Failure and Feelings

This semester I’m co-teaching a graduate class at my university in a certificate program in interactive technology and pedagogy. It’s a course I’ve taught before, though it changes somewhat each time I teach it, in part because it rotates between several different faculty members every year or so. The course focuses on the practice of teaching and learning with technology, and this week, our last “content” week before our students’ final presentations, the topic was failure.

We’ve had a session on failure during the other times I’ve taught the course, though I believe this is the first time that failure is leading us into the final presentations (and papers due soon after). Our discussion this week was terrific — the students and my co-teacher and I brought our own experiences with failure inside and outside the classroom to bear on our conversation, and we talked through both logistical/practical and emotional aspects of failure in academic contexts generally as well as around their projects specifically. An article by Alison Carr, In Support of Failure, was the focus of much of our discussion, especially about the emotions around failure.

It’s not yet the end of the semester (my college’s semesters go very late — 11 more days!), and I’m thinking about failure too. I’d meant to write more often on ACRLog this semester, but failed to do it. I’d meant to find something more interesting or relevant to write a post about today, but failed to do it. I’m thinking about failure that’s both general and specific: it’s not that I don’t have ideas for topics to write on, but that the topics seem either too well-trodden or too local. There’s a lot going on right now, though I do have time to write, but I’ve failed to take that time to write. I’m feeling all kinds of emotions around these kinds of failure, most of them of the mopey variety, though I also realize that here near the end of the semester it’s not unusual to have more feelings than usual.

When we were talking through classroom failures in class earlier this week, we talked a bit about failure in research and library instruction and how some experiences that might initially seem like failures can actually be pretty valuable for students. The pre-planned vs. spontaneous approach to teaching about keyword searching is a great example of the way a failure can be a useful learning experience. Students are unlikely to find exactly what they’re searching for the first time around, and for a librarian to model (in front of the whole class) that process of searching, not getting useful results, and refining your keywords and strategy to search again is much more realistic for students to see. And (I hope) it makes them feel less anxious about doing their searching “the right way.”

Thinking on this more today I’ve realized that a successful spontaneous search in an instruction session is somewhat choreographed, and still has some measure of control that prevents it from being a true failure. There is that element of uncertainty — it brings me some discomfort to be spontaneous in front of an entire class because what if it doesn’t actually work? What if we refine keywords again and again and still don’t find anything useful? There’s a right way and a wrong way to fail in the library classroom, which seems tied to control. I wonder, if we’re willing to give up some of that need for control, is it still possible to fail in the right way?

I Liked, I Wished, I Wondered: A One-Year Review

One year ago today I flew one-way from ORD to LAX for my first real librarian job (and obviously for the weather). I’m going to take an assessment nugget I once learned from Jennifer Brown, Emerging Technologies Librarian at Columbia University and reflect upon this time using the following measurements: I Liked, I Wished, I Wondered.

I Liked

I liked plenty thus far as a Health & Life Sciences Librarian at UCLA. Most importantly, I am grateful for my work colleagues. I work with people that truly care about learning and how it is reflected within library practices. I work with inspiring and supportive people of color. I work with people that have more to talk about than libraries (this is so important!). While I didn’t necessarily imagine myself working as a librarian in the sciences, I like working in this domain! While I have health sciences experience from working as a speech-language pathologist,, I didn’t appreciate scientific research, its importance, its limitations, and its possibilities, as much as I do now. The sciences seemed a bit intimidating in the beginning, but I have been pleasantly surprised at how accessible it can be, even if someone doesn’t have a sciences background (or even an interest…I am curious how much these are linked). I also like the new matrixed organizational structure within the UCLA Library. It allows for librarians to do a little bit of everything while focusing on a specific area: Collections, Outreach, Research Assistance, Research Partnerships, or Teaching and Learning. This encourages communication across units. For example, I am on the Teaching and Learning Team with the Visual Arts Librarians. This is not a librarian with whom I would typically interact, however, this allows for collaboration, transparency, and information dissemination in seemingly unrelated functions and subject areas. Did I mention that I also like (LOVE) the weather? UCLA is a gorgeous campus all, come visit!

