How are you doing? (part 2)

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

Last April, some ACRLog team members reflected on how things were going in our respective libraries. At that time, we were in the very early days of the pandemic and had no idea what was ahead of us, or for how long. Now, over a year later, we’re all still navigating an uncertain and stressful landscape. We thought we’d pause to reflect again for an updated view of how things are going where we work.  

What’s the situation at your institution, at the time of writing?

Alex Harrington: All our students are back, although instructors may be using more remote work than they used to. College of Medicine employees are encouraged to continue working from home if they can. There are temperature-checking iPads at the entrance, but nobody is posted there anymore to ensure that people use them. Our library hours were cut and I think they’re going to stay that way, but it wasn’t a drastic cut.

Emily Hampton Haynes: The campus is open to faculty, staff, and students only. As a community college with only a few main entrances, it’s easy to manage access to the campus through two designated screening areas. Most of our classes are fully online, and about 25% of classes meet on campus (prioritizing classes that have an in-person component, such as science labs, art studio, and nursing classes). 

In the library specifically, we work a rotating shift schedule where only one person from each department is on-campus at the same time. For example, I’m on campus for 4-hour reference shifts Thursday evenings and Friday mornings, and the rest of the time I’m working remotely. In the last year, about 95% of the info lit classes I’ve taught have been online, synchronous instruction through Teams, with some tutorial videos and a handful of in-person classes. Teaching through a mask is no joke, I don’t envy those who have to do it every day!

Jen Jarson: We don’t have many students on campus at this point. Most classes are still happening online this semester. Some classes have in-person components that bring students to campus–a few classes that are regularly scheduled to be fully or partially in-person and some that occasionally require students to come in for exams or particular learning experiences. Our campus doesn’t have any residential facilities, so while students are welcome to come to campus to make use of spaces and resources, they are rarely just incidentally hanging around. As a result of all this, traffic in the library has been very low. Our library space is open, but on a reduced schedule because of COVID protocols related to staffing (although there isn’t demand for more hours given the very low on-campus traffic). Our information literacy instruction program is entirely online–and working quite well that way, thankfully. Same for reference/research consultation. Our institution is still requiring that we quarantine returned materials and we have restrictions in place regarding accessing/borrowing print materials due to our agreement with the HathiTrust to enable their Emergency Temporary Access Service. So collections-related services (like physical course reserves, a big deal for us) have taken the biggest hit, I think.

Maura Smale: Our campus is still mostly closed — there are two buildings that have some face to face classes, mostly in the allied health departments and a few other hands-on lab classes, with probably less than 10% of students coming to campus this semester. The library is within a complex of 4 connected buildings that aren’t open to students, and our space is still closed. We’re still providing all library services online, including 100% online instruction and reference, and haven’t yet started accepting returns of or circulating print materials; our textbook reserve collection, which has historically seen heavy use, isn’t available. Some library faculty and staff are coming in to work in our offices on a voluntary basis, mostly for the change of scenery (that’s definitely the case for me, and I’ve been working in my office one day/week).

Veronica Arellano Douglas: Our main library remains open, but with limited hours, while our subject libraries are open Monday-Friday only, again, with limited hours. My colleagues in Access Services are the people keeping the building open, while a few folks from other departments come in once or twice a week to work on tasks that can only be in the building. My department, Liaison Services, is still working from home. The university’s Spring semester classes just ended, making the campus seem even quieter than it already was earlier in the semester. Most classes were online this spring and that will continue to be the case for the summer session. 

What do you anticipate the Fall will look like for your library?

Maura: As of this writing my university (the City University of New York) is aiming for 25% in-person instruction in the Fall, with each college making its own specific plans. I’m really hoping that CUNY will require all students who will be on campus in the Fall to be vaccinated (and honestly I’d prefer that requirement for employees, too), but there’s been no decision on that yet. For CUNY a big concern is public transportation — nearly all students and employees travel to our almost-entirely commuter colleges on subways and buses, and many folx are still understandably hesitant to return to mass transit. At my college it’s likely that the majority of face to face courses will remain in the two buildings that are currently hosting classes, and it’s not clear yet what parts of the buildings where our library is located will be accessible to students. In the library we are moving forward with plans to begin circulating print materials again (grab and go); instruction and reference will stay fully online in the Fall. It seems unlikely that we’ll be open for study space or computer use (there are other computer labs on campus that will be open), though our plans may change over the Summer as (hopefully) more of NYC is vaccinated. 

