The Back of the iPad Cart And Other Things I Didn’t Anticipate as a New Department Head

What felt like the longest month (January) is finally over. I don’t know about you, but the combination of cold temperatures, snow, the surge in COVID cases, and the push to “de-densify” the campus really put me in a pandemic funk. Each week felt out of my control and full of back-to-back virtual meetings. After spending a full semester working entirely in-person and only having a few virtual meetings each week, my body definitely needed time to readjust to working from my dining room table.The days went by fast, I was full of hectic energy, but January as a whole felt like a slog. 

As I emerge and jump headfirst into February (my favorite month for many reasons, including the arrival of my birthday), I tried to identify the reason for a hectic January. I think part of it was encountering some things I hadn’t anticipated. As I’ve talked about on the blog before, I’m new to being a department head. I’m finding it challenging and rewarding in all the right ways and an opportunity for me to grow. But like any new position, things pop up that you don’t think would happen. As I stood in front of our iPad cart, trying to determine what cords went where, I figured it would be fun to discuss a few of the things I’m navigating! 

Balancing team vs. me time

One of the things I enjoy about my new role is the ability to take a bird’s eye view at what the team is doing. It’s great to see how each individual is moving a project forward and I love to connect teammates when their interests and skill sets match up. I love thinking through the vision of the department and how our individual goals work towards collective goals. But sometimes I get to the end of the work day and realize that I’ve been spending so much time thinking about the team, I haven’t thought about me. 

By me, I mean the individual projects and work I do that is connected, yet separate in some ways, from my department head role. For example, the awesome work I get to do with LibParlor and the IMLS grant we received. Or writing this blog post for ACRLog or planning a one-shot instruction session. I’m still trying to find the balance between how I assist and support the success of the team I’m leading, but also find time to work on the things that are part of my portfolio. Recently, I’ve gotten around to blocking off chunks of time for certain projects, closing out my mail when I’m not actively sending email, and using my virtual to-do list to label when work will be done (morning vs. afternoon) and if it will require ample brain space. I know a perfect balance will never be achieved, but I’m working on being more cognisant when one side is overtaking the other. 

Defining workflows and processes 

The name of this blog post comes from a recent experience where the department got new iPads (yay). As the department head, I got thrown into how we might manage them and how we work with our central IT to maintain them. I’m a process-oriented person, who is also aware that we should capture the success of using this technology (so future funding can be secured when we need it). As I watched our IT department deliver our iPads to the library, I realized that managing 24 iPads is not the same as managing my own personal iPad that I watch Hulu on. In the process of figuring out these new devices, I inevitably spent more time on them than I anticipated. And time I didn’t even consider – like rearranging the cords in the back of the iPad cart to be neat and orderly! Was that necessary? (Probably not). Did it make me feel more organized and together? (Sure did). I know this preparation work will pay off – I’ve gotten to know folks outside of the library and think about how these iPads are part of our bigger instruction work. However, the long game doesn’t mean the short game doesn’t feel hectic!  

The pandemic (enough said, right?)

I feel like my pandemic journey at my current institution is backwards – I interviewed for the role in June 2021, during the sweet period of no masks. I started the job as the mask mandate was put back into place, and now my 2022 started off with my institution deciding to push the start of the semester back a week and encourage work from home as much as possible. I’m thankful that I had a full semester with the team before jumping into an almost entirely remote work situation. It has been weird not to see my colleagues on a daily basis and at times, I feel a bit disconnected from some of their day-to-day work. This was also really my first chance as a manager to manage in an evolving pandemic situation. It means I’m sending a lot of emails and trying to model the ways I remember feeling supported in my previous role when the pandemic was shifting and changing. We are just all trying to survive.

What’s next? 

I wish I knew what was next! Ideally, I’ll go back to a “pandemic fall normal” on Monday. I’ll keep doing my thing and figuring out strategies along the way. I’ll keep celebrating the small wins, like functioning classroom iPads that have wifi! I’m curious – did anyone else have a particularly dreary January? What happened that you didn’t anticipate? 

Impending Building Renovations

So last year when I started writing for the ACRL Blog, my first post was about the tightrope I was walking trying to balance programming during a pandemic. Things started to look up during fall semester, mostly because my college was able to lift some COVID restrictions. However, with the Omicron surge in our area, the campus administration has made the decision to re-implement some policies and procedures. We’re back to rotating work from home, and I expect to hear more about classes shifting from face-to-face and back to online. So, we’re back on the tightrope. But here’s the thing: We also have an upcoming building renovation.

