A different summer vibe

Writing, especially blog writing, has been tough in 2021. I keep looking at open and blank documents, trying to think of something new to say. Spoiler: that strategy hasn’t been working too well. And frankly, I, like many others, are tired. This past spring semester, I did what I needed to do but didn’t try to push the envelope. A lot of great work did come from this semester — a successful student showcase, many undergraduate research award winners, and a short story contest where I got to learn way more about circuses than I anticipated. I brought a similar energy into summer outreach and engagement and so far, that has been paying off. I feel like I have time to think, plan, and dream up new ideas.

However, there’s a different vibe to this summer. I don’t know about you all, but I’ve been to a few meetings where my colleagues have referred to the pandemic in the past tense. When I first heard the past tense, I waited to see if this was a slip. It wasn’t. I asked the group text if they were also seeing this use of past tense at their institutions. “Yes” was the response I got. 

This pandemic is definitely not over; sure, we might be coming back to campus, but that doesn’t mean COVID has gone away. Although the United States has ample access to vaccines, we, as a county, will miss the 70% of adults having at least one shot by July 4. I know there is a desire to “return to normal” but to speak as if the pandemic is over feels like a disservice to what we all experienced the past year and a half. This attitude also completely misses the fact that vaccine access is not equitable across the world. That inequity does impact our university community members who are not located in the United States. The pandemic isn’t over, we are just in a new season of it. Hopefully, this is a chapter near the end of this story, but we aren’t sure yet.

It also feels like there is a different energy behind planning over this summer. Last year, we spent a lot of time waiting — what would our institutions decide? How would we do outreach? We invested more energy into summer online programming, planned for different scenarios, and pushed some events off until we had a clearer sense of the fall. This summer, we are moving full steam ahead for in-person activities. We want to open ALL the doors. 

A part of me is ready to interact with people in real life and not over a screen. I’m ready to run into colleagues in the hallway on the way to a meeting and grab coffee with someone new to brainstorm new collaborations. And a part of me is nervous for what the fall will look like. In my research this past year on student engagement journeys, we’ve seen a spectrum of experiences. Experiences where students were lonely and joined clubs in order to find community. And we talked to students who ran some of those clubs and felt that they feel short of the engagement and interaction they could get when they were in-person. It feels that there will be a growing period where we all readjust. As we readjust, I hope we talk about it. Some parts of this transition will be difficult or challenging. To learn and grow together, we have to be able to communicate. 

Despite my hesitancy at calling the pandemic over, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve felt change on the horizon. Maybe it’s the nicer summer weather or new leadership at my current institution that has me feeling a bit more hopeful. Whatever it is, I think I’m ready for the rest of this summer and what fall might bring us. We’ll see.

What about you? How are you feeling about this summer?

Vulnerability, Connection, and Reflection During a Global Pandemic: Bringing the Personal Back to the Profession During a Strange, Strange Time

This guest post was submitted by Justin Fuhr, University of Manitoba.

Never a forced smile from the sun in the sky

Never the same cloud as it passes by

As the earth takes shape, as so should I

The weary are weary for they always ask, “why?”

Daniel Romano, “Never a Forced Smile”[1]

Introduction

At the beginning of the global pandemic due to COVID-19 when my work moved to working from home, I was in the middle of my five-week parental leave following the birth of my second child. I feel fortunate to have had this time with my family but more than a year later, have a feeling of emptiness that I continue to work from home. Don’t get me wrong, I feel extremely privileged to have a job that I can do from home, as well as an employer that is not rushing their employees back during an extremely volatile, unpredictable, and quite frankly dangerous, time.

My WFH situation also could be much worse: my kids could be home during the day while I try to work, as was the case in Spring 2020. Again, I am privileged to have childcare for both, allowing my wife and I a quiet house in which to work. The isolation, however, is difficult a year into this thing. I have little in-person contact beyond my immediate family and small bubble. I love my family and my friends, but it is difficult to go from seeing your co-workers in-person daily to seeing them solely over video conferencing software. For me, it’s a missing piece of the regularness of life.[2]

This feeling of isolation prompted me to talk and connect with my colleagues. Connection to colleagues, which for me led to vulnerable, authentic, and trusting relationships, is extremely valuable to me, something I have appreciated at a deeper level while working from home. These connections can lead to collaboration, throughout both research and work-related projects, in addition to providing much needed support and community.

