On Being a New Librarian During a Global Pandemic

This post comes from guest Giovanna Colosi, who is the Education Librarian, Subject Instruction Lead at Syracuse University Libraries in Syracuse, NY  and Board of Trustee Member of Northern Onondaga Public Libraries.

I joined my university’s library in July 2018 as my first full-time library job post MLIS. It was a career change for me as I already had a successful 20-year career in student affairs. Like many other adult career changers, I chipped away at my second master’s degree while working full-time and raising a family. It was as much exhilarating as it was stressful.  I was proud of myself that in midlife, instead of having a crisis, I had an epiphany and changed the course of my career and life!

I had been working on getting assimilated in my new position, branching out and making connections to librarians across the country, started interesting projects, teaching classes, and overall, on my way to becoming a well-rounded librarian. Then a pandemic happened. Just as I felt I was hitting my stride; everything was put on pause for a bit while we all transitioned to a virtual world.

I have now been working from home since mid-March. I spend my days jumping from Zoom meetings, virtual classes, writing, researching, all while helping my daughter with virtual schooling and taking care of my toddler.  It is not uncommon for me to be juggling making lunch, trying to keep my toddler from scribbling on the walls and helping a Ph.D. on their dissertation. Suffice it to say, it has been a challenge.

As I continue to work during this pandemic, not only I am still learning best practices, taking courses, and developing my skills in teaching, collection development and leadership, I am also learning how to do it while being a single mom, working at home full-time, and trying not to feel guilty about not always having a spectacular day.  I have come to the realization that many of the strategies that helped me during the time I went back to school to obtain my MLIS are helping me now, so I wanted to share those insights with you.

Time Management/Organization: When I went back to school to obtain my MLIS I had to be uber organized. Having a day planner, color coordinated calendars, and a to-do list was a must. I find that being organized helps with some of the added stress we are all dealing with. I literally write EVERYTHING down. In the past I might have had better recall, something about working from home makes it more difficult for me, so I make sure to jot notes while in meeting, if I have an idea while changing a diaper, I make sure I jot that down as well. I then transfer those notes/ideas into one notebook where I can then reference back to it.

While in the past I kept 2 separate calendars, one for home, where things like orthodontist appointments and school recitals were kept, and my office calendar.  Since the lines have been blurred between work life and home life, I now have a combined calendar. I find it easier to manage my time this way.  I have learned to also schedule things other than meetings, for example everything from my exercise to writing or helping with homework, I have even been known to schedule showers! Having a dedicated “time” on my calendar other than just meetings both keeps me accountable and takes the guess work out of when I will have time to do things.  If it is written down, I will do them.

Self-Care: Going back to school was a difficult decision, especially because I was also working full-time and I was a non-traditional student (read, OLDER!) So, I needed to take care of my mental and physical health. I did lots of yoga and ran. During this time of social distancing, I have also begun practicing meditation, and while I cannot get out and run as often as I would like to, I take advantage of the virtual work-outs my gym provides. There are also tons of free resources on You-tube for workouts and relaxation.

Give yourself some grace: When I was in graduate school, I soon realized I could not do it all nor do it perfectly every time. I am a perfectionist so If I received an A- because I could not get to all the readings, I had to tell myself that it was ok. If I had to take a day off work because my child was sick, and I missed an important meeting, I had to tell myself it was ok. This was always a hard thing for me to grapple with and this continues to be a very difficult thing for me to do. Now, more than ever it is important that we cut ourselves some slack. We cannot always get everything done on our to-do list when we are home. Things will come up at home that just don’t come up on campus. Take a deep breath and realize that this is only temporary, even though it feels like the end is far away. I found having an open and honest relationship with my co-workers and supervisor has helped.  You may find when you talk to others, they are feeling the same way.

