Five Healthy Coping Strategies for Dealing with Rejection in Academic Librarianship

Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash

“Do not fear failure but rather fear not trying.”

Roy T. Bennett

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! 

Discuss further

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 karina.hagelin@cornell.edu

Liasion Bricolage: Making Do, Gaining Responsibilities and Burnout

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.

Doing Less with Less

Like so many of us in academic libraries and public higher education more generally, at my college and university we’ve experienced several successive years of budget cuts. My colleagues and I have done what we can to make changes that reduce costs with minimal impact to patrons, but unfortunately we are now at the point where it’s no longer possible to do more — or even the same — with less.

It’s challenging to do less with less in a profession that’s as focused on service as librarianship. My colleagues and I care about our students, each other, and our college community. We want to say yes, to offer support, to maintain our open hours, to teach that additional class. We need to keep our working hours realistic both for contractual reasons (library faculty and staff are unionized) and to stave off burnout; as the director, it’s important for me to take seriously the possibilities for burnout and low morale. When we reduce services and resources in the library we also experience a (completely understandable!) increase in complaints from students, which is an added emotional load on library workers.

It’s challenging to do less with less when we what we really want is to do more. My colleagues have expertise in and beyond their areas of focus in the library, and we’re interested in expanding our knowledge and skills as well. We know there are more services and resources we could offer in the library with increased funding, additional collaborations we could engage in with faculty and students, more work we could facilitate and support with facilities and infrastructure adequate to the campus population.

There’s no easy answer to budget cuts; while I continue to advocate for increased funding and to foreground student concerns, disinvestment in public higher education is not a problem that we in our library can solve. In working within and through the challenges of budget cuts we’re trying to identify the things that we do have control over, however small. I can’t add another floor to the library with more student seating, but we can revise and clarify our signage to make it easier for students to find what they need, especially during busy, crowded times. Keeping the front doors closed rather than propped open (with a sign that indicates that we’re open) this semester has helped cut down on the ambient noise from the hallways outside the library and has made it a little bit quieter overall, though we still lack a truly quiet study area.

Small changes don’t obviate the need for additional funding, nor my obligation to argue for it. It’s hard work keeping our chins up during times of austerity, and I want to acknowledge our feelings while we keep doing the best we can with the resources we have available, pushing for change while working within our current constraints.

If our spaces could speak, what would they say?

Over the summer, we updated a small lounge area in my library. We had multiple goals for this project; chief among them was to add seats in our often packed-to-the-gills library and also reduce noise problems that the area seemed to foster. Previously, this area was home to two clusters of chairs separated by a tall double-sided bookcase. Each cluster included four lounge chairs and a coffee table. The updated area now seats twelve rather than eight (not a huge difference, but meaningful for our small library) with four work tables and eight chairs overlooking a courtyard plus four lounge chairs. We removed the bookcase that bisected the area and also repurposed the shelves lining the walls to now feature a browsing area of periodicals and displays, rather than the general collection, and an assortment of succulents. The new space is more open and brighter with a more modern sensibility.

Now that we’re a few months into the semester, it’s gratifying to see how consistently and heavily students are using the space and to observe significant changes in how they’re using the area. In the previous configuration, students who didn’t know each other would be reluctant to sit together in the clustered chairs so just one or two filled seats would deter students from using the other open seats. At other times, large groups of students would gather on and around the clustered chairs to loudly socialize, disrupting students working in nearby spaces. Now, it’s not unusual to find every seat in the area filled. Students appear to be using the space for various purposes in very close proximity: working individually or with a friend, tutoring each other, meeting with group project collaborators, and relaxing. When working or chatting with friends and collaborators, they generally speak in lower voices. While I expected the new furniture would have some impact, it’s been surprising to see the degree of impact. With just a few changes, the space has been transformed.

Meanwhile, other areas in our library continue to be beset by noise conflicts (which I’ve reflected on before). We are brainstorming other ways to improve our current space while also advocating to expand our library with a Learning Commons model in collaboration with our learning center and other departments. Reflecting on the aesthetic and configurations of our current and (hopefully) future spaces is making me think more and more about how space design influences users’ attitudes and guides their behavior. 