Connection

I have been working at the University of Manitoba Libraries (UML) since 2015. I began work as a library technician, before attending grad school in 2016 to get my MLIS. I graduated in 2019 and was hired as a two-year term librarian at UML at the beginning of 2020. I have known many of my colleagues for a long time; there is a stable staff at the Libraries. I switched positions several times as a library technician and later as a librarian, so I have worked with a fair number of library staff and worked closely with quite a few. You naturally get to know your colleagues better the more you work with them.  However, I tried to maintain a work/home balance, which included my relationships with co-workers. Work was work and home was home, the professional and the personal stayed on each side. This changed while working from home, as I simultaneously became comfortable working as a librarian and found I needed more connection with colleagues. I felt isolated from my colleagues without seeing them daily. I wanted to connect with them at a time of isolation, to not only be more engaged in my work and research, but to actively build a community of collaboration and collegiality by bringing the personal back to the profession.

Connections can also be important to get to know more about your colleagues’ work, research, and professional interests. This can lead to collaborative and trusting relationships, extremely valuable and rewarding in any workplace. Connections also build community.  One of UML’s strategic directions is “building community that creates an outstanding learning and working environment.”[3]  One of the goals of this strategic direction is “the Libraries promotes staff success through…developing our internal communication tools and mechanisms for conversations within the UML in order to enhance our ability to provide efficient and effective services and increase satisfaction with our own work.” In this strategic direction, I see clearly two aspects that I really relate to: using unified communication software and conversations between colleagues, both of which are important for building connections and for future collaboration with colleagues.

Online communication

A benefit to everyone working from home was library staff using the same online communication software. I found when working from home, if your colleagues are connected by the same online communication platform — we use Microsoft Teams — it was in some ways easier to connect. Sure, you no longer run into your colleagues before and after meetings or chat at the front desk when you’re passing by, but it connects you to your colleagues in other ways.

Not only does the University of Manitoba have two campuses, separated by almost eleven kilometres, but there are also eleven libraries at UML, ten on the main campus. This separates staff located on different campuses and in different libraries; it can be difficult to connect with colleagues spread all over the place. Having many library staff using the same communication tool connects us in a way that working in-person throughout our eleven libraries and two campuses does not.

However, online communication is often an intentional act. You initiate conversation with others in a way that’s different than in-person communication. Often this is a one-on-one interaction. This can be vulnerable and you will need trust, which I touch on below.

Conversations as an Early-Career Librarian

Another factor for my feeling of isolation is that I am an early-career librarian. I need guidance as I navigate how to become a better librarian and researcher, and my colleagues, who are extremely friendly and supportive, are a fantastic support. As a librarian, I have flexibility and independence in my workload. I am early in my career and I have tons of questions about my work, research, future career plans, and direction to take in academic librarianship. I am eager to ask my colleagues for answers or advice, having an appreciation of perspectives different from mine, especially with their deep and varied experience. My colleagues very graciously share with me their own experiences, which I can apply to my own context, and otherwise provide support and advice relevant to me.

By reaching out to colleagues to get their advice on a wide range of topics, I can shape my direction and outlook on my work and research, now and in the future. With greater independence in my position compared to when I worked as a library technician, this guidance and connection is all the more important for me. Over the past year, I have found three important aspects to connection with my colleagues: vulnerability, authenticity, and trust.

Vulnerability

Connecting with others and bringing the personal to work may mean you are vulnerable. Sharing your fears, doubts, and reservations can be difficult to do (and not necessarily necessary). This is even more difficult to share with your co-workers. I don’t know about you, but I try to cultivate a ‘better me’ at work. Wouldn’t sharing your vulnerabilities run counter to this? You would think so. However, confiding in your colleagues on difficult issues or scenarios can be really rewarding for both you and your co-worker. You would be surprised how putting yourself out there can benefit both you and the person you’re confiding in, in a mutualistic-type of relationship. Also sharing vulnerabilities does not negate the ‘better you,’ in fact it enhances your image by being authentic to present the ‘best you.’

