HLS/ACRLog: Academic Librarianship: alt-ac and plan A, all in one

Today we welcome a post by Ian Harmon as part of our collaboration with Hack Library School . Ian Harmon is an MSLIS student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Graduate Assistant in the Scholarly Commons, the University Library’s digital scholarship center. Prior to entering library school, he earned a PhD in Philosophy at Illinois and taught philosophy at Rice University. Ian is interested in digital humanities and scholarly communication, specifically the ways in which technology impacts research and the dissemination of scholarship. He enjoys teaching, and hopes to work in an academic setting that will allow him to work directly with students and other researchers. Ian is also passionate about the role that libraries serve as central institutions of the public sphere and supporters of the common good.

 

The easy way to describe my pursuit of a career in academic librarianship would be as a Plan B. Nevertheless, I avoid describing it as such because the expression suggests that it’s my second choice, or that I’m settling for something less. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As I begin the second year of my LIS program, I’m more confident that I’m on the right path than I ever was while following my “Plan A.” And when I find myself thinking that I should have considered a career in libraries earlier on, I remind myself that, had I not taken my long path to librarianship, I might never have gotten on the path at all.

 

My Plan A was to be a philosophy professor. I became a philosophy major my sophomore year of college, after having taken a couple of electives in the field during my freshman year. As a 20 year old, I wasn’t concerned with things like making money, finding a job, or learning “practical skills.” Rather, I was interested in doing something I enjoyed, and I assumed that everything else would take care of itself. But even though I was a philosophy major for the majority of my college career, I never really thought about what I was going to do after graduation. By the time I was a senior, I supposed that I should probably go to graduate school (what else was I going to do with a philosophy degree?), and then become a professor.

 

I didn’t have a clue what I was doing as I applied to grad school, but I was fortunate enough to wind up at a strong MA program at the University of Wyoming. There, I really began to learn about philosophy the profession, as opposed to the field of study. While I wouldn’t admit it at the time, the more I learned about the philosophy profession, the less sure I felt that I was pursuing a path that would lead me to a career that I would enjoy. The warnings about the competitive nature of the field had been too abstract for me to take seriously as an undergrad. But things became more concrete during my Master’s, as I applied to PhD programs and received rejection after rejection.

 

Looking back, it stands out that I never once considered exploring other careers. I felt too far invested in philosophy to make a change, and the thought of doing so seemed like it would be an admission of failure. So I pushed on, completed my thesis and was eventually accepted to the PhD program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where I am now an MSLIS student). It felt like I had made it past an important milestone, but this would only serve to foster the development of some major imposter syndrome as I began my new program. My insecurities aside, I continued to do well, and started to think that maybe I was doing the right thing after all. Moreover, I started thinking I would be one of the fortunate few who would actually get a tenure-track job after graduation.

 

Despite my success within the PhD program, the job market proved to be the nightmare that had always been promised to me. But as fate would have it, I was able to put off considerations of an alternative to philosophy for a bit longer, as in April of my final year I was offered a one year position in the Philosophy Department at Rice University. No, it wasn’t a tenure track job, but surely, I thought, it would serve as a great springboard for more permanent opportunities.

 

I enjoyed my time at Rice, but I began to feel a sense of isolation that I hadn’t encountered as a graduate student. Outside of my teaching duties, most of my work hours were spent alone in my office, or surrounded by strangers at a coffee shop. These experiences helped me to discover that what I enjoyed the most about academia was interacting with other people, whether through teaching or conversing with colleagues or fellow grad students.

 

Meanwhile I wasn’t having any luck on the tenure-track job market, and early in the Spring semester of my year in Houston I decided it was time to make a change. I started exploring alternative careers, but initially, I just needed some way to pay the bills. Unfortunately, nothing really jumped out at me. Libraries finally entered the picture when my aunt, a public librarian, suggested that I consider pursuing an MSLIS. The idea of working at a library appealed to me, but I was hesitant to go back to school, having spent less than a year of my adult life as a non-student. But my aunt had planted the seed of an idea in my head that would continue to grow.

 

After finishing the year at Rice, I moved back to Champaign, Illinois, where I had a support network of friends (and a fiancee who is now my wife), and began looking for work. I spent the summer as a meat clerk at a grocery store, when my mom mentioned a position she’d seen at the University Library that she thought I should apply for. This would prove to be the break I needed, as I was fortunate enough to land the job and become the Office Manager of the Scholarly Commons, the U of I Library’s digital scholarship center. Needless to say, I loved the job. I loved the collegiality throughout the library and the collaborative nature of the work. I loved the fact that I was learning new things everyday, and most importantly, that the main purpose of my job was to help other people.