I Wished

I wished I came into my position having a better grasp of collections and scholarly communication. These are essential parts of my everyday duties, and while I have learned these functions over time, I think I would have hit the ground running a bit faster if I did a better job of taking a collections class or participating in a collections and/or scholarly communication focused internship during my MLIS.

I wished I had more time! There are moments where it’s hard to stay focused. This is likely due to a combination of my slightly average organizational skills and saying yes to opportunities. I do think I have been saying yes for the right reasons. I want to be of service, test my capacity in my role, and see what I liked (see above). The good news is that certain responsibilities do not last forever, and now I do have a better idea about what I would like to keep pursuing, what might make sense to stop in a year or two, and what to say yes/no to next time around. I want to be mindful of librarian burnout, so while I’m happy to try it all out, I don’t want to resent the profession either.

I Wondered

I wondered how things would be different if what I wished and what I liked had worked in concert. I wonder where I would be if I hadn’t come to UCLA. I wonder if I prefer to manage others or work as a subject or functional liaison. Will I stay in health sciences librarianship or would I branch out to other areas? I have truly enjoyed diving into medical librarianship, but I have wondered if a I would be better suited to focus upon a functional area. I enjoy pedagogy, active learning, outreach, and connecting different campus partners – perhaps there is a place for me in these areas? I enjoy wondering about this all at UCLA because the matrixed organization and professional development opportunities allow me to explore. I have also wondered if I will stay at an R1 institution, make the jump to a community college, or even try my hand in public libraries.

What Now?

I have always disliked the idea of having a 5-year or 10-year plan. I believe in intention, serendipitous moments, and blending that with your personal drive and abilities. I did not come to librarianship through a straight path, and, while I don’t want to change my career again, I am open to different possibilities that can harness and enhance my skill set. Writing this out has definitely forced me to reflect upon the past year, see how far I have come and what the future might hold. One year down and many more to go!

What are some different ways you taken assessment of your career path as a librarian?

Puzzling Over Interdisciplinary Publishing

This semester I’ve been working on an article sharing the results of the research I did while on sabbatical last year. I was interested in how undergraduates access and complete (or don’t complete) their course reading, and I interviewed students at three colleges in my urban public university to learn about their experiences. My interest in this topic is multifaceted: I’m interested both as a librarian at a library that offers (some) textbooks on reserve for students and has a robust OER initiative underway, and also as a teacher who wonders why students don’t always complete the reading in courses I’ve taught, and also as a faculty member who hears similar questions about reading completion from my colleagues on campus (and honestly? also a little bit as parent of a junior in high school who’s starting to think about college).

This topic, like most of the research that most interests me, is interdisciplinary. While it’s library and information science-relevant it’s not solely relevant to LIS; it’s educational research but I don’t have a degree (at any level) in education, and folks who work in student or academic support services might find it of interest, too. As I gather and update sources in my literature review, initially compiled almost two years ago when I prepared my sabbatical application, I’m also thinking about where to submit the article. What journal should I aim for? Where’s the best home for this work?

Interdisciplinary research is interesting if challenging. I find that it stretches my brain in lots of ways — my lack of prior knowledge of the scholars and journals outside of LIS and a few other fields can make it hard to find sources, though as a librarian with a public services background my instruction/reference skills are helpful. Even so, sometimes finding keywords to describe a topic outside of my expertise is a puzzle. We academics love our jargon, and jargon often differs between fields even when describing the same subject or topic (information literacy, anyone?). Spoiler alert: our students recognize this as a barrier, too — during my interviews I often heard that students sometimes struggled with the reading in general education courses outside their majors and felt that their instructors assumed prior knowledge of the topic that students did not have.

