The Librarian – Counselor Connection

Editor’s note: This guest post has been authored by Jennifer Nardine. Jennifer (she/her) is a teaching and learning liaison, and Coordinator of International Outreach at the University Libraries of Virginia Tech. In addition to her interest in international librarianship, Jennifer is fascinated by the intersection of humans and information, especially as it relates to individual health and well-being.

I recently finished a second Master’s Degree, an MaEd in Counseling from Virginia Tech’s School of Education. Having two Master’s is common in academic library-land, and several of my colleagues have dual Master’s or have earned Doctorates. Shortly after graduating, I was startled when a colleague asked, “how are you going to show that [mental health] counseling is related to your work?” Her implication: even though I’d put in the work to earn the degree, it wouldn’t serve me when it came time to apply for promotion. My response: While I don’t serve as liaison to any of the units in the School of Education which would create a solid link, or to our Psychology or Marriage and Family Therapy programs, it’s obvious to me that education, librarianship, and counseling are related.

Librarianship and teaching are service professions invested in helping our patrons/students to understand what they really need, effectively ask for it and independently search for things and, ultimately, find something of quality. Underneath the more overt activities, we teach critical thinking skills and social issues awareness. Behind-the-scenes workers do this as much as folks on the front line, only their patrons are generally other people within the library or school. We’re all pulling together to provide help to those in need, and to do so in a way that those we interact with generally leave conversations feeling satisfied with the exchange, even if the answer is some form of “no.”

Mental health counseling is also a service profession invested in helping people understand what they need, express themselves clearly to get what they want or to find it themselves, and to develop an understanding of social justice and critical thinking beyond the surface level. While those last two may come as a surprise, consider this: people grow up in a context – family, friends, etc. and develop their understanding of the world from within those parameters. Similar to consulting a librarian, counseling isn’t just for people in distress; it’s a useful tool for anyone processing their lives, their options, and the state of the world around them.

Among other things, counseling students go through semester-long courses on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), how to conduct intake interviews which resemble a reference interview in terms of gathering initial information about client needs, and effectively continuing consultations to help their clients develop the skills to understand and ask for what they need. Counselors find their client’s strengths and highlight them, helping to increase those strengths through strategy and practice. Pretty similar, no?

On the individual development front, counseling students continually reflect on their feelings, learning, and experiences in the form of journaling assignments. They take on challenges that they expect their clients to encounter so they have first-hand experience of those challenges. As a parallel, library students do research projects and practicums which reflect what their patrons will experience. Student counselors do internal development work so they can set aside their own biases to help their clients, and know when they need to confer with a more experienced colleague. Academic librarians are called upon to help with research on many topics, and commit to building collections including multiple perspectives on controversial issues, regardless of their own sentiments.

Beyond those commonalities, there’s been an increased interest in student and, to some extent, employee well-being in the last years, especially during the COVID pandemic. We were encouraged to give ourselves and each other grace, to alleviate stress and get enough rest, to use our sick leave for our mental as well as physical health. Those of us who teach were encouraged to be honest with our students, directly addressing the fact that we were all in the midst of something none of us had ever experienced and that we were all doing our best. More courses for employees on mental health first aid, mindfulness, and self-care appeared in the campus offerings, and the university established links to free online mental health resources for both students and employees. That idea of helping each other to use and find our strengths rolled across our campus. Student mental health continues to be a focus in secondary education, with sessions at conferences like the one at SXSW EDU addressing practical ways to implement solutions. We teacher-librarians were and continue to provide a form of mental health support.

Add in the admittedly hopeful idea that we’re all trying to grow as human beings, and that we want to perform our jobs as ourselves rather than as a persona developed for business purposes. Bringing authenticity forward, not sharing beyond your comfort level but up to that point, naturally creates connection and empathy. Being able to deal with irate or rude patrons/clients, having the inner stability to adapt to change, the mental flexibility to continuously learn and develop, and knowing ourselves well enough to cultivate healthy relationships with colleagues and clients/patrons are all desirable skills in both professions.