 

Long story short, I’m finally on the career path that’s right for me. I have to admit that, at times, it feels like I wasted a lot of time during my short lived philosophy career. But ultimately, I have no regrets. I won’t be a philosophy professor, and that’s okay because I don’t want to be a philosophy professor. Contrary to what someone once told me, if I was offered such a job, I wouldn’t take it, because that’s not my Plan A.

 

Academic librarianship is my Plan A. It’s not what I thought my Plan A was for a long time, and it’s a lengthier plan that I realized. But it’s mine, and I stand by it.

We’re All Ears: Learning By Listening

This post has been co-authored by Maura Smale and Jen Jarson.

The context

Jen: I started a new job at a new institution about two and a half weeks ago after 11 years at my previous institution. This new institution is rather different than my former one. That was a residential, small liberal arts college. This is a small commuter campus that’s part of a huge system. My new job has more administrative responsibilities, too. I learned new things every day in my previous position, of course, but there is something quite different about the blank slate of coming in to a new institution and a new position. So much to learn, so much to do, and so little context or history to help light the way.

Maura: I’ve been a library faculty member at my college for 9 years, three of those as director of the library. But like Jen, right now I find myself in a period of settling in to something changed. I was out on a research sabbatical for six months–most of this calendar year–beginning in early February and returning to the library just last week. I’m in the same job and institution, though the day to day rhythm of my work is vastly different than it was a few weeks ago. As I’ve been settling back in (and trying to remember where I left things in the folders and drawers in my office) I’ve been struck by the similarities to starting a new job. I still have my institutional and historical context, but there’s lots for me to learn (and relearn), too.

What are (the right) questions to ask when you’re trying to (re)learn about a job/institution?

Maura: Since I got back I’ve been arranging meetings with my colleagues to catch up on last semester and their work, and sometimes feel like the questions I’ve asked are quite similar to those I asked when I first became Chief Librarian. What have you been working on? How’re your projects, research, and other work going? Have you hit any roadblocks? Is there any support I can offer? I’m grateful to all of my colleagues, especially my colleague who served as interim director when I was out, for keeping everything running in the Spring. But because nothing is ever truly static there were a few unexpected situations and opportunities that came up while I was away. Learning about those really is like having a new job (though in the same organizational context), especially coming up to speed on new projects in the library for this academic year that hadn’t yet appeared on the horizon before I left on leave.

Jen: I, too, am trying to meet with as many of my new colleagues as I can. For me, that includes library and non-library folks at my local campus, as well as folks in the libraries at other campuses. To prepare for each meeting, I take stock of my running list of questions and choose those that seem most relevant to that person or group. As I look over this list now, I recognize that the questions are a mix of specific (such as, what assessments of student learning outcomes have been done recently?) and open-ended (for example, tell me about your work and responsibilities, how do you think students perceive the library?, what could the library be doing to better meet students’ needs?). Both types of questions provide me with useful information and open avenues for exploration. While the nature or phrasing of some lines of inquiry are likely more productive than others, just showing a sincere interest in others’ goals and challenges and seeking opportunities for alignment and collaboration feels like an important part of what makes this kind of outreach fruitful.

What should we listen for when in meetings, either individually or with committees or teams, both inside and outside the library?

Maura: Listening is important–I’m always working to improve my listening skills (and I think it’s a lifelong process, at least for me). In coming back after sabbatical I’m reminding myself to listen as much as I can: in one on one meetings, in committees, in casual conversations. I’ve been spending some time walking around the library and campus to listen, too, though since our semester hasn’t begun yet it’s still fairly quiet. Typically in conversations we focus on the topic at hand, and I’m reminding myself to listen with both ears open. I’m trying to pay extra attention, not just to the specific task being discussed but to projects and processes in the library as a whole.

Jen: Like Maura, I’m trying to listen on a number of levels. I’m listening for actionable improvements and opportunities, whether in the here-and-now or in the near or distant future. I’m also listening to uncover further questions I should be asking, those that I haven’t yet been able to fathom. I’m listening to understand priorities and goals and challenges and how the library plays a role in supporting or addressing them. I’m listening to figure out how the many moving parts of this large organization fit together and how to navigate and communicate best within and across it. I’m trying to listen for what the other person is really saying, rather than only what I expect or assume they’re telling me. I’m listening for the moments and places where our interests intersect and where we can best collaborate to advance student learning.

