We have tents and grand speeches, branded masks and slogans, rehearsals and schematics and all of the plans that accompany major performative events. And to be honest, that’s exactly what college, university, and academic library reopenings feel like to me: A Performance.
We’re reopening because of political pressure and financial need, not because it’s suddenly safer to do so. We can’t talk about closing after reopening; in fact we pretend it’s not even an option. We only talk about cutting services, socially distancing, limiting crowds in the library, and cleaning and sanitation. We suspend disbelief so that we can say it will all be as safe as possible because this is the story we are telling; this is the performance we are giving. We see some universities cancelling these performances, but most of us are persisting.
I, like many of you, am not great at this performance. I can’t “Yes, and…” these plans as I sit safely working from home for the next few months. I am not putting myself at risk but my colleagues are going to be doing that everyday. It’s a dangerous performance set on a foundation of hopes, best laid plans, willful ignoring/ignorance, and government incompetence. I don’t know how long it will run–2 weeks? 2 months? a whole semester?–but it’s not a show I thought we would ever be performing. It feels like living in a McSweeney’s essay or an article from The Onion.
I am grateful to have a job / part to play in this performance. I am grateful to have health insurance and meaningful work I can do from home. I am grateful for my paycheck. But do I love this performance? No.
This is my last post as a blogger for the First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience series. My first year as a librarian has been a whirlwind. I just finished writing my annual self-evaluation report reflecting on my year, and I’m reminded again that reflection is hard and challenging work. I’ve strived to be a reflective practitioner, and I am grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to externalize my reflections over the past year through monthly blog posts.
If I had to answer the one minute paper I give to students in class, “what is the most meaningful or useful thing you’ve learned,”I would say that building relationships and getting support from my network have been crucial to navigating my first year of academic librarianship. My fellow FYAL blogger Karina Hagelin too recently pointed to the importance of “asking for help” and “building community.” Melissa Dewitt similarly stated that “relationships are the most important thing.” I relate to their words so much. Here are some of the specific ways that my library friends and colleagues have supported me:
Being generous with feedback.
As a new librarian, receiving positive affirmations and feedback made a huge difference. Each and every “thank you” and “great job” elevated my confidence and made me feel that my work was recognized and valued. Whether it was a colleague relaying kind words from a faculty member about a class I taught or a reply-all thank you email about a document I shared, these small acts made me feel supported and motivated. Some folks have also been profuse and loud(!!!) with their support, hyping me up whenever I have doubts or concerns. Their generosity has inspired me to be more proactive in vocalizing my gratitude for my colleagues and their work, particularly those early in their career.
Gently pushing me to opportunities.
I applied to write for the ACRLog because my manager encouraged me to with a simple tweet. I’m not sure if I would have applied if they hadn’t specifically pointed me to the opportunity. Through emails, newsletters, listservs, social media, and googling, there are lots of different ways that I become aware about professional development opportunities. However, often what would push me to apply or pursue an opportunity was a colleague. For example, one colleague wrote me an email about a call for participation in a research institute, which was previously circulated in another library-wide email. In this email, my colleague not only encouraged me to apply but also offered to answer questions about the opportunity and share their experience as well. As a new librarian, these nudges and pushes have prompted me to consider opportunities that I may have been hesitant to apply for or ignored, thinking that it is out of my reach.
Giving me real talk.
I’ve asked for advice from a lot of my colleagues, and I am grateful for their honest and thoughtful responses. From helping me understand and navigate organizational culture a.k.a “unwritten rules,” to advice about my career, many of my colleagues have been candid and forthright about challenges and the realities of the current environment. This real talk has not only helped me make more informed decisions but also be more honest and vulnerable about where I’m at. I didn’t feel the need to hide the fact that I was looking for other jobs throughout my contract (and may even leave early if need be!) and was able to have conversations about my career beyond my current place of work. I’ve also been able to talk about navigating and working in a pre-dominantly white institution and profession, and folks have been generous with me in sharing their advice and experiences.
While I have a lot of friends and support outside libraries, it’s been wonderful to build friendships with those who understand my experiences within librarianship. Moreover, as someone who moved to a new city for work, I’ve naturally looked to my colleagues as a local support network. While I’m wary of any rhetoric around “work as family,” I’ve found the intertwining of personal and professional relationships to be meaningful and valuable. Some of my colleagues actively and intentionally reached out to me, inviting me to social events and asking about the non-library parts of my life. These are colleagues I happily call my friends, and getting to them on a personal-level has made me appreciate them even more, personally and professionally.
