Thoughts From A Search Committee Chair Running Two Searches

This spring, I’m chairing concurrent searches for two new librarians role in my department. I’m thrilled to lead these search committees and bring new colleagues to the team. These roles opened up due to faculty retirements and gave the department and I a chance to reflect on what our institution needs right now. 

For weeks, I’ve been thinking about how to write a blog post about this experience. At my past institution, I didn’t get too close to faculty librarian searches. I was at a large organization and had a supervisor who had me focus on other work priorities. I hired student interns and research assistants, but I was relatively removed from other searches. At my current institution, we are a smaller shop and as a department head, I have a different responsibility and focus on things like searches. While these two searches aren’t my first time chairing a search at my current institution, I feel a different search chair pressure since these are colleagues joining our department. This pressure is probably mostly internal pressure I’m putting on myself, but with every search, I feel there’s pressure for it to go well and find a successful candidate. 

Instead of continuing to spin my proverbial wheels about how to write this post, I’m going to share a few highlights. These are big ideas or themes that continue to stay top of mind. As always, I’m curious if these ideas and themes resonate with others! 

The Library Job Search + Emotions

In 2018-19, I collaborated with former ACRLogger Dylan Burns on a research project around emotions in the library job search. Dylan and I met in graduate school and noticed that during the second year of our on-campus program, there was a new energy in the air. A competitive and sometimes secretive energy as we all went on the job search. Our research was inspired by that experience and the emotions we felt as we went on the job market. We sent a survey out and had over 1,000 people start our survey! The paper we eventually wrote explored the themes we saw along with focus groups we conducted with survey participants. This research project was informative in so many ways, beyond learning so much about survey design, this research really solidified for me the challenges and struggles librarians experience. There’s such a black box when you apply for a job; you put your materials out there, invest time and energy in crafting a compelling cover letter and thinking about a potential institute that might employ you, and hope you hear something. As I navigate this search from the position of search chair, this paper is top of mind. I do what I can to communicate and move things along as quickly as I can. But I’ve also seen the various ways the systems and structures (or lack of those structures) slow a search down and rely on the chair and hiring manager to be organized. 

Not everyone is invested or as tuned into the search as you are

Everyone has different capacity levels to think about these searches. As the chair, I feel like I’m really in it but that’s not the same for everyone around me. I continue to remind myself that it is my responsibility to pave the way and make it easy for folks to engage with our candidates. And part of that means I have to keep articulating what these jobs will do, and how the folks in the room might interact/collaborate/rely on these roles.    

Searching for new people means less time to think about your current people

Something I’ve thought a lot about is how I’m refocusing my energy into bringing new folks into the department. That means something has to give and that has been some of the energy I’ve been able to put into the people on the current team. I feel fortunate these searches are happening almost three years into my time as a department head; I have a better sense of what folks need and they have a better sense of how to get feedback/support from me, especially when my time is in high demand. This also means when the searches wrap up, I can refocus my energy on the current department. Ultimately, just because I’m running a search doesn’t mean I have double the emotional energy. I’m still working through this, but try to be aware of what I can give and where I need to pull back. 

Bottom line: searches take time and energy

For the past three months, I feel like I’ve been thinking about these searches constantly. I might be brainstorming questions, finalizing finalist interview schedules, noting strengths and opportunities for growth, or scheduling meetings. I’m pouring a lot of energy to prepare for finalist interviews and t once that interview week comes, I’m tuned in to running smooth interview days. I keep thinking of the comment my high school band director told us in the pit orchestra – the best pit orchestra is the one where people don’t even realize there’s a pit orchestra right in front of them. To me, a good search feels like that; it’s running and people are comfortable and supported but don’t necessarily see all the work spinning in the background. But that of course, takes time and energy, and weeks of planning and coordinating!

What happens after the search

I also think frequently about what happens after the search – a successful candidate joins the team. That naturally spurs a bunch of follow up questions: What will onboarding look like? How is the department involved? What are scoped projects I can give these folks to get acclimated to the organization and feel a sense of progress within the first six to eight months on the job? I keep reminding myself to finish the searches and then worry about what’s next. One step at a time. 

At the end of the day, I’m really excited for what’s ahead. I feel like I’m learning and I’m growing in this double search chair role. I’m also going to be very thankful for when these searches wrap up!

Turn it off and on again: digital literacy in college students

What happened to digital literacy and competency? 

I’ll start this post with some examples of declining digital and computer literacy that me and my colleagues have noticed just in the past academic year with students.  

