#ACRL2019 reflection: My first, large conference

Last week, I attended ACRL 2019, which was my first, major conference. I prepared for the conference by selecting anything that looked interesting on the app (everything looked interesting. Woops), reading through posts like Hailley’s, and talking to my my ACRL buddy that I was paired with. I’m still thinking through the panels and sessions I attended, and I’m using this post as an opportunity to reflect on my experience and prepare for my next conference.

Meeting new people

For me, the highlight of ACRL was meeting so many cool people. I’ve admired people from afar on Twitter, and this was the first opportunity I’ve had to meet them in person or attend their talks. I was able to have lunch with many of the people who write for this blog (thanks for putting that together, Maura!), and it was nice to put names and faces together. There was a #libparlor meetup one night, the reception at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, vendor parties, and informal opportunities to meet and talk with people after the conference was done for the day. Socializing during and after the conference was as valuable as attending the conference itself.

I also mentioned above that I was partnered with a librarian, Emilie, who answered my questions before the conference and then met up with me during the actual conference to check in and chat. For anyone who is attending their first, large conference, I highly recommend taking advantage of buddy programs because you’ll be paired with someone who has experience attending that conference. Emilie had great advice about choosing sessions, using the app, and finding special events at the conference. It was also an easy way to meet someone new who had similar job duties and interests as myself, and I hope we stay in touch.

In addition to meeting new people, I was able to catch up with old friends. With everyone spread out around the country, this was one of the few opportunities I had to see everyone.

Attending conference sessions

The main, and most obvious, reason that I attended ACRL was to hear from colleagues. I’m anxiously waiting for the panels and sessions I missed to be uploaded because it was impossible to attend everything. I also plan to read through some of the papers and view the posters that I missed at the conference. I chose my sessions based on topics, but also based on the people I wanted to hear from. some of the time slots were a bit weird, so I had to be careful about choosing sessions that didn’t overlap. I realized later in the conference that some people attend multiple sessions in the same time slot. I won’t go into detail about every panel or session that I attended, but there was something to take away from every conversation that I was a part of. I’ve started creating a list of action items I want to tackle over summer (and in the future) based on the panels and talks I attended. Attending sessions also allowed me to reconnect with people I’ve met in the past, sparked new ideas for research, and helped me identify gaps in my thinking or understanding. I’m sharing out what I’ve learned with my workplace as well.

Presenting work

I had a lightning talk accepted, so on Friday during the conference, I had five minutes to talk about my topic. Five minutes, it turns out, is not a lot of minutes. I’d given two lightning talks before, but was given more time. I’m a fast talker as it is, so I had to be very cognizant not to jam too much stuff into five minutes. I discussed connecting athletics and libraries (and if you’re interested in working with student-athletes too, I’d love to chat with you about it!), and my first challenge was to decide the points that I wanted to make. We were then supposed to make 20 slides, with each slide transitioning every 15 seconds. I spent a few hours practicing the talk, switching slides around, and making sure that there wasn’t too much content on each slide. The day of the talk, I was very nervous and had consumed too much coffee; however, I am told that the talk went well. As I mentioned, five minutes goes by fast, and I definitely zoned out and don’t remember what happened. I am thankful for friends and colleagues who showed up to the talk because it was easy to focus on them and their encouragement. I’d love to expand this topic out for a longer panel or session in future conferences.

Next steps

ACRL 2021 is going to come around faster than I think. In preparation, I’d like to get some of my own research together so that I can submit proposals for panels or papers. To do this, I plan to connect with people who can help me make that happen. There are some projects that I can do on my own, but some things are easier and more complete with collaboration.

I’m considering what I’ve learned from this conference and how I can apply it to my own work and workplace. I think that there’s a lot of projects that I can start over summer that are inspired by what I heard from others at the conference. I’m also talking to others about what I attended, thinking about what can apply to my own teaching, and finding more to read so that I can keep on learning. The #acrl2019 hashtag is still live on Twitter, so I’ll continue going through that and finding recommendations and resources from others.

Overall, this conference was a positive, though overwhelming, experience. I think I greatly benefited by attending, and I can’t wait to attend more conferences in the future.

