Digging In: Reflecting on a Work Anniversary

This week, I celebrated my two year work anniversary. I feel like I say this a lot, but I both can’t believe I’ve been here two years and also feel like I just started. A lot has happened in a short amount of time! In addition to this anniversary, I’ve also spent most of July compiling my dossier for tenure consideration this fall. Naturally, I’m spending a lot of time taking stock of how I got here, what I’ve accomplished, and what’s next.

When I think about my two years at my current institution, I see a different focus each year. My first year was focused on getting to know my team, understanding the dynamics of the library, and figuring out the type of supervisor I wanted to be. I felt very internal, but knew I wanted to establish a strong foundation before trying to face more externally. My second year was focused on getting out of the library and building relationships with folks across campus. This external relationships piece is one of my favorite parts of the job. I like to represent the library, hear about challenges and successes across campus, and seek out intersections for collaboration. These days, I find that I’m more comfortable walking around campus, seeing people I know, and getting together to figure out what’s next. I can only hope that year three will be a nice mix of work happening inside the library and collaboration with folks across campus.

The thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is the “figuring out what’s next” piece. During my meetings this summer, I felt like I was working with folks and we were laying out ideas that spanned more than just this upcoming academic year. I found myself referencing AY 24-25 or even AY 25-26! As I left those meetings, I thought about the ways I am “digging in” to the work. I’m envisioning a future at this institution for many years. This isn’t something I’ve experienced before. I’m both a little scared of this feeling and also excited about what it means for me.

While I was at my former institution for five years, I can’t place a time where I felt this “digging in.” Sure, I thought about the future of my work, but I don’t think I saw it as clearly on the horizon as I do right now. I can’t quite parse if that’s because I’m in a department head role and I naturally think forward multiple years, or if there’s something different about this role and location where I feel comfortable thinking ahead like that. In some ways, I think it is a combo of being wearing that department head and the location where I’m living. I genuinely enjoy living in Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky and I have a community around me that feels permanent in a way that I didn’t always feel in other spots, where everyone around me felt transient. 

Of course the other factor that could play into this “digging in” feeling is tenure. At my former institution, I left before I encountered my sixth year dossier. Now, it’s right there on the horizon. This summer, it was so satisfying to put all my work together and shape the narrative of my career trajectory. I found more parallels between my work as the Student Engagement Coordinator and as a department head. I could more clearly see the shifts in my thinking and my scholarship. I see my growth and I hope I’ve articulated that in a way that everyone can see. For me, achieving tenure doesn’t feel like stopping at the top of the mountain, but instead, gates opening up onto a new space, full of possibilities and options. 

Now this post isn’t meant to imply that everything is great. My institution is facing issues similar to other colleges and universities; enrollment challenges, budget concerns, and smaller staff/faculty numbers. We’re searching for new leadership and colleagues across the institution are stepping into interim roles while we wait to see how things pan out. We’ve definitely got our work cut out for us this year. I come to work every day, wondering what will happen next. As a supervisor, I’m trying to find ways to share information, hear questions, concerns, and fears from the team, and focus on the things we have in our control. Despite the uncertainty, I feel ready to dig in. Looking forward to seeing what’s next in year three. 

Featured image by Hadija on Unsplash

Advocating with an Open Heart

Editor’s note: This guest post has been authored by Alejandro Marquez. Alejandro is a Collection Development Librarian at the Auraria Library which serves the University of Colorado Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and the Community College of Denver.

I recently heard a term in passing called guerilla librarianship which I envision is similar to guerrilla theatre. I imagine it to be the idea of fast moving and small-scale actions. Library workers who are subverting the way things are normally done. Library professionals who aren’t allowed to do a LGBTQ+ display during pride month so they do another display on summer reads with only queer authors. Individuals who are taking action whenever and wherever possible to advocate for change behind the scenes. Other visible actions would be starting a union, writing editorials to the newspaper, or political advocacy.

I feel like there needs to be more action in the world. I don’t like reading the news anymore. Book challenges, anti-intellectualism, and DEI higher education legislation makes me hide away from it all. This is just what is happening in library land. I see the spike in anti-trans legislation, assaults on women’s health care, and Tennessee’s drag ban. It often feels like there is not going to be a white knight coming to save us.

