Embracing Vulnerability as a Perpetual Learner: Starting on the Tenure-Track as a Mid-Career Librarian

Editor’s note: This guest post has been authored by Nimisha Bhat. Nimisha (she/her) is a subject librarian for social sciences at the University of Cincinnati, and is passionate about helping students make connections between ideas and information.

I’m always telling prospective library school students that the best part of my job is learning something new everyday – I may not be a subject expert, but every time I have a research consultation with a student, they teach me something new while I determine the best way to connect them with the information they need. 

This is also something I have been trying to remind myself of everyday since I started a new tenure-track library position earlier this year. As a mid-career librarian ten years into academic librarianship, this is my first time navigating and developing a completely new identity as a faculty member. 

As a subject librarian, I’m used to leveraging new facets of information retrieval every time I pick up a new liaison area. I dedicate a large amount of my time to reading up on particular subjects before I do collection development. I’ve experienced my fair share of feeling like a fraud as I stand at the front of classrooms and speak to students about research in subjects in which I have no educational background. I’ve been teaching without any training in instruction or pedagogy for at least eight years. But like many librarians, what I lack in theoretical learning I’ve made up for in experiential learning as a practitioner. I’ve done my best to do deep reflection work in relation to my practice and engage in scholarship and conferences to learn from my amazing peers and colleagues doing this work in their own areas. And slowly over the years, I’ve been able to navigate my job in a way that satisfies me while also leaving room for curiosity and growth.

So here I am once again, adding another new facet to my work with which I lack experience – tenure-track faculty status. A brand new set of criteria, rules, and recommendations to measure myself up against. It’s an unmooring feeling, being considered a “mid-career” librarian while also feeling brand new at the same time. And since many of the reflections and guidance out there about starting the tenure clock and developing a research agenda are written by and for a largely early career audience, it sometimes feels like I’m “behind.” I feel like I’ve lived several lifetimes across all of my past jobs since graduating from library school over a decade ago – shouldn’t these feelings of doubt and vulnerability be behind me by now?

I had always been in positions before where research was not required, expected, or supported, but I loved to dabble in it anyway. Which is why I became a contributing and then lead editor for The Librarian Parlor, a blog where students and practitioners share their experiences, knowledge, advice, setbacks, and successes related to LIS research in an effort to demystify the process for our community. LibParlor’s mission was so important to me even at a time when I wasn’t pursuing research for reappointment, promotion, or tenure purposes. Now it feels serendipitous to be reading our past posts as an “official” researcher trying to develop my own research agenda and librarian-researcher identity. I find myself pulled in so many different directions, to research all of the different topics related to the profession that I find fascinating and important. Now that I have the institutional support to pursue the research I want to work on, where should I even begin? Will I ever feel like an expert in anything?

Thankfully, I have mentors and colleagues to learn from and with at my new institution. There is a genuine investment in us as junior faculty, and everyone is always willing to share what knowledge they have. I’ve created a cohort with my fellow junior faculty so that we may navigate the reappointment, promotion, and tenure process together, share and document answers to our questions and institutional resources, and serve as accountability partners to one another. We’ve expressed a desire to create documentation and guidance on all of this as we go, so that everyone coming up after us has the answers that we didn’t. I also find that as a person of color, I’m often unsure of how I’m being measured against my white peers. I’m hyper-aware that there are things I could be judged for differently, and so having clear and concise directions about how I’m expected to conduct my work as a faculty member is important to me. I’d especially like to be able to provide that kind of direction to fellow librarians of color in an effort to remove barriers to and increase retention in our profession, which is also something I’d like to make a part of my own research agenda.

So here I am again, learning something new and reminding myself that I love that aspect of my job. I am notorious for quitting things that I’m not automatically good at the first time I try it, which is why I have a tub of craft supplies buried in a closet related to various hobbies I’ve picked up and put down over the years. But now I’m trying to be more open, more vulnerable, more willing to ask questions in order to improve my craft and help others do the same. And instead of feeling like I’m behind, I’m going to embrace the part of me that loves learning. 

Are you a seasoned librarian navigating tenure for the first time? I’d love to hear how you’re feeling!

When Librarianship Becomes a Dead End Job

This post comes from a guest poster, Alejandro Marquez. Alejandro is a Collection Development Librarian at the Auraria Library which serves the University of Colorado Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and the Community College of Denver.