Effectively relating with distressed students, from understanding that they are distressed onward, can help us shepherd them to the right help that they need if we can’t personally provide it. Juggling an overabundance of tasks and still helping colleagues when they need it fosters a sense of teamwork. And knowing when we need to stop and rest and renew ourselves, despite that mountain of tasks, is a key skill reiterated again and again in counselor education programs.

So yes, mental health counseling and librarianship are inextricably linked. We use different vocabulary and have different specialties in each discipline. Nonetheless, my counseling background allows me to bring a deeper understanding of human needs and to bring kindness and patience to each interaction, has increased my toolbox of techniques for digging for the real information need under the surface of a question, and has taught me that taking care of myself really does allow me to better serve patrons and collaborate with colleagues.

A First Year Academic Librarian’s Teaching Journey

For this blog post, I decided to document my teaching journey so far as a first-year academic librarian. Before I secured my current position as a Reference & Instruction Librarian at Cal State University, Northridge (CSUN) in July 2023, I had already been an educator for over ten years. My teaching background was instrumental as I transitioned into my current position. I already had experience teaching (and learning from) scholars of diverse backgrounds, such as, students of color, first generation students, parenting students, neurodiverse students, and students of various age groups. For instance, I had gained valuable experience as a Library Intern at East Los Angeles College where I taught information literacy and research sessions for various disciplines. While my past experiences provided a strong foundation for my current line of work, I still underwent a learning curve.

Before I started teaching my own sessions, I was quite intentional about shadowing experienced academic librarians. Throughout summer and fall of 2023, I observed several sessions conducted by 3 different academic librarians. As the new librarian, who had not yet developed any professional relationships at CSUN, I found this process to be a bit awkward. While I recommend that early career librarians take this step, it is important to tread carefully. Due to heavy workloads, not all librarians feel comfortable with taking on the responsibility of mentoring early career librarians. If you sense hesitation, move on and ask someone else. In my case, my colleagues were quite gracious and offered a helping hand. They shared resources like PowerPoint presentations and library handouts that eventually became part of my own toolkit. Observing a few librarians allowed me to learn about different teaching styles, pedagogical practices as well as active learning strategies.

Early in the fall semester, I began to receive instruction requests from faculty members teaching English, Central American & Transborder Studies and University 100 courses. For each session, I prepared extensively and tailored the session to the instructor’s specific assignment (i.e., annotated bibliography, persuasive essay, research paper, or group project). With each session, I became more confident in my ability to teach students how to use the library’s resources. During the last week of October, my chair observed one of my sessions. Admittedly, I was very nervous and this feeling became amplified when the course instructor spontaneously asked me to showcase a database that I was not familiar with at all. Despite a few hiccups, I thought the session went well.

When I received my observation letter, I was relieved since my chair highlighted many of my strengths. She also offered fair feedback. I was encouraged to pause more often and call for questions. Because each session runs for an hour and 15 minutes, I struggle with incorporating more time for student engagement. Time goes by so quickly and there’s so much to cover. After I received my chair’s observation letter, I began to ask myself: How can I be more intentional about engaging students? As suggested, I started to weave in more “check-in” questions throughout my sessions. Once I integrated more time for questions, I still felt unsatisfied and I knew there was room for improvement.

Surprisingly, the answer came to me last week during a Zoom breakout session. I am currently enrolled in a course called Equity Minded Pedagogy, which is offered by the CSU Chancellor’s office. During a conversation with a course facilitator, we discussed the impact of co-creation. Together, we thought about ways to collaborate with students in order to create more equitable and inclusive learning environments. I disclosed that as a first-year academic librarian, I rely heavily on my script and I need to incorporate more ways to engage students. Prior to each session, I develop keywords, select the most suitable databases, and test links. This serves as the preliminary work for my live OneSearch demonstration. However, I realized that my seemingly flawless demonstration could mislead students. It’s critical for students to witness the messy process of trial and error that is inherent to the search experience.