What questions do you think are most important to ask when you start a new position or return after time away? What do you wish a new/returning colleague would ask you? What do you find most important to listen for? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Confessions on Owning and Honing Your Weaknesses

The month of June marks the ramp up to fiscal close in my neck of the library wood.  In the otherwise quiet summer of academia there is this corner of buzzing frenzy. Staff work though last minute orders, pay invoices, troubleshoot problems, answer questions about the various statuses of the cash flow, and pull and prepare data to estimate a new year’s allocations.  In my role, I mostly coordinate various inter-dependencies of the workflows and people that must align for these numbers to be properly reconciled. Thankfully for all I’m not responsible for the number-crunching.

You see, I’ve never had the intuitive ease with numbers accountants, or it seems an acquisitions librarian, is expected to have.  I prefer to visualize and think around things rather than operate in the linear calculus that numbers require.  My analytical mind loves to think about cause and effect, and even the many complex inversions and formulas that produce usable data and its visualization. But producing those inversions on the spot, even in simple arithmetic, doesn’t come easy for me.  It explains why I was always terrible at timed math tests, but loved algebra and geometry.  I struggle with sewing patterns that instruct from the inside out, but love cooking, where I can follow strict instructions and play with them to my taste.

When I worked in serials, calculations took on linguistic obscurity when it came to publication frequencies and title changes.  “Is twice a month semi-monthly or bi-monthly?” Does continues mean what a title it used to be? Or what it will be going forward?”

And to this day, when gardening,  “Do annuals mean I plant them every year, or that they come back every year?!”

What gets me in trouble in all of this is my strong preference to operate intuitively and efficiently. This means I am often impatient with the extra time it takes me to slowly think through cost comparisons and reports. I know that extra time is necessary for me, though, to make sure it is done right.  Understanding of my own strengths and weaknesses in this way allows me to recognize the need to rely on other tools, systems, and people.  Relying on the strengths of others is not an excuse to avoid your weaknesses. In fact, identifying and using your particular strengths can be a tool to overcome weaknesses, and it can mean talking about those vulnerabilities in more empowering ways.

This important skill is perhaps most practically applied in job interviews, where some variation of “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” is no doubt asked. The best interviewers do this using behavioral questioning or appreciative inquiry techniques, which often ask for examples that demonstrate direct personal experience with particular skill or trait.  My first ever job interview was as a senior in high school, and I had no previous work experience.  So I had to answer questions about what I find difficult when working with others using only my school experience.  Thinking of various show choirs and musicals, where I had to practice and perform with my ex-boyfriend (among other  characters), I answered:

“Sometimes I have a hard time separating my personal life from my work.”

*crickets chirping*

Surprise! I did not get the job.  Not knowing a lot about myself at 17, I failed to realize my strength as a performer was precisely the fact that I actually can and do work with others, even those with whom ‘it’s complicated’, probably better than the average person.   Even though inside it was a hormonally-charged tornado of difficult emotion, I could summon my inner Olivia Newton John and nail Grease’s  “You’re the One That I Want” number with a smile on my face. With each interview I got a little stronger at framing my skills.  When interviewing for a waitress position, in which I did have some experience, I shared my thoughts about an unreasonably disgruntled customer, but described how I worked foremost to best meet that customer’s need.

As I’ve learned more about how my own strengths help my weaknesses, I know I thrive in project management roles because there is a framework to breakdown milestones, tasks, and timelines.  I thrive on learning to use new tools because they help me be more efficient and accurate.  Perhaps most importantly, I rely the strengths of the people with whom I work.  What is painstaking for one person is often the effortless strength of another who is happy to be asked to contribute what they do best.  When dealing with numbers, as I must inevitably do in the day-to-day work of acquisitions and resource sharing, I strategize (a strength of mine) to build in the extra time to sit with, play with, and picture data (my analytic strength).  I am constantly using my learning strength not just to find new tools that can help me, but to know more about myself and others.  I also have an individual relational strength that allows me to know and connect with other people and the unique strengths they offer.

In my seventeenth year experiencing and third year overseeing the fiscal close, I’m putting my anxiety around the numbers in better perspective. I’ve come to see that working through vulnerabilities and getting help where you need it is not abnormal at all. It’s what a responsible adult person would do.

Please tell me your favorite job interview story!  What would you do over, if you could, from a position of strength?