I’m also finding it challenging to find open access journals that fit my interdisciplinary leanings. At this point I’m tenured and not aiming for another promotion, and I’m even more committed to publishing only in open access journals. Open access coverage is highly variable between fields, still. I’ve become so spoiled by the wide range of OA journals in LIS that I’m somewhat shocked when looking for journals in other disciplines. There are lots of fantastic OA options in LIS, but that’s not always the case in other disciplines.

In recent years I’ve begun to wonder whether the journal itself isn’t somewhat of a dinosaur, at least for interdisciplinary work. I use Twitter plus uploading to my university’s institutional repository as my primary means of self-promotion, hoping that the range of scholars who I follow and am followed by will help my work get to anyone who might be interested in it, both inside and outside LIS. In my own research process I rarely read entire issues of scholarly journals anymore, or even table of contents updates, with a few exceptions (that include those journals I regularly peer review for). A journal can be and represent a disciplinary community, but must it always be? There are multiple means of discovery — our usual library databases, social media, the various search engines — for scholarly articles. Is the journal as container for research still the best model, especially if it can’t easily accommodate research that doesn’t fit neatly into disciplinary categories?

Librarianship and Project Management Skills

I am almost a year into my tenure as a Health & Life Sciences Librarian at UCLA, so I’m starting to get a hang of things. I have a better understanding of our resources, I am able to dissect a research question more efficiently, and I am figuring out how my library actually works. My guess is that all of these, and more, will become even easier while providing more challenges along the way.

This is also about the time where I reflect on the coulda, woulda, shouldas from library school. While I did work at a library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I didn’t work there enough to truly understand how the library worked as a system and how individuals were serving this system. And while I stick by the benefits of laziness, especially in graduate school, there is one class I wish I took in my program: Administration & Management of Libraries and Information Centers (I especially wish I could have taken it with the amazing instructor Melissa Wong!)

First, I will first explain why I didn’t take it:

  1. I wanted to graduate ASAP. So I took enough classes to meet the minimum credit requirement.
  2. I wasn’t sure if I needed this class given my experience in the corporate world.
  3. I was (and still am) interested in reference and instruction, so I was afraid this would veer away from that focus.
  4. I wasn’t even thinking about being a manager in library school – my brain wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I was just trying to learn as much as I could about my interests as well as the mushy stuff (theory, library history, etc.) that I wouldn’t necessarily learn on the job.

Now, I shall debunk the above (hindsight is always 20/20):

  1. Yes, I did want to graduate ASAP, and I did enjoy all the classes I took, but there are one or two I could have done without.
  2. Experience in the corporate world ? libraries. Also, the individuals working in the corporate world are different than those working in libraries, especially when it comes to project management. I will expand on this more later.
  3. Understanding how libraries are administered and managed is the oxygen to navigating a library system. I didn’t really connect this before, but if I’m going to do reference or instruction or collections or whatever, these functions rely upon a larger structure which is essential to understand and critique.
  4. I did enjoy the mushy stuff. However, I think it would have benefited me to be a little more practical and learn the nuts and bolts about the administration of libraries. After all, if we think about the world and how socioeconomics, identity, and global politics affect us today, our place in the world starts becoming a little more situated as opposed to feeling independent or out of context. My point is, structure matters.

I want to talk about project management and librarians a little here. Keep in mind, this is based upon my less than two years experience working part-time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and less than one year at UCLA. These are large academic research libraries. My experience is limited, however, I do think I’m onto something here. And that is: Most people do not initially go into librarianship to lead or manage.

I think many of us have had pretty library fantasies that are indeed wonderful. And I fully support this because this is where we came from. But we need to go back to Ranganathan’s fifth law of library science: a library is a growing organism. Libraries are different today than they were 10 years ago and 10 years before that and so on. Technology has accelerated the capabilities and possibilities for libraries, however, it is difficult to keep up. Because of this, project management skills are necessary. My first foray with project management was when I dove into my first job out of college as an IT consultant. I was slammed with project management methodology and project managers that were successful implementers. While there were, and still are, many things I despised about the corporate world, project management is a great skill for any individual to have within any type of organization.

