In the Weeds

Jonathan Kemper

This is my first summer keeping up with a whole yard’s worth of weeding. When I was a kid, weeding the family garden was a sweaty neck, mosquito bites, and work that never seemed to end. As an adult, I might still sweat and itch, but now I get the appeal of weeding — it’s oddly satisfying, similar to peeling sunburn or plucking a stray hair.

Weeding in an academic library is satisfying in its own way. It’s also an essential summer project for us; our library is only 2 stories, with the majority of the circulating collection on the lower level. After 2 summers postponing weeding due to the pandemic, the collection is bursting at the seams. 

It’s going to be a lot of work for all departments. In addition to librarians weeding, the circulation department is doing a library-wide inventory. And on top of that, the Director is planning a diversity audit of the collection. So we’ve got 3 projects that have us scrutinizing the collection, or as my coworker says, “communing with the books.” I think these overlapping projects will yield good results for us, as we learn what we have too much of and what we’re missing.

We have a paperbacks collection that I tackled in one week, with the help of our Circulation staff. We weeded about 740 titles, largely based on condition and circulation stats. While we send qualifying titles to Better World Books, they don’t accept mass market paperbacks, so these would normally be put on our book sale cart.

But since we were weeding so many paperbacks at once, my coworker had the great idea to host a Paperback Giveaway to kick off the summer. We arranged all the books on two folding tables, all their spines facing up, and faculty, staff, and students could come to the library all week to take as many books as they wanted. We also provided canvas totes with the school’s logo on them, and that made patrons take even more books home with them.

Patrons sometimes feel alarm when you’re removing a bunch of books at once, even if it’s to make room on the shelves for new things. Inviting our campus community to pick up free discards gave us a chance to explain this sometimes-controversial phase of collection management. One library’s trash, another patron’s treasure!

Recruiting New Librarians

It’s been such a tough pandemic for academic librarian job seekers, particularly new graduates. Enrollment declines led to shrinking budgets which in turn meant disappearing job opportunities when so many librarians needed them most. I feel very lucky to be in a library that has had the budget, personnel, and time to hire several new librarians this academic year. Later this summer I’ll be in a position to hire both a Teaching & Learning Librarian and a Student Success Librarian. I’ve been working on the job description and thinking a lot about the recruitment of new colleagues. I definitely have the usual concerns about the construction of the job advertisement:

  • Is the language used to describe the position responsibilities accessible to librarians new to the profession?
  • Are we including a salary range?
  • Am I asking too much under Required Qualifications?
  • Does the job ad emphasize our library’s commitment to anti-racism, equity, and inclusion?
  • Will the position description sound appealing and welcoming to librarians from different backgrounds and communities?
  • Does it make our department sound like a good place to work?

I shared my initial draft with our assistant department head and two new(ish) librarian colleagues who had recently been through the job search process. They offered helpful edits and suggestions, and I was able to pass on our draft to our Associate Dean for Organizational Development and Learning.

But there are the OTHER factors to consider when thinking about recruitment, ones inextricably linked to the pandemic, politics, and legislation. The last few years have been and continue to be difficult for people with disabilities, compromised immune systems, families, income precarity; and all of the most vulnerable individuals. Are new or experienced librarians in a position–financially, emotionally, personally–to move for a new job? What kind of support and flexibility can we offer to individuals who may have unique health, family, or other needs? Are we prepared to have those conversations when negotiating with potential candidates? I hope that we’re ready.

Living in Texas I’m familiar with the common refrains online urging people to either (a) get out and vote or (b) get up and move. Both make a lot of assumptions about finances, personal situations, and other extenuating circumstances. So as we are hiring I will continue to think about how we can make work as safe and welcoming a place as it can be for the people who work within it.

Are you also hiring and onboarding new librarians this year? If so, what’s been your approach?

Things I Didn’t Know I Needed to Know

Hindsight is 20/20, right? In this collaborative post from our ACRLog team, we’re reflecting on the lessons and truths about libraries, librarianship, and higher ed that we wish we had come to understand sooner — the stuff we didn’t know to ask about earlier on in our careers, the stuff we didn’t know that we needed to know — and how our current understanding can perhaps help us to more clearly see the things we need to do differently. 

What’s something you wish someone had told you or that you wish you had asked in a job interview in order to get a clearer picture of the work, institution, or culture? 

