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

In search of community

I’ve always felt a strong sense of professional community as a librarian. I had a close local cohort of friends in my distance MLIS program, a fantastic group of ALA Spectrum Scholars who helped me feel accepted and included, and great colleagues. I’ve been lucky to have worked at institutions that invest in the professional development of their librarians (especially early-career folks) and therefore have been able to attend conferences, leadership institutes, and other learning experiences. I joined the social media platform formerly known as Twitter in 2008 and shared thoughts there and via my personal blog, connecting with librarians across the country on everything from critical information literacy to elder millennial jams.

Then the pandemic hit. We still had all the finest web-based apps needed to maintain our ability to work, but something about connecting online didn’t feel right anymore. It was simultaneously too much and not enough. I missed grabbing dinner with friends, going to yoga class in person, and visiting family (among all of the comforts of having a “normal” day-to-day life). The isolation was crushing. All of the fledgling communities I had started to build in a new city crumbled and the long standing professional community in LIS was struggling. We all trickled back into our “normal” routines eventually, but things were markedly different. We were different, and the communities that sustained us throughout the years of isolation were not necessarily the same ones we relied on pre-pandemic.

I finally left what was then still Twitter in 2023, as did many of my colleagues and friends. I’ve struggled to feel motivated enough to attend conferences and professional activities in person given the number of free or low-cost online offerings (book a flight and wait to be reimbursed? in this economy?). But I do miss being able to catch up with colleagues at other institutions in person. I miss the serendipitous collaborations that sprung for venting sessions over coffee or lunch after a thought-provoking presentation. I miss getting to know people outside of their identities as librarians. I don’t know where the librarians are online anymore, but I know that I miss them! Occasionally we see one another in professional service organization meetings, private-chatting each other via Zoom, but of course, it’s not quite the same.

I am very curious to discover what community looks like now for folks in LIS, especially early-career folks. I will admit that moving into a management position and recognizing that I’ve been in libraries for 17 years(!!!!) have also contributed to a shift in community for me, but it hasn’t changed the fact that I need a community. I think we all do. We all want to feel understood and valued in our profession. So what does librarian community look like now, and what can we make it?

What kind of institutional change are you encountering?

To kick off our institutional change theme, we asked some librarians this question: In the New Year, what kind of institutional change are you encountering? Are you looking forward to it, dreading it, or some kind of in-between feeling? Given the subject matter, we opted to anonymize this post. If you have thoughts on institutional change, sound off in the comments or reach out to us to do a guest post!

Blogger 1: At my university, we have a fairly new president and provost. This has led to a complete overhaul of the way that positions are approved, along with a number of other changes. There has been a lot of faculty rumblings that ultimately came to a head with a letter from anonymous faculty to the President, listing both their concerns and rumors that had been swirling around the new administration. It was brought to everyone’s attention via a faculty senate motion. I shared some of the concerns, but there were also portions of the letter that were either untrue or petty in comparison to the real concerns. I did not feel it was representative of all faculty. 

As you might imagine, this caused an absolute tizzy throughout campus. Faculty senate motions are public, so the letter was seen by everyone; even the student newspaper reported on it. The senate ultimately held an all-faculty meeting to go over the concerns, which are being compiled into a report (minus the rumors). There had been discussion at the library about administration, but this really brought it all into hard focus. A good portion of our department meetings have been spent on compiling and articulating our own concerns, which focus on the (lack of) communication from admin and staffing, since that aforementioned position approval process has slowed the hiring process down considerably. In my opinion, the whole debacle could have been avoided with a better communication strategy. Maybe needless to say, but it’s caused a lot of dread and anxiety overall for me; I do hope that it leads to change in the new admins’ approaches, though. 

Blogger 2: I almost feel like the question might actually be what institutional change aren’t we encountering. In some ways, this year just seems to hold more of the same as the last few: a steady trickle of folks leaving all levels of positions whether for retirement or other positions and places; continuing enrollment troubles; growing budget challenges; and so on. These issues certainly aren’t new (or unique to my institution) but it does feel like they’re really piling up. On one hand, these converging and intensifying challenges are just adding a hearty dose of uncertainty and instability to the burnout and morale issues we’re already confronting. On the other hand, though, I do respect how the new university leadership seems to be addressing the challenges head on, rather than letting issues continue to fester. I admire how library leadership is transparent about the challenges and the decision-making processes being used to address them. I also appreciate how leadership is so far framing our organizational response to the (yes, mounting and increasingly consequential) challenges as opportunities for innovation, not just setbacks and hardships. Of course, they absolutely are setbacks and hardships — let’s not kid ourselves. But it helps to remember that we might actually be able to do something about it. 