The Bookish Blues: When Librarianship Becomes a Dead End Job

Whenever I talk about the topic of dead end jobs, people become defensive. They say, “that isn’t my experience” or “that doesn’t describe my workplace.” I have come to understand that everyone’s work experience is different. We each have our own individual hopes, goals, dreams, and aspirations. There are organizations where one person can flourish while others languish. Our society is also shifting in good and bad ways which has created funding gaps, changing job duties, and intense patron/employee interactions. My goal isn’t to shame or blame. It is to start a dialogue about how libraries and management can create inclusive environments where everyone can learn and earn.

A definition of a dead end job is one in which there is little opportunity for promotion or advancement, a lack of pay increases, repetitive tasks, low autonomy, and a negative work culture. A good salary and a fancy job title do create a rewarding career however it has to be balanced with a positive and creative work culture. Most people spend more time at work than they do with their own families. Dynamic and healthy workplaces have high engagement, enhanced creativity, low absenteeism, and improved retention.

I think that the COVID-19 pandemic intensified a lot of the issues that individuals were dealing with. The great resignation and quiet quitting trends speak to people who are sick and tired of soul-crushing, dead-end jobs. These trends have new names but they fall into the category of employee engagement and satisfaction. While I acknowledge that with some creativity and initiative, library workers can continue to grow and improve regardless of the work environment. These efforts take time, money, and energy to implement properly which are in short supply nowadays.

Many people think of their library career as terminal meaning that they are happy to be a library worker and don’t want to advance to the next step due to lack of interest, high stress, and wanting to maintain a personal connection with users. A lot of individuals didn’t want to go into management which is often the next step on the career ladder. Even if they did want to go, there is no guarantee that an individual’s boss will leave or that they’ll want or get their job.

Work culture celebrates a constant “busyness” as a marker of social and professional success. In libraries, it often feels as if we are being called to do more with less. Often, people take on additional work responsibilities for no additional pay. They feel that it is an opportunity for them to pick up extra skills in addition to their regular job duties. The extra work and effort that was once celebrated now becomes expected.

Salary

For librarians, it is not that library work is low pay, it is that individuals must have so many degrees and education that it isn’t comparable to what others are making with similar education levels. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for librarians was $29.81 /hr ($62,280 /yr) in May 2020. However, it is important to note that salaries vary depending on the type of library and the location.

Paraprofessional staff (executive assistants, marketing, HR, accountants, library associates, IT, security) are often close to minimum wage in some workplaces. They earn on average $22/hr ($46,000 /yr) according to Library Journal’s 2022 Library Job Satisfaction Survey. In Denver where I live, the minimum wage is $17.29 /hr ($35,963 /yr). The rising costs of rent and inflation across the nation make it difficult for some individuals to live in their local community.

Contingent workers are a third category of worker that we rarely talk about. These workers are often part time, temporary, on-call, seasonal, and contract employees. These positions are the definition of dead end jobs yet libraries count on this labor as a means of filling in gaps in the staffing pattern.

Solutions

Managers need to make discussions of career advancement more clear and present. Often, these conversations are met with silence. They are “undiscussable” because managers feel powerless to offer opportunities due to lack of funding or resources. Managers don’t have the time to train nor the budget to have people work outside of their job descriptions. One reason is that employees may not feel comfortable discussing their career goals with their managers or colleagues because they fear that it may be perceived as being too ambitious or that it may jeopardize their current position. Another reason is that some organizations may not have a clear career path or promotion process in place, which can make it difficult for employees to know what steps they need to take to advance their careers.

As a profession, we have to make career tracks and ladders explicit. This allows individuals who want to move ahead in their career a chance to get a raise or expand their responsibilities. Bosses can develop a career development plan so individuals can track their progress and hit milestones. This helps workers picture the roles and responsibilities that they can advance to and where they fit in the overall structure of the organization. Without a career ladder, people don’t get raises and it makes the pay stagnant.

Organizations need to be mindful of non-promotable tasks such as planning birthday parties, taking on work of people on vacation, organizing happy hours, and taking out the trash. These duties aren’t core to a person’s job description, are often done behind the scenes, and rarely use their specialized skills. Non-promotable tasks assist the organization but don’t help advance an individual’s career.

There needs to be consistent professional mentoring and cross training. Managers can identify training needs and set clear goals. Individuals can take on short term projects and gain technical skills. Leaders can evaluate strengths, skills, knowledge, and experience of workers. A mentor can ask what goals individuals want to achieve and where workers see themselves over the next couple of years. Supervisors can encourage job shadowing so individuals can cross train.