[Alex] I wish I had the foresight to ask for more detail about what the tenure process looks like for a librarian, as this was not something I had encountered before. I had the rare opportunity to choose tenure-track or fixed-term when I was hired, and I assumed tenure-track was inherently the “better” choice and did not give it much critical consideration. 

[Hailley] A colleague and I were just talking about this recently – we wished we had asked about what the culture is around start and end times. At my current institution, we have a pretty standard 8:15-4:30 workday (university-wide). Knowing this might not change your mind to take or not to take a job, it is helpful to know what the general rule of thumb is before entering a new institution. 

[Veronica] It’s incredibly important to ask what the organization is doing to ensure their workplace is equitable, inclusive, and accessible. Both the answer, and the way that it is answered are especially important for librarians with marginalized identities, but should be a concern for all librarians. You can usually get a sense of a place by how the people you are talking to react to that question. 

What’s an unwritten rule at your current or past institution(s) or within your area of librarianship that you had to learn as you go?

[Alex] At each institution I’ve worked at, the unwritten rules are mostly workplace culture, processes for the way things are done. My best example is that I have had scheduled reference shifts at both of my librarian jobs, and it is done very differently at each: on a weekly basis vs. six months at a time; in hourly shifts vs. 90-minute shifts; all open hours vs. a six-hour period of the day on weekdays only. It demonstrated to me that not only are types of libraries very different, but so are individual locations. 

[Maura] When I started at my current institution as Instruction Coordinator 14 years ago, I also noted a few things about workplace culture that were perhaps a bit more formal than I expected. Most of my library colleagues dressed up a bit for reference shifts and teaching, and across the college when faculty referred to each other in front of students they tended to use “Professor So and so” rather than first names. The former has definitely changed somewhat since the pandemic though I’m not sure if the latter has.

[Jen] When I moved to my current institution to take on this job almost five years ago, it was my first time in a faculty position. I had already worked in libraries for a long time by that point but always in positions classified as staff. I didn’t take this job because it was classified as faculty; I saw it as a plus, but certainly not the deciding factor. It’s taken me some time to fully grasp what it means to have faculty status in terms of planning my work and organizing my time, as well as in terms of my opportunities and responsibilities–not only of the position itself, but also as a faculty member. Of course, faculty classification while working in a public service-oriented unit and also being an administrator and manager is different from a typical faculty role. But I think this vantage point has given me new perspective on what a position’s classification can mean with respect to autonomy, advocacy, and the like. Having worked from both sides of this coin now, though, I still believe that it is up to us to not only practice and embody the full potential of our roles, but to also challenge it (or, perhaps more accurately, to challenge others’ assumptions and expectations of our roles). Whether because or in spite of classifications, we can play a significant part in making our places in our library and institutional landscapes what we want them to be. 

What’s something simple or fundamental about higher ed, libraries, or your current/past job(s) that you wish you’d understood sooner?

[Hailley] Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how decisions are made. Overtime, and especially as a current middle manager, I can more clearly see the many people above me who might influence, inform, or make a decision. Even if I don’t love a decision, I try to keep in mind the bigger picture and context for that specific decision. 

[Angie]  Absolutely what Hailey points out. I try to share this perspective with others as well.  Another reality I wish I knew sooner is how people in higher ed – from students to faculty to administrators – understand so little about the work of libraries, and how even those who communicate well, it remains a constant endeavor.  I am starting to accept this as work that is never done.

[Jen] I decided to go to library school without much library work experience, really. I had a job at the circulation desk in my college library, but my experience doing research for my senior thesis played a much bigger part in prompting me to take this path. While in grad school, I worked at the reference desk in one of my university’s libraries. This was a valuable experience that helped me solidify my grad school (and job search) focus on reference, instruction, and outreach work in academic libraries, but I don’t think I gave other areas of librarianship as much thought as I should have. All that to say, I didn’t come to this field with much pre-existing foundational knowledge about libraries. I feel particularly lucky, then, to have had a supervisor in my first professional position (a one-year stint) who took great pains to connect me with colleagues and projects in a wide range of areas and departments to help expand my awareness and skill set. And I feel very lucky, too, to have spent a significant chunk of my career early on at a small liberal arts college library. Because our library team was relatively small, collegial, and collaborative (read: everyone wore a lot of hats), I had many opportunities to get involved in projects outside the scope of my specific position. Moreover, the daily work of each person and department was literally visible to me. As such, I feel like I got a broad view of how libraries work. My current position at a small branch of an enormous university library system still requires me to wear a lot of hats and also still regularly offers me new insight into how libraries–and higher ed–work, too. But had I started my career in a system of this size, I don’t think I would have had occasion to participate in or observe so many aspects of academic library work so closely. I would have very little understanding, for example, of the technical work of my cataloging, serials, and licensing colleagues or of what’s involved in implementing a new discovery system. I regularly rely and expand on the broader, foundational understanding those early positions afforded. I’m grateful for the opportunities I had to build it.

