Achilles’ Heel?, or Coping Strategies Turned Strengths

I stumbled across this article the other day. The gist is that leaders can and should embrace their confusion when confronted with illogical situations. Whereas some might see confusion as a liability to be concealed or let confusion debilitate them, strong leaders embrace their confusion as a productive tool. The author suggests that the Reflective Inquiry and Action (RIA) framework can help folks negotiate and use confusion effectively. The five steps outlined in the RIA framework — “embrace your confusion,” “assert your need to make sense,” “structure the conversation,” “listen reflectively and learn,” and “process your response aloud” — feel like common sense really. Looking back, I can recognize some of my own attempts to navigate these steps and can see how productive they were for not only overcoming confusion, but for building relationships with colleagues, too. 

It makes me think about other techniques I’ve embraced — the organizational approaches I use, for example, to help me grab hold and make sense of the thoughts buzzing around in my brain. The reflective techniques I practice when I feel muddled. They’re coping strategies, really, that I’ve adopted to help navigate my work, my thinking, my overwhelm. They’re born out of a need to manage what have definitely felt like long-time weaknesses. But I can also see now that using and refining these organizational and metacognitive techniques over the years has actually turned them into strengths. These have become ways of working, ways of thinking that are powerful and constructive. 

I’ve often heard colleagues both in and out of the library describe how little formal education or training they had to prepare them for their teaching responsibilities. While I had the benefit of a bit of educational theory as an undergrad and a grad school class that gave a nod to teaching, I would largely characterize my own teaching preparation the same way — it’s been a learn-as-you-go situation. I can see how the organizational and metacognitive skills I’ve been developing have also served me well here, giving me a lens through which to examine and reflect on the why, how, and what of teaching and a foundation from which to develop pedagogical approaches. What started as experimentation with personal note taking techniques, for example, has evolved into strategies for working with students to grow their own brainstorming and organizational techniques as they develop topics, consider the different angles embedded in their questions, and manage the sources they’re using to explore those perspectives. The reflective techniques I use to process my own work have helped me introduce metacognitive practices into my teaching — to talk with students about why and how to use those brainstorming and organizational techniques, for example, or as a tool to direct students’ attention and reflection. 

I came to administrative and supervisory positions with little formal training either. And here, too, I’ve been able to translate and further grow these coping strategies turned skills, whether for facilitating collaborative decision-making processes or mentoring a colleague or setting priorities. It turns out these skills — skills for sense-making, really — can be cultivated to be a productive foundation across domains.

I’m about to take on some additional administrative responsibilities so it’s no surprise that my thoughts are lingering around questions of weakness and strength, questions of preparedness. I’ve reflected before on how truly powerful these kinds of “soft” skills are. It strikes me anew how important perception and attitude are in making good use of those soft skills. I feel I’m venturing into Pollyanna, let’s-make-lemonade-out-of-our-lemons territory here and that’s not my intention or not exactly. I just mean that frame of mind and point of view can make all the difference in setting the tone for how we approach a problem or a weakness, how we make use of what we’ve got. 

This all made me think of that statistic I’ve seen cited so often — the one about how women are less likely to apply for jobs than men if they feel they don’t meet 100% of the qualifications. Looking for that source just now, I came across this Harvard Business Review article. While the author doesn’t deny that women may need to build more confidence, which is how I’ve often heard that statistic interpreted, she layers on some additional dimensions. She contends that it’s not just a lack of confidence, but also too strict an adherence to what women see as the rules of hiring. “They thought that the required qualifications were…well, required qualifications. They didn’t see the hiring process as one where advocacy, relationships, or a creative approach to framing one’s expertise could overcome not having the skills and experiences outlined in the job qualifications.” I think it’s that “creative approach to framing one’s expertise” bit that really applies here. We might already be cultivating the skills we need. We might be more ready than we think we are. We just have to recognize our strengths and put them to use.

In search of community

I’ve always felt a strong sense of professional community as a librarian. I had a close local cohort of friends in my distance MLIS program, a fantastic group of ALA Spectrum Scholars who helped me feel accepted and included, and great colleagues. I’ve been lucky to have worked at institutions that invest in the professional development of their librarians (especially early-career folks) and therefore have been able to attend conferences, leadership institutes, and other learning experiences. I joined the social media platform formerly known as Twitter in 2008 and shared thoughts there and via my personal blog, connecting with librarians across the country on everything from critical information literacy to elder millennial jams.