Conclusion

I think the problem of dead end jobs is a hopeful situation because when individuals are able to articulate the problem, there is an opportunity to work towards solutions. If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it is that we are not going back to the way things were before and it is a time for people to reevaluate their working situations. The solutions that I offered are just starting points. A strong game plan will allow organizations to be successful. Leaders who care and support their workforce improve trust, commitment, accountability, and results. A supportive work environment encourages long term success.

Library workers are part of an interconnected ecosystem. Just like the natural world, if we neglect one area, other areas suffer. There is an urgent need to figure out what organizations and the profession at large can do to make things sustainable. The social, political, technological, and economic impacts have changed our profession and will intensify in the coming decade. Positive changes will allow organizations to attract employees, boost employee engagement, give a sense of purpose, increase diversity, and reduce turnover.

New Year, New Job

With the fall semester well underway, we’re all adjusting to more classes and services on the 25 campuses of my university than last year. There are more students on our campuses which is lovely, though there are still lots of hybrid and online classes and services, too. And this year has also featured a different kind of adjusting for me: this past summer I started a new position as director of the library at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

I’m enjoying my new job which is an interesting mix of similarities and differences from my last position. I’ve worked in the CUNY system for 15 years, 8 of those as a director, and spent most of that time at a comprehensive college that offers associate and baccalaureate degrees. I’ve also been on the faculty in two programs at the Graduate Center for a while now (and have blogged before about that teaching), so I came into my new role having some familiarity with the GC already. I’m most grateful to know about some of the university’s bureaucratic processes, and since our libraries are consortial and highly collaborative I have that insight and familiarity, too.

But as with any new job, there are lots of differences and lots for me to learn. The GC is an interesting place — while some of our faculty are solely at the GC, many teach undergraduates at the colleges across the system as well as masters and doctoral students at the GC. And our graduate students are also both here and there — they take courses and do research at the GC, and (many) teach courses at CUNY colleges. And while our library services and resources support the GC community in their academic work, as at all academic libraries, it’s been interesting to think about the local and distributed ways that we do and might work with students and faculty and students who are faculty.

Though I miss my colleagues at my prior institution, it’s been lovely to get to know my new colleagues and to work with such a terrific team. We’ve started a strategic planning process in the library, and our relatively-new administration is also beginning the strategic planning process at the GC this semester. I’m really looking forward to thinking with my library faculty and staff colleagues about our vision and mission, and how we can advance our broad goal of equitable access as we work with our patrons in their different roles.

Learning to Fly: Life as an Early-Career Academic Librarian

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Justin Fuhr to the ACRLog team. Justin is a Science librarian at the University of Manitoba. His professional interests include reflective practice, librarian philosophies, organizational culture and community, and support for early-career librarians such as mentorship. His current research assesses researcher profile library workshops and profile usage at his institution, as well as a project on relational practice in Canadian academic librarianship.

Life’s hard as an early-career academic librarian working on contract, not knowing if your contract will be renewed or where you will be working three years, a year, or even six months from now. It’s tough job searching; there’s so many qualified candidates, not enough positions, and it can be hard to make yourself stand out with experience, education, certification, volunteer work, interviews, public presentations, and on and on.  

I was relatively fortunate. I’ve been working at the library at the University of Manitoba for over seven years, starting out as a library technician, then working as a term librarian at the beginning of 2020. After several interviews for different positions, I got a continuing position in May of this year. Working at the same institution for so long helped to know our library system, run through my public presentation with my work buddies, and know of upcoming vacancies. Our library also started giving candidates the interview questions in advance. This improves accessibility and helps to prepare for the interview in advance.  

For all my worries and whinging — and trust me, my coworkers can attest to that — I’m now working as a science librarian. I moved from supporting Catholic studies, religion, and peace and conflict studies to mathematics, physics, and astronomy. Suddenly I find myself moving from B (Philosophy. Psychology. Religion.) to Q (Science) — that’s fifteen whole letters away! And what do you mean mathematics profs like old books? Oh wait, that didn’t change from the humanities.  

I now have the task of learning my new subject areas, getting to know the faculty and students, my coworkers, how to manage and develop the collections, learning how best to instruct sciences students, new databases like MathSciNet, signing up for new mailing lists like PAMNet (who endearingly refer to themselves as a PAMily), and where the closest and cheapest coffee shop is on campus.  

This is the fun stuff. It’s intimidating to learn a ‘new’ position, but it’s rewarding in so many ways. I used a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song for the title of this post — we’re all learning to fly in some ways, maybe early-careers librarians the most — but I could have just as easily used another Tom Petty song: “You Got Lucky.” 

