Supporting Each Other as Librarian Researchers

We’re at an interesting stage in the library where I work. Retirements and folks moving on to other opportunities have meant that we’ve done a fair amount of hiring over the past almost-five years. The result is that right now we have more untenured library faculty than tenured, and most of our tenured library faculty are interested in seeking promotion in the future. With so many research-active librarians (myself included!), I’ve been thinking a lot about how best to support us all in our scholarly goals. We’re all at different stages in our scholarly work, some beginning to develop a research agenda, and others immersed in long-term projects; some of us working individually, and others in collaboration with colleagues in and outside our library, at our institution and others.

I’ve been interested to read about Angie’s and Hailley’s experiences at the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship, which have provided lots of food for thought about how to integrate research into our work as academic librarians. At my university we’re fortunate that library faculty have research leave available for the first 5 years of their tenure track (as do faculty in other departments), and all librarians have a fairly generous annual leave allocation and can apply for additional research time as well. While library faculty are on 12-month contracts and still don’t have as much time for their research as do faculty in other departments, the various forms of leave are super important for making progress on our scholarship.

Even with our leave, it can be a challenge to develop and sustain our research in practice. Over the summer I spent some time talking with my colleagues in small groups of folks who are at roughly the same point in their tenure or promotion track, chatting over coffee about what kinds of support they’re most interested in, and thinking on ways we might all support each other. Collectively our research is topically diverse: some of us work primarily in LIS, others outside of LIS, and some do both. We’re a small library — including me, we have 13 library faculty right now — and, combined with our varying degrees of experience in scholarly research, we’re in a good position to mentor each other both collaboratively as well as individually.

It’s been terrific to see the informal mentoring and support we’re all giving each other at the library where I work, and I’m actively working on ways we can keep that going and add more structure. Each week over the summer I blocked two hours in our library classroom for what we’re calling reading-writing-research coworking. Scholarly work can be lonely work, and while it’s expected that we’ll do our scholarship off-campus while on those various forms of leave, we wanted to make some space for that work together in the library as well. Everyone’s schedule is different, and of course folks were out for vacation over the summer, too, but we held that space and time every week for whomever was around and available (myself included!) to come in and get some work done on their research.

With the busy semester starting up soon (and our library classroom needed for instruction) we will probably reduce the coworking timeslots to once or twice a month, and I’m thinking on other opportunities for support. Earlier in the summer I pulled together an annotated list of research-focused resources, including long-time favorites like A Library Writer’s Blog and relative newcomer The Librarian Parlor, just to name two. I’ve shared this with my colleagues and left it open for editing so that we can continue to add to it. During our summer group chats I also heard that more informal opportunities for research conversations would be welcome, so I’m hoping to schedule some time for coffee and cookies and research conversations a few times during the upcoming semester, too. And I’ll keep asking my colleagues what they need to support their research; in my experience it’s completely normal for a research agenda and practice to evolve over time, and I expect we’ll need to change or add to our scholarly support strategies over time, too.

What are your best practices for supporting librarian research? Drop us a line in the comments and let us know.

More Final Reflections

Like Melissa, the time for my farewell post has come. I’ve greatly enjoyed my time writing for ACRLog—I’ve always found that writing helps me to process my thoughts and to reflect on my experiences. ACRLog has allowed me to do just that as I took my first steps into the life of a library professional. Looking back on it, the year has gone very quickly and, on the cusp of my second year, it feels like this year was a practice run. I tried some instruction, I tried some liaison work, I tried some purchasing, and now I’m ready to do it all over again in a more focused, organized manner.

I want to start this post with a few things I’ve learned along the way, or things that have surprised me.

You will be busy

My first few weeks, I had several different people tell me that I would probably feel like I had nothing to do for a good chunk of time, until suddenly I would feel like I had too much to do. They were right. This is exactly what happened for me. My first few weeks, I rattled around the library and filled my days with campus talks because I didn’t know what else to do. Then all of the sudden I had so much to do. I can’t pinpoint when that transition happened, but I know that it happened because, on top of learning more about what my job responsibilities really meant, I had also been saying yes to everything. Yes, I’ll go to that meeting, I have nothing better to do. Yes, I’ll write that book review, I have nothing better to do. These things eventually really do fill up your time.

This isn’t a bad thing, because I like to be busy, but now I’ve entered phase two: trying to figure out what I actually need to work on and what I can let go. Advice for those just starting out: you really can be picky. Your schedule will eventually fill up either way. Take that beginning time just to explore campus and explore where and how you really want to be involved.

Ask for things

Though it may be hard for the timid introverts among us, if there’s something you want, ask for it. You might be surprised. Whether you need something in your space like an extra bookcase or a standing desk, or you want time to pursue a new interest, or you need some extra professional development support, it doesn’t hurt to ask. I’ve been surprised at the help I’ve received when I needed it, but I shouldn’t be. Generally, people do want to support and help you.

