Breaking the “Fake It” Habit

You ever start Googling “[library topic] for dummies,” desperately trying to find some blog post from 2007 that explains what a threshold concept is, or how a proxy server works? It’s particularly awkward when you get the sense it’s a 101 topic that everyone around you seems to understand. That scenario makes me feel like I’m in an old cartoon, where I’m a cat dressed up in a dog costume trying to mingle with other dogs without getting caught. 

The first time I noticed myself doing this as a librarian was with my first mentor and manager. She’s sharp, well-read, and has a background in education so she’d mention things like critical librarianship and I’d pretend to know what she was talking about until I could get back to my office and Google it. Looking back, I could have admitted my ignorance and been fine, but trying to keep up with her fierce intellect did bring my librarianship game up.

The second time I realized I was a penguin tap-dancing on increasingly fractured ice was when I took over managing electronic resources at an old job. When database links would break or there’d be authentication issues, I’d start the same process of answer-seeking — piecing together information from OCLC’s website, the notes my previous manager left, and my own trial and error. Eventually I learned enough to be confident, but in both of these examples I notice a troubling tendency: tell NO ONE you don’t know what you’re doing, and try to muddle through it on my own.

Image of a black labrador with a white badminton birdie on his nose, amongst a group of black ducks with white beaks

I don’t think I’m the only person who operates like this, and there’s plenty of reasons why we fake it. Sometimes you feel like there’s no one you can ask. Your library might not have another expert, or that person might not be very approachable. Maybe it’s something you said you understood in the interview process, thinking you had it under control, and finding the task more complicated than you expected. (See: every meme about pretending to understand Excel.)

Sometimes the reason you hide your lack of knowledge is because you fear being exposed as ignorant or undeserving. There’s a sense of shame that accompanies this. Not knowing things seems acceptable when you first start a job, but a year in, you feel more shy about admitting what you don’t know and asking questions.

The problem with this approach is that you’re on your own, and you don’t have to be. Even if you’re a solo librarian, there’s ALA listservs, library Twitter, and simply reaching out to someone at a nearby library. Lately I have been trying to think of myself as I would a student. Would I judge a student for not knowing what a database is the first time they walk into the classroom? Would I make a student feel stupid for asking a clarifying question? Writing this blog post is as much a reminder to myself as it is to you: it’s okay not to know things. Asking your manager to explain what an acronym stands for doesn’t reveal that you’re an impostor and don’t deserve your job.

All this is coming up because I’ve taken on an exciting role at my job, planning and executing a photo digitization project, and taking charge of the college archive. I studied archives in my MLS program, but as I get into the weeds of this project I realize there are gaps in my knowledge and that’s scary. But this time, I’m not going to try to hide it. This time, I’m going to ask for help.

If you feel this is a safe space to confess something you feel like you should understand by now but still don’t really get, share! I promise I won’t judge, and maybe we can help each other out.

Maintaining the Day Away

I’ve been back at work after Winter Break for 17 days now. The Spring semester started 10 days ago. I’ve scheduled classes, emailed instructors about their scheduled class details, assigned classes to librarian colleagues, and added those classes to calendars with relevant details about assignments. I’ve replied to questions over email, asked questions over email, made phone calls, and answered them. I’ve spoken at orientations and lead a workshop. I’ve written performance reviews and drafted annual goals. I’ve checked on classroom computers, projectors, markers, and erasers.

It’s not glamorous work. When my son asks what I do at work all day I usually say “I’m teaching,” but that’s not really true. It’s just easier to say than all of the above, which means nothing to an 8 year-old. Most of my time is spent on maintenance. It’s absolutely critical to my job, to our library’s instruction program, and to my own ability to get through the day.

It sometimes feels like a whole lot of nothing, but as Maura Smale has written time and time again, “much of the work that we as librarians do is…about maintenance.” It is work that is made invisible, because the innovative projects are shiny, and the work that goes into making things shine isn’t photogenic. No one is going to take a photo of me in my office with lukewarm coffee and a container of Oatmeal Squares cereal toggling between a spreadsheet, calendar, and email as I figure out how many people to schedule to teach each day while listening to ambient remixes of Legend of Zelda music. (Yes, that is a true scene from my work life.) But with this work, classes are taught, time and space is created to work on new initiatives, relationships are built, and innovation is given a foundation.

Let’s start sharing what library maintenance work looks like. What does maintaining the day away look like to you? What would stop happening if your maintenance work stopped? How can we highlight this as real work, rather than the stuff we have to get off of our plates before we start to do the real work? It may be dull. It may be tedious. But it is absolutely necessary.

