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.

The impossibility of tying up loose ends

This week, I’m writing this blog post from a new location and from a new job. Since April, things have been hectic and frantic and frankly, (not to be dramatic but) life-changing. I wrapped up a job I had been in for four years, moved eight hours to a new city, and started a new job. I survived the first week and am excited about what week two will bring. 

As I was packing up and getting ready to leave, I was struck by all the things I could do and felt like I should do in preparation for my exit. This pressure also came from the legacy of those who had left my institution in prior years; I thought of the laments and frustrations and eye rolls colleagues (including myself) had when someone left pieces without instructions. I wanted so badly to do right by my job, the projects I had started, and most importantly, by my colleagues and the students involved in our work. 

In the month I had remaining at my former institution, I was appreciative to have Jenny Ferretti’s tweet thread from a few months ago when she changed roles. I spent time writing out the context, the stakeholders, the dreams, and the processes for my work. I connected colleagues and reassured folks that my job during that final month was to make sure all the pieces were in place for future success. I created new SharePoints, walked people through past reports and systems, and set up meetings to talk about these transitions. 

At the beginning of that final month, I felt on top of things. I finally had some space to work on some projects I had set aside for the time being. My calendar wasn’t filling up with new appointments and requests for future work. However, the closer we got to those final days, the less energy I had to devote to tying up work projects. I was moving and had all the things a move creates — new addresses, cancelling services, starting new services, reserving UHauls, seeing old friends before you go, and deciding what stuff I wanted to move. I just didn’t have the brain space to tie EVERY single loose end. 

On my final days of work at my former institution, I tweeted about the loose end emails I knew I would have.

It was comforting to hear folks affirm that tying all the loose ends is impossible and that others were going through similar transitions. I hope that things go okay for the projects at my former institution and that my colleagues there will give me grace for the things I might have missed. 

So now it’s onto a new chapter. I’ve got a small inbox and a clearer calendar. Excited to dive into my new role and thankful for the work I was able to do at my former institution. Can’t wait to share more about my work as a department head on ACRLog in the coming months. 


Featured image by Nathalia Segato on Unsplash

Evaluating Evaluations During a Continuing Crisis

As we enter year two of this pandemic, I’m thinking about annual evaluations. At my university our annual evaluation schedule has library faculty writing our own annual reports and our appointments committee holding evaluation meetings in late Spring, and reappointment and tenure votes happen in the early Fall. And while schedules may differ at other colleges and universities, now that we’ve lived a full year with covid19 everyone has probably had an opportunity to go through the evaluation cycle at least once.

Last year there were lots of articles in higher education news outlets discussing the extraordinary circumstances of the abrupt shift to remote operations during the pandemic, and it seems like many (most?) institutions canceled student evaluations last Spring, as did my institution. While the college where I work extended due dates for faculty annual reports last year, they were still required, as were evaluation meetings and supervisor reports. This academic year our student evaluations of teaching are proceeding as usual, and all signs so far are that our annual reports and evaluations will be, too.

Librarians are faculty at my university and with the contractual requirements for evaluation dates and processes we’re not able to make changes at our local level in our library, so we’ll be going through the process the same way faculty in all departments are. But I still find myself wondering about the evaluation cycle this year. Should we be doing things the same way this year, when this year is still very much not the same as the pre-covid19 years? The uneven impact of pandemic on all aspects of academic life is well known by now, and especially for those already marginalized in higher education, including folx who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Abigail Goben and Nell Haynes are compiling a terrific bibliography of the effects of covid19 on women’s labor in particular, which has been especially concerning around time and resources for the research and scholarship often required for tenure and promotion. Just today there’s a new report from Ithaka S+R on the results of a survey that digs into the effects of the pandemic on women and caregivers, and the disparities in research and publishing are on stark display.

The faculty union at my university negotiated an optional tenure extension for those on the tenure track, and any faculty member can choose to extend their tenure clock by a year, to acknowledge the incredible disruptions of this past year. The process requires faculty to make that decision at the time that they come up for tenure, which to me has both strengths and weaknesses. It’s definitely true that for some untenured faculty, especially early career faculty, the pandemic might not end up having a big impact on their research and scholarship by the time they come up for tenure. Some may be working on research that can continue uninterrupted even with lockdowns and other restrictions, and others might have had to radically change or even cancel plans. Some may have newly available time and attention in their schedules to devote to their scholarship, without the need to commute, for example, while others have new responsibilities like homeschooling and other caregiving. Ithaka’s report highlights a similar decision at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that’s implemented differently: the one-year tenure deferment is automatic, and faculty who don’t want it can opt out.