Jen: At this point, my institution is planning to return to pre-pandemic levels of in-person instruction. (Of course, that’s dependent on the status of the pandemic at that point.) It’s unclear how social distancing guidelines will be revised, though. If the guidelines stay at 6 feet or are only partially reduced, we won’t be able to accommodate that many in-person classes given limited classroom sizes at my campus. Those decisions will impact how many students are on campus, but either way we’re expecting to expand our library hours back to normal, or near-normal. We anticipate that mandates to quarantine returned materials and other restrictions on collections will be lifted, so we’re excited at the prospect of restoring our physical course reserves service which so many of our students count on. We still have a lot to figure out–our information literacy instruction program, our space, our staffing schedule, and more–because so much of that hinges on what expectations the university sets about distancing and other COVID-related guidelines. 

Veronica: Honestly, I have no clue. Right now we are very much in an information vacuum. Being a public institution means that so much of our administrative design making is based on state-mandates and given the governor’s propensity to open everything it seems likely we will be on campus in the fall barring no major changes in the medical situation (which is a huge unknown). We’re trying to plan space arrangements within the library and our classrooms and encourage faculty and librarians to continue to use online lessons and online synchronous instruction. In some ways my biggest fear is that we will just go back to work as it was pre-pandemic, having changed nothing about the ways in which we accommodate worker needs to create safe, healthy work environments. We’ll see, I guess. 

What have we learned during the pandemic that may enrich our work practices as we transition toward a time when in-person, on-campus engagement is more common?

Angie Rathmel: There’s been very deliberate attention to this question at my campus, which aims to resume mostly in-person learning this Fall. My library colleagues noted how successfully we have collectively been able to provide our services, even with the majority of our workforce remote. I supervise a unit where remote and onsite work during the pandemic split out at about 85% – 15% respectively. This small but essential in-person staff presence forged unofficial leadership channels, required a more deliberate communication style, and created a distinctive experience of collective trust. All of these I think can enrich our practices as we are more increasingly together in person. One would think these successes, combined with the practical and technological efficiencies and productivity gains, would lead us to normalize remote work in ways we haven’t previously. But I’m discovering how counter that idea runs to the prevailing notion of “returning to normal”. I’m still trying to reconcile this disconnect, but feel strongly that enriching our work practices requires us to do more than overlay these lessons onto a former normal. The lesson that I feel we need to keep learning through practice is the awareness of how our decisions and actions impact others.If we were to practice more generous thinking as we try to answer this question, it might look less like “what did I learn?” and more like “what did I learn about your experience that was different than mine?” or “How did my experience shape yours and vice versa.” See also “how can we best support one another…”

Hailley Fargo: As a librarian who helps to host events and workshops outside the classroom, the pandemic really pushed me and my colleagues to think more intentionally/strategically about what events we could support in an online environment. We worked more closely with student clubs and offered smaller scale events like zine workshops. It allowed us to learn more about the student pandemic experience and host events where every participant was really jazzed and excited to be there. I hope we can take this lesson and bring it into a more hybrid and or in-person situation. It’s nice to be able to focus on meaningful outreach while also coming to a better understanding of our student community.

Veronica: I’ve learned how important childcare, eldercare, and other kinds of full-time caregiving (which includes K-12 school and caring for adults with special needs) is to all of the work that we do. Without it, our work is extremely difficult to impossible. My biggest hope is that we start to pay caregivers what they are worth. Secondary to that, I’d like to continue to see flexible scheduling for all employees who are caregivers and parents, who suffer from illness, who have disabilities, and who need the kind of flexibility we’ve had this year to do the kind of work that keeps our libraries running. I take a break from work everyday to pick up my son from school at 3pm because there is no after-school care in a pandemic. When we get home I fix him a snack, get him set up with something to do or watch, then I go back to work. This would never have happened pre-pandemic, but what will happen post-pandemic? Will I still be able to pick him up and continue my work at home everyday? 3 times a week? Once a week?