Making time for research is hard

I was excited to start organizing my professional life and finally carve out some time for my own research. (Step one: figuring out what my research interests actually are.) It turns out, this isn’t quite so easy to do. As I already mentioned, it’s easy to get busy, and when that happens, it’s even easier for research to slip through the cracks, since it’s such a long-term practice and there are so many more time-sensitive things that need my attention.

I don’t have a good solution to this one yet. Yes, there’s always blocking off time in the schedule, but I’m not always disciplined enough to guard that time judiciously, so sometimes I don’t follow through. At least for now, though, this is my strategy.

How to learn?

It came as no surprise to me that there were things I would need to learn on the job: everything from library culture to how to subscribe to a new database to where donated books go. Generally, I’ve learned by doing. I needed to learn how to make a LibGuide, so I worked at creating one. I needed to learn how to write a book review, so I wrote one. However, I’ve also found that it’s very helpful to be taught things, or to follow along while someone else does something. Yes, I do like taking the time to figure things out on my own, but sometimes it’s more efficient and I learn more if I let someone know that I need help and they show me how they accomplish whatever it is I need to do myself. This way, I can see a good example and ask questions before I make my own attempt.

So, again, ask for help when you need it!


Despite learning some things and certainly feeling more comfortable than I did beginning this job, I still have a long way to go. Some of my goals for this coming year include really getting to know my faculty and their work. I want to be more engaged with the communities I serve, especially students, and I want to develop a deeper knowledge of the subject areas that I cover. This, in turn, will only improve my collection development. There’s also a buying trip in my future, which will be an entirely new challenge and another reason to turn to my colleagues for help and support.

And then there’s all the networking and conferencing that I have yet to learn to do properly. I’ve been working on building my online presence this year, while at the same time working on networking and understanding conferences. I can’t say I have figured everything out about online or in-person networking, but luckily I have more than year to learn and grow. I’m looking forward to everything this next year has in store for me, be it working more with others or getting deeper into librarianship.

Once again, it’s been a pleasure blogging this year and I want to thank ACRLog for the opportunity. Going forward, find me on Twitter or at my website.

Student Workers: What do they owe us, and what do we owe them?

Whether you want to start a new habit or break an old one, the new year is a popular time to reconsider our patterns. In the academic library, the switch between semesters gives us a chance to start over – in the classroom, with our colleagues, and with our student workers. The questions I’ve been asking myself have to do with my role as a student supervisor: What do I owe these students and what should I expect from them?

We owe them mentoring.

Whether it’s in my job description or not, I’m more than a supervisor to our undergraduate student workers. I’m one of the main “adults” (by which I mean non-student, non-teacher) in their lives at school, a sounding board for homework questions but also the delicate issues of college social life. I can think of conversations from last semester where I thought, “Should I give my honest advice here, or let her make the mistakes I made and learned from when I was in college?” Mentoring student workers can be tricky and emotionally taxing, but it is very rewarding.

One of my colleagues says that part of our role as student managers is to be a campus ally, and I agree. Undergraduates face all kinds of real world obstacles during their time in college, from stress and mental health to poverty and family needs. Our student workers view us as a stable presence that can help them navigate campus resources and personal dilemmas. Even as I recognize the emotional labor cost of this work, I believe we owe our students a mentoring relationship, interest in their lives and their success. It’s worth our time, and absolutely part of our job.

We owe them meaningful work.

There’s been a conversation at my library lately about giving our student workers more meaningful work, beyond administrative and clerical duties. We’ve been brainstorming how to ask more of our student workers while still honoring their pay grade and what’s fair. But I don’t think we quite know what we mean by “meaningful work” yet – should we give away all the fun tasks like social media and event planning? Don’t our students expect to get homework done at the desk?

Recently I’ve encountered two models for student work that I found interesting. Hailley Fargo makes a good case for encouraging student employees to provide peer-to-peer reference services in her article for In the Library with the Lead Pipe: “Just like we value a librarian’s subject or functional expertise, we should also value our students’ expertise and the experiential knowledge they bring into their role as peer mentors/leaders…Just like we speak the language of library and information science, our students speak the language of their peers and this can be incredibly powerful.” Careful training and building student worker confidence so that they can handle more complex questions at the reference desk might be one answer to the meaningful work question.

I also had the privilege of meeting with the librarians at Gettysburg College and learning about their Peer Research Mentor (PRM) program, which was created to give student workers a high-impact learning experience beyond the traditional responsibilities of a library student gig. In both of these cases, the authors emphasize the importance of thorough and on-going training, and in an understaffed library that makes me tremble. But even if I am not sure how to find the time for this yet, I admire how the librarians at Gettysburg have worked to make the ongoing training fun and connected to real-world work responsibilities – from “research question of the week” activities to attending and running department meetings. Every library harnesses their student workforce differently, and comparing notes with other librarians will help our library find the way that works for us.