[Veronica] Like Jen, I also spent a significant chunk of my career at a small liberal arts college library. What that time taught me, and what I wish I’d realized sooner, is that everyone in higher ed–staff, faculty (tenure track, adjuncts, lecturers), librarians–is trying to do their best with the limited time, bandwidth, and resources that we have. There can be this tendency in larger institutions to feel like it’s us versus them, or fall into victim-villain thinking, when in reality everyone is trying their best and no one is ignoring you on purpose. Yes, there will always be people who are rude, but the vast majority of folks are really just trying to get by as best as they can. I think the more that we can listen to our colleagues and get to know them and their wants, needs, worries, and hopes, the better we can support one another and show solidarity in higher education. 

What’s something in higher ed, libraries, or your area of librarianship that everyone just does but doesn’t work well or should be re-thought?

[Angie] I truly don’t understand how, especially as information scientists, we haven’t prioritized the problem that is email. When I first moved into my own place after college, I remember the internet offerings advertised “up to 5 email accounts!”, and I thought why would anyone need that many? In my work within technical services, we have more than that; I know their purpose, and still wonder why these systems can’t serve us better. Many band-aids out there endeavor to help us “manage” email, but not a lot of solutions recognize the problematic level of reliance on email in the workplace. I don’t want to manage email. As ubiquitous as email is, it ought to more effortlessly help or at least get out of the way.

[Maura] I am so grateful to my colleagues that we are a well-functioning, kind, and thoughtful team. Not that we don’t have challenges, because every workplace has challenges, but we’re committed to asking questions and taking responsibility for our inevitable mistakes (because everyone makes mistakes). I was in academia right after college and then took some time in the publishing industry before returning to academia as a librarian, and I’d forgotten about the conflict avoidance that seems endemic to so many academic settings. I wish that institutions offered more support for doing the necessary work of moving through conflict thoughtfully and respectfully.

[Jen] We need to increase transparency around salaries. To withhold salary information from position descriptions and during the interview process can make what is already a difficult undertaking even more uncertain and fraught–not to mention a waste of time for everyone involved if candidates drop out late in the process after finally learning that salaries don’t meet their needs. And then, once hired, the lack of communication within and across institutions about salary data leaves library workers siloed and in the dark about potential earnings equity issues and missing key information with which to advocate for themselves. On a related note, we need to create more internal advancement opportunities in libraries. It seems that the general thinking is that in order to move up, one has to move out. I agree with that approach to some degree–transition is typically healthy for an organization and individuals (fresh perspectives and new horizons!). However, the lack of growth potential for folks within an institution can result in stagnancy, frustration, and low morale. While an organizational culture that supports experimentation and innovation can keep motivated library workers interested and invested, the lack of structural elements to support such folks to move into new positions (with real salary growth) is hurting us on both individual and organizational levels.

[Veronica] Like Jen, I definitely feel as though pipelines to leadership are something that need to be addressed within libraries with equity in mind. There is a strong push towards diversifying the profession, but it often stops with the hiring and onboarding process. What happens after that? Why do people leave the organization or the profession? At my library we are looking into how to help all librarians access professional development and support that will help them advance their careers within our library or elsewhere. Some things we need to ask ourselves are: Who are we sharing leadership opportunities with and why? Who within the organization has access to training, mentoring, and coaching? Who is missing from conversations about leadership potential and career advancement? If we, as a profession, spent time on these ideas we might be able to ensure that people stay within librarianship.