I was chatting with a colleague in the English department recently about this and she offered this term: rhetoric of space. I find the phrase–new to me in this context–a meaningful lens because it helps me focus on the explicit and implicit messages embedded in our spaces. It helps me consider the values our spaces communicate, the behaviors and attitudes our spaces foster and impede, and the interactions our spaces support and hinder. I think frequently about how the configuration of a classroom impacts students’ participation or a meeting room impacts engagement between colleagues. But how do our other spaces also condition us? This means not only asking how our students want to use a space, but also how does the space shape their expectations and use? 

What is the rhetoric of your spaces? What is the rhetoric of the spaces you want to create? If these spaces could speak, what would they say? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Work weeks, schedules, and supporting students

Recently, Facebook reminded me of a picture I posted when I was in undergrad. It’s a picture of my Google calendar, in the fall of 2012. I was a busy undergrad, especially that fall, but my caption when I reposted this picture was something like, “If only 2012 Hailley knew what 2019 Hailley’s calendar would look like.” 

A screenshot of a Google calendar, with many appointments, from 6 AM in the morning until 9 PM at night.
My 2012 calendar

Between working in Admissions, being a writing tutor, sitting on two committees, being a part of student government and a literary journal, taking four classes, and clarinet lessons, I was never bored. Back in 2012, it was normal for days to stretch from 8 AM until 9 PM. The day wasn’t even officially done at 9 PM: that just meant it was time for readings, homework, or hanging out with friends. I felt busy, and at times, busier than than my friends, but overall, the pace of my schedule felt normal and what it should be like as an undergrad. 

These days, a meeting ending at 9 PM seems “late.” I was on campus walking with friends to a play and overheard a student say they had a meeting starting at 9 PM. My friends and I shared a look that said, “I would not want to start a meeting at 9.” College can be a time when traditional 9-5 is lost. If you’re awake, a meeting can happen. 

As the Student Engagement Coordinator, working with undergraduates is a fundamental part of my job. It has always felt normal for me to stay late, to host a workshop after dinner, meet with a student group, or run a Pop Up Library. And when I saw that Facebook memory pop up this time, I started to think about who else (faculty, staff) had to stay late when I was in college to support my student engagement. In some ways, it’s all coming full circle, as I stay late to support a new group of students. 

I also feel like there is an expectation that I’ll stay late. Part of that pressure is internal, because I remember what it was like to be a student and trying to find time to meet with faculty or advisors during the day (see calendar above). Part of that is my personality, and the ways that I let my personal and professional life bleed together. Part of that also comes from my first experience at Penn State, where I worked from 1-10 PM and saw how the library changed after 5 PM, when the “day folks” left and something new settled in its place. Part of that pressure comes from my conditioning to be helpful, as a woman in a service-orientated profession (Harris, 1992; Hicks, 2014) and some of that pressure is probably imagined.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this pressure and how my ability to stay late is partially built on my identity. I’m a young, single lady with no dependents. I’m often (in both positive and negative connotations) told that I have a lot of energy. The undercurrent of some of these statements imply that with that energy I’m well-suited to work with undergraduates. I feel that these characteristics make people think that of course, I’ll always stay late, handle that evening workshop, or be okay with an after-dinner meeting. They assume that my lack of any dependents means my evenings are always open. If this is the logic, what does it mean when my life inevitably changes? Does the pressure go away? Do I stop staying late or doing workshops on the weekends? Is it implied that eventually I’ll move away from “after hours”? If I move away from that work, will I lose touch with the undergraduates I serve? And if I do stop staying late, how will that change my work (and impact) with undergraduate students? 

In a recent study, Lily Todorinova (2018) examined job position descriptions for undergraduate and first year librarian positions. In this process, she discovered that between 2014 and 2016, these types of positions were on the rise. Many of those positions were listed as entry-level and were offered entry-level salaries, for example, lower than the average salary in 2016 (Todorinova, 2018, p. 209). What does this trend mean for the profession? If we want these positions to recognize and respond to movements within higher education and find ways to integrate the library (broadly: information literacy, instruction, services, etc.) more meaningfully into student life, how are we supporting these new professionals? And how are we being flexible in that support, so that these colleagues are not regularly working 12 hour days, as they accommodate both the traditional work hours and the student hours? Do we allow for time to be flexed in these positions? Do we force our colleagues in these positions to “grow” out of them?

