(Academic) Library of Things

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I get really excited when I see an article about “The Most Interesting Things You Didn’t Know You Could Check Out at Your Library,” or some similarly clickbaity title. It’s a sure way to get me to click on a link, if I’m being honest; Libraries of Things fascinate me. But these articles are always about public libraries.

Not that I mind terribly; I’m an avid user of public libraries, too. I just wish more academic libraries were hopping aboard this particular bandwagon.

That’s not to say that there are no academic libraries circulating anything “unusual” or interesting. At my library, we circulate headphones, four kinds of chargers, a compact video camera, packs of dry erase markers for our study room walls, board games, and bone boxes (I should take this opportunity to remind you that I’m at the College of Medicine, so that isn’t quite as weird as it sounds). Some of these things are fairly standard; many libraries circulate headphones, for example. There probably aren’t as many with banker’s boxes of numbered bones on the shelves, but I highly doubt we’re the only ones. Many college and university libraries circulate iPads, laptops, or Chromebooks, or audiovisual equipment (though sometimes this falls under the umbrella of an IT department or elsewhere).

The reasoning behind the Weird Things Your Library Circulates (or, more formally, the Library of Things) is to provide access to something that library users would not otherwise have access to… like we already do with books and DVDs and articles, but with physical objects. The “Things” in “Library of Things” are often a piece of technology (like video game consoles or telescopes) or a luxury that would be prohibitively expensive for a user to buy outright (like sporting equipment, museum passes, and musical instruments) or an item that is intended for infrequent or one-time use, and therefore not worth the money for an individual user to buy (like specialty cake pans, Santa suits, or prom dresses). With the popularity of living minimally and the KonMari method, the last thing most people – even the ones who can afford these items – want is a large, infrequently-used, expensive item taking up valuable real estate in their living room. Some of the more specialized “weird” collections include seed libraries (check out seeds, grow the plant, and bring back new seeds), art lending libraries (borrow wall art to hang up at home for the duration of the checkout period), and human or living libraries (borrow a person and have a conversation or hear their stories).

Some of the “unusual” things public libraries circulate would not make much sense in most academic libraries: American Girl dolls, for example, would likely not have a high circulation rate at your average university. Snow shovels and tools might not be as popular among a population of students living in dorms who don’t have to do their own maintenance work. But this brings me to two points: One, some of the things they circulate would likely be popular at the right college or university. (Video game consoles and board games immediately come to mind, but kitchen appliances where dorms have kitchenettes, musical instruments, and sports/recreation equipment or passes appropriate to the local area would also all have piqued my interest as a student, personally.) And two, we don’t have to circulate the same “unusual” stuff as public libraries (though, honestly, it’s getting hard to think of something they haven’t tried already).

So why don’t more college and university libraries circulate “unusual” items? I can’t answer for everyone, but I have some guesses. One big one (that seems to be behind the answers to most “why don’t we…?” questions) is probably budget. It might be hard to explain to students and faculty why they can check out a ukulele and a Rothko print for their wall when we don’t provide access to their very expensive math textbook, or a full classroom set of The Tempest. Another reason I find pretty likely is that most colleges and universities have other spaces that are intended to fill these kinds of roles for students: Student centers might have game rooms, event spaces, and clubs that can provide leisure activity items, the music department often provides lender instruments for their students, and the gym has exercise and recreation equipment, so for the library to do something similar might seem redundant or out of place. The student center at my previous institution loaned out board games to students, so if the library had started to loan out board games, it might have been confusing or unnecessary.

What does your library loan out that isn’t your run-of-the-mill library holdings? How do you feel about it? What do you wish your library loaned out (either for selfish reasons, or in the interest of your students)?

From MLA to MLA: Citing at Different Libraries

Alex Harrington has recently moved from her Reference & Instruction Librarian position at Tidewater Community College in Virginia Beach, VA, to take the position of Access Services & Instruction Librarian at Penn State University’s Harrell Health Sciences Library in Hershey, PA.


Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite library activity: citing your sources!

Citation is woven throughout the Framework. “Information Has Value” reminds us to give credit to others for their original work and addresses other issues of information ownership. “Research as Inquiry” makes sure we know to “follow ethical and legal guidelines in gathering and using information.” “Scholarship as Conversation” starts by telling us to “cite the contributing work of others.” I’ve also used many of the Framework’s bullet points about credibility and authority to explain to students how to read citations in a way that helps them select more appropriate sources. So what I’m saying is, if we’re talking about information literacy with our students, we’re addressing citation in some way.

I joked with colleagues at my former library that I, a self-professed citation nerd, would forget all I knew about MLA and APA style, and have to learn AMA, and join the… well, MLA. What I didn’t realize at the time was that, no, I probably won’t really learn how to cite in AMA from scratch, because we use citation managers here.