Then the pandemic hit. We still had all the finest web-based apps needed to maintain our ability to work, but something about connecting online didn’t feel right anymore. It was simultaneously too much and not enough. I missed grabbing dinner with friends, going to yoga class in person, and visiting family (among all of the comforts of having a “normal” day-to-day life). The isolation was crushing. All of the fledgling communities I had started to build in a new city crumbled and the long standing professional community in LIS was struggling. We all trickled back into our “normal” routines eventually, but things were markedly different. We were different, and the communities that sustained us throughout the years of isolation were not necessarily the same ones we relied on pre-pandemic.

I finally left what was then still Twitter in 2023, as did many of my colleagues and friends. I’ve struggled to feel motivated enough to attend conferences and professional activities in person given the number of free or low-cost online offerings (book a flight and wait to be reimbursed? in this economy?). But I do miss being able to catch up with colleagues at other institutions in person. I miss the serendipitous collaborations that sprung for venting sessions over coffee or lunch after a thought-provoking presentation. I miss getting to know people outside of their identities as librarians. I don’t know where the librarians are online anymore, but I know that I miss them! Occasionally we see one another in professional service organization meetings, private-chatting each other via Zoom, but of course, it’s not quite the same.

I am very curious to discover what community looks like now for folks in LIS, especially early-career folks. I will admit that moving into a management position and recognizing that I’ve been in libraries for 17 years(!!!!) have also contributed to a shift in community for me, but it hasn’t changed the fact that I need a community. I think we all do. We all want to feel understood and valued in our profession. So what does librarian community look like now, and what can we make it?

From Technician to Librarian

I graduated with my Library & Information Technology diploma in Spring 2013. I went to Red River College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, being the only library-related program in the province. I can remember, in a pre-interview to the program, one of the instructors asking me, “how come you don’t you get your MLIS instead?” Good question–I had thought about it, but there isn’t a graduate-level library school in my area, in my province even; I would’ve had to move.

I started in academic libraries as a library technician (‘library assistant’) in January 2015 at the University of Manitoba, and soon after began thinking about completing my Master’s degree. Two years prior, in 2013, the University of Alberta began an online, course-based MLIS program that students could complete entirely online. This program opened a door for me, where I could complete the degree part-time while continuing to work at the University of Manitoba full-time. I applied in Winter 2016 and started my Master’s program in Fall 2016. Of course, this was a busy time for me, working full-time, mainly evenings and weekends, going to grad school part-time, and with the birth of my son in 2017, my plate was full, but it was worth it—as after I graduated, I was doing the work I wanted to be doing.

Why had I been thinking of getting my MLIS so soon after starting work as an academic library tech? Immediately I saw the separation in job responsibilities of library assistants and librarians, and I knew I wanted to be a librarian to do the work of a librarian, things like library instruction and working on my own research.

There’s a major difference in the assigned duties to library technicians versus librarians. One of the major differences was technician duties were focused on day-to-day tasks, like staffing the public service desk, book pickup requests, and managing the reserves collection. As a tech, I would spend time making analytics reports in our ILS, Ex Libris’ Alma or contacting patrons with overdue fines. I also spent a lot of time troubleshooting and solving patron questions, either during shifts at the public service desk, on virtual reference, or helping a coworker. Sometimes these questions weren’t library-related, but I would do my best to find the right campus service or department that the patron needed; I don’t get those types of questions nearly as often as a librarian.

Librarians have day-to-day duties, of course, but in contrast, there’s a lot more long-term planning and project work; you’re removed, in a lot of ways, from the on-the-ground functioning of the library. There’s a lot more meetings, a lot more opportunities to plan or change how the library works, and a lot less of ‘keeping the lights on.’

There’s increased decision-making throughout my role as a librarian. I would often as a technician defer challenging or difficult questions to my supervisor. Now, I have the latitude to make judgement calls on my own. When I was working as a public-facing technician, there was a real team aspect to the work. We would debrief about challenging reference questions or give background to something we anticipated in the coming days or weeks, things like popular reserve items or students needing to complete an assignment by speaking with a particular librarian.  

Although I work as part of a team of science librarians, there’s much more independence in how you structure your week/month/year as a librarian—not to mention the lack of shift work. Independence makes it natural to look ahead to advancing throughout your career, with my professional performance, professional development, research, and service as a major function of this. I have more of a growth mindset as a librarian, compared to my work as a technician.