  • Tried to turn on a lab computer via the monitor, not the tower 
  • Manually added spaces for double-spaced paper 
  • Hitting spacebar to create indents 
  • Not being able to find their downloaded PDF 
  • Saving everything to desktop/not using file directories 
  • Unable to use browser (only uses phone applications) 
  • Not understanding how to navigate Microsoft OneDrive vs computer file directories (or: why doesn’t my paper show up on the computer?) 

I’m sure a lot of these, along with many other examples, sound very familiar to academic librarians. Although the IT Help Desk is just a few feet down from the Library Service Desk at my library, we become tech support in so many ways. The technical understanding of computers, programs, and how they work just isn’t there in many young adults, which might be surprising to some. Surely, the kids who have grown up with technology are good at it, right? They’re “digital natives”? Many a librarian, academic or otherwise, could tell you that that’s not the case.  

The 2018 International Computer and Information Literacy study showed that only 2 percent of students scored at the highest level of computer and information literacy (Fraillon et al, 2020). Yet, Global Web Index’s report on Generation Z says that “[they] are clocking up nearly 7 hours a day online” (2019). Those of us who work in universities, whether as faculty, staff, or otherwise, need to remember that students using technology for interaction and leisure doesn’t necessarily translate to familiarity with tools for academic or professional work. As an example: If I’m on TikTok all day, why would I then know how to use Microsoft Word for APA format in my paper? If I am posting stories to Instagram and direct messaging people, why would I know the difference between cloud storage like Google Drive and the hardware storage of a laptop? 

It’s easier for me to think about this in terms of my own experiences. I had a computer basics class in high school where I learned about the different mechanical parts of a computer, what the abbreviations KB, MB, and GB mean, among other things that I ultimately use every day in my professional and personal life. Someone who came even 2 or 3 years after me at my same high school didn’t have the same thing. Chromebooks were just gaining traction during my senior year, and they were fully implemented a few years after I left. I firmly believe that the rise of these sort of limiting products has limited the digital literacy and competency of today’s students, but perhaps exploring that relationship can be saved for an entirely different blog post.  

I think the ultimate problem with digital literacy is not necessarily the lack of technical knowledge, but the lack of curiosity. Oftentimes when students come to the desk for help with formatting a paper, they haven’t attempted to figure it out themselves. One way to address the lack of curiosity and digital literacy is something many librarians are already doing: modeling inquiry. We perform reference interviews to get more information about the question or issue at hand, and often times, we are figuring out technology issues along with the patron. I am always telling students exactly what I do – no, I don’t remember this off the top of my head, I Google things about programs constantly. Even in our instruction sessions, we model curiosity and exploration; I purposely try not to have canned database searches, because I know how messy research is. Students might not yet. If they see that a librarian can get a “no results found” search or something that isn’t as relevant, they might feel better about continuing to try in their own research process. They can also learn how to search the web for their problems – how many times have you Googled something, gotten completely irrelevant results, and had to change or add keywords? This first attempt is where I find that students might stop, if they do try to figure it out. It’s okay if they can’t find the answer and come ask us anyway – I just want to empower them to try.  

Although they’re of a generation who is quite familiar with technology, everyone’s experience varies. This is why I don’t really like the term digital native (Prensky, 2001). I prefer the term digital learner – none of us are born knowing natively how to use these tools, but they and we are born learning them (Gallardo-Echenique et al, 2015). Since every student comes to us with different backgrounds, experiences, and access, we should focus our efforts on modeling and teaching with inquiry and curiosity. As fast as technology changes, having a solid foundation of curiosity will benefit students for the rest of their lives.  

References 

Fraillon, J., Ainley, J., Schulz, W., Friedman, T., & Duckworth, D. (2020). Preparing for Life in a Digital World: IEA International Computer and Information Literacy Study 2018 International Report. Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-38781-5 

Gallardo-Echenique, E. E., Marqués-Molías, L., Bullen, M., & Strijbos, J.-W. (2015). Let’s talk about digital learners in the digital era. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 16(3). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v16i3.2196 

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1108/10748120110424816 

Dwindling Reference Questions

“If you build it, [will] they will come[?]”

As another season of baseball is just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about ways to get hits and avoid strikes—so decided to break out a classic quotation from Field of Dreams and apply it to academic libraries. In recent years, our library has seen dwindling reference questions. We’re not getting nearly the number of students at our front desk asking questions, nor making as many appointments with librarians, compared to pre-pandemic.

