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.

via GIPHY

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.

References

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.

My “Step-Library”: A Joint-Use Library Experience

Do any of you have step-families? I do, and I recently realized how relevant that experience is to working at a joint-use library.

Starting out, there may be concerns on both sides about merging, just like with step-families. There may be assumptions and stereotypes to overcome: step-families get a bad rap (see: evil step-sisters; red-headed step-child), and different library systems can have opinions about how other types of libraries work, and not always positive ones. You’ll have to share resources and space, (whether that’s collections and meeting rooms or toys and bedrooms). You might worry about not seeing eye-to-eye on everything (study room policies or bedtimes). The trepidation is normal, but everyone should work together to overcome it and find similarities, and how the differences benefit everyone.

Opening a joint-use library is a lot like moving in with a step-family. You wind up with two of a lot of things: bedrooms, neighborhoods, pets, etc. Our “step-libraries” have two of a lot of things, too. We’ve been open for five years, and here are a few things we’ve learned about the things we have two of:

Institutional Priorities

On paper, the differing institutional priorities are probably the most obvious difference between the public library and the community college library. You can pull up the organizational charts and see where staffing is strongest for a hint at what the priorities are: the public library has a large number of programmers, and positions with the word “youth” in their job description, whereas the college library has reference and instruction librarians, and a focus on people who cover the computer labs. There are areas with overlap, though: we have a combined welcome desk, where staff from both institutions perform circulation duties, for example.

When I refer to institutional priorities, I also mean that the two organizations define success by different metrics. The public library records data on program attendance and library card issuance, whereas the college is more interested in library instruction attendance and reference statistics. The college has a reference statistics form that must be filled out every time a question is answered at a service point, every day of the year. The public library has selected weeks where surveys are made available and when data about services is collected at service points. During those weeks, while completing both forms, one can easily see the differences between the priorities and “big picture” interests of the two organizations.

The priorities of the two libraries overlap and support one another, though; that was the point of sharing a joint-use library in the first place. Both are focused on “life-long learning,” with the public library placing heavier emphasis on the years before K-12 schooling, and the college library focusing more on the years after.

Organizational Relationships

If you go back to the organizational charts of each library, you can also see how people are arranged: what departments exist, which people are responsible for which tasks, and what kinds of hierarchies there are (who reports to whom).

We all realized, however, that the realities of the workplace are less clear than an organizational chart makes it look on paper. Some general rules apply that are obvious to both groups: managers set schedules and approve time, for example. But changes to how any given employee’s time is structured, or how new tasks are assigned, might complicate matters for one library system more than the other would guess.

Another, stickier problem arises when complaints or conflicts arise between employees from each library system. Mediation procedures may differ between the systems, and the supervisors of each party don’t report to the same administrator (or even the same Human Resources department). A great deal of careful communication and compromise are required.

The good news about this is, in most cases, the problems can be solved by just asking questions and learning about the structures that make up each system, not just in the building, but in the bigger picture. The college employees learn about the other branches of the public library, the public library employees learn about the other campuses of the college, and everyone has a better understanding of the broader range of parties involved. We were fortunate to have, for a while, several employees who worked two jobs in our building: part-time for the college and part-time for the public library. They were very valuable resources for understanding the inner workings of both sides at the same time. (This also helped minimize the us/them rhetoric among the staff, which is another thing you get in both step-families and joint-use libraries.)

Once that understanding is achieved, we realize that we also have a bigger and broader pool of skills and knowledge, with all these liaisons and working relationships we’ve created. One great example is a public library employee who is incredible at creating huge, gorgeous displays, and has used her talents all over the building.

Workplace Cultures

All of the other little differences I can think of between the two libraries fall under this catch-all “workplace culture” category. There are a lot of little day-to-day things that we have picked up on a little bit at a time. The public library has a dress code, and the college does not. The public library tends to schedule people for separate one-hour shifts at the service points, while the college prefers to give people multi-hour blocks in the same place. We’ve had to sort out the details of how to celebrate birthdays (and baby showers and going-away parties and holidays), who cleans the refrigerators and when, how to cover the service points during one side or the other’s staff meetings, whether public and college items can (or should) be used on the other’s displays, and so many other little details that have come up over the years.