Social Connections: In graduate school I had very little free time for friends, but I always made time for them because I know without that connection, I can get down.I cannot stress enough how important social connections have been to me during this time. I have been very cautious since March and have switched up my routines.  I order groceries through a delivery service. I do not go out to restaurants but have food delivered.  I have not really seen many people socially.  I was feeling very isolated but decided to make a habit of talking to a friend every evening.  I also have organized virtual game nights and social hours for my family, and I have taken advantage of some virtual trivia and Bingo games online. When the days run into each other, I find it helps me to have something to look forward to, even if it’s just a group chat with some old friends. If you are feeling isolated, I found some ways to interact virtually through my local library. They have had many “real-time” online activities, like crafting, book clubs and exercise classes. Humans are social creatures, and while many librarians are introverted by nature, we all need social interaction.

These are some lessons I have learned. Although I could likely share more, my next Zoom meeting is starting and it is suspiciously quiet in the house, which is never a good sign with young children. I wish all of us at this time good physical and mental health, and hopefully we will be all where we love to be soon, in the stacks.

Working Like Normal?

Nelly Antoniadou on Unsplash

Man, am I struggling. 

It’s felt like a day of mistakes, exacerbated by the fact that I haven’t seen my boss or colleagues in person for weeks. I’m isolated, and suffering from a lack of structure and routine. Deadlines are sneaking up on me and I’m remembering meetings at the last second, tying up my hair in an attempt at professionalism while frantically opening Teams. This isn’t me. I’m normally very organized and an efficient worker. 

But what is normal? What should we be expecting of ourselves, of each other, as this miserable pandemic rounds its first anniversary? The chorus last March was “Have grace for yourselves and each other, this is a traumatic event and no one should be expected to carry on as normal.” And yet, students have research papers, so we have reference questions. Committees continue to meet, timesheets continue to be due. Liaisons gotta liaise. 

It reminds me of grief. Some workplaces grant bereavement leave, usually around 3 days to deal with funerals and other logistics. And then what? You’re back at work on Monday, and even if your coworkers give you some leeway for your emotional recovery, you’ve still got emails waiting for you. 

When you’re the grieving person, it seems so inappropriate to be carrying on as normal. After a great loss, you walk around in a fog and it’s hard to believe that the people around you are having great days. You feel like screaming, “My person is gone. How can I be expected to bag my groceries, let alone present at a faculty meeting?”

Even if you haven’t lost loved ones to Covid, we’ve all suffered great losses this year. Financial, emotional, social, professional. And our society (I’m inclined to blame capitalism, personally) leaves no room to stop and grieve these losses. As if 10 months of constant, universal loss is something we can get used to.

I can get used to the feeling of a mask on my face, to the sensation of teaching to a webcam. But I will not get used to the daily loss of thousands of citizens, nor will I become numb to frightening attacks on our democracy, like at the beginning of this month. Resilience may get us through this catastrophe, but who will we be after?

I don’t know about you all, but I still need grace. And I will be continuing to dispense it to my students and colleagues this year; no matter how long it’s been, this is not our new normal, and our hearts know it. This post has more questions than answers, but it’s my attempt to hold space for loss, even as a new semester swirls around us.

From the Other Side of the Table: Academic Search Committee from the Inside

This guest post comes to us from Ruth Monnier, who is an Assistant Professor and Learning Outreach Librarian at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas. She provides reference and instruction services and engages with the greater campus and community.

Last year, I was job hunting and, like many others, was worried about CVs, resumes, cover letters, tracking jobs, and application deadlines. Recently, I served on the other side of the table as a search committee member. In books, blogs, and Twitter feeds, everyone has advice to offer to the job seeker, and most of the advice is good. However, just because advice is given, does not mean the advice is taken. After being on the other side of the table, here are six pieces of advice I offer for anyone who is job searching.