Facepalm |… | Flickr
Facepalm, by Luigi Rosa

This has been in the works since long before the pandemic, and our library needs it. However, this has thrown a significant wrench into planning, well, anything. The timing for National Library Week (which we always try to celebrate) makes it even tougher. My team is looking to move out of our building around the same time, then we have a semester break, and then I’m off to the Texas Library Association’s conference! April is going to be crazy!

Staring all this down at the beginning of the semester plus the back-and-forth of COVID-19 is a lot. So far, my coping strategy has been taking things one week at a time. I have most my contracts in for guest speakers, and I’m working on planning two more events for National Library Week. This week’s goal is to arrange a speaker from the Library of Congress (fingers crossed!), and next week’s is to start the process of getting a virtual author panel together.

Breaking events down into smaller, manageable tasks isn’t a new idea to me, but I really like planning months ahead! Resisting the urge to set everything in stone hasn’t been easy. I sincerely don’t know where I will be in a few months’ time, though, both physically and mentally. Will we still be dealing with variant surges? Will I be on another campus? Will everything be pushed back as it has in the past? On-campus, off-campus? As a female role-model from my childhood would say: ACK!

Wherein the author dates herself with a Cathy reference. Cathy is copyright Cathy Guisewite.

I don’t have the answers for any of that. I’m learning to be better about not knowing. As anyone in librarianship probably understands, not knowing something is anxiety-making for me, but I can’t research my way out of the uncertainty.

At least I know I’m not alone. I hope everyone else is handling the balancing act we’ve found ourselves in as we start a new semester. We can do this!

The Struggle: Getting and Staying Organized

            It’s slightly embarrassing to admit but staying organized is something I’ve had issues with since I was very little. From losing my homework in middle school to cramming all of my papers into a single binder in high school, it seems like every new stage in my life has been accompanied by a new stab getting and staying organized. My transition from graduate student to full-time academic librarian has been no different. Though going to graduate school for library science might seem like the perfect opportunity for someone like myself to finally come up with an organizational system that actually works, I’m here to lend a voice to my fellow disorganized librarians out there – The struggle to stay organized is real!

           During grad school, I came up with a number of different strategies for staying organized. Some of them I’ve held on to while others I’m in the process of dropping. They’ve all more or less revolved around what was most important to me at the time: reading articles for class, keeping a weekly schedule, and having a place for storing work related notes.

There’s this common misconception that people become librarians because they like to read/be surrounded by books (in my position, I only ever see the stacks as I walk to my classroom). That being said, the fact that reading relevant books and articles counts as work was a bit of a surprise to me whenever I started my current position. When it comes to reading, I’m still holding on to the color-coding scheme I came up with in grad school: yellow for important ideas, blue for possible quotes, and pink for words/concepts that I’m unfamiliar with. My scheme is essentially the same now with the addition of green for citations I’m interested in tracking. My color-coding system served me well during grad school and, as of right now, I’m planning on holding on to it. Yet, the same can’t be said of my other organizational strategies.

            Moleskine notebook planners have been a fixture for note-takers for quite some time. There’s a reason Ernest Hemingway, as well as several other well-known artists, swore by them. Their famous sturdy design last long after their pages have been well spent. From the time I taught high school English and till very recently, I counted myself among Moleskine’s many admirers.  The layout of my chosen Moleskine gave me space for planning individual days on the left page and a blank right page for personal, school, or work-related notes. Using the notebook meant I had a central, physical space where I could plan ahead while also looking back at past days/weeks for uncompleted tasks. The problem with my planner that eventually became evident was that I could plan ahead all I wanted but that planning would only ever come in handy if I remembered to check my notebook frequently – an oversight I hate to admit occurred more than once. I came to realize that what I needed was a reminder to check my reminders. Enter, my Outlook Calendar.

            This month I started working on my yearly evaluation and I have to admit that regularly using my Outlook Calendar has been a life saver. But, to be honest, using Outlook to plan out my days is a relatively new habit for me. Prior to my library residency, I’d really only ever use it to book meetings with the supervisor of my grad school internship. Back in the first month or so of my current position, I started having trouble juggling all of the different moving parts that come with being an academic librarian: preparing lessons for my course, finding and applying for different service opportunities, attending several meetings a month, planning out new library reference services, etc. Keeping up with all the different moving pieces of my job was not really something I anticipated having trouble dealing with. Thankfully, both my wonderful mentor and department head suggested that I start using Outlook as a way to plan out my daily routine. I’m happy to report that using Outlook as a daily planner has been a lifesaver for me. Though the calendar’s fifteen-minute reminder function sometimes feel like an overbearing big brother, I have to admit that it’s more than once saved me from missing meetings I completely forgot about.

