Reflections on Shame and the Library Profession

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jenn Monnin, Scholarly Engagement Librarian, Health Sciences Library, West Virginia University.

Last October, I had the opportunity to attend the Mid-Atlantic Chapter Conference of the Medical Librarian Association in Durham, North Carolina. The theme was Rising to the Occasion, and talks ranged from information management in emergency planning to building your own ILS system. One of the plenary speakers was Dr. Will Bynum, a shame researcher at Duke University. Physician suicide is, unfortunately, a common tragedy, and Dr. Bynum is working to counteract this by normalizing a conversation around shame in medical education. Near the beginning of his presentation, Dr. Bynum asked us to participate in a Poll Everywhere by texting our responses to the question: “In 1-2 words, what has triggered shame or imposter feelings in you (or could in the future).” Our submitted answers would appear on the screen in a public word cloud. 

Uncertainty

It’s amazing just how anxious that request made me, as this was my first professional conference and all four of my immediate coworkers were in the room. I was extremely self-aware of my identities as a new medical librarian, a new academic librarian, and as a new librarian. I began my current position a month and a half before this conference, and spent the previous two years as a public librarian. I just got the hang of managing the collections and all programs for adult and teen patrons for all six library branches, had established partnerships with all four local afterschool programs offering Girls Who Code Clubs to their students, and worked consistently with the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation and the local OhioMeansJobs office to offer In-Demand career services to the county. When my family moved, I had to get settled in a new position all over again. Now, at the very last session of my first conference as a medical librarian, I was being asked to publicly reflect on what made me feel so behind in my career. That felt like a lot to ask. I didn’t want to send anything in, and thought I’d leave the imposter-feeling explaining to people who knew more about librarianship than me. Thank goodness I was sitting alone so my coworkers wouldn’t see me not participating! 

As words started appearing on screen, I saw my own anxieties, fears, and insecurities reflected in real time. The more a word was texted in to the Poll Everywhere, the larger it appeared. Since I saw concepts that so completely described how I felt in my new position being sent in by others in the room, I decided to send in my own thoughts. Dr. Bynum posted a picture of our completed word cloud to his Twitter account shortly after the conference. 

Early on in his talk, Dr. Bynum pointed out that when dealing with a professional at any level, it’s possible to trigger something that disrupts their professional identity. In our profession this could happen when presenting in front of peers or encountering new library jargon, for example. This causes what he refers to as “a shame reaction,” and has the potential to cause the person to feel shame and/or react defensively because their identity has been threatened. Any time a shame reaction is triggered it is possible for the person to respond “I am bad; I must fix myself” instead of “I did a bad thing; I must improve at ____.” The first response, or the internalized shame response, is anti-learning and impairs belonging. When the shame is prolonged, it can turn especially destructive. The second response is a guilt response, and according to Dr. Bynum, when properly harnessed guilt can be motivational and lead to the healing of whatever caused the shame reaction in the first place. 

Many librarians are already talking about shame and impostor syndrome in librarianship, and I had been completely missing the conversation. Some great examples I’ve found recently are  Zoë McLaughlin’s great reminder that “we are faculty members too, so there’s no reason to feel lesser,” Veronica Arellano Douglas’s amazing internal monologue about her own impostor syndrome, or the important light that Yoonhee Lee shed on the difficulties of even learning how to introduce yourself “in a succinct but engaging way.” More and more librarians are being vulnerable and opening up about their impostor syndrome, and how it affects their everyday life. 

Millennials

After Dr. Bynum posted the word cloud to his Twitter, I noticed that two words to the right of mistakes, is the word millennials (it is written vertically and can be easy to miss). The inclusion of millennials surprised me. Up until this point, my perception of impostor syndrome, or more like my desperate hope, was that it had to disappear at some point in your career. There had to be some threshold where, if only I knew this much, if I could only go through this imaginary gateway, then all my impostor syndrome would simply be cured. The longer you’re in a field the more you know about it, so clearly one day I will get to a spot where I feel secure in what I know and never suffer from impostor syndrome again. The truth is the longer you are in a profession the more changes you will have to walk through, each one presenting a new opportunity for impostor feelings to arise. 

Rising to the Occasion

Comparison is the enemy of community, and comparing myself against someone who has been in the profession for their entire career ultimately serves no productive purpose. Similarly, it is no help for experienced librarians to compare themselves to new librarians. At the end of the day there are far more ways we can support and learn from each other if we actively create those environments where all people can grow, freely express themselves, and put down roots.

Thankfully, Dr. Bynum left us with some practical advice on dealing with our shame and the shame we see in others. I would say this advice can also be applied to impostor syndrome:

  • Know what shame looks and sounds like, because it is often hidden 
    • Ask “how are you feeling about yourself today?”
  • Actively identify when you or someone you know feel shame, and be aware of the feeling
  • Explicitly say “let’s take the blame for this mistake and put it on this other thing” so you can accurately process what went wrong and how to keep it from happening in the future
  • Speak up and break the culture of silence
  • Create environments where people can grow roots and freely express themselves

I am fortunate enough to work at an institution that supports early career librarians, and have plenty of experienced colleagues who want to learn from me as much as I want to learn from them. I have yet to open up a conversation about impostor syndrome other than with a few trusted, early career librarian colleagues, but that may be the next step for me. Yes, it is difficult to break a culture of silence. Yes, it means we have to be vulnerable with each other, which is not easy and opens you up to getting hurt. But when we break the culture of silence, when we actively love and care about the well-being of people around us, when we work together and harness our impostor syndrome instead of fear it, we are far more equipped to handle change and will be far more successful than if we had tried alone. 