What are some of the lessons and truths that hindsight has helped you to see better? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 

Looking Back: A Yearly Wrap-Up

I’ve (almost) made it! As of May, I’m eleven months into my first not-so-new-anymore academic librarian position. Looking back on my first year in an academic library, there are a handful of lessons, moments, and people that come to mind – including just how fast time flies while working at a university. In the spirit of growth, this month’s post reflects back on my various lessons from this academic year.

Teaching a library credit-course has always loomed rather large for my first position. So, it makes sense that there’s more to be said about teaching than I have space for (see my January post, for example). That being said, here are couple of lessons from the library classroom.

Proper Preparation

I’m going to let you in on a little-known secret – I get nervous each and every single time I have to teach. It doesn’t matter how many years of teaching I have under my belt, it doesn’t matter if it’s a one-shot lesson I’ve delivered ten times. I always get at least a little nervous whenever I have to teach, and it took me a while to realize that that’s okay.  There’s something that’s always stuck with me from my alternative teacher certification days that still holds true for me to this day – proper preparation prevents pitiful performance. Aside from being an impressive example of alliteration, this maxim has become something I live by when it comes to teaching. 

Teaching is stressful. Each class, each lecture, each activity comes with its laundry list like number of considerations to think about. Activating students’ prior knowledge, preparing mini-lectures, creating opportunities for students to practice new skills, assessing those skills; these are just some of the few things an instructor has to take into consideration whenever planning an instruction session. Granted, some level of stress is unavoidable when teaching, but craving time out each day to prepare and plan instruction has made teaching a lot more manageable for me.

Reflection

Planning takes time, but actual instruction sessions themselves fly by. It’s because of this that reflection has become a staple of my pedagogical praxis. Thanks to my lovely colleagues who introduced me to the concept, I now have a journal specifically for both planning out my classes but also reflecting on each instruction session. Having a space for reflecting on each class session has afforded me a variety of insights. Something I learned early on about teaching is that classes don’t always turn out the way we image, so having a journal filled with the ups and downs of instruction helps me better plan for future sessions. In a way, my reflection journal works as a form of self-assessment, but it also serves as a marker of progress – comparing my notes from the first week of Fall classes to this Spring lets me know I’ve come a long way as both a librarian and an instructor.

Working Out a Workflow

Prior to my current position, my old workflow consisted of notes in a very lovely planner that I would consistently forget to regularly check. I regretfully admit that, because of my lax scheduling, there are a handful of work and nonwork related events that I missed. But, I’m happy to report that since starting at my current institution, I’ve become the type of person who lives by their Outlook calendar. My last to-do every day before leaving the office is taking a look at my calendar for the next day and locking in exactly what I need to be working on and when. More importantly, I’ve grown into the habit of setting my calendar up in advance as often as possible. This means that sometimes I place an event or deadline on my calendar months in advance but, thanks to my calendar’s reminders function, the likelihood of me forgetting to prep for that event or deadline is much smaller than it has ever been.

Outreach

It seems to me that figuring out your approach to outreach is an almost universal librarian experience. Each library and each campus come with their own set of distinct factors to take into consideration when planning outreach. Because of that, I think it’s safe to say that there’s no one hard and fast rule for conducting outreach to your campus community. What I’ve come to learn about outreach is that most of all it requires time and visibility.

Connecting with students has quickly become one of the most rewarding parts of my position. But, like that phrase about Rome, those connections aren’t built in a day. Whether it’s in the classroom or a campus cultural center, building relationships with students and the on-campus organizations that serve them require an investment of time and presence. My biggest success story in this regard has been my outreach to my campus’ César Chávez Cultural Center (I touched on this in my March post) which led to me being personally sought out by students.

Service

Service to the library, service to the university, service to the profession at large – service period is something I didn’t have much experience with till this year. Much like the other lessons, figuring out my approach to service work has taken time. Though it seems like a requirement typical of most academic libraries, service seems like the type of work that can either become an additional burden or a fulfilling joy. My approach to service has consisted of finding opportunities aligned to my passions. For example, back in March I took part in two training sessions with the library internship program I was in during grad school. During the sessions, I had the opportunity to discuss my experiences in the job market and my transition from intern to full-time librarian with current interns. Maybe it’s something to do with the type of people this profession attracts, but I’ve found that incoming librarians tend to be very responsive and appreciative of hearing earnest advice about the profession to which I usually reply with, “this is one of the fun parts about my job” – and, it’s true. I’ve found that sharing the experiences and advice I’ve received along my path to the profession thus far to be immensely gratifying. Doing so has made my service feel a lots less like work and more like giving back.