            My road to getting organized has been long and full of failed attempts. I’m a tad bit sad at finally coming to the realization that I might have to drop my weekly planner all together. After all, if I keep forgetting to check my planner then should I even bother? I might just end up turning my planner into more of a weekly diary. Even though I still need to work on switching tasks and sticking to my established time limits, I’m glad to have finally found a scheduling system to help me keep track of what I’m working on and when. Maybe one day I’ll perfect a system that work for both my professional and personal needs.  

Things I mean to know

I’m a big fan of using low-stakes passive engagement activities to informally gather student perspectives. For me, this has most often been simply posting a question or poll related to a timely topic on a strategically-positioned whiteboard. I’m always interested to see what students post–I look eagerly for new responses every time I pass a board–and I try to think carefully about the insight their responses can offer. 

At my current library, we’ve used these questions or polls most often to gauge students’ preferences for services or features we’re planning, such as new furniture or space changes. We’ve also used them as a small way to promote well-being or students’ sense of connections, such as by inviting students to share study tips, messages of goodwill, or plans for the break at the end of the semester. Pre-pandemic, we posted these polls or questions on a regular basis, often weekly. But in the past year and a half, we have gotten away from this practice. First, because our campus was physically closed due to the pandemic, then because of concerns about handling shared materials (like the markers students would use to post their responses), and more recently because we’ve just been out of the habit of doing it.

I’ve been feeling the itch to start this up again so last week I posted a prompt asking students what questions or topics they’ve been researching this semester. I like the range of responses so far: from phyllosilicates to Tyrion Lannister. I posted this particular prompt partly because I’m just interested in the work students are doing. But I also hope that seeing this prompt–their fellow students’ research topics, but also just the question itself–might plant a seed to inspire their own curiosity. It’s just one question on a whiteboard, of course, but you never know what gets someone thinking.

In fact, this little whiteboard question has made me reflect anew not just on the professional and personal topics I’ve researched this semester, but also on my own inquiry mindset. My own research is more often than not driven by an imminent deadline or in reaction to an issue or problem that has arisen in my work or life, rather than because of innate curiosity in a topic. Rarely do I find myself exploring a question for its own sake just because I was interested. I think time/workload are partly to blame, but I’ve long framed this as a personal shortcoming. I think often about how much I admire–envy, even–people with a strong naturally inquisitive nature and their drive to satisfy their curiosity. 

This all got me thinking about a podcast episode I listened to some years ago. My memory of it is spotty, but the episode had something to do with the theme “things I mean to know.” I think the idea was more or less about getting to the bottom of the facts about the world that we take for granted: how do we really know they’re true? At the time, I was inspired to generate my own list of facts and universal truths that I wanted to investigate. I felt enlivened by the sense of inquiry and optimism that having such a list engendered. It felt like the beginning of something exciting. But the sad truth is that I let my list quickly fall by the wayside; I don’t know where it is now and I don’t think I made much, if any, progress on answering the questions I brainstormed.

As I survey today’s additions to the what-are-you-researching whiteboard prompt, I’m thinking about a still more abstract goal at the core of this little exercise. I also posed this question because I’m always looking for little ways to expand students’ understanding and awareness of research–big and small, academic and otherwise–as relevant to their interactions and experiences in the world, to see themselves in that word. And the same goes for me, really. The reflection brought about by writing this post first led me to think that perhaps I should generate a fresh list of “things I mean to know.” Surely, articulating a list of topics to pursue and questions to answer will invigorate me and offer a renewed sense of purpose, I thought. And that’s likely true, for a time. But, turning this lens on myself, I can see with fresh appreciation where my more innate inquiry tendencies–strengths, even?–lie. As a “process person,” I often relish uncovering, understanding, and effectively navigating the steps and behaviors that make up the path to a goal or product. I’ve long recognized and valued how empowering it can feel to have an understanding of the process–the how. I have typically used this as a guiding principle for my librarianship and focused on growing students’ awareness of process in order to support and advance their inquiry experiences. It’s been some time since I saw this spark, this drive as the way I motivate my own research, as a mark of my own curiosity.

Looking back, looking forward

Photo by SAIRA on Unsplash

It’s time for another collaborative post from your ACRLoggers! It’s been a grueling semester, and as we count down the days till winter break, let’s celebrate any and all triumphs from this year in spite of ~everything~, whether that’s a big achievement or something small you were finally able to check off your list. I posed these questions to my fellow bloggers, and I invite you to share your answers in the comments:

1. What is one “win” from this semester, big or small?

Emily Hampton Haynes
When I consider that question, my first thought is “Definitely the plaques.” For at least 20 years, the wall opposite the circulation/reference desk featured a display of U.S. history documents blown up and mounted onto wood panels. (Think of the wood paneling in a 1970s living room, and then slap the first page of the Declaration of Independence on it.) Taking down the outdated, unattractive display took all of 5 minutes, and the library lobby immediately looked bigger. We’re working with our Facilities team to make our entryway more inviting, and even though it’s not where we want it to be yet, taking down those plaques was a breath of relief for everyone in the library.