I have noticed that many librarians (myself included) can get bogged down in the details of tasks instead of zooming out, looking at the landscape of a project, sketching out a timeline, determining project phases, corresponding tasks, and project members. However, those that work in corporations, especially consultancies, go into these fields to be project managers. I don’t think it’s bad that this isn’t the first priority of many librarians, but I do think it’s bad to ignore its importance.

When I go to conferences, I haven’t see many papers or lightning talks about project management specifically, and I wonder how librarianship could evolve if this was a focus. I have seen plenty about specific projects, but not as much about the tools they used to manage and implement them. The Project Management Institute has a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. This is a certification that helps people make the big bucks and in companies. Is there an equivalent for libraries? Can there be one? Also, how can this be harmonized with leadership institutes and meeting the needs of marginalized populations? Is there a way that library science graduate programs can include this in curriculum?

It’s very possible that taking Administration & Management in Libraries and Information Centers would not have given me project management expertise. However, I do think it would have led me there earlier if I did take the course. Either way, I am glad I have been able to process and integrate my different career experiences to my work today. So far, my career in librarianship has been very rewarding, and I am confident that learning and building upon project management skills will make me a stronger librarian.

Have you had experience with project management programs? What are your thoughts about integrating these concepts with librarianship?

 

Narrative as Evidence

This past week I attended the MLGSCA & NCNMLG Joint Meeting in Scottsdale, AZ. What do all these letters mean, you ask? They stand for the Medical Library Group of Southern California and Arizona and Northern California and Nevada Medical Library Group. So basically it was a western regional meeting of medical librarians. I attended sessions covering topics including survey design, information literacy assessment, National Library of Medicine updates, using Python to navigate e-mail reference, systematic reviews, and so many engaging posters! Of course, it was also an excellent opportunity to network with others and learn what different institutions are doing.

The survey design course was especially informative. As we know, surveys are a critical tool used by librarians. I learned how certain question types (ranking, for example) can be misleading, how to avoid asking double-barreled questions, and how to not ask a leading question (i.e. Do you really really love the library?!?) Of course, these survey design practices reduce bias and attempt to represent the most accurate results. The instructor, Deborah Charbonneau, reiterated that you can only do the best you can with surveys. And while this seems obvious, I feel that librarians can be a little perfectionistic. But let’s be real. It’s hard to know exactly what everyone thinks and wants through a survey. So yes, you can only do the best you can.

The posters and presentations about systematic reviews covered evidence-based medicine. As I discussed in my previous post, the evidence-based pyramid prioritizes research that reduces bias. Sackett, Rosenberg, Gray, Haynes, and Richardson (1996) helped to conceptualize the three-legged stool of evidence based practice. Essentially, evidence-based clinical decisions should consider the best of (1) the best research evidence, (2) clinical expertise, and (3) patient values and preferences. As medical librarians we generally focus on delivering strategies for the best research evidence. Simple enough, right? Overall, the conference was informative, social, and not overwhelming – three things I enjoy.

On my flight home, my center shifted from medical librarianship to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The only essay I had previously read in this collection of essays was “On Keeping a Notebook”. I had been assigned this essay for a memoir writing class I took a few years ago. (I promise this is going somewhere.)  In this essay, Didion discusses how she has kept a form of a notebook, not a diary, since she was a child. Within these notebooks were random notes about people or things she saw, heard, and perhaps they included a time/location. These tidbits couldn’t possibly mean anything to anyone else except her. And that was the point. The pieces of information she jotted down over the years gave her reminders of who she was at that time. How she felt.