Mentioned earlier, online communication is often intentional. On some level, you have to put yourself out there to contact others. You trust that the person you’re contacting is supportive and collegial. In addition, confidence in your co-workers, in terms of privacy, is key here, which also helps to build trust. Sharing professional vulnerabilities is difficult and immensely personal, so if your confidence is broken that can do long-term damage to you and your colleague’s relationship. Also be cautious about sharing very personal information. Though I advocate for bringing the personal back to the profession, there still should be some sort of line between work and home. Where this line lies, though, is for you to decide.

Authenticity

Being authentic with your colleagues builds a stronger community and deeper connections — authentic connections. I advocate for being authentic in your work relationships, regardless of past experiences or history with your colleagues. Of course, don’t let yourself be taken advantage of, but learn to forgive and forget. Collegiality plays a large role here and should not be forgotten.

I also think honesty begins with yourself; knowing your boundaries, being aware of your work style, and conscious of your personality. Be honest with yourself and you’ll find it easier to be honest with others, especially in the workplace.

Trust

Trust is integral for strengthening connections among co-workers. Wojciechowska (2020) claims trust, when looked at from a social capital context, “strengthens relationships with the neighbourhood, facilitates cooperation with partners and colleagues, reduces fear and conflicts, and may also stimulate development.”[4] Trust is built in different ways. Sometimes it’s built over years of relationship building. Sometimes it’s based on someone’s personality, reputation, or history at the workplace (or your own!). Sometimes you just click with someone and trust comes quickly.

When you trust who you are speaking with, it is so much easier to have honest conversations. There’s also an element of trust where you need to trust that your conversations are honest. I find vulnerability and trust work hand in hand: it is easier to be vulnerable when you can trust your colleague has your back. In addition, trusting that the colleague you are speaking with won’t pass on any conversations held between the two of you is so important, and of course goes hand-in-hand with being authentic. 

Another thing I had to get over was my worry of bothering my co-workers, especially because I have so many questions! I had to learn to trust that my relationships with my colleagues were strong, that my colleagues are eager to chat and help, and that they would let me know if they had to complete time-sensitive work.

In Conclusion

I appreciate the camaraderie and collegiality received from my colleagues over the past year. I’ve said in the past that it takes a village to raise a librarian, which I find is more relevant than ever right now. I am very fortunate to work in a library system that has so many supportive, knowledgeable, and friendly colleagues.

I feel that over the past year, I have connected at a deeper level with a substantial number of my co-workers in vulnerable, authentic, and trusting ways. These connections have provided me with a strong librarian mentor who is encouraging, empathetic, and experienced, colleagues with whom I regularly meet up with to go on walks, and co-workers who I now consider friends. Most of all, I can connect and collaborate with my colleagues on work, research, our future careers, and just life.

Acknowledgements

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the importance of Daniel Romano’s music over the past year, whose lyrics appear at the beginning of this reflection and whose music has brought me comfort during the isolation of working from home.


[1] Romano, D. (2011). Never a forced smile. On Sleep Beneath the Willow [LP]. Welland, ON: You’ve Changed Records.

[2] Unlike Christopher Moltisanti, I love the regularness of life and can’t wait to get back to it.

[3] University of Manitoba Libraries. (2021). Strategic infrastructure. https://www.umanitoba.ca/libraries/administration/strategic-infrastructure

[4]  Wojciechowska, M. (2020). Trust as a factor in building cognitive social capital among library workers and users. Implications for library managers. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 47(1), p. 1. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2020.102300

Trust and Teaching

In late April I (virtually) presented alongside Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz and Elvis Bakaitis at the CUNY Mina Reese Library’s event, Towards a Critical, Decolonized Pedagogy: An Interactive (Re)Visioning. Shawn presented a thought-provoking and compelling search for ancestral connection through pedagogy, while my portion of the workshop centered on the idea of trust in critical pedagogy.