Earlier this year I was speaking about librarianship as a career to undergraduate English literature students at the institution where I got my B.A. I was amazed at the interest they showed. I mean, I was talking about a research project I’m doing on researcher profiles, and at one point I stopped, apologized, and said this must be excruciatingly boring for them to listen to. “No,” my previous English professor said. “This is really fascinating.” I got lucky.  

One piece of advice I can offer to librarians currently job searching is to rely on your colleagues, librarians at other libraries, friends, family — whoever! — for support and guidance. I found it especially invaluable to hear from other librarians of their experience job searching, even if it had been many years since they’d gone through it. We work in a helping profession and one thing I’ve found is librarians want to help other librarians. Rely on your community, look to others for support and provide support to others when they need it. We are lucky.  

If you’re looking for a job, considering a career change, or finding early-career librarianship challenging, please keep going, you can do it. You got this. It may take time. It will take time. It will be worth it. You’ll get lucky.  

If any academic libraries are considering giving interview questions ahead of time – please do! It helps the candidates immensely. I also encourage any librarians that know of early-career colleagues currently job searching to reach out, be available, offer encouragement and to answer any questions they may have. If you can think of any other advice to job searchers or those in new positions, please leave a comment.  

For all that academic librarianship deals with and is going through, you can help guide the profession positively and I feel it’s a great profession to be in. I’m teaching students, involved with library associations, working with my colleagues on different committees, completing research with fun and collaborative coworkers, and talking all things academic librarianship with whoever will listen; sometimes I think I’ve found my dream job. I got lucky. Now it’s time to get to work. 

Hiring During and Beyond the Pandemic

We’re welcoming a new colleague to our library this semester. I’ve read some great pieces about transitioning to a new position this very unusual year, including from fellow ACRLogger Hailley Fargo. And I think that much of what I’ve read and what we’ve done at my place of work in the pre-pandemic years still holds true. But amidst the onboarding and orientation I’m finding myself reflecting on how the hiring process has changed (and where it didn’t change) during this second year of the pandemic.

Like many institutions, hiring across the university was mostly frozen last academic year. I was so grateful when the freeze was lifted and we were able to list our position soon after the Spring semester ended. As is common in academic library job searches and as has been our practice in the past, once our position had been posted and we’d had our interview pool approved, we began with first round interviews of about 30 minute in length. In prior years we’d held these interviews on the phone, and more recently on Skype; of course now that we’re all on Zoom all the time that’s what we used for this round. For this round (and subsequent Zoom interviews) the biggest difference was all of us on the search committee zooming in from our homes or offices, rather than sitting together in a group in the Library’s projection room as we’d done in the past.

The second round interviews with the smaller pool of candidates, on the other hand, were very different from our prepandemic practice. These interviews used to include a presentation and a longer interview with the search committee, both on campus and in the Library. This time around we were again on Zoom, beginning with the presentation and continuing to the interview with the search committee. While we did have a library visit eventually, because of pandemic restrictions and what at that time was still limited access to our campus, we pushed that visit to the very end of the process and invited only our finalist candidate for a visit. For this search our finalist was local so we didn’t need to discuss relocation, though if we’d had a finalist from out of town we would certainly have arranged a visit as well.

While the search process was definitely different than for prior searches, there were also some definite advantages to nearly-completely online hiring. We invite all library faculty and staff to the semifinalist candidate presentations, and value this as an opportunity for staff that the librarian in this position supervises to meet the candidates. With these presentations online while our library wasn’t yet open to patrons, it was easier for all faculty and staff to attend. And with most personnel still working remotely it was also slightly easier to schedule some interviews, though the timing of the search over the summer months meant we were dodging vacation time for the search committee (which is the same with summer searches we’ve run prepandemic).

And I was pleased and relieved to see that many of the changes we’d put in place to make our Library’s recruitment and hiring practices more equitable served us well during the almost-all-remote search process, too. We continue to list librarian positions at both Assistant Professor and Instructor rank; the latter requires the successful hire to earn a second graduate degree within 5 years, which they can do at our university (with tuition remission). We also send the detailed schedule and interview questions to candidates in advance, and share information about the faculty union and salary schedules as well. I continue to be grateful for Angela Pashia’s terrific blog post with suggestions (and further reading) on ensuring a diverse pool of candidates for librarian jobs, which has been so useful for my colleagues and I as we’ve rethought our processes over the years.

It has been truly delightful to welcome our new colleague. If you’ve taken a new job during the pandemic, or been on a search committee during this time, we’d love to hear about your experience — drop us a line in the comments below.