They owe us their labor – within reason.

If job creep bothers me in my position, then I should be a guardian against responsibilities sneaking up on my student employees as well. The librarian at Gettysburg who described the PRM program to me emphasized that these students are separately recruited, trained, and paid to reflect their additional responsibilities, and I think that’s key to harnessing student labor ethically.

I think that job descriptions should be as transparent as possible, regularly revisited, and created in collaboration between manager and employee. I don’t like the words “other duties as assigned,” because I think they crack the door for job creep, and I don’t want to exploit our student workers. And for good and bad, this is the first job of many of our student workers. It’s a good sandbox for them to learn professional norms like reliability, work attire, and taking initiative. It’s also a chance for their supervisors to demonstrate healthy management and boundaries.

We owe them respect.

In my tour of the library at Gettysburg, I was struck by how the staff worked to honor the contributions of their student workers. Student employees who work in rare book repair or the college archive are credited for their labor in archives publications and on the rare book containers themselves. The PRMs, with guidance from their librarian advisors, are trusted to design drop-in workshops and even help teach information literacy sessions. We should show that we value our student workers and their contributions to the library.

We often say they’re the public face of the library, and the assistance they provide makes a lot of things possible. At our library, student workers make regular shelving (and my lunch break!) possible. With great responsibility should come at least a little power – a say in programming or marketing materials, a voice at staff meetings perhaps, or their work memorialized by bookplates and other employee celebrations. Connecting the shelving, printer restocking, and front desk management to our larger mission makes those tasks meaningful too. It’s worth taking the time to help our student workforce see how they advance the mission of the library, and celebrating their contributions how we can.

As I conclude this blog post, I realize that I’ve been thinking out loud and I don’t have a simple definition for the give and take of the librarian/student worker relationship, but I’d like to continue this conversation. How does your library manage and/or mentor its student workforce?

Developing a Peer Support Group

There’s been a lot written here on ACRLog about the importance of mentorship, and I echo what many others have said: there is enormous value in learning from and being supporting by experienced librarians. There’s a separate kind of mentorship, one that doesn’t necessarily fall under the traditional mentor-mentee model, that has also been hugely beneficial to me as a first-year librarian: peer support. Quetzalli wrote a few weeks ago about the value of peer-to-peer relationships, and it inspired me to reflect on my own experience as a member of a newly formed Early to Mid-Career Librarian Support Group at my library.  

Last semester, a few of my colleagues at the University of Virginia convened a group for early- to mid-career librarians to share advice, ideas, and support. The group operates autonomously and informally. We meet every few weeks for a discussion, and anyone can contribute to the agenda or propose a project.  Our first meeting was a chance to introduce ourselves and discuss our career trajectory and what we wanted to get out of the group. While some people were looking simply for camaraderie and support, others were looking for more concrete advice on how to do to do things like pursue a research agenda or how to more purposefully develop their career. These early conversations have informed the direction the group has since gone. We’ve surveyed group members about their research interests, invited senior administrators to discuss professional development, and coalesced around some bigger documentation projects that I will discuss below.

While plenty of opportunities for collaboration and support arise naturally throughout the course of my daily work, having a more formalized avenue for this kind of peer support is especially valuable. Because of the size of my organization, there are people I still haven’t met yet, particularly in departments that I don’t work with closely. This group allowed me to connect with people across areas of the library that I wouldn’t normally encounter in the course of my workday. It’s also a great way for me to avoid some of the isolation that I can sometimes experience in a small branch library. Because meetings are kept collegial and informal, I’m able to start building some of the relationships that happen more easily if you see someone in an office every day.

Finally, conversations in this group have led to projects that would be overwhelming undertakings without the support of many people. For example, one of the most consistent themes that came from our early conversations was a desire for more robust documentation, especially among newer employees of the library. As we compared our on-boarding experiences, it became clear that we had all experienced some version of the same thing: not feeling sure how to do something and asking around until being directed to email a certain person or pointed towards documentation somewhere we never would have thought to look. As a group, we decided to pool our collective knowledge and document everything we wish we had known for future new employees. Working together, we compiled information about the University, the Library, digital spaces, physical spaces, money, time, and travel, for future employees to reference during the on-boarding process. The resulting document lists basic information like where to find forms or how to get access to certain pieces of software, but it also explicitly outlines some of the library’s conventions, like when to use which communication tool, that are not immediately obvious to people who are new to the organization.