Celebrate Your Cheerleaders!

Last month, we had a small reception in our library to celebrate a handful of individuals who are strong supporters of the library and promote the use of library resources and services by students, faculty, and staff. Despite being new to this library this year, I was familiar with this program, because the “READ” posters featuring last year’s recipients and the books they chose to highlight were hanging in the library. Now, those posters have been gifted to the individuals featured on them, and replaced on our walls by the new honorees’ posters. Starting this year, we are also adding the books chosen by the honorees to our collection, with a bookplate stating who they are and why they were recognized by the library.

It’s nice, right? I certainly thought so. People like to be recognized for their efforts. So I thought about how we hadn’t done anything official like this for the faculty and staff who really championed the library at my former job, even though I can easily name a dozen of our “cheerleaders” off the top of my head, even after being gone for a year now.

There are a lot of little ways we can thank the faculty and staff who make our jobs easier (by promoting the use of the library to their students and among their colleagues) and make our jobs harder in the good way (by increasing traffic to the library, making requests for collection development or instruction, utilizing our services, and so much more).

There are no-cost ways to recognize our “cheerleaders,” like posting about them and their work on our social media accounts, building displays centered around them, or simply writing them personal thank-you notes (and, if appropriate, copying their supervisors to extend the recognition beyond the library). There is also sometimes the opportunity to get involved in a project or service that is important to that faculty member, like assisting with a student group they work with, or volunteering library space for meetings of a committee or group they serve on at an institution where space is a hot commodity. Many institutions have a “kudos” system, where you can submit a person who is worthy of kudos and they receive some sort of recognition or reward for having a positive impact.

There are low-cost ways, too; our READ posters and small reception with cookies and coffee was not an extravagant affair (and everyone responds well to cookies and coffee). Purchasing copies of the faculty member’s publications to include in the library’s collection (if this is not already a given at your institution) is nice, and I would even ask them to sign the library’s copy, to make it a little more special. Even a simple gift (bookmarks seem like an appropriate choice, but use your imagination!) at the end of the year (calendar or academic) given out to a selected number of individuals in the institution who have supported the library in their own way would be a nice gesture of appreciation.

So in the spirit of the season of giving thanks, and giving gifts, consider implementing ways of celebrating those who celebrate you and your library!

Being Pro-Pronouns

October is a time for National Coming Out Day, International Pronouns Day, and also happened to be the month in which I was added to our institution’s Diversity Council and attended my first meeting thereof. So I’ve been thinking about pronouns more than usual (which is actually pretty often to begin with) for a few weeks.

I think it’s fairly common knowledge now that including your pronouns as part of your introduction is a simple practice that we can all participate in, that makes everyone (especially the trans community) feel more welcome in any space. We as a profession (and as a society) are talking more about doing this, including here on ACRLog, with mentions in posts like this one from guest poster Adrianna Martinez, and this one from Emily Hampton Haynes.

One of the first things I noticed when I was offered my new job (I haven’t been here a year, it still counts as “new,” right?) was that the person in human resources who was sending me paperwork and instructions had included her pronouns in her email signature, and I thought that was great. One of the first things I did when I got my institutional email account set up was to write my email signature, and deliberate for a solid five minutes over where my pronouns should go in said signature. (Under my name? Under the wall of text that is my contact information? On a line unto itself, separated from both name and contact information by a blank line?)

I have seen many email signatures from people across the institution and outside our institution with their pronouns in their email signatures. I have seen conference nametags that provide space for your pronouns, and I’ve seen people add their pronouns to conference nametags that did not provide that designated space. I have seen one or two people with colorful buttons on their lanyards declaring their pronouns.

Honestly, at first, the English major that still resides inside of me was just really excited that so many people can identify a part of speech so readily. But then I also got really excited that normalizing the sharing of pronouns is really happening. The first few times I brought it up (in meetings, in conference presentations, in introductions to new people) it felt clunky and awkward, but now it’s a more natural thing to do. I like to introduce myself first or early when we “go around the room” in a meeting, because if I start the trend, others will follow my pattern: name, pronouns, job title.