I view trust in an educational context as both essential and fragile. It’s difficult to build and sustain and can be easily broken, but without it we don’t have the kind of connected needed in critical, engaged learning environments to foster transformative learning. One of my favorite definitions of trust comes from Judith V. Jordan, who describes it as “confidence in the relationship.” Seeking help and connection and expressing vulnerability is scary, and it’s what we all do as learners: share what we don’t know, ask for what we want to learn, and hope that we’ve connected enough with others (our peer learners, our teachers) for them to support us through the process. If there is no confidence in the relationship between learner and teacher or learner and learner, then there is no trust that this is an educational experience where everyone learns and grows as people.

A few weeks after this talk I received an unsolicited email from a sales representative at an academic-adjacent company touting a new software product that would help teachers track and record the “time [students] spent reading, working with sources, [and] taking notes” online, all in the name of good assessment. Shortly after receiving that email I learned about faculty who review hundreds of video recordings of students taking exams because the proctoring software flags them as potential cheaters for not looking at the screen. These are students who are working out complex problems on a sheet of paper at their desk. After that eye-opener, I then attended a pedagogical discussion that devolved into a lamentation over cheating (not the point of the discussion) and the inability for instructors to preserve the integrity of the test. And just last week I reviewed dozens of syllabi for a curriculum mapping project where the tone and language used automatically assumed students were going to cheat or try to scam their course professor.

The trust that could/should have existed between learners and teachers or learners and learners has instead been placed in browser lockdown software and surveillance technology. Students are assumed to be scammers, professors have to protect their exams, and any energy that could be put towards meaningful learning is instead diverted to cheating prevention. I know this is not the norm in every class or with every professor at every campus. But it is a mindset that I find particularly insidious in higher education.

This mindset sees rampant cheating as the real problem, not the 300 person classes students have to take their first year at college. This mindset characterizes students as dishonest and unmotivated to learn, when really they might be juggling work, school, and family and struggling to buy books. This mindset assumes professors are just out to catch you when do something wrong, rather than help you get what you need to learn. It’s a mindset without trust or connection, one that is easily monetized by education-adjacent companies whose profits grow as learning suffers. The inertia of practices in higher education is strong, and I fear that we are hurtling towards more distrust in teaching and learning. But I find solace in the small moments of trust I have with learners and teachers, in the instances of grace that others extend to me and that I can reciprocate, and in the small spaces after class (that are all virtual these days) where students ask questions and we can just talk as people, connect, and trust.

The Inaccessibility of ACRL 2021

This guest post is provided by Katie Quirin Manwiller, MLIS, Instruction & Assessment Librarian at DeSales University.

After the 2019 ACRL Conference, I wrote a guest ACRLog post about conferencing while chronically ill and the challenges I faced attending my first national library conference. At the time, I thought it was my responsibility to adapt to the conference setting if I wanted to be professionally active. After spending the last two years studying disability in librarianship and coming to terms with my own disabled identity, I realized that the accessibility of our national conferences should not be left up to the individual library workers with illness and/or disability. It is the responsibility of those putting on the conference to provide an accessible and inclusive experience. And while some aspects of the ACRL 2021 were indeed more accessible than 2019, it fell far short of providing equitable access to disabled librarians.

On face value, an all virtual conference is much more accessible for me. I live with Hypermobility Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), fibromyalgia, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS). I have daily symptoms that include musculoskeletal pain, chronic fatigue, and cognitive difficulties (also called brain fog). These symptoms make the physicality of national conferences almost unbearable: traveling to and from the city, navigating hotels and conference rooms, and being mentally engaged in session content and professional interactions. Not to mention sick time off to recuperate from the experience. Attending a conference from my bed with supportive pillows and a heating pad eliminates most of those concerns. I can easily rest when I get mentally fatigued and do not need to worry about crossing expansive conference spaces in search of the one quiet room.