I’m not totally sure what to make of this. I can’t imagine students not needing library services, such as help with literature searching, questions about using databases, or help with citation management software. Not to pump our tires up too much, but these skills typically don’t come intuitively or out of thin air—at least at the level academic librarians support students. Our help is still needed, but without students seeking us out to get that help, we’re missing out on a huge number of opportunities to make students’ lives easier. We want to help.

I suspect that in our post-pandemic era, a ‘generation’ of students don’t have the same familiarity with libraries as they did in previous generations. Did these students miss out on using their high school libraries when they were completing high school largely from home? Did social interactions change post-pandemic? Do students prefer online reference questions and consultations, rather than in-person? And is this affecting the number of questions we’d normally get?

While this is a problem, there’s also opportunity; opportunity to devote more time to seeking in-class instruction—where you seek students out and not vice-versa; opportunity to work on offering enhanced library services; opportunity to plan library events; and more.

I’ve thought about how to address shrinking reference questions. If you assess the number and type of reference questions you’re getting, and it’s different from before—such as fewer or simpler questions—in broad strokes you can approach the issue from a couple perspectives:

  • You can make decisions reactively (e.g. less library staff at the front desk, shorter library or front desk hours), or
  • You can make decisions proactively (e.g. broad, university-wide promotion strategies to inform students what library staff can do for them, reinforce there are no stupid questions and it’s worth getting help from library staff).

Whichever approach you take, you need to think about your goal: are you reacting to fewer reference questions to maintain the status quo or are you proactively trying strategies to ensure students are getting the help they need, and meeting them where you are?

I always think that if we build it, they will come. But maybe we have to tell them what we’ve built. And one thing’s for sure: we must think hard about what to build.

Achilles’ Heel?, or Coping Strategies Turned Strengths

I stumbled across this article the other day. The gist is that leaders can and should embrace their confusion when confronted with illogical situations. Whereas some might see confusion as a liability to be concealed or let confusion debilitate them, strong leaders embrace their confusion as a productive tool. The author suggests that the Reflective Inquiry and Action (RIA) framework can help folks negotiate and use confusion effectively. The five steps outlined in the RIA framework — “embrace your confusion,” “assert your need to make sense,” “structure the conversation,” “listen reflectively and learn,” and “process your response aloud” — feel like common sense really. Looking back, I can recognize some of my own attempts to navigate these steps and can see how productive they were for not only overcoming confusion, but for building relationships with colleagues, too. 

It makes me think about other techniques I’ve embraced — the organizational approaches I use, for example, to help me grab hold and make sense of the thoughts buzzing around in my brain. The reflective techniques I practice when I feel muddled. They’re coping strategies, really, that I’ve adopted to help navigate my work, my thinking, my overwhelm. They’re born out of a need to manage what have definitely felt like long-time weaknesses. But I can also see now that using and refining these organizational and metacognitive techniques over the years has actually turned them into strengths. These have become ways of working, ways of thinking that are powerful and constructive. 

I’ve often heard colleagues both in and out of the library describe how little formal education or training they had to prepare them for their teaching responsibilities. While I had the benefit of a bit of educational theory as an undergrad and a grad school class that gave a nod to teaching, I would largely characterize my own teaching preparation the same way — it’s been a learn-as-you-go situation. I can see how the organizational and metacognitive skills I’ve been developing have also served me well here, giving me a lens through which to examine and reflect on the why, how, and what of teaching and a foundation from which to develop pedagogical approaches. What started as experimentation with personal note taking techniques, for example, has evolved into strategies for working with students to grow their own brainstorming and organizational techniques as they develop topics, consider the different angles embedded in their questions, and manage the sources they’re using to explore those perspectives. The reflective techniques I use to process my own work have helped me introduce metacognitive practices into my teaching — to talk with students about why and how to use those brainstorming and organizational techniques, for example, or as a tool to direct students’ attention and reflection. 

I came to administrative and supervisory positions with little formal training either. And here, too, I’ve been able to translate and further grow these coping strategies turned skills, whether for facilitating collaborative decision-making processes or mentoring a colleague or setting priorities. It turns out these skills — skills for sense-making, really — can be cultivated to be a productive foundation across domains.

I’m about to take on some additional administrative responsibilities so it’s no surprise that my thoughts are lingering around questions of weakness and strength, questions of preparedness. I’ve reflected before on how truly powerful these kinds of “soft” skills are. It strikes me anew how important perception and attitude are in making good use of those soft skills. I feel I’m venturing into Pollyanna, let’s-make-lemonade-out-of-our-lemons territory here and that’s not my intention or not exactly. I just mean that frame of mind and point of view can make all the difference in setting the tone for how we approach a problem or a weakness, how we make use of what we’ve got. 