Hailley Fargo
Settling into a new institution! I started this job a few weeks before the fall semester, so I feel like much of my time has been learning and understanding a new library and institution. As we wrap up the semester, I feel like I know folks better and have a better understanding of the library and how I fit. And that’s a really great feeling!

Alex Harrington
Our DEIA Media Club has been pretty successful and we have topics picked out for the next year. I am one of two representatives for the library on the Diversity Council, and we are asked to create diversity initiatives within our departments. We chose a media club (like a journal club, but we use videos and images and all kinds of publications) and hold it once every other month. We select resources and create discussion questions, and everyone in the library is welcome to join the discussion. We’ve had some good discussions, and developed some good ideas for how to apply our newfound knowledge and perspectives.

Jen Jarson
I’m proud of the maintenance work we’ve done this year. While grappling with the various challenging conditions that we all find ourselves negotiating (primarily pandemic- and staffing-related for us at my library), we’ve continued to successfully provide our core services and space to our campus community. It may not sound very shiny or innovative, but it’s worth recognizing. Kudos to everyone on my team — and yours, too. Kudos to us all. Still, I’d be remiss to not also celebrate the good progress my colleagues and I have made on undergraduate research which has long been a priority area that just never quite got enough attention (on my end, at least). Our new committee brings together representatives from the library faculty, teaching faculty, staff, and student stakeholder groups. With just a semester under our belts, our multi-pronged, collaborative approach to organizing and enhancing undergraduate research is already looking quite promising. 

Maura Smale
We’ve had many challenges at my place of work this semester, as I’m sure everyone has, though we’ve had our wins as well. One that I’m very proud of is that we hired and onboarded a new librarian, a process that started over the summer and continues into the Fall semester. I’m grateful that we were able to make the case for our new colleague to be among the first faculty hires at the college once last year’s university-wide hiring freeze was lifted, and that this critical position is now filled. I’m also grateful to my colleagues for tackling this first ever fully virtual search so thoughtfully with me, and to my newest colleague for jumping into what is admittedly a bit of a backlog of tasks with such energy. 

2. What is something you’re looking forward to in the new year?

Emily Hampton Haynes
A personal New Years resolution of mine is: incorporate more trivia in my life. I’ve started a passive program at the library called Brain Break, where if students complete a little quiz, puzzle, or riddle, they can turn it in at the reference desk for a small prize (stickers, fun-sized candy, etc.). In 2022, I’m looking forward to putting something like “Create chocolate bar quiz” on my work to-do list!

Hailley Fargo
Again, with being new, I’m excited to start another semester, having much more under my belt. I’m really excited to see where the department can go and the work we’ll get to do together in 2022!

Alex Harrington
I have developed a new way to track my activity that should (fingers crossed!) make all my data, assessment, and tenure dossier creation related tasks so much easier in the future. I’m very much looking forward to seeing whether it works!

Jen Jarson
I’d like to say that I’m looking forward to this new podcasting idea I’m working on with a colleague or the co-curricular experiences to support undergraduate researchers that we’re planning or the new OER award that we’re implementing to recognize teaching faculty. But, honestly, I’m mostly looking forward to what I hope will be a fresh outlook after a bit of time off. I’m feeling worn out by this semester and year. I can see how much I’m struggling to focus and navigate larger-scale projects and ideas. Even with that awareness, I’ve caught myself thinking about how I could use a few days of break to restart that article that’s been in limbo all semester or to get a head start on that big project I’m thinking about or, you know, organize everything that’s a mess. But sprinkling some work into what isn’t really that long of a break anyway will likely reap neither real rest nor real productivity; I’ve gotten caught in that trap before. So instead of giving in to the temptation of trying to get ahead, I’m trying to commit to really leaving work behind over the break.

Maura Smale
Jen’s response above resonates so much with me. I often take a nonconsecutive handful of days off in January both to rest as well as to catch up on research and scholarship. But this year I’m really feeling the need for a break from all of the kinds of library work I do, not just the day to day director work. I’m planning for a full staycation week in January, work-free. We’ll be adding more in-person hours and services in our Library in the Spring, concurrent with our college’s increase in face-to-face courses next semester, so I’m also looking forward to that week of rest before coming back to finalize preparations for welcoming more students to our spaces.