As a queer and BIPOC librarian, it makes me fearful for the future. Growing up Hispanic and gay meant that I was always having to assess my surroundings. From this early age, I felt like if I could control myself, my actions, thoughts and desires then I wouldn’t face the disapproval of my parents, school, and society. I became hypervigilant. By trying to control everything, I was unconsciously trying to protect myself from experiencing trauma again. I would make myself invisible.

I feel like all of this political legislation is erasing all the marginalized communities that I love and care about. The worst part of feeling invisible is that I feel like I am the only one. Do others feel the same way? Do others care to try something? If this message is resonating with you, know that you are not alone. Take care of those beaten down. As the cliche airline phrase goes, “Put your own air mask on first.”

It begs the question, Where do we go from here? James Baldwin once said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” Black, Brown, and Queer folx have been around for millennia. They have been documenting their history and making their contributions to society. They weren’t afraid to go out on the streets and live their lives. They have left behind a rich legacy of photographs, diaries, books, and pamphlets. If we stand tall, it is because we stand on the shoulders of our many ancestors.

As library workers, our learning materials provide our communities a chance to connect with themselves and others. It is an opportunity to connect to our spiritual and historical ancestors both real and fictional. Marcus Garvey famously wrote, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Libraries provide a space to connect with our collective history and hopefully heal.

The recent political legislation and systemic barriers are a harm to marginalized communities and a harm to everyone. Even people who we feel are on the other side of the issue. Just like I monitored myself growing up, maintaining rigid rules is exhausting. The world we live in is rarely binary but rather a spectrum of diversity. This inflexible thinking keeps us as a society from building connection, health, vulnerability, and joy which makes us human.

It is hard to show up every day with an open heart. It means feeling vulnerable, offering critiques, and speaking up. I invite everyone to be a hero in library land by creating the world they want everyone to live in.

Joy is at the Heart of All Meaningful Work: Finding Meaning in Academic Librarianship

“Joy is at the heart of all meaningful work.”
Christopher P. Long

I read this quotation by Christopher P. Long in early Spring 2022 and it stuck with me. Long is the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University. He’s an advocate of what he calls ethical candor (“the cultivated disposition to be honest with yourself”) and values-based practice (“aligning our core values with the practices that shape academic life”). And the line quoted above struck me because I’ve been thinking about meaningful work as an academic librarian recently.

My friend Mary Greenshields gave a presentation with Sandra Cowan at the 2022 CAPAL (Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians) Conference on compassion and love in academic librarianship, which Mary later published with Sarah Polkinghorne in Library Trends’ special issue on the joy of information (‘Love is a lens: Locating love in library and information studies’). They’re not talking about romantic love, but filial love, or a love of connectedness, of friends, of family.And for me, this forms part of why I find my work as an academic librarian meaningful: there’s so many connections! I think about all of the coworkers that I genuinely care about, and the brief yet meaningful interactions with students and faculty.

I say brief interactions as I’m fairly new in my current role as a science liaison librarian, having worked in the position for just over a year. This is an area where I’m developing, cultivating meaningful relationships with faculty and students. It takes time, I know, to grow as a liaison librarian in your subject areas. It’s something I’m actively working on, trying different avenues to establish myself, and get to know the people in my subjects. For me I find those connections some of the most joyful and meaningful work that academic librarians engage in. Even though it can seem daunting at times to establish myself in my departments, I look ahead to not only what I could accomplish, but that makes me content in my role at my library.

But putting aside liaising, for others, there might be other things that are meaningful for you in academic librarianship and related fields – a well-organized and developed library collection, preserving individuals’ archival records, nailing that meeting that you’re chairing, teaching to hundreds about a topic you’re passionate about, giving your time to a library association you care deeply about, and on, and on.

Take time to identify areas of your work that bring you joy; get as much as you can out of these moments. I think it’s important to find your work meaningful in some way – even if that’s just one aspect of your role (but hopefully it’s more than that) – that it’s valuable, that you’re contributing to something, that you feel motivated and engaged to do good work. Maybe that something is bigger than just you, bigger than your library, your institution even.

I’m reminded of Stephen Brookfield in The Skillful Teacher. In it, he writes of teaching that it “is about making some kind of dent in the world so that the world is different than it was before you practiced your craft. Knowing clearly what kind of dent you want to make in the world means that you must continually ask yourself the most fundamental evaluative questions of all – What effect am I having on students and on their learning?”