One of my favourite things to read in a book is the acknowledgements section, where the author names all the people who have contributed to the writing and production of their book. I’m not going to name names, but to my library friends and colleagues, you have been an integral part of my first year as an academic librarian. I don’t know how I would have done this without you! Thank you for providing me with an example of how to be a librarian that supports and lifts up others. As I move throughout my career, I hope to be that source of support and friendship to others within the library community!
My diversity fellowship at Cornell University has been such a transformative journey, with so many opportunities to learn, grow, and expand as an academic librarian. I spent the first six months of my fellowship working as an Assistant Archivist in Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC). During this time, I worked with the Human Sexuality Collection (HSC), cataloging visual resources to improve access and description for researchers and community members, processing collections, and working alongside the curator, Brenda Marston, to grow the HSC’s Instagram presence. Serving on RMC’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Task Force, I also co-authored a 40-page report on recommendations and best practices on our commitment to social justice (something I am passionate about and see as an integral common thread to all of our work).
I spent the rest of my fellowship working as an Instruction and Outreach Librarian at Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell’s library serving the College of Agriculture and LIfe Sciences students, staff, and faculty. Here, I rediscovered my passion for teaching (especially with zines!) and put my community organizing background and skills to use through creative outreach strategies and innovative programming. For example, I founded and facilitated a makers night for women, transgender, and femme makers – communities that have often been excluded from and left out by Makerspaces – at the mannUfactory (Mann Library’s Makerspace). This biweekly event introduced students to our Makerspace to build their skills (and confidence) as makers. I directly sought out the expertise and experiences of LGBTQ+ students on campus so we could plan projects they were enthusiastic and excited about, such as a gender-inclusive fashion night. I also built interdisciplinary, cross-campus, collaborations with staff, faculty, and graduate students to bring together a diverse array of skillsets, knowledges, and experiences.
Another project I undertook was co-founding the Equity and Empowerment Reading Group, a social justice reading group for librarians and library workers, with two of my amazing colleagues, Eliza Bettinger and Wendy Wilcox. Together, we created a set of collective guidelines to facilitate our discussions, picked an initial topic (recruiting diverse candidates for library jobs) and selected a few articles, booked a room, ordered food, and sent out an invitation to the library’s listserv. At the end of our first meeting and discussion, we solicited feedback from everyone about topics they’d like to read about and discuss in the future. Before COVID closed down our campus, we met at Olin Library, with anywhere from a dozen to twenty librarians and library workers trekking across campus to meet each month. Since then, we’ve begun meeting and facilitating the reading group via Zoom, which has been a successful experiment and transition. Together, we’ve been able to create a community within our library system that pulls people together around social justice across physical and disciplinary boundaries. I’ve had the opportunity to present on topics ranging from zines as an intervention in trauma recovery to queer worldmaking through art, as well as to teach webinars on trauma-informed librarianship and supporting survivors in libraries. And of course, to blog here at the ACRLog as a First-Year Academic LIbrarian blogger. During my year blogging here, I’ve explored topics such as trauma-informed librarianship, dealing with rejection, and radical vulnerability and empathy in libraries. As my year blogging at the ACRLog comes to a close, I want to reflect on – and share with you – the lessons I’m taking with me from my fellowship to wherever I may land next (I’m on the job market and excited about instruction, outreach, and student success positions in the Northeast).
Lesson #1: Ask for help
Asking for help is a sign of bravery, strength, and wisdom. I want to acknowledge that asking for help is really hard to do, especially as academics. However, I’ve found the benefits of reaching out for support far outweigh the challenges, both personally and professionally. Whether you’re having a hard time learning a new technology or struggling with your mental health, it’s important to reach out and ask for the support you need – and deserve.
For example, during the month of October, my post-traumatic stress disorder always worsens. Last year, I asked for help before the month started by reaching out to a person I felt safe and comfortable with, my supervisor, about getting accommodations for my disability. Not only was I able to get the help I needed to succeed professionally, my supervisor also looped in colleagues (with my consent) to set up a collective care document to help me through the month. Instead of just surviving that month at work, I was able to truly thrive as an academic librarian.
None of us can do this work all on our own, alone, or in isolation. I believe wholeheartedly in interdependence, which is one of the ten principles of disability justice. In an interview with writer and organizer Mia Mingus, she states that interdependency is “thinking about how […] we build relationships and how […] we build in such a way that really pushes back against the myth of independence and this myth that we can and should be able to do everything on our own. Or even this myth that that’s what everybody wants to do, that that’s what everybody desires, is to be independent.” Approaching our work and lives through the lens of interdependency acknowledges that we all bring unique experiences, wisdoms, and knowledges to the table, that we all have things to offer, and that we value everybody – because as people, we are inherently valuable. As I often remind my friends and colleagues (and myself!), you are not your productivity.