What practices do you want to keep when you return to campus? What do you want to leave behind?  

Alex: I very much want to continue to work from home some of the time. The extra time in close proximity to my cat and the ability to get up and do a housework task in the middle of the day (so I don’t have to tackle it when I get home) has done wonders for my mental health. Certain work is easier to get done at home. Also, in March 2020, we implemented weekly check-in meetings on Monday mornings, to update the rest of our location’s library employees on important matters, and to make sure everyone is doing generally okay. I think we should keep them, because it connects us and makes sure nobody misses important information or deadlines, and gives us a chance to share the good and the bad.

I won’t mind leaving behind virtual-only instruction. Some workshops and orientations, I just do better in person. I like to walk around, gesture a lot (which gets cut off by my webcam), and see reactions to my jokes. (I fully support turning off your camera if you Just Can’t Right Now, but I also feed on laughter and need to be validated while I teach.)

Emily:

  • Want to keep: The slower, contemplative pace for planning instruction. The creativity and problem-solving of making online learning materials. The awareness and respect for colleagues’ and students’ lives outside of the workplace.
  • Want to leave: The isolation from my coworkers, the confusion and hurt feelings from all-virtual communication, the two hour Teams meetings with no stretch breaks.

Jen: I agree with what my colleagues are noting here about compassion and flexibility. Additionally, I’m grateful for the new techniques that teaching online has given me an opportunity to explore. I recognize that I might be an outlier here! I’m as Zoomed out as anyone, of course. But the challenge of trying to engage students in the online classroom has actually helped me think about how to revitalize my in-person instruction, too. I definitely plan to sustain (and hopefully grow) some of the techniques I’ve been using. 

Maura: We were a 100% onsite all the time workplace before the pandemic, and I’m hoping we can keep some flexibility in all of our work moving forward. This is likely to be complicated by the different classifications that library workers hold at my university: we have library faculty, what the university terms professional staff, IT staff, and civil service staff, represented by two different unions. While of course we haven’t been able to offer every library service remotely during the pandemic, everyone has had work to do and everyone’s contributed to keeping library resources and services available for our patrons. I’m committed to advocating for all library workers to have the flexibility to do some work from home in the future.

I do look forward to seeing my colleagues in person again, and to having meetings where we’re all in the same room. I’ve tried to be very mindful about communication this year, not calling a meeting when an email will suffice, and not sending too many emails if I can help it. But communication has still been a huge challenge, especially considering all of my colleagues’ different commitments, with some folx more Zoom-bound than others. Once we all have a more regular presence in the physical library I hope that communication will get easier.

Hailley: I want to keep the boundaries I have been able to create between my work and my personal life (including hobbies!). I don’t know why the pandemic has aided so much in creating that separation but I hope to maintain it as we return to in-person work. Similar to Emily, I’m excited to leave behind the solo work; I’m so excited to run into colleagues in the library and have those spur of the moment chats that can result in a new idea or collaboration.

Veronica: I want to continue to offer virtual options for student consultations and classes. I think it  meets a need we’ve always had as a large urban university where so many students and instructors commute long distances. It takes into account everyone’s personal needs and life situations.

How can we best support one another as we prepare for and navigate this transition back to campuses? 

Alex: Flexibility in all possible ways. It is very important to remember that everyone is going to recover and transition in their own way, in their own order, and at their own pace. Communication, too, will continue to be key. This includes: asking others about their comfort level with certain procedures, letting people know where you are in the transition process, and expressing your needs and boundaries while hearing others’.

Angie: I keep thinking about how the pandemic has reinforced a practice for how our individual actions and responsibilities primarily protect and support others more than ourselves — my mask protects you and your mask protects me. Keeping this “other” focus in our communications, in our decision-making reflections, and in our individual actions is the best way I see to collectively support one another and collectively prepare to transition back to campus (or in any change, maybe). 

As a sort of “other” when it came to in-person-work, introverts gained a level of ease and privilege in remote-work.  Those who have been working in person throughout the pandemic (both introverts and extroverts) are now that “other” as the majority transition back. If we don’t provide opportunities to surface the nuanced needs of each “other” in all kinds of circumstances, we won’t know how to support or fully benefit from our learning.  Creating space for both those shared and distinctive experiences could be a particularly healing act we all need right now.