Friendship

Last and most certainly not least, friendship. Having people that you know that you can lean-on, as well as making space for those people to lean-on you, goes a long way for me in my personal life. But, I’ve come to learn that that’s also the case for me at work. I know, I know – librarians typical tend to identify as introverts (myself included) but having a close-knit circle of work friends has been huge for me. All of us have our fair share of bad days, but not everyone has someone that they can lean on during those times. Being open and vulnerable with my circle at work has gotten me through some of my roughest days at the library.

In a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve finally gotten adjusted to my new career. I fully recognize I still have much to learn but reflecting back on my first year has allowed to realize just how far I’ve come in a relatively short period of time. Though I’m happy to report that I’ll be taking some time off this Summer – I’m really excited to catch Rage Against the Machine and Kendrick Lamar in July – I’m looking forward to all the new lessons and challenges the coming academic year will bring.

My First Conference (as an academic librarian)

I promise I did not vanish into the abyss. I did, however, disappear into an incredibly busy March and April and I offer profound apologies to my fellow ACRL bloggers, though I’m quite sure they understand how these things go in the wild world of libraries.

TLA 2022 in Forth Worth, TX. April 25-28. Theme: Recover, Rebalance, Reconnect.

One of the many events that consumed me during these past two months was the Texas Libraries Association conference, AKA TLA2022. If you are a member of #LibraryTwitter, you might be familiar with the controversy that was stirred up by one of the keynote speakers, Alyssa Edwards. I was unfortunately unable to go to this keynote due to a very long and tiring day waiting in lines (Sidenote: What do conference organizers have against chairs? I haven’t been able to sit on the floor without a monumental effort to get up again since undergrad. Do not make people stand in lines for hours! It’s not acceptable or disability inclusive or okay! Geez!) but the issue was echoed again and again in each session I did attend. Libraries are being badgered by bigots, zealots, and busybodies who jump on us the moment we show any support to LGBTQ communities.

It’s not as bad in academic libraries. My colleagues in public libraries and especially those in school libraries are taking the brunt of the abuse. However, the field itself is having a reckoning, if the thrust of nearly every main session at TLA is any indication. I attended sessions each day, and book banning and challenges, patrons abusing staff, programs being canceled and boycotted, and constant, aggressive censorship was a topic brought up at almost every one of them. Even while I was busily networking in the Exhibition Hall, my main goal of the conference, I saw it everywhere. The air hummed both with the tension of the amount of pressure librarians and library staff are under as well as understanding. Every time a speaker acknowledged how hard this has been on us, professionally, physically, emotionally, I could feel waves of relief coming off those surrounding me. I got it. I’m lucky to have a partner who is also a librarian, so he understands. But how many of the people I encountered at that conference had felt isolated in their struggles? If your family, friends, even colleagues just don’t grasp the severity of the anxiety you live in day after day, that the one book you order or the one event you plan is going to set off a tidal wave of complaints, how amazing must it feel to finally have someone recognize it? And not only that, but someone on stage, holding a microphone, speaking with authority?

Nadine Strossen addressed the audience of librarians during her mid-conference keynote when she said, “In the land of the free and the home of the brave, it should not take courage to be so brave to do your job.” And all I could think was yes, yes, thank you! Thank you for acknowledging what the people around me have been doing. Thank you for speaking that truth to the people who really needed to hear it.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how amazing Ibram X. Kendi’s session was.

TLA did my heart good. I took a risk by going, I know I did. Large gatherings like this are going to be a gamble for a while with the COVID pandemic still in full swing. We did have protections in place, particularly either a vaccination record or clear test being required to enter the convention center, but in the end I’m very happy that I went and experienced this validation. No, I’m not on the front lines of this fight, but I’m also not so sheltered that I can ignore it (nor insist on continued oppression-favoring neutrality like some  members of our field). It was a memorable and important first conference for me in my academic librarian career. I’m hoping to attend more in the future, especially because I don’t see today’s problems going away any time soon. I’m going to keep my head in the game to support fellow library workers. We all need each other right now, that’s how we make it through this.

One step at a time.