  1. Reading Truly Matters

It seems obvious based on our profession’s stereotype, but it bears stating again: reading carefully truly matters. We, as a society, are trained to skim any text (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf). The committee can tell who is skimming the job posting, and particularly the job description. The job description lays out the expectations for the role and is the guiding document of the search. The committee uses the job description as a template for interview questions and to create a rubric for evaluating each candidate’s response. You should directly answer every job duty raised in the job description via CV or cover letter, especially if there are any unusual or nontraditional job duties. By directly addressing the listed duties, you eliminate any doubt committee members might have on your ability to complete job-related functions. The more uncertainty committee members have about a candidate, the less likely it is for the candidate to move on in the search process.

If you are a job seeker, take time to review your application documents and ask someone else to review them as well, especially if you are using a base template to apply for multiple positions. Do your cover letter and CV address every duty in the job description? Did you spell the institution’s name correctly? Does the job title match? Is your contact information correct?

  1. Selection of the Committee

Honestly, when I was a job seeker, I did not think about how individuals became a part of the search committee. However, understanding the search committee’s composition can assist you in the process. At my institution, per department policies, it is required that there be at least one staff person and three faculty members elected to the committee. The search committee makeup and the process will vary by institution. The important takeaways are to recognize that not all committee members will have a master’s degree in the field nor know all of the position’s day-to-day tasks. With your knowledge of the search committee composition, you can better understand their overall perspective on the institution and library department, terminology and acronym usage, and whom some of your questions should be directed towards. Be mindful of who is on the other side of the table throughout the interview process.

  1. Little Things Matter

Time and care should be taken to craft the initial interview documents, such as your cover letter, and to the interview process as a whole. Search committee members are interviewing multiple candidates back-to-back. Even with taking notes, candidates’ information can run together, which makes the little things stand out. Being prepared can help you stand out.

If you are interviewed, have questions ready to ask the search committee and for a campus interview, have questions to ask anyone. Also, feel free to re-ask previous questions from earlier stages in the interview to different individuals.Before the phone interview, write out key points and activities that you want to highlight to the committee, particularly for those commonly asked questions.It is easy to freeze up or stumble if you are nervous or not used to the technology. If possible, practice a phone/video interview with a friend or Career Services and use what you plan on having for the actual interview. During the phone interview, take notes on the questions asked and your responses as well as ask for time to process a question as needed. As the interview process changes due to budget constraints and a global pandemic, be prepared and familiarize yourself with multiple technology platforms. If you go for a campus visit, remember that you, as the candidate, are always being interviewed unless you are left completely alone. Your conversations in the car, at meals and breaks, and walking on campus are all being used to evaluate you, just as you are evaluating the position, committee, and institution.

  1. Take a Break

If you have an itinerary, check it. Are there breaks for you? Do you need to ask for anything to ensure a smoother interview? Whether participating in a phone interview, multi-hour video call, or visiting in-person, ensure breaks for yourself. For a phone interview, this might simply mean having water to drink while the committee is asking questions. For a longer interview process, advocating for a couple of quick breaks by yourself allows you to recharge. If you are given the opportunity for a break, take it. Breaks also allow search committee members an opportunity to check their email or complete other quick tasks. Depending on the candidate’s schedule, the search committee can feel fatigued too. Breaks benefit all involved to process information, relax, and recharge for the next portion of the day.

  1. Expenses

Typically, your expenses are paid if a search committee brings you physically to the campus. Frequently your expenses are reimbursed after the fact versus at the point of purchase. Before you arrive on campus, ask for clarification on the expense process (reimbursement or otherwise), including who is responsible for meals, receipts needed for reimbursement, and any other questions you have. If it is a financial burden for you to travel to campus and any of the related expenses, talk to the search committee’s chair. There may be ways to ease the up-front financial burden depending on the institution.

Be an advocate for yourself and communicate with the committee. Remember you are interviewing the committee as much as they are interviewing you, and no one wants an awkward or uncomfortable situation.

  1. Thank you

Common advice for any job seeker is to send a thank you note. The typical advice given is to send a handwritten note, but if a handwritten note will not arrive in time an email is also acceptable.