These structures and this tension aren’t limited to academic librarians in engagement and first-year positions; student affairs professionals also have a high burnout rate (Marshall, Gardner, Hughes, & Lowery, 2016; Mullen, Malone, Denney, & Dietz, 2018). Many of the reasons why student affairs professionals leave are due to long hours and the struggle to maintain a work-life balance (Marshall et al., 2016). In a study done on new student affairs professionals, one respondent mentioned the long hours were a sacrifice that would result in long-term payoffs (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008). But that also feels problematic, especially in thinking of a library setting: if I set a precedent, what structure am I putting into place for those who do this work after me? Is that a tradition I want to instill?

So, what helps keep you student-centered, while setting boundaries and without it consuming your entire schedule? My thinking these days is remembering what it was like to be a student, who posted that picture of her calendar on Facebook because she was feeling overwhelmed, personally and academically. To remember those people who supported me in college and find ways to give that back, to a new group of students. And probably most importantly, to keep asking questions to the students I work with about their day-to-day. What does it mean to be a college student at Penn State? As Todorinova discovered, many librarians in engagement positions feel that they responsibility is to leverage student experiences (something I strongly agree with), and there has to be a way to get that insight, both within traditional working hours and sometimes, after 5.

At the end of the day, students will still meet at the end of their day. In wanting to support students, folks in these positions will work outside the bounds of 9-5. What we can do, both as employees and supervisors of these types of positions? I don’t have any firm answers but I do have a lot of thoughts. Currently they include:

  • Articulate our values and how those plays out in our work. If we want to be student-centered, what does that look like, for us as an organization?
  • Understand that just because you have “engagement” or “first-year” in your title, doesn’t mean that you’re the only person who can support the entire student population. This work has to be done collectively and not placed solely on one individual. 
  • Recognition that everyone’s time (ours, others, students, etc.) is valuable. It’s not a competition of who works the most, but instead an understanding that we all have things we care about and want to pursue outside our work responsibilities.   
  • Identify your colleagues that work outside the bounds of 9-5. Articulate why that is (position type, job description, population to serve, etc.) and reflect on something you’re doing to support their schedule. If you’re not sure of your answer, ask that person what’s one new way you can support their schedule.

I see and feel the tension, and don’t know exactly how those feelings and tension will change over the next few years. But I’m reflecting on these structures and trying to sort it out. I’m curious about what others think about these ideas and strategies around this topic.


Reference

Harris, R.M. (1992). Librarianship: The Erosion of a Woman’s Profession. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp.

Hicks, D. (2014). The Construction of Librarians’ Professional Identities: A Discourse Analysis / La construction de l’identité professionnelle du bibliothécaire?: Une analyse de discours. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science, 38(4), 251–270. https://doi.org/10.1353/ils.2014.0017

Marshall, S. M., Gardner, M. M., Hughes, C., & Lowery, U. (2016). Attrition from Student Affairs: Perspectives from Those Who Exited the Profession. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 53(2), 146–159. https://doi.org/10.1080/19496591.2016.1147359

Mullen, P. R., Malone, A., Denney, A., & Dietz, S. S. (2018). Job Stress, Burnout, Job Satisfaction, and Turnover Intention Among Student Affairs Professionals. College Student Affairs Journal, 36(1), 94–108. https://doi.org/10.1353/csj.2018.0006

Renn, K. A., & Jessup-Anger, E. R. (2008). Preparing New Professionals: Lessons for Graduate Preparation Programs from the National Study of New Professionals in Student Affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 49(4), 319–335. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.0.0022

Todorinova, L. (2018). A Mixed-Method Study of Undergraduate and First Year Librarian Positions in Academic Libraries in the United States. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 44(2), 207–215. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2018.02.005