As I came to this realization, the course facilitator referred me to Dr. Brene Brown’s TED Talk. This video expanded my perception about the importance of embracing vulnerability. By facing uncertainty and imperfection, I may create a space to authentically connect with students because as Dr. Brown mentions, “for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.” Moving forward, I intend to centralize student engagement by asking for volunteers, brainstorming keywords with the entire class, and relinquishing control. Along the way, students will notice broken links or unsuccessful searches. My hope is that students will value our shared experience, create a sense of belonging, and muster the courage to be imperfect in a vulnerable world.

Playing with Fall Planning

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Jade E. Davis to the ACRLog team. Jade is Director of Educational Technology & Learning Management at the University of Pennsylvania Library. She leads a team committed to strategic technological innovation in library spaces, student engagement, play, teaching, research, and learning support. She was previously the inaugural Director of Digital Project Management and Columbia University Libraries. She has a PhD in Communication studies with a focus in media, technology and culture from UNC Chapel Hill. Her research looks at new modes of knowledge production, how digital information complicates information literacy, the ethics of digital knowledge production, digital media & learning, and empathy culture. Prior to earning her PhD she worked in digital project management and production, a digital humanities lab, and HASTAC.

Happy Fiscal Year 2022-23 to those who celebrate! On my team we celebrate by beginning our fall planning. I started my current role at the beginning of the remote phase of the pandemic. A significant portion of my work, to date, has been attempting to counterbalance burnout (of staff, students, faculty, etc) with new ways of bringing our community into our work, and thinking differently about how we approach our work. For the part of my team that manages our Commons spaces we are focusing on undergraduate engagement and something that has caused some organizational tension: play. There are three reasons for this.

  1. Supporting students, especially undergraduates, supports the health of the University.
  2. Play is a low-stakes, high-reward way to bring people together. 
  3. Play can be cultivated given the Academic Library’s super power*.

*The Academic Library’s Super Power According to Jade

The Library is a central part of the university with access to a plethora of resources, material and flexible spaces. Our engagement with patrons is not bound by time in the way courses are. We can create many of our own assessments without the baggage of grades. We know why our audiences are here: to learn and create knowledge. We can participate in and create co- & extra-curricular activities, and experiential learning through play that facilitate the generation of new ideas and approaches which, in turn, supports the mission of the University.

Why Now?

A pattern we’ve seen when we look at surveys of faculty now is faculty feel they have less time for research and service given their own pandemic+ burnout. Faculty, graduate students, and other lecturers feel they are spending more time providing support to students, not just for course material, but in general as students try to figure out how they fit into the campus community. Generally there is a sense that the remote period or other dynamics (there are so many dynamics right now), have led to student disengagement, which we are seeing reflected in patron counts. This is where play comes into play.

I like to call “play” a total empowerment move because it addresses so many things. It creates a space where people are able to meaningfully engage social dynamics and take risks with controlled consequences. It allows for creativity, exploration, discovery, and joy for participants and staff. In my experience it also reminds people that they play all the time by doing things like playing with ideas and finding solutions to problems. There is a good amount of research on play and learning/pedagogy, and there’s been a recent uptick in looking at play in Higher Education. I’ve put together a talking points table that I use to walk people through how play-empowered libraries, students, and culture & society are better able to navigate our current context and develop resilience and shared purpose based on takeaways from the research. 