I took this memoir class in 2015 at Story Studio Chicago, a lofty spot in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. It was trendy and up and coming. At the time, I had just gotten divorced, my dad had died two years prior, and I discovered my passion for writing at the age of 33. So, I was certainly feeling quite up and coming (and hopefully I was also trendy). Her essay was powerful and resonated with me (as it has for so many others). After I started library school, I slowed down with my personal writing and focused on working and getting my degree, allowing me to land a fantastic job at UCLA! Now that I’m mostly settled in to all the newness, I have renewed my commitment to writing and reading memoir/creative non-fiction. I feel up and coming once again after all these new changes in my life.

As my plane ascended, I opened the book and saw that I had left off right at this essay. I found myself quietly verbalizing “Wow” and “Yeah” multiples times during my flight. I was grateful that the hum of the plane drowned out my voice, but I also didn’t care if anyone heard me. Because if they did, I would tell them why. I would say that the memories we have are really defined by who we were at that time. I would add that memory recall is actually not that reliable. Ultimately, our personal narrative is based upon the scatterplot of our lives: our actual past, present, future; our imagined past, present, future; our fantasized past, present, and future. As Didion (2000) states:

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. (p. 124)

What does this have to do with evidence-based medicine? Well, leaving a medical library conference and floating into this essay felt like polar opposites. But were they? While re-reading this essay, I found myself considering how reducing bias (or increasing perspectives) in research evidence and personal narrative can be connected. They may not seem so, but they are really part of a larger scholarly conversation. While medical librarians focus upon the research aspect of this three-legged stool, we cannot forget that clinical expertise (based upon personal experience) and patient perspective (also based upon personal experience) provide the remaining foundation for this stool.

I also wonder about how our experiences are reflected. Are we remembering who we were when we decided to become librarians? What were our goals? Hopes? Dreams? Look back at that essay you wrote when you applied to school. Look back at a picture of yourself from that time. Who were you? What did you want? Who was annoying you? What were you really yearning to purchase at the time? Did Netflix or Amazon Prime even exist?? Keeping on “nodding terms” with these people allows us to not let these former selves “turn up unannounced”. It allows us to ground ourselves and remember where we came from and how we came to be. And it is a good reminder that our narratives are our personal evidence, and they affect how we perceive and deliver “unbiased” information. I believe that the library is never neutral. So I am always wary to claim a lack of bias with research, no matter what. I prefer to be transparent about the strengths of evidence-based research and its pitfalls.

A couple creative ways I have seen this reflected in medicine is through narrative medicine, JAMA Poetry and Medicine, and Expert Opinions, the bottom of the evidence-based pyramid, in journals. Yes, these are biased. But I think it’s critical that we not forget that medicine ultimately heals the human body which is comprised of the human experience. Greenhalgh and Hurwitz (1999) propose:

At its most arid, modern medicine lacks a metric for existential qualities such as the inner hurt, despair, hope, grief, and moral pain that frequently accompany, and often indeed constitute, the illnesses from which people suffer. The relentless substitution during the course of medical training of skills deemed “scientific”—those that are eminently measurable but unavoidably reductionist—for those that are fundamentally linguistic, empathic, and interpretive should be seen as anything but a successful feature of the modern curriculum. (p. 50)

Medical librarians are not doctors. But librarians are purveyors of stories, so I do think we reside in more legs of this evidence-based stool. I would encourage all types of librarians to seek these outside perspectives to ground themselves in the everyday stories of healthcare professionals, patients, and of ourselves.

 

References

  1. Didion, J. (2000). Slouching towards Bethlehem. New York: Modern Library.
  2. Greenhalgh, T., & Hurwitz, B. (1999). Why study narrative? BMJ: British Medical Journal, 318(7175), 48–50.
  3. Sackett D.L., Rosenberg W.M., Gray J.A., Haynes R.B., & Richardson W.S. (1996). Evidence based medicine: What it is and what it isn’t. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 312(7023), 71–2. doi: 10.1136/bmj.312.7023.71.