 

 

“Just…why?”: Coming to terms with ambiguity, resilience, and acceptance

As a former electronic resources librarian, along with what I’ll call my own unique set of life experiences, I’ve found the practice of radical acceptance has served me well.  Acceptance as an ongoing practice is not optimism or permissiveness, but healthily recognizing how and when to let go, and knowing that acceptance is not the same as approval.  This practice comes in handy, especially in life’s lemon-giving moments. I’ve mentioned a few  from the technical side of library work in previous posts.  Certainly the current sociopolitical climate is not at a loss for examples of this either.

When these “Seriously?” moments occur in my job, I am reminded of another idea, comfort with ambiguity, which frequently appears as a desirable skill in job advertisements, along with its companion resilience.  Both have been on my mind since attending a recent ACRL presentation,  Resilience, Grit, and Other Lies: Academic Libraries and the Myth of Resiliency.  As ubiquitous as both ambiguity and resilience are in my field, this presentation reminded me how poorly defined, misunderstood, and problematic they are when idealized professionally.  So I was thinking about how to unpack this concept related to my own academic librarianship and how a personal practice of acceptance (without approval) might play a helpful role.

It seems in the everyday ambiguity, as well as ambivalent with the same root, often describe something squishier.  For example, ambivalent is often misused to describe someone who is passively undecided or not invested in a particular outcome, rather than actually feeling multiple different ways about a thing. Similarly, ambiguity is often synonymous with an amorphous state of confusion than specific set of circumstances that make a solution unclear.

While inexactness and its synonyms might reflect this murky spirit, isn’t ambiguity really only inexact because it can’t be just one thing?  The fact that it can still be exactly many things is what I find interesting and overlooked in the experience of ambiguity.  Recognizing the possibility of multiple interpretations as specific, distinct avenues for action is especially important for efficiency and service in e-resources management.

Here’s a very basic example working with and a technical problem solving of e-resource access, which I repeatedly encountered when working with publishers’ technical support:

Me: Hi, My name is [me] from [my institution]. We have a current subscription to [your journal] but we’re not able access content online.

Tech Support:  What’s your institution’s [subscriber number, IP address, and other details]?

Me: *gives details*

Tech Support:  OK, it should be working now.

And that was it.  No explanation, no assurance it would not happen again, no way to plan workflow to prevent this very regular disruption.  Good problem solvers who thrive on the details of the problems and the solutions will no doubt feel frustrated and confused by this.  But the situation is no more a mystery than it is comfortable.  There likely is an exact cause for this problem. It’s just the cause is likely multiplicitous, complex, and in most cases less important than the fact that the problem is now fixed. So we move on.  In responding to the given ambiguous situation, we must accept the priorities of the current moment rather than the past or future.  This mindfulness of the present moment is a key part of the practice of acceptance.

Change may the new normal, but comfortable with ambiguity?

I think these tendencies show up in e-resources librarianship in particular because positions of this type developed from those which focused on the exacting and predictable realm of attention to detail.  Certainly the evolution of libraries content and services necessitates characterizing those details as now really messy and inexact.  But position descriptions mistakenly place this ambiguity in the context of a personal quality when it is really a quality of the environment.  To use such a problematic word, and to prefer people who are comfortable in that state, doesn’t say anything about how people should actually respond in these situations.  Expecting comfort in ambiguity falsely sets people up to stay in that state longer than may be necessary.

And this is where the problem of resilience comes in.  As the ACRL presentation I mentioned notes, research shows resilience often normalizes oppression of marginalized groups.  Systemically, I wonder how resilience hinders innovation, preventing us from answering the question “what can we stop doing?”.


So since, as a colleague once reminded me, the privileged have to be uncomfortable to recognize oppression, it is useful to discard a preference for comfort in the face of ambiguity.  Resilience or grit may help us more than comfort, as long as it is focused in the direction of action.  It should not be the normal or preferred quality of an individual professionally.

The idea of resilience as oppression also reminded me of another “What fresh h*!! is this?” experience working as an elementary music teacher.  At one of the two inner-city schools I was assigned, the music room was the stage in the gym’s auditorium. A burlap-like stage curtain was the only barrier between my music classes and the screaming, sneaker-squeaking, ball-bouncing, whistle-blowing activity of PE.  I often preface my sharing of this experience with disbelief that this was a reality to describe – it seemed so obviously nonsensical and in need of a solution.  So, I once spent a week’s planning periods reworking the entire school schedule so that all teachers still got their planning period during elective classes, but in a way that PE and music didn’t overlap.  Working out those complexities was frustrating and certainly not comfortable.  At the same time, I was driven to resist normalizing the resilience expected of the situation.  I knew this was more than a personal preference of the [should-be librarian] music teacher than the institution was leading me to believe.  Before leaving this job, I don’t think I ever gave these alternatives to my principal, but succeeded in getting a new curtain for the stage. When I noted to the principal that the change didn’t block sound as I’d hoped, I’ll never forget her response.