I can remember helping to put together our health sciences’ library newsletter, with several librarians. After a year or so of this work, one of the librarians thanked me profusely for my help, and asked if she could write me a formal thank you letter if that would be useful. As a library technician, I declined as I didn’t think it would be useful. As a librarian, I look for those physical acknowledgements of volunteerism and accomplishment, to use in future performance reviews and promotion packages. As a technician, I didn’t have that mindset since those formal processes of career advancement weren’t a part of the job. But thinking back on that offer, a physical recognition of dutiful and intentional work, even as a technician, should’ve been a priority of mine. Technicians can have growth mindsets as well, and advance through their career, even if there aren’t the same institutional markers, like promotion in rank, available.

I wanted to become a librarian not only because of the differences in duties and type of work, but I wanted to challenge myself. Like most people in our profession, I’m a lifelong learner, always wanting to learn something new and to challenge myself. And because I’m challenged more often, I have increased job satisfaction as a librarian, in addition to the differences I outlined above: independence, decision-making in my work and the work of my library system, and career advancement.

Claire Hill (2014), in her study exploring work relationships between library technicians and librarians, found 77% of survey respondents mention a need to improve relationships between the two groups. Examples from respondents include a need for mutual respect (regardless of educational qualification), more library technician professional development, and modern reworking of library technician scope-of-work and career advancement. Based on my experience, I never felt a lack of mutual respect—in fact I felt recognized by my librarian peers for my work as a technician, such as the librarian offering to write me a thank you letter for my work. I do think there could be more technician-focused professional development, but it’s out there if you look for it (and if you have the time and/or funding).  

But there certainly could be more done in rethinking technician work and career advancement. Personally, I think along with rethinking technician scope-of-work, there needs to be a shift from seeing library technicians as “paraprofessionals,” only useful to assist librarians. I’m a big fan of the phrase “library worker,” to encompass technicians and librarians alike.

New models of academic librarianship, such as the functional specialist model, threaten to sideline library technicians, disrupting their work as the academic library shifts to prioritize and restructure librarian work, and putting aside library technicians. This is an area where technicians can be involved in decision-making, and by extension, demonstrate mutual respect. Technicians can bring their professional interests and expertise to the forefront of functional work. As argued by Hoffmann and Carlisle-Johnston (2021) who write about librarians, but certainly can encompass technicians as well, in current or future reorganization, we can keep in mind foundations of liaison library work by “building relationships, anticipating and meeting needs, and drawing on specialized expertise” (Conclusion section, para. 1).

While it has now been some time since I worked as a technician, I still draw upon those experiences as a librarian; and of course, I remember the dull and gruelling shift work in the late evening and over the weekend. I certainly won’t forget the work or those I worked closely with any time soon.

How many of you are library technicians? Once were library technicians? It’s a surprisingly common career trajectory for librarians to have been library techs. Leave a comment, I’d be happy to hear from you. If you’re a library tech thinking about getting your MLIS and want to talk more, get in touch!

References
Hill, C. (2014). The professional divide: Examining workplace relationships between librarians and library technicians. The Australian Library Journal, 63(1), 23-34. https://doi.org/10.1080/00049670.2014.890020

Hoffmann, K. & Carlisle-Johnston, E. (2021, March 26). “Just like when i was a liaison”: Applying a liaison approach to functional library models. The Journal of Creative Library Practice. https://creativelibrarypractice.org/2021/03/26/just-like-when-i-was-a-liaison-applying-a-liaison-approach-to-functional-library-models/

ALA’s 2023 Emerging Leaders Program

Over this past year, I have been in ALA’s Emerging Leaders’ program, for the class of 2023. I consider myself very fortunate to have been selected to be a part of this year’s Emerging Leaders; it’s been a transformative experience. The people involved in putting this program on do an amazing job, and the people I met through the Emerging Leader program show me the future of librarianship is bright. I wanted to write a reflection on Emerging Leaders so others can think about taking part in a program to increase their library community of peers and enhance their leadership skills.

ALA Emerging Leaders, Class of 2023

Overview

The ALA Emerging Leaders program is a leadership program for librarians with less than five years professional experience, intended to gain leadership skills through working groups and introduce participants to the ALA governance structure to use leadership skills through future ALA volunteerism.