By being on the other side of the table, I was surprised at how few thank you emails and notes were sent. Thank you notes reiterate your interest in the position, provide an additional opportunity to clarify an answer to an interview question you may have not answered to the best of your ability, and can make you stand out to the committee. It is one more time that the committee is seeing your name and interest in the position.

Each institution is different, but being prepared and following through gives you the best opportunity of landing the position. Good luck!

Virtual Holiday Parties

With the holidays starting, yet another surreal “I guess this is COVID” moment is upon us: we’re really going to go a whole December without office holiday parties? Did we ever think we would miss such a thing?

I have only worked in three libraries, but I have been fortunate enough to work in three libraries with amazing cooks and bakers. Missing out on a library potluck is a top ten COVID-year bummer for me. But we’ve gotten pretty good at this remote celebration thing, right? Here are some ideas for how to safely celebrate with your library staff (and maybe some of these will work for your family non-gatherings as well):

  • Games:
    • Many in-person games translate well to Zoom or other video chat platforms:
      • Pictionary (using the whiteboard feature)
      • Charades (no risk of accidental talking; just mute yourself!)
      • Trivia (use the hand-raising feature or chat to “buzz in”)
      • Scavenger hunt (pick items people are likely to have at home)
      • Themed hunt (for example, have people pull from their bookshelves at home the oldest book, longest book, book with a blue cover, etc., and compare your finds! Other themes might be the fridge, things within reach of where they sit when they work from home, or clothing.)
      • Online scavenger hunt (find pages/links/information instead of objects)
      • Name that tune (play instrumental versions over host’s mic)
      • Buzzword (each person gets a holiday-themed word; if you catch them saying it during the virtual get-together, they’re out!)
  • Contests:
    • Ugly sweater contest
    • Holiday costume contest (get elaborate, you don’t have to wear it in public!)
    • Gingerbread house contest (send out kits ahead of time)
  • Gift exchanges:
    • A virtual gift exchange (gift card codes, for example)
    • If everyone lives in the same area, arrange for them to pick up a gift from a local shop
  • Other activities:
    • Holiday playlist (share screen with audio sharing enabled)
    • Holiday photo booth (create your own props, interact Brady-Bunch style!)
    • Take an online class together, either live or a pre-recorded class
    • Recipe exchange: share what you would have brought to a regular potluck, or have a theme, like cookies

Keep these important considerations in mind when planning your celebration, some of which you should already consider when planning in-person, in-office celebrations, and some that are new this year:

  • Keep employees’ diversity in mind:
    • Know the dates of holidays you’re not familiar with; someone may be taking the day off to celebrate. Try to find a date everyone is available and that doesn’t conflict with other celebrations.
    • Be aware of holidays with food restrictions, like daytime fasting or abstaining from certain foods. It’s easier to not include food in a virtual celebration.
  • Keep employees’ privacy in mind:
    • While a tour of everyone’s holiday decorations sounds fun, not everyone will want to show you the inside of their home.
    • Remember to schedule your celebration during work hours, just as you would an in-office celebration.
    • Gift exchanges are nice, but some people may not be comfortable sharing their mailing address with colleagues.
    • If playing an online game together, choose one that doesn’t require the sharing of personal information to access it. Games that don’t have to be downloaded are preferable, too.
  • Keep employees’ needs in mind:
    • If you’re doing anything food-related, remember to consider allergies and dietary restrictions, as you would for an in-person potluck.
    • So many people are on their second, third, twentieth wind of Zoom fatigue. Don’t try to do all of these things; pick one or two and do them well.
    • Be considerate of everyone’s time: the party is over at the designated time.
    • December is a busy time for the whole family. Some employees may be caring for others who also are participating in holiday-related activities. Be understanding of those who can’t dedicate extra time and energy for activities like the suggested costume or gingerbread contests.

One last idea: Anecdotally speaking, I’ve heard several of my friends express that something they really miss about working in person together with their colleagues is the casual conversation time. Remotely, that’s something you have to carve out time for and decide to do, since you don’t bump into each other in hallways or stop at the desk or a doorway to chat. Maybe your staff would really just like to get together and have an hour of dedicated casual chat time?