Play Empowered

LIBRARIESSTUDENTSCULTURE & SOCIETY
Are inclusive engagement spaces by design. They allow multiple ways to engage. This creates a safe space for exploration and experimentation.Are allowed to be more vulnerable, take risks, and play with ideas including their own positionality and power without fear of failure.Imagine and create different worlds because we know we can be in the world together differently.
Create community within the University. Students are accountable to themselves  and to each other.Practice being part of a paraprofessional community through  low stakes, high reward socialization.Understand that society is a network/global and our choices produce results and consequences.
Cultivate a productive and positive  orientation towards the moment and “failure” by experiencing surprise and delight through experimentation without the risk or anxiety of getting a bad grade.Navigate unexpected obstacles or changes because experimenting with different solutions, materials, and expertise is possible and encouraged.Recognize that current problems are temporary but require intentional engagement through collective action to be remedied.
Empower students to define their own success by making space for multiple destinations and ways of getting to the end.Have agency to imagine and design the future relevance and applicability of the material and skills.Assess their positionality and subjectivity by asking who am I in this? What is my impact? What are my choices? Who or what am I adding to, taking from?
Allow for and validate emotional responses & reactions in learning and coping through taking detours and non-linear pathways.Fully engage in the process of learning by acknowledging feelings of accomplishment, joy, and levity, in addition to stress, overwhelmedness, and other emotions/feelings.Become lifelong learners

The Work Right Now

Like many libraries, we had an exodus of staff during the pandemic. Once it became clear that the burnout being experienced was going to exist in waves, I rethought some of the roles on my team. This fall will be the first semester with Program Coordinators of Technology and Play. It was a title I campaigned for because it attracted people who already understood “play” as a powerful mode of engagement. To date, they’ve carted equipment and material from the Maker Space to the main Library to host some very successful pop-ups. The pop-ups allowed them to meet students, faculty, and staff semi-organically, and see what would be interesting for specific populations while still being fun for the staff. We are planning to expand these across the Library and bring in other units in the fall because they were so successful. And we are just starting to put together our fall plans. They’ve been given my one rule for cultivating play:

Design an experience YOU will be excited to be a part of. 

So, how about you all? Are you planning any play-filled activities or events to reintroduce patrons to your spaces and resources in the fall?

Reflecting on Library Instruction

Palms are sweaty, knees weak but I’m not talking about spaghetti (sorry, Eminem); I’m talking about teaching a credit-bearing library course! This last Fall semester, I not only started my first official librarian position, but I also taught my own credit-bearing library course for the very first time. It’s something I’ve briefly mentioned in previous posts, but it’s actually been a huge part of my experience as a first-year academic librarian.  

Within my library, my position falls under the Teaching and Outreach Department. In addition to outreach services, my department’s responsible for teaching several one-shot library instruction sessions per semester as well as teaching credit-bearing library courses. Most of our one-shots are delivered to first-year undergraduate courses, but we also offer the usual library orientation session and course specific instruction as well. Our credit-bearing classes are often co-requisites of corresponding courses. For example, we teach library research classes that support the following programs: Speech and Audiology, Honors, CHE (a TRiO Program for first-gen students), History, and Criminal Justice. The course I teach, LIB 160: Library Research, supports the Criminal Justice program.  

There are several components that come with teaching a co-requisite course. Myself and my colleague, who has been teaching 160 for some time now, regularly collaborate with the faculty member in charge of the course we’re a co-requisite of, CRJ 380: Research Methods in Criminal Justice. This means we do our best to ensure the work that’s done in 160 is closely aligned with what students are expected to do in 380. The major project students complete in 380 is a research proposal. The final assignment in 160 is a literature review which becomes a part of students’ research proposal for 380. Though we work hard to ensure that 160 provides students with the information literacy skills necessary to be successful in their field, planning for and teaching the course is not without its share of struggles.  

Some of the struggles that came with teaching 160 were fairly standard for teaching a new course. In spite of finishing my MS-LS with a solid understanding of information literacy, learning an entirely new curriculum designed for a subject matter outside of my expertise was my first big challenge. Though my colleague who taught the course before me was open to questions and more than willing to share her materials, I still had several lessons and assignments to familiarize myself with in a relatively short period of time – My position started in July and classes began in August. Thus, a great deal of my orientation process was dedicated to learning the ins and outs of 160. After starting to learn the curriculum, actually being in the classroom itself and teaching the lessons became my next challenge.  

