How To Be the Youngest Person in the Room

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Catie Carlson, Director of Pfeiffer Library at Tiffin University.

If you were a traditional student who went straight to library school and then found themselves working in an academic library shortly later, you probably experienced it. It being the confident, new librarian who wants to help students succeed only to be confused for a student yourself. At first it can be flattering, but it can quickly become frustrating when you want to have authority and respect in a room. For good examples of why and how that can happen (as well as for a few unfortunate trolls), I recommend reading the comments and replies to Jenny Howell’s tweet.

Dr. Howell is describing the biases and discrimination that exist for young women in academia. She is also touching on imposter syndrome, which is no stranger to ACRLog posts. We all feel not-smart-enough, not-good-enough, not-insert-adjective-here-enough to belong in librarianship and academia at some point. Typically this is just described as a state of mind, such as Veronica describing her internal monologue or Zoe confessing her insecurities fueling her imposter syndrome. However, age and gender can create a physical embodiment of those feelings. These can manifest in ways such as Dr. Howell’s description, being confused as a student, or even being called a “baby” within the profession.

I am no stranger to feeling imposter syndrome. As a young librarian, working with senior faculty could be intimidating with their vast experience in comparison to my newness. I would get nervous if I couldn’t come up with a quick answer for a student fearing they’d think I was useless. These are natural scenarios when you are a “baby” in a profession. With personal relationships eventually forming with these people, it became less intimidating to work with the faculty. As I became more familiar with student needs at my institution, I was taken less off-guard by surprise questions. Slowly, though I was still a “baby librarian,” imposter syndrome started to wane, which is good. Being a “baby librarian” is a problematic way to describe yourself because you’ve worked hard to be in this profession, but it’s even more troublesome when you feel you can accept the term regardless of its connotations. However, imposter syndrome would still appear at times: on an insecure day, when I made a mistake, or in a new interaction with someone.

After just a few years at a small institution, a retirement left the director role as an option. I had only been a librarian for a few years, but I had shown my value to the institution over that time. More than one person encouraged me to apply to the job, but I was on the fence. While I welcome a challenging opportunity to enable self-growth, this seemed like a stretch. Imposter syndrome would start all over with such a promotion. Despite these doubts, I applied, I interviewed, and I accepted a directorship before the age of 30 years old.

While I knew my insecurities in accepting a leadership position going into the role, there were some things I did not expect. Having never been in the position, I had no idea what it is like to be a young female in a leadership meeting, and by that, I mean being the only young female in a leadership meeting. When I sit at a table with our three school deans and Provost, I am one of two females in the room and I am the only millennial. I think it is safe to say there isn’t even a Gen X in the room. When I attend library director meetings across our state, the scenario does not change much. Essentially, I went from being a “baby librarian” to a “baby leader” and so the problematic way of viewing of oneself continues.

It can be scary and lonely to not see a peer in the room, especially when the expectation is for you to be a leader in that room. With just a few years now under my belt, I won’t pretend to be an expert, but I hate leaving problems unresolved. Therefore, here are some things I have found helpful to shed the imposter syndrome again:

Be Confident
Years of experience are important, but they are not everything. Always remember that you got this far for a reason. I have to tell myself every day: You weren’t given a position; you earned it. I tell myself twice, three times or four when I have big meetings. It helps even if just a little.

Play to Your Strengths
I love utilizing technology in my work and life. I once sat in a meeting where the leaders talked about an upcoming survey for us. I offered to just do it then while in discussion because (as always) I had a laptop and it would take 5 minutes to create, distribute, and move on. While it prompted millennial jokes from my colleagues, one approached me after the meeting, apologized for the jokes, thanked me for my initiative, and complimented my technology skills. Moral of the story: People will notice when you know what you’re doing.

Be Proactive
Volunteer for things. It’s how they will eventually notice your great work just like in my survey creation. No one asked me to do it, but I knew I could do it quickly and it would ease the load for others. People like this, but academics must always be cautious about burn out.

Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.
You’re the youngest one in the room and you will be judged. It’s unfair, but I still think it’s the truth. If you screw up, they will notice more than if you succeed. Research, prepare, and practice for everything – then do it again and again. If you succeed enough, maybe you can continue to be that youngest-in-the-room scenario.