Emily: “Grace” is going to be my refrain as we transition back to campus. We don’t know what Fall will look like at our community college yet — although administration wants us 100% in person, their decision will be based on numbers and recommendations from the county health department. So as of now a lot feels still up in the air. And that’s why having grace for one another is such an important guiding principle for me. What this could look like in practice:

  • Flexibility around arrival time – We’ve all gotten used to our 30 second commute, and transitioning back is going to be an adjustment. I’d like to see redundancy in scheduling for the first hour of the day, so that opening the library is not on the shoulders of just one person.
  • Social support for using vacation leave – I discussed this in my last post, but with the return of students and our old routines, PTO will be an essential form of self-care. I want my coworkers to know that I’m willing to cover for them if they need a break at the desk or a full day off, even when the semester gets busy.
  • Give each other the benefit of the doubt – I could see friction arising around sharing work space again as we return to campus. But let’s give folks the benefit of the doubt when they inconvenience us, or when a comment lands weird in an email or note left on the reference desk. I intend to not take things personally, to ask for clarification when I’m confused or hurt, and let the little things go when I can.
  • Patience with students – Sure, there are things that bug me about student behaviors in the library: students that wait til the last minute and stress me out with their urgency, ask me to do their homework for them, or make appointments and don’t show up. I want to extend them grace too, and remember that this will be a big adjustment for them as much as it is for me, after a year of profound trauma and chronic stress.

Maura: I am +1 on everything that my fellow ACRLoggers have said: flexibility, patience, compassion, and just overall emphasizing care in all of our interactions — with each other, with students and others on campus — is what I’m keeping top of mind as we start getting back into the physical library. I’m so proud of the work we’ve all done, we’ve all supported each other through this very difficult year, keeping safety at the forefront. And while I know there are many challenges ahead, I think we’re in the best place we could be to address them. I’m also going to continue to encourage my colleagues (and myself!) to use our vacation days — even if we’re not going to be traveling during the summer, I hope we can all take some time to rest.

Veronica: I think that we need to understand that not everyone is going to acclimate to post-pandemic life in the same way. Be kind and understanding to your colleagues, or as Emily put it, show them a measure of grace. Some folks might not be comfortable sitting in a small meeting room, others might not want to go to lunch as often, and still others may want to hug everyone they meet. Faculty and students will need time to adjust to in person relationships again and our virtual connections may start to suffer a bit. We will just need to remind ourselves that everyone is adjusting in their own way.

How are you doing? How are things going at your library? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 

Reflecting on library space through the lens of the pandemic

Before the pandemic turned our world upside down, I was working on some space-related projects at my library. A recent update to a small lounge area had a notable payoff. Collaboration with my colleague in the Learning Center was making slow but steady progress toward a renovation to expand and enhance our spaces and services in a Learning Commons model. The need for and value of this work were clear. The progress and outcomes were gratifying.

I’ve written a few times about some of this work and the opportunities and challenges of my lovely but tiny library space. The public health crisis has cast our space and these efforts to improve it, like pretty much everything, in new light. Obviously, slashed higher ed budgets and broader economic challenges suggest that there will be increased competition for limited resources to fund any space project, particularly a large and pricey one like our Learning Commons proposal. But the pandemic will affect higher education’s short-, medium- and long-term future in many arenas, not just fiscal; the impact on demand for and nature of library space is difficult to anticipate, reducing our ability to plan and advocate strategically.

In the short-term, space has featured prominently in the many meetings about the fall semester at my commuter campus and across my institution. Currently, my institution is planning for a mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote courses. At the core of our many space-related conversations has been the recognition that access to physical space matters even in this very virtual incarnation of higher ed, particularly for our most vulnerable students. On a practical level, we need to offer on-campus space (and resources) to students who don’t have access to reliable technology at home or whose home environments aren’t productive or safe. We also need to offer on-campus space for students to participate in Zoom classes sandwiched between in-person classes. Like many folks, we’re working out how to safely open and manage access to our space. 