ALA Emerging Leaders attend LibLearnX (previously called ALA Midwinter) and ALA Annual to meet with their group and the other leaders, work on projects, hear from guest speakers, make connections, and ultimately present their project work with a poster presentation at ALA Annual.

I found the program useful for three main reasons: leadership development (ALA-specific and librarianship more generally), working on an ALA division or section-sponsored project, and making lasting connections.

Leadership Development

The motivation for my application to Emerging Leaders was to develop my leadership skills. I want to continue to develop as a librarian and as a leader, both formally and informally. While the program does not offer in-depth leadership training, you develop leadership skills through collaborative working groups and other settings throughout the program. You work closely with your group throughout the first-half of the year, working as a team to accomplish the goals of your group’s project.

Through this collaborative working group, there’s the typical leadership skills you’ve likely encountered while working in groups throughout grad school or at your library—things like organizing, delegating, time management, communication, and ensuring group members are meeting their deadlines.

There are also guest speakers that present to the Leaders at both LibLearnX and Annual, and webinars between the conferences. These speakers address a variety of topics, but you can learn a lot about what it takes to be a library leader, both at their library and throughout ALA. While some speakers were more relevant and engaging than others, I appreciated the time they took to speak to our group, and I took away something from every speaker.

Group Project

One of the main goals of the program is for participants to contribute to projects proposed by ALA divisions and sections. Between LibLearnX and Annual, Leaders are put into working groups and work on one of that year’s projects. In this way, the Emerging Leaders give back to ALA throughout the program. There were ten projects to choose from for 2023, some examples were examining censorship to update statistics and informational material, developing new membership onboarding, documenting forty years of the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA), and engaging library community members to vote.

Group B: Chris Vaughn (Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), Justin Fuhr (me!), Kelli Anne Gecawich (Georgia Southern University), Julia Martyniuk (University of Toronto), and Lee Bareford (Georgia Southern University) (L-R)

I selected a project by my sponsoring section, ACRL’s Distance and Online Learning Section, to develop and publish a survey to gain insight into accessible online learning tools that academic librarians are using.

This involved:

  • Scanning the literature to find research on accessibility issues and universal design,
  • Developing survey questions and creating a draft in Qualtrics,
  • Piloting the survey and implementing feedback, and
  • Presenting our work through a poster, video, and written report.

To see our group’s work, it’s available at http://hdl.handle.net/1993/37407.

Lasting Connections

One of the greatest benefits of the program, at least for me, was meeting people: meeting my working group members, meeting the program coordinators and hosts (special shout out to Beatrice Calvin, Christina Fuller-Gregory, and Libby Holtmann!), meeting Chimene Tucker and other members of ACRL’s Distance and Online Learning Section, and attendees of ALA LibLearnX and Annual.

But along with this great group of people, there are the other Emerging Leaders. The 2023 class of leaders were an eager, productive, fun-loving group of future library leaders. These are people who I believe will end up leading our libraries and leading ALA; they’re inspirational and you know they’re headed towards great things in librarianship. We came from all corners of the continent, from all types of libraries.

I can remember in the week leading up to LibLearnX, one of the members of our cohort created a collab Google doc to arrange carpooling from the airport. I put my name on there, along with when I was arriving, and I got a text in the week leading up to LibLearnX asking if I wanted to share a ride into the city, with a couple other people. I didn’t know it at the time, but the two people I shared a ride with – we spent nearly the entire conference together, along with others from our cohort.

After walking down Frenchmen Street in New Orleans with daiquiris in hand, well, I like to think we’ve solved librarianship. Not quite, but I did bond with my cohort and now have a strong network of inspirational future library leaders who are so fun to talk with and very, very supportive.

Beth Jarrell (Sanibel Public Library), Stacey Akahoshi (Maricopa County Library District), Justin Fuhr (me!), and Laura Tadena (Austin Public Library) (L-R) at Jackson Square, New Orleans, LA

While the Emerging Leaders program consist of librarians from all types of libraries, these were mainly public librarians that I was talking to and walking around New Orleans with. This was so nice because I’m often stuck in academic libraryland, talking with other academic librarians about very important and very serious issues in academic librarianship. It is nice to have a close group of friends who are public librarians, to expand our connections throughout librarianship, and hear new perspectives. To hear from these librarians about their experiences both inside and outside the library, from their personal and professional lives, I can say these people are role models. I’m so thankful to have met them.