So when ACRL 2021 was announced as virtual I was excited. Not only would I be presenting my research on academic librarians with invisible illness and/or disability and moderating a panel of librarians with invisible disabilities, I wouldn’t have to navigate the many ways in-person conferences are inaccessible to me. The advent of COVID-19 and shift to virtual seemed like it would make professional involvement more accessible for disabled folks. Virtual attendance and remote work has long been advocated for as a tool for accessibility. But after attending ACRL 2021, I realized there are still many ways to leave behind people with disabilities in the virtual environment.

It became apparent that accessibility was not integral in conference planning when the directions for presenters were released. All presentations were pre-recorded, and some had live Q&A sessions. ACRL directed presenters to use automatic captioning features to caption their sessions, first with Zoom (which they must have figured out doesn’t provide auto-captions for all accounts) and then using Google Slides. Unfortunately, as many people involved in accessibility know, automatic captions do not provide equitable access. They often lack correct grammar, punctuation, differentiation between homonyms, or clarification on technical terms, jargon, or proper nouns. It is not difficult to learn of the inaccessibility of auto-captions, as even a quick Google search – well within the expertise of academic librarians – shows years of criticism for auto-captions on sites like YouTube.

As a disabled presenter, it felt like captions were nothing but an afterthought in planning. Like late in the game someone asked, “Oh yeah shouldn’t we have captions?” and the planning committee threw together the easiest and cheapest option for them to do so. And despite the fact that sessions were required to be submitted almost a month in advance, there was no apparent review of captions. Captioning varied widely throughout the sessions. Some presentations (like mine) had edited, large-text, and easily readable captions that matched the recording. Others followed the directive to use Google Slides auto-captions, which were very small on screen and words appeared and changed as the presenters spoke, making it difficult to follow along. Then there were some sessions with no captions at all. And almost universally, the emoji buttons the platform so helpfully provided to engage with the sessions covered up captions. 

Captions are an essential aspect of recordings because they benefit everyone. They make it possible for Deaf and Hard of Hearing folks to engage with the material, improve concentration for neurodivergent people and those like me who struggle with brain fog, and can help comprehension for non-disabled individuals. They should be the bare minimum for accessible practices, but ACRL’s half-hearted attempt at captions proved more difficult than helpful.

And it wasn’t just the captioning that made this virtual conference hard to navigate as a disabled librarian. The session recordings with a live Q&A played at a scheduled time without the ability to pause the recording. Trying to take notes and follow a condensed session was often overwhelming for my tired brain. I know other librarians with disabilities who stopped watching the live Q&A sessions all together, waiting until the recordings became available with a pause afterwards as it was the only way to stay cognitively engaged with the session. This, of course, meant they missed out on material since the live Q&As were not recorded. The conference platform also proved problematic when trying to use assistive technology. One of the panelists in my session had to turn off a screen reader to be able to appear in the live video Q&A. ACRL did provide live caption for Q&A sessions but only for people who requested accommodations, seeming to do just what was required to meet ADA requirements and no more.

By the end of the week, I was extremely frustrated with a conference I had assumed would be a pleasantly accessible experience. Despite the fact that ACRL included several sessions on disability, they did not appear to include library workers with disability in their planning. So I emailed the Conference Manager, Tory Ondria, expressing disappointment that the remarkably expensive virtual conference (attendance started around $300 for salaried librarians) somehow could not afford captioning services. Interim Executive Director of ACRL Kara Malenfant responded as staff was on furlough. I followed up with a list of specific questions as to the ways accessibility was part of the 2021 Conference planning process: 

  • What specific accessibility concerns did you evaluate when choosing a platform? Was an accessibility audit performed?
  • Was ensuring accessibility largely left up to the chosen platform?
  • Who from ACRL oversaw accessibility concerns and testing for the conference? What experience with accessibility and/or disability do they have?
  • Why was a platform that (presumably) did not include captioning chosen?
  • The auto-caption directive for presenters seemed like an afterthought. How early into planning for the virtual conference were captions considered?
  • What research, if any, was done into captioning options? Why was auto-captioning, despite being far less effective than correct, added captions, chosen?
  • In a broader sense, how are library workers with disabilities included in the planning of ACRL conferences?