I think you can apply this to our teaching, to our collections development, to reference, to all of our library services. What kind of dent in the world are you making? And what effect am I having on students [and faculty, and your colleagues, and …]?

But how do you really know? Think about the ways you assess your success, value, and impact as a librarian. Are you writing annual performance reviews? Do you have a list of goals for the year? Do you keep a teaching journal? Do you track statistics on your reference or other work? Look to these, sure, but consider looking beyond a number or measurement to find out where those areas are that you’re passionate about, those things that bring you happiness in your job.

For me, it’s about connections, supporting our library staff, faculty, and students, and making those dents in the world, making a difference. That brings me joy in academic librarianship, and along with it, meaningful work. Find those moments of joy, revel in them, and bring them to life intentionally throughout your work.

I hope that you can find your work meaningful, that you’re making your dents in the world, and that joy is at the heart of it.

So-called “soft” skills

A few months ago, I attended the teaching demonstration of a candidate interviewing for a position at my campus. The topic of her demonstration was motivational interviewing in the healthcare context. As I understand it, motivational interviewing is a technique that healthcare practitioners use with patients to inspire change in their health-related behaviors–quitting smoking, for example. The goal of this approach is to help uncover and employ the patients’ own motivations for change. Miller and Rollnick describe the different styles of “helping conversations as lying along a continuum,” from “directing” style on one end to “following” style on the other. They place “guiding” style, of which motivational interviewing is part, in the middle, describing a skillful guide as a “good listener … [who] also offers expertise where needed.” 

Motivational interviewing uses four core skills known as OARS: open questioning, affirming, reflecting, and summarizing. The candidate showed us two videos to illustrate motivational interviewing and OARS in practice. In the first video, demonstrating a non-motivational approach, the physician exhibits a rather confrontational style. In the second video, demonstrating a motivational approach, the physician’s OARS skills are readily apparent.  

I wasn’t previously acquainted with the term motivational interviewing, but its meaning and practice felt quite familiar, making me think first of the reference interview. Of course, there are obvious differences between the healthcare and library contexts, but there seem to be some notable similarities between their principles and techniques. Both, for example, are driven by careful, active listening and marked by an open attitude as well as empathy and respect for the patient/user. Effective use of these techniques–no easy task–is essential for facilitating successful communication, learning, and change. 

My thoughts went next to a podcasting project I’ve been working on with a colleague for the past year and a half or so. The gist here is that we chat with guests about their research and inquiry-based projects or professional paths, attempting to uncover the steps, skills, behaviors, and attitudes essential to the process of research and creative accomplishments. (You can find season 1 on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts.) This has been a challenging project in many ways. For one, this is totally new territory for us and the learning curve has felt steep at times. It’s also challenging in that it feels rather uncomfortable to put ourselves out there in this way (kind of like blogging, really). Listening back to the conversations we’ve had with our lovely and accomplished guests during the season 1 editing process, it was funny (read: embarrassing, torturous) to hear myself stumble or blather as I tried to ask questions or make connections, to notice how many noises I made without even realizing–an mm-hmm here, an uh-huh there–to show I’m invested and listening. But looking back on these recordings through this lens now gives me new appreciation for how truly crucial questioning and listening skills are, what an impact they make on the connection between speaker and listener in the moment and on the quality of the conversation. 

And then, a few weeks ago at the LOEX conference, I delivered a presentation that was in large part a reflection on the changes I’ve made to how I teach over the course of my career so far in order to support students’ more conceptual and strategic understanding of information literacy and deepen my own teaching practice. Reflecting on my teaching trajectory to prepare that presentation gave me a fresh perspective on some of the most transformative changes and stages along the way: applying constructivist and metacognitive practices and using active learning and formative assessment methods. Thinking about these milestones again now shows me how deeply embedded this questioning, listening, and guiding thread is in these pedagogical approaches and, therefore, in my teaching. 

I’m struck now, as I follow this thread through domains of my work, by how important these questioning, listening, and guiding techniques–skills, really–are to me in all areas of my professional, not to mention personal, practice. How foundational they are to the way I operate in the world, or at least the way I want to. It feels too self-important to call it an ethic, but this foundation of careful and active listening with an open attitude, empathy, and respect does seem rather like a way of working to aspire to, to practice. 