Whatever you and your staff do, I hope you do it safely, comfortably, and happily, and that you get to do it in person for the 2021 holiday season.

Privacy, Consent, and the Virtual One-Shot

Guest poster Nora Almeida is an instruction and outreach librarian at the New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and a volunteer at Interference Archive. Nora researches and writes about critical pedagogy, social justice, neoliberalism, performance, and place. You can find her on twitter: @nora_almeida.

In April 2020, when the City University of New York (CUNY) shifted classes and student services online, the one-shot library instruction sessions mostly stopped all together. I sent out a few emails during the early days of the COVID-19 lock down in NYC as I deleted most of the now obsolete notations in my calendar while doom-scrolling and listening to perpetual ambulance sirens. But everyone’s semester had been thrown so wildly off-course and midterms had already ended and the consensus seemed to be to try to get through the semester and then reset for fall. In truth, most of the faculty that I emailed never even replied to my messages.

I did teach two virtual guest lectures in May and thought nothing of the fact that the instructors recorded them—something we’d discussed in advance and which seemed important given the emergency outside of all of our apartments and the very real technology barriers that students at CUNY face.

Then in the summer when both courses ran again and the instructors emailed to ask if I could reprise my guest lectures, they both indicated they could also just use the recordings from spring if I was busy or away. I responded immediately that either was fine as though we all implicitly understood that in virtual education contexts, ourselves and our pre-recorded simulacra are basically the same. Aren’t they?

But then, upon further reflection, I felt a little odd and I began to wonder how many MP4s of me had been recorded or shared since the pandemic had started. I thought of a virtual conference panel I participated in, which I learned was being live-streamed to YouTube only after the session had commenced: “thousands of people are watching right now,” one of the organizers said, proudly. Then in June, I was asked by a faculty member who I’d worked with before to do virtual library instruction for a research-intensive course and was startled to join a Zoom session and see the red recording button blinking before I opened my mouth.

I wondered then, gloomily, if part of the natural progression of higher education in this moment is not only the loss of corporeality but the end of the ephemeral educational encounter altogether. Or perhaps we are all experiencing some kind of temporal implosion in which college exists both nowhere and everywhere, and classes are attended by black boxes on a screen, which may or may not represent the attention and presence of actual students, and the teacher might be ported in from another time and place.

When it became clear that we weren’t going back to campus in the fall, I started to talk about the recording issue with colleagues, suggesting maybe we should create a departmental policy. Then, as the new semester approached, CUNY released their own policy, which importantly considers the privacy of students and requires explicit student consent for video recording of synchronous course sessions. The policy trickled down to the campuses a little late but I believed that perhaps it would make some difference.

In our department we planned to go forward with our usual instruction program with some changes to accommodate asynchronous classes. We provide library instruction for all of the first-year composition courses at our college in addition to discipline-specific instruction upon request—amounting to about 35 sessions per semester for the average instruction librarian. I carefully added language about video recording to the email template that I use to correspond with faculty. If they wanted synchronous instruction, I requested that they let me know if they record their classes (presumably with consent from their students). If they wanted to record the one-shot, I asked them to let me manage and share the recording if their teaching platform allows it (Zoom does but Blackboard, our institutional LMS, does not). If they were teaching using a platform that doesn’t allow a guest to maintain control over recording, I asked to opt-out.

Some faculty have responded thoughtfully to my message and have worked carefully to ensure that student needs are accommodated and that everyone can consent to or opt-out of recording. Some have ignored my message altogether. Some have been confused and thought that I wanted to keep the recordings for myself. Some faculty don’t have the technological capacity to honor my request or to change the settings on their Zoom account to ensure that students can’t record one-another. Some have pedantically referenced the CUNY policy and indicated (incorrectly) that any kind of recording isn’t permitted. Three-times I have joined a class and, after being confronted by the red blinking light, I have requested firmly and politely that I manage the recording and share a link later. This past week, I taught a one-shot for a faculty member who I had to email six times before they sent me a link to access their course and then they recorded me without my consent. I didn’t say anything in part because I felt weird that I had sent this person so many emails. They had acted as though they were doing me some large favor by sharing a link to their course so I could help their students do research and I thought I might alienate them further by insisting I maintain control over my own intellectual property.