Then there was my working group, a group of academic librarians working on our project. Unlike some projects I encountered while at library school (so sorry, University of Alberta SLIS alumni!), this was a highly motivated group, eager to meet our goals with work that we’re all proud of. Our group of academic librarians met regularly between the conferences, and before and after our working meetings, we’d chat about the weather (who knew it varied so much across the continent?!) and catch up with what’s going in in our lives. These were great moments, and it was an honour to work with the others in my group.

The Memory of The Time

Overall, the Emerging Leaders program is a fantastic leadership development initiative and one I took away a lot from. With elements of leadership development, ALA volunteerism fast-tracking, creating deliverables for ALA’s divisions and sections, and making lasting connections, there’s so much to the Emerging Leaders program. I’ve enriched myself and set myself up for future stages of my library career. This was a group of future library leaders who—knowing nothing about each other—left the program as friends.

I am so thankful I was accepted to the program, that my library, supervisor, and library director were supportive of my attendance, that I was sponsored by ARCL’s Distance and Online Learning Section, and that I was privileged enough to attend conferences in New Orleans and Chicago.

If you’re able and eligible, I highly recommend considering applying. Applications are now open for the Class of 2024 Emerging Leaders program. The deadline to apply is September 9, 2023. If anyone has any questions about Emerging Leaders, or is considering putting together an application and wants some advice, please reach out to me! I’d be happy to share.

Getting started with professional development

Last week, I did my first conference presentation as a tenure-track academic librarian! I’m actively resisting the urge to qualify or minimize that statement – it was virtual, it wasn’t about my own hardcore research, etc. I did it, and I’m proud of that! It got me thinking about professional activity as it relates to tenure (or in Salisbury University’s case for librarians, permanent status). I am not someone who comes from a family of academics; I distinctly remember getting “librarian” on one of those career profiles in high school, and immediately thinking, “Oh, no. That requires a master’s degree.” I never thought I’d be here, entrenched in academia and needing to think about publishing research. I’ll talk a bit about my most recent presentation, then some of my broader thoughts.  

Thank you to the North American Virtual Reference Conference for the opportunity to speak. My talk was titled, Supervisor at a distance: supporting undergraduate reference workers. At Salisbury University, I am the Research Help Desk Coordinator. I am responsible for hiring and supervising 4-5 student workers in a given semester; they are tasked with answering all sorts of questions, including reference and research help ones. The presentation focused on current training and feedback strategies as well as initiatives I’d like to implement in the future. I don’t ever work on the desk with them – the research help desk only has one person at any given time, which is why I refer to myself as “at a distance.” I am not that far removed from my own student worker experience, so I’m constantly thinking about what I had or wished I had for their experience, too. For this first year, I made some minor changes – giving students more consistent feedback on their work and implementing a “Chat Transcript of the Month” email – but for the most part, I’ve been trying to see how the desk runs now before making drastic changes. These are my slides and references, though I’m happy to talk and answer any questions.  

What was cool about this particular conference was that I’d actually presented here before; my supervisor as a graduate assistant gave me the opportunity to co-present here about my own entirely remote training as a result of COVID.  Additionally, while I was a senior in undergrad, I presented at a statewide conference for writing centers. I hope to offer a similar collaboration to my student workers at some point. I try to make sure they know that I’m invested in their success, not just as workers but also as students. I’m positive that having that previous experience as a student gave me the confidence to submit now.  

Even still, I find it hard sometimes to pursue broader research opportunities. Publishing in something like a journal still feels enigmatic or nebulous, even though I am intimately familiar with different publications, given the nature of my daily work as a research librarian. I think part of this is personal; I can be a true champion of others’ work and cheer on students and faculty alike with their research topics, but when it comes to my own, it’s harder to do. The imposter syndrome can be really intense. My inner critic questions how I could possibly add to the already bustling academic conversation, or my attempts at writing something like a journal article get held up in the research phase, wherein I try to consume everything possible about the topic. (My Zotero library is… robust, to say the least. Thank goodness for collections!) I also have so many different interests that it’s hard to narrow my focus on one research topic; I’ve heard this sentiment over and over from librarians, too. I often set out to learn more about one thing and find myself down an entirely different pathway. 

In that vein, I’d like to turn it over to you, readers: what did your first foray into research or conferences look like? How did it come about? Did you have collaborators, or was it a solo venture? Do you have advice for new academic librarians who are navigating what “professional activity” means for them in their job expectations?