I was glad to see annual evaluations as a topic of discussion at a recent department chairs meeting at my college; though I had to miss that meeting, a colleague attended in my place and brought back lots of useful notes. There seemed to be general agreement that extra attention is needed this year to be compassionate, constructive, and supportive in our evaluations. One chair noted that the annual evaluation is always a snapshot of a faculty member’s career – with faculty responsibilities in teaching, scholarship, and service, every year will not necessarily look the same even in non-pandemic times. I’m keeping in mind Dr. Amanda Visconti’s tweet during the CALM Conference earlier this month that quotes overhearing someone say “the pandemic is a stretch goal,” and I hope everyone who’s in the position of evaluator this year keeps that in mind, too. And with so much still uncertain for next year, as the vaccine rollout accelerates, as states take different approaches to getting back to “normal,” I hope the evaluation process can continue to adapt as the pandemic does, and continue to center support and compassion.

Burning with Your Own Passions

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Kimberly Miller, Assessment Librarian and Liaison to Psychology at Towson University. 

“Where are they now?” 

Right now? Like many of you, right now I am at home seeking quiet and solitude away from the chaos of managing work, family, school, and self-care during a global health crisis. Thinking back to my first-year librarian experience, I can’t help but laugh and think, as our ALSC colleagues already reminded us, responding to a global pandemic was definitely not covered in library school.

What’s Happened?

In 2012, shortly before joining ACRLog as an First Year Academic Library Experience (FYALE) blogger, I was hired as Emerging Technologies Librarian & Liaison to Psychology at Towson University. In that role I provided technology leadership within the library’s Research and Instruction Department. I also taught information literacy workshops, provided student and faculty research help, and worked with the Psychology-related collection. While the open-ended nature of the role was sometimes daunting (what exactly “counts” as an “emerging technology” still remains a mystery to me), all-in-all it was a great first position because the diversity in my responsibilities provided a lot of areas for exploration and growth. And some of that growth, particularly around risk taking and experimentation, is captured in my FYALE blog posts

Over time, as I began to articulate my expertise and vision, I successfully advocated to narrow my position to focus specifically on “learning technologies” necessary to support formal and informal learning within the library. Other highlights between my first year and now include:

  • Changing my job description (twice)
  • Applying for, and achieving, rank promotion and permanent status
  • Participating in ACRL’s Immersion and the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship
  • Attending too many conferences and serving on too many committees
  • Starting an instructional technology doctoral program and, recently, transfering to the masters program (graduating May 2020!)
  • Becoming a parent
  • Serving in leadership positions within regional and national professional organizations
  • Collaborating with senior library leadership as librarian representative to the library’s Leadership Council

Turning Point

As I reflect on those experiences it’s clear to me that the month I had a child and was notified that I was awarded permanent status marked a significant turning point for me personally and professionally. When I returned to work, I realized I was spending more time managing projects and, indirectly, the people associated with those projects than I was exploring and creating technology-based instruction itself. And I was good at it. I loved my job and the people I worked with, and I had developed a talent for leading people to solve interesting problems. As a doctoral student, I also gained a deeper expertise in educational leadership and professional development necessary to take on new challenges. At the same time, I was growing tired of running into the same roadblocks and questioning whether what I did really mattered while seeing little opportunity to grow into new professional areas.

In my cubicle, a now-faded handwritten quote reminds me that “People who do not blaze with their own passions burn out.” This quote has been my guiding principle as I’ve made decisions, both small and large, about how I spend my time. Throughout my career, one of my driving forces has been a desire to deeply understand the rationale behind our work and the evidence needed to help make that work a success. With this in mind, I proposed that my experiences and interests made me a good fit for the new Assessment Librarian position our Dean of University Libraries announced in the Fall of 2018. After several conversations and some final job description editing, I transitioned into my new role as TU’s Assessment Librarian in January 2019.

Now and the Future

I’ll admit that, unlike technology, assessment initiatives are not high on the list of exciting or flashy library projects. But I would argue that’s because assessment is best when it is infused within all other work that we do on a day-to-day basis. Assessment is not just counting, number crunching, and correlating. The flashiest project will fizzle if we don’t know how or why it was successful. And that’s what assessment is about to me – it is being curious and asking questions about the way our services, systems, and collections support our community. Academic libraries make profound differences within and beyond our campuses, and the best way to continue doing so is to continually learn from our work. 

As an Assessment Librarian, I find meaning in dispelling myths about assessment while building our library staff and faculty’s capacity to apply evidence within their specific domains to provide excellent user support and services. While I help everyone learn about the nuts-and-bolts of assessment, I also get to tie assessment to how we explore new possibilities for serving our users. For example, in November I spoke to our staff as part of our library’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) Spark series about using assessment to dispel the “myth of average” when designing library services, spaces, and resources. I’m excited to explore how I can continue to support this work in the next stage of my career.

While the jump from instructional technology to assessment may seem strange to some, for me it was a chance to lean into new skills and solve new challenges while leveraging the talents I cultivated in my previous role. I also continue to learn a lot about navigating the politics of projects that require working both horizontally and vertically within the library’s organizational chart. As the first person in this new role, I have come full circle and once again find myself with an open-ended opportunity to shape our library’s path forward on key strategic initiatives. This time, I get the unique and exciting privilege of a front row seat to the amazing work happening in nearly every area of our library. I can’t wait to see what else I didn’t learn in library school!