Build the Relationships
Senior leaders can help, and those that are willing will mentor you. Without some great mentors in professional organizations, I would not know half of what I know now. Your mentors can help you prepare as suggested in number 4. Their years of experience do come with knowledge, and we’re fortunate enough to be in a profession that values knowledge sharing. Key example, look at the blog you’re reading. Also, don’t forget that the more you work with your colleagues, the more you get to know them, and that personal relationships will again make it less scary to be there.

Be True to Yourself
When I became a leader, it felt like I had to do a lot of image related things to make it true and to be respected, especially at a young age. I’ve realized that trying to fulfill that preconceived notion won’t make it so. Therefore, I won’t be the post that tells you to network if that’s not your thing. People notice you for you and will also notice insincerity and discomfort. To be successful, you have to be yourself.

Being a good leader doesn’t mean you have to have the years of experience (though they don’t usually hurt). Not a day goes by for me without thinking about the day’s growth opportunities and how each day builds on the last day. However, being new to a field, to a position, or to life doesn’t make your ideas and hard work any less valuable. We need fresh ideas, eyes, and experiences to continue to grow and adapt our profession so don’t let anyone refer to you as a baby. (Question: Have any men new to the profession been referred to in this way? I’d love to hear from you!)

At the very least, remember that you’re only young once. You get older every day of the year. One day, you won’t be the youngest in room any more. That may be a sad day; I certainly am no longer looking forward to it. When that day comes, remember where you started and be the always-needed-mentor.

Saying Good-Bye in Slow-Motion: Keeping a Student-Centered Focus Amidst Great Change

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jennifer Joe, Owensboro Campus Librarian at Western Kentucky University.

I will be leaving my students at the end of this semester. That’s the first time I’ve written that out (though by the time this is published, everyone will know.) I will be moving on to a new position, at a new university, in a new state. It will be a good move for me, personally and professionally, but it was not my choice.

I would have happily stayed at my current position, but budget cuts forced the elimination of not only my position, but many others at the university. I was lucky. I had a year to look for a new position, and I didn’t need the whole year. Others were not so lucky. Still others have left my campus (a small, regional campus which is part of the larger university system) of their own accord. Some of the best people we have ever had are gone.

For my part, at the time of this writing, I have almost exactly three months left in which I will be working. (I’ll start my new position in January.) How do I continue to serve my students in this climate? It has already required an immense amount of flexibility on my part. I’ve had to forge new relationships with new hires (some of whom will only be temporary.) Treating them as permanent employees, at least for now, is the only way to go forward. I’ve also expanded what it means to me to be a librarian. I’ve unleashed my research skills on career searches for soon to be graduates and used my critical thinking and analysis to troubleshoot IT problems for faculty. I even helped someone retrieve the contents from the hard drive of their dead laptop yesterday. (It was my student worker, and I repeated 1,000 times that I WAS NOT LIABLE if things went pear-shaped. Everything worked out and we retrieved the family photos he thought were lost.)

Going forward, I will need to have that same flexibility.

It isn’t a new or unique situation. I know for a fact I’m not the only one doing this – there is at the very least another librarian at a campus about 90 miles from mine doing the exact same thing for the exact same university and there are librarians across the country doing the same thing for other reasons: a colleague’s extended illness, a retirement or sudden death, staff who have quit unexpectedly or couldn’t be replaced on schedule. I’ve been in a few of those situations, too.

The question then becomes: how do I do this from a mental and emotional standpoint? For that, I rely on the student-centered approach I’ve always taken to librarianship. My students may not always feel like they need me, but I know their lives will be better when they have the critical thinking and research skills that make up information literacy, and their lives will also be better when they know how to find (and land!) appropriate jobs that reflect their education and when their professors can use technology to teach their classes.

What does that mean for my workload? That means continuing to organize presentations, displays, contests, and anything else that will continue engaging my students. There are some I do every year, and I am grateful to my past self for keeping good records of those events so that I can replicate them even as I am making arrangements to sign contracts, pack my house, and eventually move away. It also means trying to keep my tenuous hold on the relationships I have built with faculty who allow me to come into their classroom and use some of their precious time to teach their students about information literacy, while being unable to tell them with certainty what will happen to the library when I am gone.

I hope my students will remember me when I move on to my new position, because I will remember them. They are what has motivated me these last few months, knowing that my job was coming to an end. I also hope that in the midst of budget cuts, staff turnover, never ending assessment, repeated requests for justification, and all the other things that can make being a librarian unpleasant, my fellow librarians will also look to their students for motivation and inspiration.

Have you faced morale problems in your library recently? Were they things in your control or out of it? How did you cope with them? Share your experiences in the comments – it’s always nice to know you’re not alone!