While this type of documentation is often compiled by supervisors or administrators, it was actually really useful for it to be generated by people so close to the experience of being new, because we were able to remember what we had to figure out on our own. It’s easy to forget how overwhelming it is to be brand new to an organization, and easy to forget all the things we expect people to know without explicitly telling them.  The group dynamic also really helped us flesh out this document, since we all had overlapping but not quite identical lists of things we thought needed to go into it. Whether or not documentation like this already exists at your institution, I think there is value in asking newer employees what they wish had been spelled out for them when they started and sharing it with new hires. Having a pre-formed group that you can consult with will make this process that much easier.

Creating space in your organization for peer support groups can lead to collaborative projects, like this one, that might not have happened without all of us getting together and talking through some of the challenges we’ve experienced as early career librarians. It can also make employees who work in isolation, physical or otherwise, feel less alone, and open up space for us to ask questions and bounce ideas off each that we might not yet feel comfortable discussing with mentors who are more experienced. I imagine it could also be a useful concept to apply at all levels of experience, such as first-time managers or administrators, as they navigate new challenges. Do you have a peer support group, formal or informal, at your institution?

HLS/ACRlog: How to Encourage and Assist New Subject Librarians

Today we welcome a post by Zoë McLaughlin as part of our collaboration with Hack Library School . Zoë McLaughlin is a Master’s student at the University of Michigan’s School of Information.  She plans to become an area studies librarian focused on Southeast Asia.  Her main area of focus is Indonesia, though lately she spends a lot of her time cataloging Malay-language books and learning Thai.  In her spare time, she translates Indonesian fiction and poetry, writes fiction, reads everything she can get her hands on, and dances.  Find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, or at her personal blog.

 

This summer, I attended a meeting that brought together a number of people with an interest in Southeast Asia, including subject librarians.  During the meeting, someone brought up the question of how to encourage and assist people who might want to become Southeast Asia subject librarians themselves.  I did not have any answers at the time, but I’ve since done some thinking about institutional memory, my current precarious-feeling position in the field, and what the future might hold.  With this in mind, I’d like to present some suggestions for encouraging and helping newcomers to Southeast Asia librarianship and to subject librarianship more broadly.

  1. Provide short-term opportunities

The internships I’ve completed have been invaluable in learning about a specialized field.  I can acquire general knowledge of library science in my classes, but working in a real working environment teaches new skills that I cannot learn anywhere else.  I’ve learned about Romanization tables and how to acquire government publications.  We didn’t talk about this in library school.

If you have a short-term project and you could use some help, please circulate that information.  While paid internships and other short-term opportunities are obviously ideal, publicize unpaid opportunities as well—I might be able to find the funding on my own.  This way, I can learn from you; you can get help with a project; and the commitment required from both of us is specific and relatively small.

  1. Provide extended opportunities

Again, I recognize that finding funding for anything, particularly something long-term, can be a challenge.  However, this is the most direct way to influence my professional trajectory and pass on institutional knowledge.  As I begin my own job search, I am considering applying to residencies as a way to get this sort of experience for myself.  That said, residencies are few and far between, especially ones with an area studies focus.

But imagine a residency geared specifically toward training new subject librarians.  This would provide space for new librarians to learn and for seasoned librarians to teach, while removing the pressures of working in what can often be a solitary subject librarian position.

A program such as this would take work to pull off, which leads me to my next point:

  1. Advocate from within your institution

Situated within a university, you are already positioned to advocate for change in a way that I am not.  Propose the creation of learning opportunities—short- and long-term—for emerging professionals to learn the intricacies of the field.  Large, institutional changes need to come from within.  Push for the creation of new residency programs or formalized internship programs.  Present your concerns about the future of the field to your library and ask for help in finding solutions.

  1. Provide guidance

If you are not in a position to provide large or extensive opportunities, your guidance and advice is still invaluable.  Let me know about conferences, meetings, and other events that you think might interest me or might benefit my professional growth.  I cannot stress how important it was when my mentor offhandedly mentioned that I might want to attend the Association for Asian Studies conference.  Not only did I learn much more about the profession simply from attending meetings at the conference, I also made contacts that led me to securing my summer internship.

Small conversations can also benefit me greatly: tell me about the path that led to your current job, tell me about how you track down hard-to-find books, tell me about useful contacts that you’ve made over the years and how you managed to make them.  Informal conversations can be as helpful as more formal opportunities.

  1. Foster partnerships between institutions

Especially in a field as small as Southeast Asian studies, we are spread out between institutions and locations.  New librarians are just at the beginning of their careers while others are retiring; the retention of institutional memory extends beyond a single university’s walls.  Working together, we can share knowledge and collaborate on projects larger than those within a single institution.  This can ensure broad continuity and smoother transitions moving forward.

Reach out and we can work together!  Ultimately, we’re both interested in furthering knowledge about our specific field, so let’s figure out ways to make that happen!