It just so happened that, shortly after I started, the former liaison to one of the departments I was inheriting was going to speak to that department about citation management programs. I tagged along, of course. While waiting for the meeting to begin, the former liaison asked me about which citation management programs we typically used at the community college, and I just sort of shrugged: “We didn’t.” The students were taught to cite from scratch, or (more often) use the databases’ built-in citation builders, and double-check them when they copy/paste into Word. I told him that we never had students using citation managers. Then I started to think about why that was.

Part of it simply comes down to a question of volume. Teaching the community college students to set up and use EndNote would take more time and effort than it would be worth for the three to five citations they need in their paper.

The lack of longevity of the need for those citations is another point. The community college students are far less likely to need to keep track of citations of sources on the same or similar topic for a long period of time, whereas medical researchers will likely want to refer back to citations they’ve used before, or keep track of them over the course of months or years. Similarly, the medical researchers may be publishing, and in multiple places, so it would be very time-consuming to rewrite the citations for each style they need, when a citation manager does it in seconds. The community college students likely only need to cite a given source once, in one style, for one class. If they have to switch to another style, they probably won’t be using the same sources they cited in another style. (For example: their history paper in Chicago style and their biology paper in APA usually won’t have any sources in common.)

In my experience, at the community college, it was also important to explain to students why citation is necessary. Many of them seem to think of it as something between unnecessary busy work and torture invented by cruel teachers. So explaining the concepts of “Scholarship as Conversation” and “Information Has Value” in a context that is relevant to their work is needed. At the medical school, that doesn’t need to be addressed in much detail, if at all. Most of the people who are citing things here are trying to get published, and if “correct citation is necessary for publication” is all they know, it’s a good enough reason for them. (If nothing else, the majority of the students at the medical school already have other college degrees, and have been through the citation talk that the community college students are getting.)

I think the other big difference and its reasoning can be compared to math. In elementary school, you learn basic mathematical functions, like subtraction, where they tell you that you can’t take a bigger number from a smaller number. At some point in middle school, you find out that is possible, because negative numbers exist, but you can’t take the square root of them. But in high school, you discover that you can, because imaginary numbers exist. You get the point. I’m seeing citation the same way. My community college students were taught the parts of a citation to make sure they know the fundamentals (like what all the pieces of information are, and how to read some of the common abbreviations), and if they wind up in a more advanced academic situation like med school, they become the students I have now, who know what a citation should look like (so if EndNote spits out something that looks totally wrong, they can identify that).

So I’m curious to hear about your experiences with citation at the different types of academic libraries you’ve worked in. Are your students using citation management programs like EndNote, Mendeley, and Zotero? Are they expected to cite “from scratch”? What is the attitude toward copy/pasting the pre-built citations from databases that provide that tool?

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?

How to Make it to Winter Break

It’s finally here: Finals Week. I’ve been reflecting on the emotional state of our students – I see a blend of exhaustion, procrastination, and shame that forms a vicious cycle in the last month of the semester. And although I’m not facing exams or major papers, I can relate. In fact, the general atmosphere of the library this time of year can make those emotions pretty infectious. Here’s how I’ve coped with the cycle of weariness and urgency in December.

Am I exhausted or burned out?

“Burnout” is a word I throw around, and sometimes I conflate actual burnout (chronic exposure to workplace stress) with ordinary fatigue. Kevin Harwell wrote an article called Burnout Strategies for Librarians that helped me understand the difference.

A key element of burnout is depersonalization, where you start to see your library patrons as “queries, questions, or cases, rather than people.” When students approach the desk and my first reaction is dread, that’s when I know it’s time to take a break and recharge. For me, this increased cynicism is the major symptom, but it’s not the only facet of burnout. The other two major pieces of burnout are overwhelming exhaustion and “a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”

So if you’re dead-tired, you’ve started to see your daily responsibilities as irritating stressors, and you can’t remember why you signed up for all this in the first place – congratulations, you have something in common with students at finals week. But for students and librarians alike, there may be a remedy!

Of course the long-term remedy is to take meaningful breaks and adjust your workload. But it’s December; many of us just need a solution to get us to the winter break. These are the strategies I’ve use when I feel like my resources are all but used up. My recommendations come in the form of two mental exercises:

  1. List your accomplishments
  2. Practice compassion (for others and yourself)

List Your Accomplishments

I happened upon this exercise by accident, but I found it surprisingly meaningful. First, make a list of the things you’ve achieved this year. It can be as granular or as general as you’d like. I focused on professional accomplishments from 2018, but you could incorporate your personal achievements or progress you’ve made on creative or financial goals as well.