Were You Taught to Teach?

Earlier this year on a search committee, I had an embarrassing realization: I couldn’t answer one of my own interview questions. “What is your teaching philosophy?”

Until now, I haven’t had to face this question head-on. I’ve always felt like I learned how to teach by sneaking in the back door: on-the-job trial and error. Thinking of the teachers I know, who went through a curriculum of education theory and supervised student teaching, I felt inadequately prepared. Realizing I couldn’t articulate my teaching philosophy only reinforced my sense that I wasn’t a “real” teacher.

That question sparked a summer of contemplation, reading, and informal interviews with the teachers in my life. What is my teaching philosophy? Can I put it into words, and how does it actually relate to my day-to-day practice?

If, like me, you don’t feel like library school prepared you for the reality of the classroom, you’re not alone. Merinda Kaye Hensley, who evaluated 10 syllabi of LIS courses that cover library instruction in this study, concluded: “…there is a severe mismatch between the ways our library schools prepare graduate students for the classroom and that librarians don’t receive much, if any, on-the-ground training for learning how to teach.”

Maybe you’re thinking that the librarian’s professional identity is quite distinct from that of the professor, and that feeling like a “real teacher” should not be the priority of our LIS programs. But so much of our work involves teaching, even if you don’t stand up in front of a class on a regular basis – consultations at the reference desk, for example. This piece from College and Research Libraries introduced me to the term “teacher identity,” which has transformed the way I see my work. In the article, Scott Walter says: “Teaching skills are clearly recognized as important to the professional work of academic librarians, but to what degree do academic librarians think of themselves as teachers when they consider their place on campus, and to what degree is “teacher identity” a recognized aspect of the broader professional identity of academic literature?”

At schools where librarians do not have faculty status, the conversation is further complicated. But for me, embracing a “teacher identity” has changed how I see my presence in the classroom. I stop thinking of myself as a guest speaker, here for the one-shot and never to be heard from again. If I am a teacher, I am building relationships with students. This changes my expectations, and affects the very language I use. For example I find myself closing an instruction session with “It’s nice to meet you,” instead of “Thank you for having me” or similar.

If you develop a strong teacher identity, new avenues of inspiration online and support on campus become available to you. In search of language to form my teaching philosophy, I began looking beyond library literature and traditional information literacy learning activities, reading more about pedagogy than had ever been assigned in my LIS program. I found a multitude of practical, approachable resources for teachers developing their teaching philosophy. This resource from the University of Minnesota had particularly helpful prompts to get me started.

If you’re not a teaching librarian, or you want to take baby steps toward writing your teaching philosophy, I recommend exploring the elevator speech. I’d first learned of elevator speeches from ALA’s advocacy resources, during a time when I was advocating for my department to be fully staffed. An elevator speech is a more all-purpose message to the public or to your larger institution, and can be on any topic. Writing brief statements to sum up my vision for the Reference department helped me learn to put my daily practice into more abstract, inspiring terms. This has been a helpful exercise as I develop a teaching philosophy. Even if you only break it out to answer an acquaintance’s smug “Aren’t libraries obsolete?” with something thoughtful and pithy, an elevator speech is a nice thing to have in your pocket.

Taking the time to identify the values I want to support – curiosity, persistence, failure as a part of learning – has influenced the way I design class activities and how I interact with students. Having my teaching philosophy fresh in my mind as I walk into the classroom has helped me be more a more thoughtful teacher.

If you’re not like me, and pedagogical training was built into your library degree, how have you experienced the transition from theory to practice on the job? In your opinion, what are the essential readings in pedagogy or teaching philosophy? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Featured image by Wokandapix via Pixabay.

Academic Library Job Search Roundup

The fall semester is in full swing at most U.S. colleges and universities. While many folks finish up their graduate library degree in the spring, others finish at the end of the summer or after fall. And as I was scrolling through Twitter last week I was reminded that the academic library job search can happen anytime during the year, and is not necessarily tied to the semester schedule:

Seeing this tweet — and the super useful library interview questions database that Gina links to — made me think about all of the job searching posts we’ve written here at ACRLog over the years. Here are a few I’d like to highlight that might be of use to recent LIS graduates looking for positions in academic libraries:

Should’ve, Would’ve, Could’ve: The Library Job Hunt: Last year recent ACRLog alumna Quetzalli Barrientos wrote about her experiences both as a job searcher and as a member of search committees.