I expected to get a response along the lines of accessibility was left up to the platform or maybe which portion of the planning committee addressed accessibility concerns, both of which I considered bare minimums. But unfortunately, I was shocked to find that ACRL could shatter my already low expectations. Here’s the response to the above questions I received, in full, shared with permission from Kara Malenfant: “Thanks, Katie, for your helpful and detailed questions. They can certainly help shape reporting to the ACRL Board and our Conference Committee as well as inform work going forward on improving accessibility for future events.”

That was it. No attempt to answer any of my questions. When I asked if there was anyone else who may be able to answer my questions, I was again told that “[W]e learned a lot from our experiences. Things were not perfect, but we did try.” And yet, I received no details about how they tried beyond live captioning accommodation requests. Nothing about how the conference platform was chosen or the session accessibility standards. Only statements about how they will incorporate my concerns for future conferences.

I went into this conference knowing that library organizations provide virtually no support to library workers with disabilities. After all, my panel was titled “Who’s Missing from EDI Advocacy?” and it highlighted the ways ACRL does not support disabled librarians beyond including them in blanket EDI statements. But ACRL 2021 was not only disappointing, it was demoralizing. I received confirmation that the organization that spouts the importance of an equitable profession addresses accessibility as an afterthought. I feel dubious about the effectiveness of any ACRL EDI efforts because the roots of ableism, like racism, are embedded deep in white supremacy culture. Disability intersects in innumerable ways with other marginalized identities. How can we be growing more inclusive as a profession if part of those identities are completely ignored?

I’m left thinking about a friend’s tweet: “Why do library orgs act like disabled library workers don’t exist?” To go a step farther, why should disabled library workers engage with and give money to professional organizations who do nothing to support, protect, or understand us? How can we ensured our lived experience and knowledge will still be shared outside of an inaccessible professional community?


The End of the Beginning

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Winston Churchill

Today marks the end of our school year at Prairie State College, and the end of my first school year as an academic librarian. In the meantime, I took an online instruction course that emphasized reflective writing. Therefore, as an ACRLog FYAL blogger and in the spirit of reflective writing, I would like to reflect on my first year.

In the beginning of the school year my daughter and I were wrapping up our fourth trimester. She was the only one in the house who was well rested and my husband and I were bleary eyed and foggy. I have ample events that I did things, but I don’t remember doing them. Fast forward a couple of months and by late October, early November she was sleeping through the night.

It took about a month for my brain to work again and I have a better recollection of the end of the fall semester than the beginning. With remote work, regular communication to faculty and students was critical. To accomplish this I picked a number of modalities, hoping that one would “stick.” We now have a monthly faculty newsletter (which apparently are trendy again?), a blog for students with practical tips on how to navigate college, regular social media posts, events (currently done online), and a book club. I attended a number of webinars and a couple of conferences virtually. Between austerity measures at Prairie State and the fact that I’m nursing, I was able to attend these events because they were virtual. My hope is that even after the world is a little safer this will still be an option as it removes some boundaries to conferences.

As far as my role as an instructor librarian, I think my first year went about as well as it could during a pandemic professionally. I’m proud of the work that I have done and think that I have laid a solid foundation for the next few years of “new normal.” (Whatever that means.)

As was evident from many of my entries, personally I struggled. I should say that I am in many ways privileged and even with this, it was a tough and scary environment to launch into my new career. I knew many people who got sick and one who died. We had one COVID-19 scare and have been tested multiple times. I’m not the healthiest person and I was petrified to find out what would happen if I got sick. What would happen to my daughter? My vaccine has given me reassurance and the littlest bit of freedom. My fear though is that we won’t take any lessons from this time and will simply move on as though nothing happened. This brings me back to this Winston Churchill quote. This is the end of the beginning of both the pandemic and my new career. The work continues.