Big Transitions: Changing Jobs within and between Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Karen Sobel, Teaching & Learning Librarian, Auraria Library, Denver, CO.

Happy new year, everyone!

During the ACRL Webcast that I presented, titled “Making Yourself Marketable for Academic Librarian Positions” (12 November 2019), many attendees asked questions about transitions. In particular, they asked whether it’s possible to transfer from one type of library to another, or from one type of librarian position to another. The webcast organizers and I felt that those questions deserved thorough answers, along with some resources. Thus, here we are in the new year, ready to talk about creating change and working toward your goals. Let’s discuss the two questions one at a time.

Transitioning between Types of Libraries

Imagine that you’re working in one type of library – let’s say it’s your city’s public library. You’ve been there for a few years, and you realize that you want to find a job at another type of library. We’ll say that your new dream is to work at an academic library. Could you realistically make this transition happen?

The answer is yes – plenty of librarians have made this sort of change in the past. However, it does require careful preparation, and may not occur in a single move.

The most important aspect in making this sort of a shift is finding opportunities that align as closely as possible with your experience. Have you gathered experience in all of the required qualifications, and in some or all of the preferred qualifications for the position? If you begin searching for positions at a different type of institution from the one where you work, and you find that there are qualifications that you like, make a plan for developing that experience. You may need to get creative. Seek out experience at your own library. If you cannot develop the skills or experience that you need there, search for opportunities, or for professional development, elsewhere.

When you’re applying, highlight your experience honestly, echoing the language of the position posting. Different types of libraries may describe similar types of duties differently; make sure that your description will resonate with search committee members who will read your application. Your application will of course come across as “different” from those written by librarians whose experience comes closer to the job for which you are applying. Highlight the strengths that you have built which will set you apart. You would bring unusual positive qualities to the job.

Show that you truly understand what it would be like to work in the type of library where you wish to work. Talk with librarians who work in that type of library. Use the preferred language of that type of library in your application – and make sure to run your cover letter and CV or resume by librarians who work in that type of library. If you’re chosen for an in-person interview, research the library and the community it serves in great detail. Being able to discuss the context is important in rising to the top of the applicant pool.

Remember that different libraries and different positions will have different levels of competition. You could be one of three candidates for one position, and one of 200 candidates for another. That means that it may take several tries to make the leap from one type of library to another. Or that you may require a couple of leaps before you reach your dream job (which is true for most of us anyway). With careful planning and application, you can make the move from one type of library to another happen.

Transitioning between Types of Library Positions

Typically when librarians shape their career paths, they move from one position to another, built on a related set of skills and qualities. However, occasionally a librarian wishes to follow a career path that uses a dramatically new set of skills—moving from instruction to technical services, for example.

Building skills and experience are of course key to switching tracks within librarianship. If you already have your MLIS or similar degree and some experience, you’ve got an advantage. You just need to build credentials and experience specific to your new goals. Once you’ve decided to make the switch, it’s time to research the skills that you’ll need to build. Talk with professionals who already do the work that interests you. Read position postings and look for trends in required and preferred skills.

Once you’ve identified skills and experience that you need to build, think about what you could learn through on-the-job experience and what requires coursework or professional development. A lot of that is up to your judgment; you may want to seek out thoughts from professionals who already do that work. For example, you might decide that you’d learn skills for instruction most effectively through on-the-job practice at your institution. However, you’d probably learn the details of working with MARC records most efficiently through a course.

If you’re already working full- or part-time as a librarian, it’s well worth inquiring as to whether you can gain experience through making special arrangements in your own library. Interestingly, you may find that it’s easier to make this sort of arrangement in a smaller library, where each individual tends to have a broader range of duties. Think carefully about whether you can build this into your job, whether you can do the work as part of a full-time work schedule, or whether you may need to make adjustments to your arrangements in order to find time to support your goals.

It probably doesn’t need to be said, but you can likely be open with your colleagues regarding your changing intentions. New aspects of librarianship have sparked your interest. As long as you’re continuing to work hard at your current job, good colleagues tend to be supportive of your evolving dreams. Be open with your supervisor as well. Just like your other colleagues, your supervisor will likely be supportive as long as you continue to work hard. You may find that you need to request support, or to discuss the possibility of shifting some arrangements at work. Keeping your supervisor involved from early stages will only make this part easier.

Final Words

I wish you the best in working toward your goals! Feel free to reach out to librarians in your network, including me, as you move forward: karen.sobel@ucdenver.edu.

