounded in how we talk about librarianship and assess our success. When I was rolling these thoughts around in my brain, I was struck by my colleague Veronica Arellano Douglas’s post from last month on Efficiency and library assessment where she asks “when did education become about efficiency? When did we collectively decide that our library instruction programs should be about teaching the most classes, reaching the most students, providing badges, or highlighting major initiatives.” The same can be asked about specialties, when did the library become about how many specialties we can match each librarian to? What complicates this further is that ff the expectation is to do as Cooper and Shonfeld state and have a little expertise in all the potential skills needed in a subject area, where do the functional specialists in the library or around campus come in? In other words, at what point are we patching together our house as bricoleurs as opposed to building a new one as an engineer? Is such a system sustainable over long periods of time?
This is hyperbole because no one is asking librarians to be experts in everything, but it is not far from the expectations placed on us from either the doom-filled future or our own role in the academe. From my personal experience, I have seen that many of these bricoleur jobs fall onto younger professionals who struggle to keep up with all their tasks and responsibilities as well as balancing promotion and tenure (if their institutions have that). Young professional adept at balancing those different tools and constructions will invariably be asked to take on more projects with the same, and perhaps less, resources at their disposals until they can’t afford to take on anymore. Furthermore, the taking on of many more responsibilities has been used to combat perceptions of imposter syndrome. For myself I know that becoming an expert in digital humanities (whatever that might mean) gave me the gravitas to work closely with teaching faculty even though I felt clearly that I was not one of them. This could and does, if not checked, lead to burn out.
I have been frank with colleagues at both institutions and on Twitter about my own burnout and my steps to prevent burnout from happening again. As a new professional, three years feels like a lifetime but its relatively new in terms of a career, there is always pressure to be this bricoleur. Especially to make do with an increasing amount of responsibilities and expertise with little return in resources or time. How many of us are asked to drop something when picking up slack? Yet, I am confused as to whether or not this is our expected role in the future of being a liaison. Expectations from our departments range from pure collection development, to the teaching of library databases, to the teaching of research skills, to, finally, the teaching of subject specific knowledge. This last quarter I taught a session on writing program notes for performances which blurred the lines between research expertise and subject specific knowledge. This does not branch too far from my positional expectations, but it changes what I can do for my department. The same can be said about more functional types of library work. Without proper guidance, which I have been lucky to have thus far, liaison librarianship can easily go out of control with an investment in each student and faculty research direction. Where does being a liaison stop and where do the functional experts begin?
Being at an institution with a wealth of experts around the library and campus makes this decision a little more complicated. How often am I expected to bricolage my way through a liaison experience rather than pass users on to my more knowledgeable colleagues? For assessment purposes, I might want to do all that I can. This has been, and I believe will continue to be, unclear in many liaison programs. It is not a fault of individual liaison programs but rather, as noted in much of the literature, that the role of the liaison is changing, and we don’t quite know where it will end up. Along the way we might leave a lot of burned out liaisons in our wake.