To give you context for the rest of this paragraph, I am a cisgender woman. My name is Alex, as you may have noticed. Fun fact about me: my husband’s name is also Alex. So, clearly, I am very aware that our first name is a unisex name. But I’m also very aware that most people’s default assumption is that someone named Alex is male. Even with my pronouns listed in my email signature, I get email replies addressed to “Mr. Harrington.” (To be entirely fair, I also get email replies addressed to “Alexandria,” since my institutional Outlook listing uses “Alexandra” instead of “Alex.”) Also, for a few months after I got married, some people who knew my husband’s name called me “Mrs. [Husband’s last name]” even though I frequently made jokes about how I didn’t change my last name only because paperwork would be a nightmare if we both had the same first AND last names. Honestly, none of these things bothered me very much, because I don’t really care if people think I prefer “Mr.” over “Mrs.” or that my first name has an “i” in it, or that I took my husband’s last name. However, this is not all about me. It can be very upsetting, for example, for a trans or genderfluid person to be referred to as the incorrect gender, or for a woman in a same-sex marriage to be assumed to have taken her spouse’s last name.

The only point I have here is really just that we should all commit to paying attention. My rule of thumb has always been to address someone in an email however they signed their last email to me. This has also unfailingly helped me navigate issues like whether someone prefers to be called by their first name or “Dr. Last Name.” If I don’t have that option (I haven’t received an email from them before; they didn’t sign their email; I’m communicating in a different medium) I default to gender-neutral language whenever possible and address them by first name, risking informality over choosing the wrong title (Mr., Ms., Mrs., Dr., etc).

This is the first step of the conversation. In the past few days alone, I’ve heard or read people arguing over things like, “Jonathan van Ness identifies as non-binary, you can’t say ‘him’!” when he has gone on record as preferring he/him but being fine with she/her or they/them pronouns. It also seems like every week or so, I see another discussion of how “they” can’t be a singular pronoun, even though it has been in use that way for ages. (If you need an example, ask yourself where an unidentified person is going. Didn’t it feel natural to say, “Where are they going?”) If we start by paying attention to what others want to be called (whether that’s “Rob” versus “Robert” or “they” instead of “he” or “she”) we can move toward better understanding for everyone.

So, happy belated International Pronouns Day to all!

“One: Librarians Are Not Wearing Enough Hats”

If you’re familiar with Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life,” you might recognize this joke. For the uninitiated, here’s the relevant clip, (less than two minutes), but I’ll explain. In a boardroom, there is a report being given about a team’s findings on the meaning of life thus far, and it starts with, “One: people aren’t wearing enough hats.” It goes on to be philosophical and I won’t ruin the rest of the joke because they tell it better than I ever could, but suffice it to say that I’ve been thinking about hats a lot lately.

I mean “hats” in the metaphorical sense, where they are equated with discrete jobs. I’ve been trying on a lot of these hats recently, because I have found a lot of opportunities to do things that are not in the traditional jurisdiction of a librarian.

I’ve been interviewing applicants to our MD program. I enjoy it because I get to talk to a diverse group of very intelligent, personable, and driven young people who want to pursue a very challenging and rewarding career in medicine. The college benefits because I am helping them identify the applicants who are most likely to succeed not only as students but as doctors, finding qualities such as empathy, integrity, and tenacity in addition to their academic and service achievements.

Proctoring exams is another opportunity I’ve recently accepted. The library provides an ideal space for taking exams, and it takes little time and effort for me to set up a space for an exam-taker and ensure that their test-taking conditions are met.

I’ll be wearing three hats at once tonight when I combine my hobby of running, my employment at Penn State Hershey, and my position as a urology resident’s spouse, to participate in a 5K for prostate cancer awareness with a very large team that includes most of the urology department. I mention them specifically because while this activity may seem the least related to my librarian role, of these examples, it might be the closest, since I am the library’s liaison to all the surgical specialties. I doubt we’ll discuss their research needs on our three-mile trek, but making the connections is important, however you do it.

I’m not counting various committees I’ve joined, because I do think that, for example, being on the Diversity Committee is a part of library work, because I’m representing our library there and bringing diversity matters back to the library to integrate them into our resources and services. Being in the Group for Women in Medicine and Science strengthens the partnership the library already has with that group, and I am, again, representing the library there.

I know I’m not unusual in this hat-wearing regard: most librarians do “non-library” things in the course of their work. So I’m not arguing that we don’t wear enough of these hats, despite the Python quote (in fact, a lot of us probably have to juggle too many hats), but I am pointing out that wearing them gets the library’s face out there and shows that we are just as integrated into the fabric of the college (or other institutions you may be a part of or partnered with) as any other department.

What fun, non-library-specific “hats” do you love to wear?