One of the big ones, from day one, was hours and closures. Long story short, we follow the college’s holiday and weather closure decisions, so we might be open when other public libraries aren’t, and vice versa. This has many far-reaching implications, but one that I find interesting is how the staff members react to weather predictions. A public library employee knows they may be required to work at a different branch that doesn’t close if the college (and therefore our library) closes for snow, but a college employee would just be excited at the prospect of having a day off.

Another of the big ones is something we still work on: the definition of customer service. Our public library staff strive more to find a final answer for a patron, while our college librarians are more focused on showing a student a resource and teaching them how to use it on their own, to avoid accidentally doing the student’s coursework for them. We have spent a great deal of time and effort training everyone to do things both ways, and to discern when each approach is appropriate. In my opinion, it has made all of us better at our jobs, because we have learned a lot about the diverse needs of our patron population and how to meet them in a variety of ways.

Your “Step-Libraries”

You don’t need to work at a joint-use library for these concepts to apply. I know of many college libraries who report to multiple deans, or have combined library and IT departments, or even just have multiple campus libraries that need to work together to avoid becoming silos. Anywhere you have multiple parties at the same level working together to provide services to your patrons, these concepts are relevant and important.

Were You Taught to Teach?

Earlier this year on a search committee, I had an embarrassing realization: I couldn’t answer one of my own interview questions. “What is your teaching philosophy?”

Until now, I haven’t had to face this question head-on. I’ve always felt like I learned how to teach by sneaking in the back door: on-the-job trial and error. Thinking of the teachers I know, who went through a curriculum of education theory and supervised student teaching, I felt inadequately prepared. Realizing I couldn’t articulate my teaching philosophy only reinforced my sense that I wasn’t a “real” teacher.

That question sparked a summer of contemplation, reading, and informal interviews with the teachers in my life. What is my teaching philosophy? Can I put it into words, and how does it actually relate to my day-to-day practice?

If, like me, you don’t feel like library school prepared you for the reality of the classroom, you’re not alone. Merinda Kaye Hensley, who evaluated 10 syllabi of LIS courses that cover library instruction in this study, concluded: “…there is a severe mismatch between the ways our library schools prepare graduate students for the classroom and that librarians don’t receive much, if any, on-the-ground training for learning how to teach.”

Maybe you’re thinking that the librarian’s professional identity is quite distinct from that of the professor, and that feeling like a “real teacher” should not be the priority of our LIS programs. But so much of our work involves teaching, even if you don’t stand up in front of a class on a regular basis – consultations at the reference desk, for example. This piece from College and Research Libraries introduced me to the term “teacher identity,” which has transformed the way I see my work. In the article, Scott Walter says: “Teaching skills are clearly recognized as important to the professional work of academic librarians, but to what degree do academic librarians think of themselves as teachers when they consider their place on campus, and to what degree is “teacher identity” a recognized aspect of the broader professional identity of academic literature?”

At schools where librarians do not have faculty status, the conversation is further complicated. But for me, embracing a “teacher identity” has changed how I see my presence in the classroom. I stop thinking of myself as a guest speaker, here for the one-shot and never to be heard from again. If I am a teacher, I am building relationships with students. This changes my expectations, and affects the very language I use. For example I find myself closing an instruction session with “It’s nice to meet you,” instead of “Thank you for having me” or similar.

If you develop a strong teacher identity, new avenues of inspiration online and support on campus become available to you. In search of language to form my teaching philosophy, I began looking beyond library literature and traditional information literacy learning activities, reading more about pedagogy than had ever been assigned in my LIS program. I found a multitude of practical, approachable resources for teachers developing their teaching philosophy. This resource from the University of Minnesota had particularly helpful prompts to get me started.

If you’re not a teaching librarian, or you want to take baby steps toward writing your teaching philosophy, I recommend exploring the elevator speech. I’d first learned of elevator speeches from ALA’s advocacy resources, during a time when I was advocating for my department to be fully staffed. An elevator speech is a more all-purpose message to the public or to your larger institution, and can be on any topic. Writing brief statements to sum up my vision for the Reference department helped me learn to put my daily practice into more abstract, inspiring terms. This has been a helpful exercise as I develop a teaching philosophy. Even if you only break it out to answer an acquaintance’s smug “Aren’t libraries obsolete?” with something thoughtful and pithy, an elevator speech is a nice thing to have in your pocket.