Desperately Seeking Sense-Making

If you know a little about me, you know my practice of librarianship — what I like to call truthbrarianship — desperately seeks to express a deeper connection to the communicative side of our profession, whether that’s information-seeking or information-management.  I’m still working on an alternative word for the latter, but my truth-seeking approach is inspired by Brenda Dervin’s sense-making methodology, work which most famously contributed to the practice of the reference interview.  Dervin also addressed sense-making in information systems and the impact on the democratic principles of librarianship, which are vulnerable to “unexamined assumptions about the nature of information and the nature of communication” (Dervin, 2003, p74).   To examine these assumptions means approaching communication differently than just an act of sending and receiving messages.  Since learning about this methodology in graduate school, I have been working to apply it to internal communication in library organizations.   

Communication theorists still debate whether organizational communication is best measured as a product of organizational structure, or whether communication itself leads to the formation of organizational structures.   Nevertheless, I observe people fairly consistently credit or blame organizational morale and culture on communication.  When/if communication is good, morale is high.  When/if communication is bad, morale is low.  However, this link between communication and culture doesn’t make a bit of sense to those who approach communication primarily as messages.  Because messages can be controlled, communication problems are easily addressed by increasing or better-targeting messages, right?  People who see communication as connection, on the other hand, would rarely get what they need from messages alone, no matter how abundantly or frequently messages are sent, or even if they were received. Since the target, if you will, is connection, its lack is perceived as a more fundamental organizational problem.    

In the absence of clear solutions, I’m left to make peace with perpetually seeking.  But a couple of workplace examples recently paved some hope on this path.   One is a wonderfully challenging development series I’ve started attending, called “Compassionate Communication”. Based on Michael Rosenberg’s book, Non-violent communication: a language of life, the introductory focus of this workshop intentionally distinguishes the use of judgement (problem-solving) and empathy (connection) when communicating, especially when communicating within conflict.  What I like most about the series so far is how it hasn’t discarded rational, judgement-based thinking in communication altogether.  Rather, it shows where this has value and where it doesn’t. With mindfulness and emotional intelligence, the Compassionate Communication: An Introduction course prescribes “translating judgments into observations, emphasizing needs instead of strategies, replacing thoughts with feelings, and changing demands into requests.” Like the reference interview compassionate communication considers that in situations people may not always know how to communicate their needs.  Dialogue offers a way to connect to needs and feelings in order to make meaningful requests.  So far (and I’m only two classes in) it promises to deliver what leaders sometimes struggle to accomplish with planning, hierarchy, and logic alone.

Another sense-making example took place in a recent email exchange about a new and somewhat contentious library policy.  In this scenario, most might have just chalked up the policy decision to “it’s complicated”, accepted it by virtue of hierarchy or expertise, and moved on.  Instead, this administrator and staff each made room to express and examine the different and often hidden circumstances at play.  I consider this kind of sense-making giving transparency to complexity. I have advocated and worked to develop this in my own communication and know the extra work it requires.  In my experience you can either pay the price of that work in confusion, frustration, and ongoing inefficiency, or in the work of communicating through those complexities.  I find only the latter builds trust, and I believe Dervin would say the act of building that trust is what matters most.  

Unfortunately, both approaches are still somewhat rare and sometimes discouraged in library leadership generally, despite similarities to LIS methodologies. Like Dervin’s sense-making, these two examples approach communication with questioning.  In compassionate communication, observations beyond the surface messages lead to more connected requests (aka questions) about what is needed. In the email exchange I observed, it was the willingness of this staff and administrator to first question whether they understood the whole picture and to thoroughly engage in seeking connections between those understandings.  Neutral questioning in the library reference interview demonstrates a shift in the balance of information power to create space for dialogue and understanding.  Shouldn’t that process, which translates to improved communication with users of library services and in the usability of library systems, also apply to our internal communication and information systems in a similar way?  Do we assume an expertise in sense-making with our users, and does this create an expectation that we can or should provide sense for our own needs?   

Left unexamined, such an assumption might result in providing our own messages and dialogues for ourselves. That seems both silly and irresponsible, especially as individuals and organizations seek truthfully to examine practices related to diversity and inclusion. This must mean understanding experiences beyond ourselves and our expertise as librarians. In the most basic sense, attending to these relational aspects of our work will require librarians to see each other as information seekers, balance informational power, and learn how to effectively ask questions of each other. Translating sense-making to organizations calls for us “to listen and to address differences and contests in human beings’ understandings and experiences” (Foreman-Wernet, 2003, p6).  The point is not understanding difference as characteristics or experiences that will define (read: label) how we interpret or listen in communication but connecting these differences toward understanding. Making sense of our internal information needs are necessary not just to solve collective problems, but for making sense of each other as human beings, our relationships in practices, and the ways in which these relationships are always changing.   

(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.

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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?