This all made me think of that statistic I’ve seen cited so often — the one about how women are less likely to apply for jobs than men if they feel they don’t meet 100% of the qualifications. Looking for that source just now, I came across this Harvard Business Review article. While the author doesn’t deny that women may need to build more confidence, which is how I’ve often heard that statistic interpreted, she layers on some additional dimensions. She contends that it’s not just a lack of confidence, but also too strict an adherence to what women see as the rules of hiring. “They thought that the required qualifications were…well, required qualifications. They didn’t see the hiring process as one where advocacy, relationships, or a creative approach to framing one’s expertise could overcome not having the skills and experiences outlined in the job qualifications.” I think it’s that “creative approach to framing one’s expertise” bit that really applies here. We might already be cultivating the skills we need. We might be more ready than we think we are. We just have to recognize our strengths and put them to use.

Unveiling the Deceptive Duo: Inclusive Access and Equitable Access – A Threat to Student Choice and Library Reserves

Academic libraries have a new battle on the horizon: inclusive access and equitable access. These two models are the newest ventures of bookstore vendors to get students to purchase costly textbooks and other course materials. Stealing library jargon to disguise the truth, bookstore vendors are advertising inclusive access and equitable access as being a positive move for universities. These models, however, are far from it.

Inclusive Access

Bookstore vendors market this option as being convenient for faculty and students as students are guaranteed access to course materials on the first day of class. Sounds great, doesn’t it? At first glance, it appears to be truly inclusive; however, this option is deceptive. When faculty choose to use inclusive access, they select their textbook and/or access codes for homework as they normally would. Then, instead of students purchasing these materials on their own, students are billed an additional charge for their tuition to include the cost of the course materials. This means students lose the ability to buy used versus new as well as shop around for their course materials (e.g., Amazon). According to these vendors, they do provide students with an “opt-out” option. The problem with this “opt-out” option is two-fold. One, the ability to “opt-out” is not communicated clearly to students. Bookstore vendors tend to use intimidating language that ultimately prevents students from opting out. Two, if students “opt-out” of an access code needed to complete their homework, they are unable to submit their homework; therefore, they will likely fail the class. How is that inclusive?

Equitable Access

While I had heard of inclusive access, the equitable access model was unbeknownst to me until recently. According to bookstore vendors, equitable access is a model that, like inclusive access, ensures that all students have access to their required course materials on the first day of class. Prior to classes beginning, students would receive a box of all of their needed materials. Again, this sounds great, doesn’t it? The catch is found in how students are billed for these materials. Once faculty make their textbook and course material selections, the university divides the total cost of all faculty-selected items amongst all students. Then, every student is charged the same “textbook cost” fee as part of their tuition and fees. While this may be beneficial to students majoring in subjects such as chemistry or accounting, majors notorious for high textbook costs, this is a huge disservice to majors with historically low textbook costs, such as English or history. This model also takes away the ability for students to shop around for cheaper alternatives to new textbooks and provides zero transparency in how much their materials actually cost. This means that a student who could purchase all of their textbooks used for a total of $30 could instead be charged $600. How is that equitable?

Contract Limitations for Academic Libraries

In addition to the effect inclusive and equitable access models have on students, the contracts to implement them can severely impact and even eliminate libraries’ efforts in providing course reserves and other textbook support to students. For instance, one bookstore vendor’s contract explicitly prohibits libraries from purchasing a copy of a course textbook to place on reserve in the library for students to check out. With the equitable access model, libraries would be completely written out of the textbook equation. If universities began shifting towards these models, my position as an Affordability and Digital Initiatives Librarian, as well as similar positions, would be eliminated, and the major strides made in providing true equitable access to textbooks through academic libraries would come to a halt.

Federal Intervention

The good news is that the Department of Education is aware of and currently discussing these misleading models. As the Biden-Harris administration works towards adopting more open policies, they have turned their focus towards higher education. More specifically, on January 2, 2024, the Department of Education released six issue papers with proposals for more student-friendly policies. One of these papers propose to “eliminate the provision allowing institutions to include the cost of books and supplies as part of tuition and fees.” If passed, this proposal would be a huge win for academic libraries.

You can find out more information about the Department of Education’s movement to restrict these models at https://www2.ed.gov/policy/highered/reg/hearulemaking/2023/program-integrity-and-institutional-quality-session-1-issue-paper-cash-management-final.pdf