Thanks to my colleagues who introduced me to the idea, reflection has become a part of my teaching process. Last semester, I got into the habit of journaling after every class. I’ll be the first to admit that not every day was my best last semester. To give you an idea, the words and phrases I used to describe my first week of class were: nervous, felt weird, stress, sweaty, talking too fast, and I think they liked my personality. Imposter syndrome loomed large for me. Though I have years of experience teaching high school, the thought of teaching in a university was intimidating for me. I was always a little nervous whenever I taught high school, but this was different. In hindsight, it may have been a combination of different things: new job, new responsibilities, first time teaching a new course. Yet, all of that isn’t to say that there weren’t any successes last semester.  

Seeing my students learn and grow has always been among my greatest successes as an educator. This past semester was no different. At the beginning of 160, my first assignment asked students to illustrate their current research process. At the end of the course, I asked my students to carry out the same assignment but to add any new steps they may have developed in 160. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the majority of my students added several steps to their old processes. Course evaluations were another new but pleasant surprise. 

Needless to say, teaching an in-person course during a pandemic is a challenge. Though my institution has a vaccine and mask requirement, the semester was not without its fair share of quarantines, sicknesses, or students dealing with labor shortages at their jobs. I’ve always felt that, before anything, students are people with lives outside of the classroom – Lives which are often subject to circumstances outside of their control. Because of this, I’ve always strived to be an open and understanding instructor. Even so, it was my surprise to see that several students noted my approach in their course evaluations with comments like, “Professor García truly cares about his students and them succeeding” and “He was very understanding with assignments and helped me when I needed an extension.” Though I often felt like maybe I didn’t know what I was doing, I’m happy to report that I never lost sight of my students’ humanity and my responsibility to them as an instructor.  

Flash forward to the present, my class is entering its third week and I’m happy to report that it’s been great! In spite of the current Omicron surge, students in quarantine, and snow days, I feel so much more comfortable as an instructor this time around. Looking at my reflection journal, the first week was described as comfy, easier, nice balance, and connecting with students well. Though I know improving one’s pedagogy is a continuous process, knowing the semester has gotten off to a great start fills me with great optimism. 

My view of my classroom. 

Pulling Back the Curtain on Library Magic

open book and glowing orb sitting on a table
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Some Context

While we’re making dinner, my husband (also in academia) and I will usually talk about our workday, despite the fact that, at the moment, our offices are separated by only one wall. These conversations usually devolve into what I’ll politely refer to in a public forum as “academia garbage talk,” in which we rage about the great problems of higher education as our onion chopping gets messy and our son tries to drown out our noise with video game YouTube.

Library Magic

Earlier this week our academia garbage talk focused on the idea of smoke and mirrors in academic libraries. As a graduate student in mathematics and then an assistant professor, my husband, we’ll call him C, was always strongly encouraged to use interlibrary loan, reach out to his librarian, request journals and books, and really, ask for anything.

“The way this was sold to me,” C shared, “was that if there was anything I needed, librarians could make it happen. If I needed an article or a book or a journal or a class for my students, librarians could and would make it happen via some kind of library magic.”

C

I remember these days. In the early 2000s our budgets were healthier than they are now and all of our outreach efforts centered on this idea of getting students and faculty to not only use the library but to use us, as librarians. I remember standing in front of a class of undergraduate students and talking about interlibrary loan (ILL) as if it was library magic. It’s a FREE service! The article appears in your email inbox the next day! Did I mention it’s free? Never mind the cost and labor involved in making ILL happen. They didn’t need to concern themselves with that. That’s a topic of conversation for library workers, not students.