Blogger 3: At my library, we’re having a hard time hiring librarians. It’s hard to pinpoint why exactly we’re not getting positions filled; some positions it seems like aren’t appealing enough to attract candidates (e.g. job responsibilities and/or compensation) and some may be because of institutional issues (e.g. timing of searches, which vacant positions are prioritized, length of time to complete a search, and failed searches for one reason or another).

Related to length of time, the hiring process is an arduous process, with many librarians on search committees, getting job descriptions and advertisements approved from our institution’s administration, and the longlisting, shortlisting, and interviewing. When this results in a failed search—whether that’s due to a lack of applicants or procedural issues—this only exacerbates the issue to get the position filled timely. This is disheartening, to say the least.

We’re trying different approaches to attract candidates, to put them in the best position to succeed and feel adequately compensated. While our library can adapt our hiring practices, we still have to operate within our institutional policies on recruiting. In the meantime, we continue to cover positions in different ways and have our fingers crossed that we can finally get a full complement of librarians.

Navigating an Uncharted Path in Liaison Librarianship

Towards the end of fall 2023, the STEM Librarian stepped down from her position at CSU Northridge. Throughout her tenure, she covered liaison duties that spanned across many Science and Engineering departments. I heard about this news during a monthly department meeting. Our department chair requested support and asked us to reach out if interested in taking over the STEM liaison roles. Despite the fact that I have an academic background in the Humanities and Social Sciences, I recognized the urgency of the situation and offered my support. In the spirit of camaraderie, I contacted my chair and volunteered to help. Soon after, I was assigned to be the liaison for the single department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, which includes library instruction and collection development responsibilities.

When I started at CSU Northridge, I was initially assigned to be the Central American & Transborder Studies liaison. Due to my background in Ethnic Studies, particularly Chicana/o Studies and Latina/o Studies, I felt quite comfortable with this assignment. I felt at home as I taught information literacy sessions, facilitated research consultations, and performed my bibliographer duties for the department of Central American & Transborder Studies. It wasn’t until I became the liaison to Chemistry & Biochemistry that I began to feel like I was navigating an uncharted path.

Recently, I had to select publications to update the collection for Chemistry & Biochemistry. Since it was my first time performing my collection development duties for this department, I was out of my depth. As a liaison librarian, I must meet 3 important collection development deadlines throughout the academic school year. Just over a week ago, I met the second deadline and I spent 75% of all available funds. To be frank, this was easier said than done for an early career librarian without a STEM background. For more support, I reached out to several librarians in the Collection Access and Management Services (CAMS) department. Although I was already diving into book reviews and book spotlights offered by professional associations, I realized that I needed more guidance. As a result of my colleagues’ mentorship, I learned about ALMA analytics and I discovered how to search for slips in Gobi. These lessons allowed me to finalize my selections for Chemistry & Biochemistry.

As for library instruction, the fall semester will start tomorrow, so I have not taught any information literary sessions for Chemistry & Biochemistry. However, I already received 3 instruction requests from a professor teaching CHEM 464L – Principles of Biochemistry. To prepare, I have been exploring the already established CHEM 464L LibGuide. So far, I have set my focus on current topics and the American Chemical Society (ACS) citation style. Additionally, I intend to contact the former Science and Engineering Librarian with the hopes that she will be open to sharing her Google Slides, instructional handouts, and/or other resources. My intention is to learn as much as possible to help students locate the proper library resources. While I recognize that I have immersed myself into a completely different academic discipline, I am reassured by own professional experience, particularly my 10-year trajectory as an educator.  I am learning to trust the process, so that I may rely on my own skillset, which includes teaching topics like keyword selection, information evaluation, citation practices, and database search mechanics.

As I wrap up this blog post, I would like to encourage other liaison librarians to please reach out if you’ve had a similar experience. What were some of your approaches? How did you become familiarized with your new role? I would definitely appreciate guidance as I continue to dive into science liaison librarianship.