Then, there are the more theoretical conversations about the sense of identity and community that physical (library) space fosters. We’ve cast our proposed Learning Commons, for example, as a welcoming learner-centered space where students can focus, study, collaborate, and access academic assistance. In our advocacy, we’ve cited the impact of the library’s and learning center’s physical constraints on students; they have had to vie for limited space or even leave campus, thereby missing out on opportunities to engage with services, programs, faculty and staff, and peers. We’ve argued that these missed opportunities reduce their ability to make connections on campus and build community. Library space helps our students dig in, connect, and belong. How can we attempt to recover or replace what we’re losing during this time? While perhaps not our most pressing concern given all the demands of planning for fall classes, it’s still an important one–for this coming semester and beyond. 

The medium- and long-term vision for our space projects, then, feels murky. Surely, expanding the physical library with more square footage would mean that we could accommodate more library users while complying with physical distancing guidelines. But it’s more than that. In our newly upended world, the assets and liabilities of all public space are thrown into sharp relief. The pandemic calls on us to reconsider how spaces are designed and how they’re used. How do we plan for library space projects in this time of uncertainty not just in higher ed but in our world? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

“Student Needs Are Academic Needs”: My 2 Cents

This week I watched a new report, “Student Needs Are Academic Needs,” make the rounds of community college listserv discussions. I watched the discourse around this report get kinda heated, so I thought I’d share my reaction.

As a community college librarian, I was interested to read a study with community college students in mind. While our population overlaps with 4-year institutions, it’s meaningful to see the experiences of community college students examined here specifically. The researchers found that students “see the library not only as an informational resource, an academic resource, or simply a quiet place to study, but also as a community resource within the campus context.” 

I think that’s the part some readers are taking issue with: the idea that students see the library as the place for both academic support and personal assistance with things like childcare, wifi hotspots, and help navigating college.

I recognize the anxiety that comes up when strapped librarians read a report that says students would like to find social services and childcare at the library. There’s a legitimate fear that the library’s mission will become so broad in scope that our original vision is obscured, and that expanding our services will come at the cost of burned-out library workers. 

But I think we should be redirecting the conclusions of this report outside the library; share these results with our larger institution or funding body as an indication that the library needs more resources to provide or host desired services. It’s certainly not the intentions of the co-authors of this report to suggest that libraries must become all things to all people; they’re quoted in Inside Higher Ed as saying libraries shouldn’t take all of these ideas literally.

A report is just that: it reports on the state of things, in this case what students need. Students say the library is one of the most likely places they’d go for non-curricular help. If that is the case, then we should think creatively about how that help can be waiting for them where they are seeking it. I’m not threatened by these conclusions because my first thought when I hear that a student would access a social worker’s services if they were in the library is “Great, let’s collaborate with a social worker,” not “Oh, I guess I have to become a social worker now.” As Christine Wolff-Eisenberg said in that same IHE piece:

“A lot of these services are going to require deep collaboration so the library is not reinventing the wheel when other resources exist.” 

The ideas in this report spark my imagination more than my temper, but maybe I’m just in a particularly optimistic mood. Has your library tried or considered any programs like the service concepts posed in this report? 

What is library space for?: Reflecting on space use and noise management

On some days, my library feels like it’s bursting at the seams with students. The library is a popular destination for students seeking space for their varying work needs, not to mention the myriad other reasons libraries make a great destination. Yet our space is quite small. And, as you might imagine, lots of people using a small space for different reasons presents challenges. Perhaps chief among those challenges is noise management. Handling noise conflicts is not fun or, at first glance, particularly interesting. But grappling with noise management and space use conflicts at my library this year has, I think, uncovered some interesting reactions, conversations, and questions.

The libraries I’ve worked in previously were large, even huge. Their ample square footage, multiple floors, and layouts provided natural zones that lent themselves to differing uses and inherently provided sound barriers. Even with those advantages, though, we still sometimes struggled with noise problems. I’ve been working at my current library for just about eight months so its particular noise challenges are relatively new to me. We’re lucky to have such an aesthetically pleasing space with attractive furnishings and lots of natural light. The architect made good use of the space, creatively lining the walls with the collection to maximize work/seating areas. Despite these assets, we are still hampered by its size (did I mention it’s small?) and open layout (essentially a string of rectangular classrooms with the walls removed). Noise carries across the space with surprising ease.