Then I found someone who was willing to hear me read off this list of accomplishments. Maybe you already have some kind of check-in with your supervisor at the end of the year, or maybe you can pull your best work friend aside for a few minutes while you toot your own horn. I read my list to my husband, and it was meaningful to share how much I’d learned in one year.

Creating a list of your accomplishments might offset how motivation seems to dry up in December. This exercise helped me say to myself, “I know you don’t feel motivated and you just wish it was Winter Break already. But look at all you did get done this year.” The burned-out feeling of inefficacy, the sense of diminished personal accomplishment, can be counterbalanced by an objective list of things you did indeed achieve.

While I haven’t assigned this exercise to any of my students, I’ve been able to informally remind them of the ways I’ve seen them grow over the semester. Being reminded of how far you’ve already come may be a useful jolt to help you cross the finish line.

Practice Compassion

Shame is a major emotion students are feeling this time of year. Shame prevents them from moving forward on projects, even as due dates draw perilously near. It discourages them from asking help. I’ve been thoughtful about how I contribute to an environment of shame, and how I can instead encourage self-compassion.

I’ve talked with faculty who believe that intense pressure can force better academic results from students. After all, if they’re just “lazy” and carelessly procrastinating all semester, then the “tough love” of a scary deadline could be an effective motivator. However, I’ve read some blogs and essays by educators who insist that a shaming approach is counterproductive. Instead, Leslie Bayers and Eileen Camfield call for “academic empathy”:

“Brené Brown offers a definition of shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love” (60). She observes that shame produces fear, risk-aversion, and the creation of a negative shame spiral. In Brown’s description, shame has no prosocial effects: “Researchers don’t find shame correlated with positive outcomes at all—there are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior” (72)…shame not only hurts students but in fact also creates barriers to equitable teaching and learning.”

In fact, even the “lazy student” trope should be interrogated. Devon Price critiques the myth of the lazy student better than I can in this piece on Medium:

People love to blame procrastinators for their behavior. Putting off work sure looks lazy, to an untrained eye. Even the people who are actively doing the procrastinating can mistake their behavior for laziness. You’re supposed to be doing something, and you’re not doing it — that’s a moral failure right? That means you’re weak-willed, unmotivated, and lazy, doesn’t it?

For decades, psychological research has been able to explain procrastination as a functioning problem, not a consequence of laziness. When a person fails to begin a project that they care about, it’s typically due to either a) anxiety about their attempts not being “good enough” or b) confusion about what the first steps of the task are. Not laziness. In fact, procrastination is more likely when the task is meaningful and the individual cares about doing it well.

Most librarians react with compassion when we watch students ride the procrastination/shame spiral. But is it as easy for you to be compassionate to yourself? Shortly after graduating my therapist advised me to let go of the need to be perfect, to strive for personal excellence instead. (This is the grown-up version of “Just try your best.”)

So the message I want to communicate to my colleagues and my students this time of year is: be gentle with yourself. Shame makes us isolate ourselves and berate ourselves for not doing enough, but it’s counterproductive. Take your time. Take breaks. Ask for help. You got this.

Thank You, Next? (Consortia Edition)

As November calls for an attitude of gratitude, I will try to frame this post accordingly despite my exhaustion from this past month’s activities.  I’m not, as you may expect, referring to Thanksgiving dinner, holiday travel, or family arguments, but to journal package renewals — a critical annual activity for acquisitions and collection management librarians, vendors, publishers, and (as concerns this post) library consortia.

What are consortia?
Consortia are member organizations that utilize the greater power of a collective body in order to influence more favorable outcomes than the individual bodies might be able to alone.  Consortia in libraries historically began as a means of sharing resources, such as books via interlibrary loan or labor resources via union cataloging.  Consortia services evolved along with library collections to include collective e-resources licensing, acquisition, and access to online resources.  As a librarian responsible for acquiring, licensing, and sharing collection resources, I appreciate the efficiency of labor that consortia offers these workflows.  In the shared purchasing realm, consortia facilitate a singular license negotiation process for its member libraries and negotiate unique pricing terms for content, often packaged in the form of so-called ‘Big Deals’.  Perhaps less often, but just as important, consortia use a collective influence to represent and voice members’ shared concerns.  This summer, I participated with consortia voicing opposition to an unfavorable publisher policy that would limit access to online content, which succeeded in winning a reversal from the publisher. 

To blave…
Now libraries have been questioning the value of the Big Deal, consortia or not, for some time. Yet many libraries continue to commit their budget dollars to it year after year, perpetuating its existence and the lack of any market alternatives.  Being up to my eyeballs in four simultaneous Big Deal analyses for the past year and a half, I’m so ready to call these deals’ bluff.