Before the days of critical information literacy, I taught students how to search for peer reviewed articles to meet their information needs in library databases using the magic of filters and advanced search. I routinely heard students mutter, “how did you do that?” as they stared in happy amazement at their list of results. I may have talked about peer review as a process but I didn’t dig into the economic realities of scholarly publishing or the money involved in creating library databases and the money made by Google when we used it to search.

I remember, in those days, begging faculty to place book orders to spend down our firm order budget but then having to backtrack when they wanted journals or databases instead. “Didn’t you tell us to ask for what we need?” they’d stare accusingly, as I tried to then explain allocations and subscriptions, my magical facade slipping.

The Death of Magic that Never Was

Problems occur when the magic fades, or rather, the problems become evident to people outside of the library once the illusion disappears. After the recession we found ourselves with shrinking budgets and calls to cut cut cut, a situation made even worse by the current pandemic. Library positions are not being refilled, subscription costs continue to rise, and library workers are exhausted. Faculty and students continue to want to call on our magic but we have to admit it was never really there in the first place.

That article you received via interlibrary loan may have not cost you any money but it certainly did cost the library money and library workers’ time.

Those journals we said we could get you are actually rising in cost far beyond our ability to pay so no, we can’t get that new journal and actually we need to cut a bunch of other ones.

Yeah, so, searching in Google might be free but its actually using your search information in its proprietary algorithm that reinforces racial bias (among other things) and yeah, we know that the library’s discovery layer is not great but we don’t have the personnel to fix it.

All of the services we provide, including access to collections, instruction, and research support are fueled by money and people, not magic.

Value and Values in a Non-Magical World

I don’t want to blame libraries and librarians for trading in magic. We were trying to make libraries relevant and prove our value and the rhetoric we used was meant to show helpful we could be in making academic life easier. We wanted to demonstrate our worth and increase our gate/use/reference/instruction/click counts. I won’t get into the doing-more-with-less discussion because there are much smarter folks who have covered resilience and neoliberalism in much more nuanced ways than I can do here. However I do think it’s worth continuing a conversation about how we talk about library work, how libraries work, and how information is produced, accessed, commodified, and shared.

My current place of work is part of the Texas Library Coalition for United Action (TLCUA) which aims to “think creatively about access to faculty publications and the sustainability of journal subscriptions,” and includes contract negotiations with Elsevier. Part of this work involves a coordinated campaign to educate our faculty about the costs associated with academic publishing and library collections. It’s pulling the curtain back on budget conversations that were previously kept in house, and is something that the University of California system has done quite well over the last few years. Journals and databases don’t magically appear out of nowhere. They cost money, and are costing us more and more money each year.

In parallel to these faculty education efforts, we should also be teaching students about information systems and how information works, a topic Barbara Fister advocates for in her new PIL Provocation Essay. We used to hide much of the inner workings of search algorithms, databases, data collection, metadata, subject headings, and the costs of academic scholarship from our students because that was librarian stuff that students didn’t really care about. They just needed to know how to get their books and articles to complete their assignments and access the information they needed. They didn’t need to know that information got there in the first place.

But we have classrooms of students now who are concerned about the legitimacy of information shared online, struggling to spot bias in writing, and wondering where all the data collected about them by websites and learning analytics systems is going. Some of the most engaging conversations I’ve had about the peer review system, academic publishing, news, and social media have been with undergraduate students. We can’t assume that students don’t want to learn about how information and its systems work. More importantly, we can’t have conversations about information literacy without talking about the sociological, cultural, and economic context of the information they seek.

Library magic may have felt easy and appeared wondrous, but in the end what we need is less magic and more dissection. We need to get into complex explanations and uncomfortable conversations and we need to assume that our students and faculty can handle it. If we’re in the business of education then we need to stop the smoke and mirrors and start (or continue!) to critically inspect and explain the information systems around academia as well as those outside of our context. Academia overlaps with the commercial world, political landscape, and cultural contexts, and we need to have a narrative about library work that doesn’t shy away from those realities.