I don’t know exactly what I’m worried will happen with the videos, which are not exciting and I can’t imagine many people rewatching. I certainly would never rewatch them, in part because they are, with some small deviations, almost identical. In the background are small personal details-—a framed May Day poster a friend designed, a dying succulent, my swimsuit drying on a door-knob, my husband walking by. Parts of the videos are potentially dangerous out of context in that they are mildly political; almost all students in first year composition courses are researching social and political issues. It’s unlikely but not impossible that pieces of the videos could be recontextualized and weaponized by alt-right cyber-trolls who spend their days harassing and doxxing liberal academics and students of color (the majority of students at the CUNY campus where I work are Black and Hispanic).

Certainly, the videos could be reused later, without my consent or when the information they contain is out of date. Zoom, the primary platform that faculty at my institution are using for remote instruction, can also access videos and other content that is recorded and stored on their cloud servers (or the cloud servers they license from 4th parties, mostly Amazon). According to their privacy policy, Zoom does “not guarantee that any customer content you or any user provides to the Services will not be viewed by unauthorized persons” and even they recommend that we “should be cautious about the access [we] provide to others.”

Beyond these privacy concerns are larger, scarier labor concerns. While I am a full-time (untenured) faculty member at CUNY with enough job security to write a blog post like this, many of the people who teach one-shots in the CUNY library system are adjuncts. The post-COVID fiscal crisis has severely impacted CUNY and New York state, which the university counts on for 60% of its operational budget, has opted to only release funds to the university on a month-to-month basis. This funding model has put contingent employees within the libraries, in an especially precarious position. If an adjunct librarian teaches an instruction session that is recorded this week, and they are fired at the end of the month, their video simulacrum might actually replace them. As increased austerity seems likely and rumors of more layoffs and retrenchments circulate, it seems important that we all consider how the digital learning objects we’re creating can and might be used by the university in the future. Even if CUNY’s IP Policy indicates that our pedagogy belongs to us, the policy does nothing to address circumstances where our own IP isn’t even accessible to us. 

At the end of a day when I teach two or three one-shots to the void of Zoom boxes that may or not be listening, I feel perhaps that I’m not all that different from my simulacrum after all. We repeat the same phrases. We tell the same jokes. We have the same teaching assistant (my cat, Goose). Today we are more animated or tired. Today some of the Zoom boxes contain videos of real students. I hear some of their voices. Some of them type in the chat box and I type back. But these are small signs of engagement and even before the pandemic, I had my doubts about the one-shot. Most of these students have never even been on campus, many of them have never used an academic library and it’s unclear how much an hour-long virtual instruction session really helps. It’s hard to be interactive or check to make sure students are following along. Sometimes mid-session, when I feel like I’m truly just speaking into the void, I ask, are you guys still with me? Some days I wonder: if I shared my screen and just pressed play on a pre-recorded one-shot would anyone even notice?

I wonder why I feel so protective of something that probably matters so little. Especially when so few people around me seem to share my concerns. Perhaps my little cloud folder of carefully labelled un-downloadable videos that will become unavailable on the last day of final exams is a way for me to assert control during a time when so much seems far beyond my control. Or perhaps my attempts to control recordings of my teaching is a small protest against a culture that devalues and erases library labor and the labor of contingent workers.

If nothing else, I hope that by making some noise about these issues more people will start to think about privacy, consent, and labor in relation to digital education. I hope that more university systems will create spaces for faculty to discuss and learn more about privacy and consent. And I hope, most of all, that more educators start to talk about these issues with one another and with their students.