To be clear, Big Deals are not exclusive to consortia arrangements. Many libraries subscribe and break from such deals all on their own, as this popular SPARC resource can affirm. https://sparcopen.org/our-work/big-deal-cancellation-tracking/ However, consortia arrangements of Big Deals cause big problems for libraries because in the process and effect of these arrangements, consortia don’t function as a consortia.  Here’s why.

The effect
Purchasing bulk packaged content like the Big Deal based on libraries’ historic spend, as opposed to publisher list price, does translate to a kind of library savings.  It also creates a predictable budget projection for libraries and a predictable profit for publishers due to fixed annual increases negotiated as part of these deals.  That’s pretty much it for the benefits, and even those don’t hold together.   Any consortia benefit from predictability in library budgets gets completely outweighed by the elimination of libraries’ flexibility to reduce spend when needed, as both commitment to spend and content are locked into these deals.  Likewise, the compounding cost of annual increases have a predictably deficit effect on library budgets.

CC-BY @atruthbrarian

This inflexibility also leads to homogenized library collection-building (Thomson, Peters, & Hulbert, 2002), as libraries share and provide access to the same scholarly content, rather than (as in traditional resource sharing) resources unique to their respective collections.  Also, a significant portion of Big Deal package content remains unused, falsely inflating its overall value and trapping libraries in multi-year agreements to buy what they don’t need and increasingly can’t afford. This kind of purchase means fewer library collection dollars spent on more diverse collection needs, whether because there are fewer such purchases that can be afforded, or even simply that these remain more possible to cancel.

The process
Quite basically, the normal expectation for a renewal process means library data gets analyzed by collection representatives in the spring for final decisions in the summer. Ideally, those decisions get communicated to acquisitions representatives, vendors, and/or consortia reps in the early fall.  Then consortia and e-resource librarians (plus respective general counsel) negotiate new contracts before the December expire.  The actual renewal process looks quite different. Since publishers don’t release current pricing until summer, consortia get offers out for its members’ collection representatives to analyze in early fall.  This compressed timeframe leaves little room for libraries making consortia purchase decisions to analyze anything, nor does it allow sufficient collaboration from all necessary stakeholders.

CC-BY @atruthbrarian

To share is the Latin root of ‘communication’.  Again, quite basically, the shared information concerning consortia ranges from books to labor to negotiating power.  But what works well for sharing books and its associated labor is quite different from sharing information related to negotiating power and the labor associated with managing online resources.  Besides the varying usage value of these purchases, the contract and term needs continue to vary from library to library.  Those needs can change more frequently each year for libraries than buying, sharing, and cataloging books ever has.  New formats beget new kinds of information, requiring new structures, methods, and individuals involved in the communicating.

From my vantage point — and, I grant you, there are many that I am missing here — libraries and consortia are falling short of what’s necessary to collectively communicate in ways that make consortia purchases beneficial to libraries.

The alternatives
Machovec (2017) sees two competing forces at stake for consortia and libraries: “the need to grow collaboration to more efficiently acquire products and services; and the need to cut programs and services that can no longer be funded” [emphasis mine]. To grow collaboration, as I interpret Machovec to suggest, means allowing more time to share, react, analyze, and compare collaboratively, not just the group individually.  I know it sounds counterintuitive that more communication would be necessary for efficiency.  But understand, efficiency doesn’t just deal in the currency of predictability.  The currency we should value is flexibility.

Currently, consortia purchasing models, while designed to save libraries money, still offer no comparable programs and service alternatives to address libraries’ collective declining funding.  I believe consortia have a role to play in negotiating favorable alternatives or so-called “exit terms” for its members, just as they may continue to offer well-negotiated Big Deals for members needing and willing to afford that kind of predictability.  I don’t believe these two interest necessarily conflict, considering how libraries have historically participated in consortia.  But having been part of a group of libraries working on that kind of proposal, I have greater appreciation for the complexity and skill involved and a new perspective on future possibilities.

For consortia to stay in the purchasing game, from which at least part of their operational funds rely, they will need to grow the facilitation and communication side of their business.  Investing in people, systems, skills, and new relationships will be key to negotiating different alternatives and to negotiating the complexity of members’ changing needs.


The title for this post inspired by the song by Ariana Grande, in case you wanna listen.

Thompson, J., Peters, T., & Hulbert, L. (2002). Library Consortia. The Serials Librarian, 42(3-4), 177-182.

Machovec, G. (2017). Trends in Higher Education and Library Consortia. Journal of Library Administration, 57(5), 577-584.