First Generation College Students and the Job Search with an MLIS: During our second Hack Library School/ACRLog cross-blogging collaboration last year, HLS blogger Chloe Waryan wrote about looking for academic library jobs from a first generation college graduate perspective.

Academic Interviews from Both Sides: This post, co-written by Brenna Murphy and me during our first Hack Library School/ACRLog cross-blogging collaboration, explores job interviews from the perspective of an interviewee (Brenna) and an interviewer (me). While I’d add a few things to this if I could rewrite it — for example, we now send our interview questions to all candidates before the interview — I think it still holds up fairly well.

For interviewees, I’d also recommend browsing Hack Library School’s entire archive of job searching posts. And for interviewers, Angela Pashia’s fantastic piece Seeking a Diverse Candidate Pool should be required reading (h/t to Angela for the suggestion to send interview questions in advance).

What other resources have you found helpful in an academic library job search? Let us know in the comments!

Vocational Awe and Professional Identity

A few days ago, In the Library with the Lead Pipe published an article by Fobazi Ettarh titled Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves. Ettarh uses the term “vocational awe” to “refer to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” Her article masterfully traces the root of this vocational awe, from the intertwining history of faith and librarianship to our current state, where librarians are expected to literally save lives. Ettarh argues that vocational awe leads to some of the structural problems in our profession, like lack of diversity, undercompensation, and burnout.

I will admit that I initially felt some defensiveness when I started reading this article. One of the reasons I became a librarian is because I wanted to care about and be engaged with the mission of my work, and I do deeply believe in the values that libraries try to uphold. When I got past that initial reaction, I realized how Ettarh’s research allows us to talk about our profession more honestly. As the author clearly states, the article doesn’t ask librarians not to take pride in their work. Nor is it an indictment of our core values (although it does, rightly, point out they are inequitably distributed across society).  Rather, it encourages us to challenge the idea that our profession is beyond critique, and therefore opens up space for us to better it.

Although this is not its primary intent, I wonder whether this research direction will help us resolve some of our own tortured professional identity issues. I am among those who became a librarian partly out of passion and partly out of convenience. I didn’t feel called to the profession. Instead, I made a conscious decision based on my interests and the sort of life I wanted for myself. I knew I wanted to be in a job where I would be helping people, with the opportunity for intellectual growth, and that I wanted to have a stable job with a balance between work and my other personal interests. Librarianship seemed like a very natural fit. But the vocational awe in librarianship means that you’re surrounded by the idea that being a good librarian means being driven solely by passion. Heidi Johnson previously wrote about the isolating feeling of not being a “born librarian” here at ACRLog, and I remember this post resonating deeply with me when I first started to become self-conscious that my professional identity was built less on my sacred calling to it than some of my peers. I think that unpacking the vocational awe that makes us feel this way might help to dispel some of the professional identity issues that so many librarians, and particularly new ones, seem to have.

As I was thinking about this article, I also realized that my own version of vocational awe usually manifests when I’m talking to non-librarians. Telling people I’m a librarian produces surprisingly revealing responses. Some people respond a well-meaning, but misinformed, “how fun! I wish I could read books all day, while others respond with some variation of “but aren’t libraries dying?” I suspect that this is partially a result of the slew of articles that are published every year on the decline of libraries and the death of librarianship. After responses like this, I feel compelled to defend librarianship in the strongest terms. I talk about information literacy, intellectual freedom, public spaces, privacy, access to information, democracy, you name it. I turn into a library evangelist. None of my own hesitations, challenges, or frustrations find their way into these conversations. Several people have already written about the exhaustion of constantly defending and explaining our profession. But this article made me wonder if there is some connection between how often we find ourselves needing to defend what we do — to friends, to faculty, to funding agencies, to the public — and tendency to resist the idea that there is a lot of internal work we need to do to truly uphold the values we claim. Ettarh’s article made me think about how to balance these two ideas: believing in and advocating for my profession, while working to make it better for the people in it.

What does that look like? I’m not entirely sure yet. But I think it entails being more honest. It means advocating for our value, but not pretending that we can do everything. And it means contributing to a culture that doesn’t valorize martyrdom. For me, that means saying no if I don’t have the bandwidth for a project. It means using my all my vacation time, and stopping using busyness as a measure of worth. There is much more to the article than I can unpack here, and I hope that everyone will go read it. I’m looking forward to hearing other people’s thoughts on how vocational awe impacts our profession, and how we might work to stop using it, as Ettarh puts it, as the only way to be a librarian.