Students come to our library for many of the same reasons they visit any library: to find a quiet, even silent, space to study; to work with a partner or group; to do individual work, but in a group setting; to borrow library materials; to ask library staff for assistance; to use our computers, printers, and scanners; to socialize; to nap or relax; and more. Our small size inhibits our ability to be a place for all of these things for our students, but we’re trying to do our best. We have, for example, attempted to create zones designated for silent study and collaborative study at opposite ends of the space to help reduce noise contamination. We have experimented with a variety of approaches to noise management: signage, active monitoring of noise levels and intervention when noise spikes, white noise machines to help drown out noise, and so on. Noise still bleeds throughout the library’s close quarters.

Since I’ve joined this library, I’ve had a number of conversations with students about their space frustrations and needs. Because space is tight, I think students’ uses of the library space are more often subject to scrutiny and judgement by others seeking space for their own needs. I’ve been rather surprised by some students’ requests that library staff police and restrict access to the library space, set strict policies governing use, and impose harsh punishments for violating said policies. Why, some have inquired for example, should students be permitted to nap or relax in the lounge area when others need space for academic work? On a campus where space is such a hot commodity and silence is so hard to find, some have suggested, why isn’t the library entirely devoted to silent study?

These noise management challenges and conflicts over space use have led me to reflect on and question my values and assumptions regarding library space. What responsibilities do library staff have for policing students’ uses of the library? What library space needs and uses should take priority? What is library space for? So far I’ve landed here… I care and am concerned about our students’ needs. I want our library to be responsive to our students. Yet I’m wary of taking any steps that limit the library’s function as a learning space. As educators and leaders on our campus, I think it’s our responsibility to promote a more multi-faceted vision of what learning means and looks like, and all the ways library space is learning space. I think it’s our responsibility to work to balance students’ differing needs and make the space as welcoming and usable as possible for as many students as possible.

How do you manage noise challenges in your library? How do you balance and promote library space as learning space for various needs? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

Supported Vulnerability and Help-Seeking

Early in my career I was my library’s liaison to the Graduate College of Social Work. The commonly held sentiment among my colleagues was that I would have no trouble encouraging social work students to meet with me or ask for help outside of class. In fact, the trouble I might have would be in finding the time to meet with all them individually. There was an unspoken judgement that, I’ll admit ashamedly, I initially bought into. It was that these students, who were primarily women, were needy. They needed a lot of “hand-holding” and “reassurance” and I would have to “set appropriate boundaries,” to do my work well.

The more I worked with and got to know these students, the less inclined I was to buy into this characterization of them as somehow deficient, less-than, or needy. They were intelligent, motivated, and eager to do good work. Meeting with them was easily the best part of my day. I remember eventually discussing my feelings towards these wonderful students with a colleague who shared a great bit of insight: Maybe they, as individuals entering a helping profession, were more comfortable with help-seeking and more confident that the people who say they are there to help you are actually, well, happy to help you. It was the best explanation I could muster for these students’ behavior, and their openness and acceptance at the time. I was a 26-year-old new librarian. Many of these students were returning to graduate school to bolster or change careers. They trusted me when I said I was there to help them and I was so thankful that they did.

The Courage of Asking for Help

It’s a decade later and I’ve never been able to shake the early connection I felt to students in that program and social workers in general. I’ve recently joined a Relational-Cultural Theory reading group, inspired to focus on this branch of scholarship by conversations I had a few years ago with a social worker friend of mine. In our reading group (shoutouts to Alana Kumbier, Anastasia Chiu, Lalitha Nataraj, and Jo Gadsby), we’ve been focusing on The Complexity of Connection, which are a series of writings from the Stone Center’s Jean Baker Miller Training Institute that explore the concept of connection and relational activity as central to human growth and empowerment. In a chapter on Relational Resilience, which is not the kind of resilience that’s proven so problematic in libraries in recent years, Judith V. Jordan writes:

Asking for support directly…is…putting the person doing the asking most at risk–we feel most vulnerable when we let people directly know about our need.

…we live in a cultural milieu that does not respect help-seeking and that tends to scorn the vulnerability implicit in our inevitable need for support (p. 33-34).