In thinking anew here about the value and essentialness of these skills to me, I can’t help but also think about how invisible–or perhaps overlooked, undervalued–they are. “Soft skills,” they’re sometimes called–a term used to refer to a wide range of abilities, questioning and listening as well as leadership and teamwork to public speaking and professional writing to emotional awareness and adaptability and plenty more. I have to say, I’ve long disliked the term. While perhaps not the original intention, it seems to me that the “soft” label implies that such skills can be easily achieved, as in the opposite of “hard.” Or perhaps “soft” gives the impression of being weak and, as such, less important or less desirable. I’m not alone in wanting to re-brand these essential abilities. Some recent articles (like here and here) suggest “power skills” instead, for example–a change that would more appropriately convey their significance. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that these skills are, in fact, my lifeblood, infusing every domain, every interaction. And maybe that’s the key to seeing “soft” from a different angle. Soft as in fleshy, meaty, meaning substantive and weighty. Soft as in flexible, meaning adaptable to any context. And soft as in without boundaries, meaning permeating and, therefore, penetrating. Powerful, indeed.

Communication & Leaving Things Behind

In March, I attended ACRL. The first session I attended was a morning panel entitled “Academic Library Leaders Discuss Difficult Topics.” The panelists (Jee Davis, Trevor Dawes, and Violete Illik) covered a range of topics and shared their insights with a full house. I took away many tidbits however, one insight stood out. The panel was discussing communication and how a common refrain from folks is that communication is just not transparent enough from leadership. In working through what this means, Trevor said, “Communication goes both ways.” 

A simple idea but for me, an insight that stood out. As both a current department head and someone who aspires to continue in administrator roles, I’m constantly trying to think about how to communicate information, at what level, and how frequently. But I think Trevor’s point serves as a good reminder; if you have the expectation for leaders to communicate, they also need you to communicate. Leaders can’t be expected to know everything, especially if the people who have that information aren’t sharing it up. Now granted, sometimes sharing up is hard because of the structures and or culture in place. However, this can be worked around. It requires folks to understand the structures and empower people to share, both good news and more challenging news. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about sharing up recently because of a situation I found myself in. A colleague left the institution and in an attempt to try to solve a problem at the reference desk, I opened a can of worms on a service I didn’t know much about. The colleague left behind some information but it wasn’t robust. They also hadn’t alerted the partners in this service about their departure so when I checked in to gain some more information, the partners were surprised to hear about me. 

Now I know that when folks leave institutions, it’s not always on the best terms or with the most generous timeline. I even wrote about the impossibility of tying up loose ends when I left my last institution a few years ago. There’s a lot procedurally to do to leave an institution and consequently, messes will get left for those still at the institution to clean up. However, what are ways to prevent messes, even before someone considers leaving? How do we encourage folks to lay the groundwork, document it along the way, and share that knowledge with more than just one person? This kind of structural work isn’t the most exciting but I think it can be some of the most important work.

This whole situation had me also thinking about my first post I wrote for ARCLog, about setting a project up for success, knowing full well that someday you might not be doing that work anymore. I know it can feel great to work on a project, know it inside and out, and feel secure that no one can do that work like you can. But ultimately, if we want that work to be sustainable and impactful, we have to make sure we are setting both the project and someone else up for success. I think this includes documentation of some kind and talking openly about the work (to all levels of the organization). 

To be honest, this scenario isn’t limited to only when someone leaves an institution. I remember one summer at my past institution where my colleague and I had some family issues arise. We were going to need to be out for parts of the summer, primarily over our larger outreach work that we co-led. When my supervisor asked what documentation we had to support our colleagues stepping in to do this work, we didn’t have anything. Luckily, we had some time to get everything squared away before we were out but life happens, our jobs are just one part of us, and we need to make sure we have information to pass along. 

So my takeaways from this situation is documenting what I can about this can of worms I opened up. I’m talking to folks (across, down, and up) in my organization about what I’m learning and how it applies to their work. I’m thinking even more about how I communicate department work to my supervisor and how I can create opportunities for the team to share their work, at a variety of levels, to various audiences. With summer just right around the corner, I’m hoping to get some time to work on some of that documentation for my work. It’s never too early to lay the groundwork for the work I’ve done and what I’ve learned along the way.

Would love to hear from you reader – do you have strategies to help communicate both ways? Do you have ways of creating work that is sustainable and actionable, even if someone has to leave your institution? Would love to hear your strategies and insights on this topic!