“Why do you care, since you won’t be here any longer?”

On one hand her response demonstrated everything that’s wrong with institutional resiliency.  At the same time I can also see it as an honest statement of my own realm of control.  When work and life inevitably boil down to “Just…what? Why is this normal?”, a practice of acceptance means neither normalizing nor pursuing crazy to find resolution.

The circus has left town

Image CC BY 2.0 with attribution:  matthew_pennell “The circus has left town”

If there is a proactive path through ambiguity or resilience, then I believe the skill we’re really after is how to recognize, reassess, and negotiate our power to influence and control.  This requires a constant give and take of our experience of that control as anxiety or relief.  It means exactly both action and letting go and not necessarily having to choose between the two.  When requiring choice, it means knowing how not to wrestle very long in the choosing.

Should’ve, Would’ve, Could’ve: The Library Job Hunt

About two years ago, I was already applying for jobs in preparation of graduating from library school. I spent countless hours looking at job posts, writing cover letters, preparing for phone interviews and being anxious about that coveted on-campus interviews.

Throughout my residency at American University, I have been able to participate in two (and one ongoing) search committees. This has allowed me to see the job hunting process from the other side and has allowed me to reflect on how I apply and prepare for the job hunt. Getting to look at other cover letters, resumes, watching people interview, and interacting with job candidates puts a different perspective of looking at the whole process.

While in library school, I was lucky enough to have supervisors that revised (many times) my cover letter and resume. Not only that, but spoke to me about the interview process and even set up a mock presentation. It was great preparation for interviews, but in the end, you have to experience it in order to reflect on it later on. Although there is no going back, it’s good to have these experiences for future job hunting.

So, what would I have done differently? (and definitely do for next time)

Be organized!

Most normal people have a system that helps them be organized during the job search. Two years ago, I was not that person. This past summer when I was looking for apartments, I kept an excel spreadsheet that kept track of the craigslist post, the rent amount, date I emailed the contact person, and other important emails. I only wish I had been that organized back when I was searching for job. Instead, I would find myself overwhelmed by all of the cover letters that I had saved on my flashdrive.

Amount of experience

Looking at job descriptions, I would often see “3 or more years of experience required.” Having had only 2 years of pre-professional experience, I would go back and forth on whether to apply or not. I ended up not applying to most of those jobs, but looking back, I should have. What do you have to lose?

Wanting to cover all the points 

Every job posting is different and they can be brief or very detailed. There would sometimes be a job posting where it discussed the job duties, expectations, requirements, and preferred experience. It’s an exciting feeling to have when you read a job posting and you happen to have the experience that they describe, require, and prefer.

While it’s very tempting to want to cover all the details on the job post, you ultimately have to cover the required and preferred points. You might have room for relevant points, but that usually does not happen. While your cover letter may have some interesting points that are relevant to the job duties, the search committee is looking for you to directly address the required qualifications and any preferred experience you may have. That will be your priority and may not leave room for anything else.

Background research

You’ve applied to a ton of jobs and have finally gotten that phone interview! Take the time to do some background research on not only the library, but the university and their goals. What reports have they released? What are their long and short term goals and strategies? I remember learning this the hard way while on the phone with a library search committee. I was asked, “What are some  resources or programs at the university and/or library that you’d be interested in?”

Easy question, right? Not if you have not done your research. Learn from my mistake. Take the time to look at the university website and find what initiatives they are working on or any programs that you would be interested in knowing more about.

Red flags at a campus interview

I remember going on my first campus interview and 20 minutes in, I already wanted to leave. Of course,  I still had the rest of the day to go, but when you immediately know that this is not going to work out, you still need to power through it. What I should have done is taken that visit as an opportunity to work on my interview and presentation skills. Instead, I continued to be frustrated at the multiple red flags that popped up throughout the day and not knowing what to do about it. However, if it’s an interview that is going well, show your excitement and energy!

Everyone has a different way of searching for jobs and mine come from experiences and mistakes that I have made. I hope that you’re able to use this post as a resource when looking for jobs, either as a new graduate or an early career librarian. What are some of your tips? Comment below!