Taking the time to identify the values I want to support – curiosity, persistence, failure as a part of learning – has influenced the way I design class activities and how I interact with students. Having my teaching philosophy fresh in my mind as I walk into the classroom has helped me be more a more thoughtful teacher.

If you’re not like me, and pedagogical training was built into your library degree, how have you experienced the transition from theory to practice on the job? In your opinion, what are the essential readings in pedagogy or teaching philosophy? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Featured image by Wokandapix via Pixabay.

One of Today’s Lucky Ten Thousand

If you aren’t familiar with the webcomic XKCD, go take a look now. I have been a huge fan for years, and find his comics relevant to many areas of life. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this one:

XKCD, “Ten Thousand,” https://xkcd.com/1053/

As a reference librarian, I get a lot of the same questions day in and day out. (I know that a lot of you can relate.) How do I find a book on my topic? How does the printing system work? Can you help me connect my laptop to the Wi-Fi here? Where is the bathroom? How does citation work? It happens in the classroom, too. How do I narrow these results down to scholarly journals only? What do I do if it says “no full text available”? Can I put a book on hold from off campus?

I’m going to take a moment to clarify that today, I’m not talking about the questions like, “I wasn’t paying attention; can you show us how you got to that page again?” I’m also not talking about the same person showing up every single day to ask for help logging into their online homework system but they don’t remember their own username and password, or where they wrote that information down when you helped them yesterday. I’m only talking about the questions that we answer over and over for different people every day, week, semester, and year.

Sometimes, I used to get frustrated or annoyed by having to answer, “Where is the classroom?” twenty times in a row for each individual student attending library instruction that hour, or showing different students how to find books over and over on the same three argument paper topics all week. And I see the same thing happen to my colleagues, especially during this time of semester, when midterms are gearing up and every other student we see is working on one of a handful of similar assignments.

But then I remembered this XKCD comic, and it reminded me of a few things.

One: We are here to teach people the things they don’t already know. If students already knew how to find resources or write citations or even where the classroom is, what would they need me for at the reference desk?

Two: Everyone has to learn a thing before they know it. That sounds really obvious, doesn’t it? To dismissively think, “You’re in college, you should know this!” is to do your students a disservice.* It reminds me of all the times I’ve said I haven’t seen a particular movie, and someone reacts with an overly dramatic gasp and, “But you’re in your thirties! How have you never seen The Godfather?” It makes me feel guilty, like I’ve avoided that movie on purpose, instead of just not being shown the movie or being prompted to go find it and sit down and watch it. I know it exists (like a student knows the library exists), and I’m aware of several of the more famous scenes (like a student knows that libraries can help students with research); I just haven’t watched it myself (like a student who hasn’t used library resources or asked a question at the reference desk). A better reaction, in my opinion, is, “You haven’t seen The Godfather? I highly recommend it. Here, borrow my copy, or let’s watch it together this weekend.” Or, in our case, “You haven’t used the databases? They’re really great, and I think they make it easier to find what you’re looking for than using Google Scholar. Here, let me show you where to find them and how they work.”

And that’s the attitude I try to conjure up in myself three times per semester: week one, midterms, and finals. Because the student standing in front of me needs to find a journal article and does not yet know about the wonders of EBSCOhost, and they are one of today’s lucky ten thousand.

*Side note: At some point, yes, you have to be able to say, “Didn’t you ever have to write a paper before this point in your education?” But if they haven’t, it’s not exactly their fault. I do not present this as an excuse for learned helplessness or not doing the work. We just need to remember that we don’t necessarily know a student’s background or experience when they first approach the reference desk. My college has a lot of non-traditional returning students who may not have done this kind of work in a long time (and during the intervening years, the majority of the process has changed), a lot of students from underprivileged schools (who may have been focused on different priorities from citation and evaluating sources), and a lot of students who are not high academic achievers, and just want to fulfill degree requirements so they can learn a trade, so their English paper is not the high priority it is to some other students, who may want to transfer to a four-year university and major in literature. This “one of today’s lucky ten thousand” concept does rely heavily on giving each student the benefit of the doubt, and not being discouraged by the ones who do ask the “I didn’t listen to what you just said; can you repeat it verbatim?” questions.