Resources

Strategies for Changing Your Career Path within Librarianship:

“Adaptable Applicants: Preparing to Change Your Library Path,” by Lindsey Homol for the American Library Association New Members’ Round Table: http://www.ala.org/rt/nmrt/news/footnotes/february2014/adaptable-applicants-preparing-change-your-library-path

The richest source of information on how to prepare for a “big transition” (from one type of library to another, or between roles in libraries) is articles from scholarly and professional library publications. If you have access to LISTA, LISA, Library and Information Science Source, or other library and information science databases through your library, you may want to explore those. Google Scholar will also point you toward many of those articles.

Writing Effective Library Resumes/CVs and Cover Letters:

“Common Library/Info Science Action Verbs,” courtesy of the Massachusetts Library System: https://www.masslibsystem.org/wp-content/uploads/LIS-action-verbs.pdf Terms on this sheet are commonly used to describe librarians’ work. Read through the list & consider incorporating some of these words into your next cover letter, CV, or resume.

Reflecting on contract work and precarity

Like many others, as the year is coming to an end, I’ve been in a reflective mood. Last year around this time, I was anxious about graduating, the job hunting process, and the potential for un/underemployment in the spring.  A lot has changed since then. I left the city I lived in for over a decade to start my first academic librarian job. There’s been lots to celebrate! But I’m still kind of feeling anxious about the future. 

My job is a “contractually limited appointment,” meaning it’s a fixed-term position with an end date. I still have many more months to go before my contract ends, but it’s something that’s frequently on my mind. In particular, whenever there’s discussions about long-term projects and planning or relationship building, I become aware of the temporality of my position. I think, will I be here next year?

While I was in school, I was warned that it may be several years before I find an ongoing permanent position, as lots of the jobs out there are part-time, or full-time contracts. According to Brons, Henninger, Riley, & Lin (2019), 46% of academic librarian jobs advertised on the Partnership job board (a Canadian library job board) were precarious. It seems like contract work is or becoming the norm for many early career librarians. When I was job hunting, I framed these positions in my mind as opportunities to get my foot in the door or a chance to try a new aspect of librarianship. But now that I have my foot in the door with my dream job(!), I am realizing that contract work is more challenging that I had thought.  

In their article “Job Precarity, Contract Work, and Self Care,” Lacey (2019) points to financial insecurity and the emotional and mental costs of precarious work. In particular, their discussion about the cyclical stress of acclimatizing to a new organizational culture and place, including establishing relationships, resonated with me. Being on a contract means, you’re constantly looking for work, trying to orient yourself to a new job, city, and leaving behind relationships. 

I’m very lucky in that I didn’t need to move far for my current position. It’s only a short bus or train ride away, although some days it feels very far.  I’m also very lucky in that I have super supportive colleagues who have gone out of their way to make me feel at home and a valued member of the library. I feel guilty about not focusing on the present and being fixated on the future, thinking about when I should start job hunting or where I’ll be living next year. 

What has been helpful is knowing that I’m not alone in feeling this way. I’m encouraged by the growing conversations about precarious work in libraries. For example, I’m excited about projects focused on contingent labour in libraries, archives, and museums like the Collective Responsibility: National Forum on Labor Practices for Grant-Funded Digital Positions, the Precarity in Libraries research project, or the @OrganizingLIS twitter account.

Looking at the current climate with the rise of the gig economy, it feels like part-time and contract work in librarianship is not going to go away. But, I’m also feeling very hopeful! I am looking forward to learning more about shared experiences of precarity and collectively working towards better conditions for library workers.

Celebrate Your Cheerleaders!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ending the year with questions

It’s the end of the year and all the things I expect are happening. Students are camping out in the library, I’m working on end-of-the-semester recaps,  and I’m already thinking ahead to 2020. With the way the holiday lines up, I’ll leave campus before finals are over and graduation has occurred and when I return, it will be empty and quiet. Like many people, I’m looking forward to the break, turning on my out-of-office email and basking in several meeting-free days in a row.  

As I gear up for this last week, I’m leaving 2019 with a lot of questions. Asking questions is part of my job but recently my questions have gotten harder to easily answer. You might have read my post in October, which raises a lot of questions about my type of librarianship. But beyond that I’m also thinking about: 

  • What does space mean to us?
  • What does it mean to be productive in a capitalist society and what space lends itself to being productive?
  • Where is my research agenda going? 
  • Where is my research project going to take me in 2020? 
  • How do we, as libraries, promote ourselves to students? Does it actually work? 
  • What is the spectrum of experiences in the library that we want our students to have?
  • How do you push back against the idea that a scholarly article is always reliable? And how do you do that in just 50 minutes? 
  • What should reference in an academic library look like? How is that tied with our instruction?  
  • Is it possible to lead transparently?
  • How do we tell a compelling story to administrators? What data do we need and how do we tell the story if we don’t have it? 
  • Will we recruit enough students for our new class

I’m lucky I can talk through these questions with my friends in academia, my supervisor, my formal and informal mentors, the students I work with, and my colleagues. While sometimes it feels strange to have so many questions and so little direction on how to answer them, I wonder if this means I’m getting somewhere. Or maybe I’m just getting more seasoned. But I’m ready to unpack these questions in 2020. Stay tuned to see what I discover.

What questions do you have as we end 2019?


Featured photo by Matthew Henry from Burst