Reading these lines was mind-blowing. It completely reframed the way I remembered those social work students operating in an academic setting and has made me rethink the ways in which I conceptualize help-seeking in students now. Those social work students, who had no qualms about sharing their research ideas, talking through their searching dilemmas, and asking for feedback on their understanding of an issue, were brave. They were making themselves vulnerable to judgement, but were willing to take that risk in an effort to forge a connection with me, and seek empowerment for themselves as students, scholars, and clinicians. They couldn’t have known that I would be supportive or that I wouldn’t judge them in silence (or in conversation). But they took that risk, and that took so much courage.

Those students were practicing what Jordan refers to as “mutual empathy,” the willingness to be open to growth through connection. Our meetings always started off with what I initially thought of as “just a talk.” They always, without fail, wanted to learn about me–my background, my day, my semester, my work–and it in turn really made me interested in them as people and students. I never realized how rare that was. To me, it was just a part of library-work, but really, I was learning from those social work students how to engage in mutual empathy and understanding. They were modelling a method of fostering connection and affirmation, and it’s a practice I continue to engage in to this day.

The Judgement in Our Questioning

We are the profession of “Ask Us,” and “Get Help Here.” We lament that reference statistics keep dropping and encourage/cajole/beg our students to come to us for help. We are anxious about library anxiety and work to actively create positive interactions with students/patrons who come to us. What I think we don’t do enough of is considering the courage and vulnerability it takes for students to come to us for help. The onus is on them to seek us out and to admit what they may see as their own shortcomings. And how do we respond? We do the reference interview, which is built on the assumption that people don’t completely understand their own (information)needs. We ask questions that seem to be value-neutral:

  • when is this assignment due?
  • when did you start?
  • what have you done?
  • where have you looked?
  • what do you need?
  • is that really what you need?
  • really?

Yet I have seen far more students than not who, in the face of these questions, look guilty and ashamed. I’ve had students apologize in response to these questions. I’ve seen their bodies hunch over and their eyes look away. I’ve heard their voices get smaller or louder and defensive. I’ve listened to stories that explain their answers to these questions that broke my heart. I’ve had to actively work to combat the judgement inherent in those seemingly innocent questions. I’ve explicitly said, “there is no judgement in this space between us right now.” How can I, who am sitting on a pile of email that I’m too afraid to respond to, in good conscience be frustrated at any student who has decided to start researching at a time that is close to the project due date?

Supported Vulnerability

Jordan advocates for a model of connection that encourages “supported vulnerability.” We all need help and support to grow and be our best selves. As librarians, I think we need to stop advocating for two very different ideals that are in direct conflict with one another: the notion of the independent, information literate researcher/student and the researcher/student who feels supported in the vulnerability necessary to seek help. By holding up the independent individual as our ideal we are implicitly saying that the help-seeker is dependent, weaker, and not quite fully developed. There is no way to full-development in this model unless what you want is a researcher who is so afraid of appearing wrong or vulnerable that they just persist in their ignorance without bothering to learn from the people around them.

So what does that mean for our reference practice? One of my reading group buddies talked about a time when they had a 30 minute conversation with a student about their research. There was no “help” involved, no bestowing of knowledge from librarian to student, but it wasn’t really about that. It was about fostering a connection. Now the librarian knows what the student is working on and feels invested in them as a person and interested in their research. It’s the beginning of a foundation on which to build a relationship.

I don’t just want students to come to me when they have a problem or need help. I don’t want them to feel like they have to put themselves out there without me having to do the same. I want to get to know them as people and foster a connection that will help both of us grow and learn. I’ve seen students eager for even the slightest kernel of connection and relatability during a one-on-one. It’s both heartening to know they want this and depressing to think it’s so rare.

I don’t think this focus on connection and mutuality is a part of the model of research support and reference we currently adhere to collectively, as a profession, but I do think it’s one that we could easily shift towards. I know that I am writing about vulnerability from a position of privilege. I am tenured. I read as white to others (despite my best efforts to the contrary). I am a femme ciswoman. But I do think that there is a place for this kind of supported vulnerability in our profession if those of us with privilege could be courageous enough to support the vulnerability of our peers and characterize it as an asset and a strength, not a liability.