Lesson #2: Find your niche
When I started my diversity fellowship at Cornell, I had no idea what I wanted to do, outside of being an academic librarian. My past work experiences included managing an LGBTQ+ resource library, organizing library and information science conferences, and making my university’s special collections accessible as digital collections. It wasn’t until after I started teaching and doing outreach at Cornell that I realized that was what I wanted to do! I had always loved teaching but stopped pursuing an education degree due to my identity as a (gender)queer disabled femme after learning the realities of what queer, trans, and disabled K-12 teachers experience. Working as an Instruction and Outreach Librarian helped me rediscover my passion for teaching.
My background as an interdisciplinary artist and zinester led to me teaching classes from a variety of disciplines, ranging from communications courses to pre-med ones, using creative instructional tools and feminist pedagogies. I ended up receiving tons of instruction requests based on my reputation as the “zine librarian” at Cornell. This, in turn, led to receiving paid opportunities to educate professors about using zines as feminist pedagogical tools within their college classrooms.
Within my professional community, I began taking courses on and writing about trauma-informed librarianship. My work is informed both by my experiences as a survivor and by my education and professional research. Talking, writing, and even tweeting about trauma-informed librarianship led to paid speaking opportunities, such as webinars for professional library organizations. Having a niche can lead to a plethora of opportunities, including ones I hadn’t imagined for myself. Who thought I’d receive honorariums to talk about topics I love and am deeply passionate about? I certainly hadn’t!
Lesson #3: Build community
As an early-career librarian, it’s been especially important to build communities of practice and support. Twitter has been an invaluable tool in connecting with other librarians for me. While I was earning my MLIS, I knew that lots of librarians were active on Twitter, so I began following folks doing research I was interested in, who had jobs that seemed like something I wanted to pursue, and/or who shared identities with me and could relate to some of the struggles of being in this profession as someone who is trans, queer, and/or disabled. I reached out to folks, tweeted regularly, and built relationships, even friendships, with other librarians who have continued to help me as my career shifts, transforms, and evolves. As my fellowship comes to an end, so many other librarians have sent me relevant job opportunities, offered to help me practice interviewing, and edit cover letters, my CV, and so on. It’s easy to feel isolated within academia. Having a community, even an online one, is incredibly important.
Lesson #4: Explore the world outside of your bubble
Establishing your niche is important – but so is getting outside of your bubble! Academic librarianship can be so siloed; it can sometimes be difficult to break outside of our expertise or speciality area. I’ve found some of the best learning and professional development opportunities I’ve had, though, have happened when I stepped outside of my comfort zone to try something new.
If you have the funding available, make a case to explore a conference, class, or workshop outside of your area. I’ve found attending conferences like Creating Change, an organizing and skill-building conference for the LGBTQ+ community and our allies, and Allied Media Conference, a conference focused on relationship-building across issues, identities, organizing practices and creative mediums, to be incredibly useful for shaping my practice as an academic librarian. (Bonus: the Allied Media Conference typically has a Radical Libraries, Archives, and Museums track too!) If attending a conference outside of your field is out of the question, try exploring an offering at a conference you’re already attending that sparks joy or interest for you.
Unfortunately, many of us are having our professional development funding gutted or lack this crucial resource altogether. If you’re in a similar boat, I suggest checking out blogs, articles, or Twitter chats on topics that may not seem to be directly “relevant” to your work but are something you care about. Jessica Dai, a Resident Librarian at West Virginia University, has graciously put together a directory of free webinars and trainings for academic librarian workers, organized by topic, that you can learn from as well!
My fellowship has taught me so much – and I hope that I’ve been able to teach my amazing colleagues at Cornell a few things too.
Thank you all for reading along with my adventures – and struggles – this incredible year at both the ACRLog and Cornell. I want to leave you with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Anaïs Nin:
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
Before the pandemic turned our world upside down, I was working on some space-related projects at my library. A recent update to a small lounge area had a notable payoff. Collaboration with my colleague in the Learning Center was making slow but steady progress toward a renovation to expand and enhance our spaces and services in a Learning Commons model. The need for and value of this work were clear. The progress and outcomes were gratifying.
I’ve written a few times about some of this work and the opportunities and challenges of my lovely but tiny library space. The public health crisis has cast our space and these efforts to improve it, like pretty much everything, in new light. Obviously, slashed higher ed budgets and broader economic challenges suggest that there will be increased competition for limited resources to fund any space project, particularly a large and pricey one like our Learning Commons proposal. But the pandemic will affect higher education’s short-, medium- and long-term future in many arenas, not just fiscal; the impact on demand for and nature of library space is difficult to anticipate, reducing our ability to plan and advocate strategically.
In the short-term, space has featured prominently in the many meetings about the fall semester at my commuter campus and across my institution. Currently, my institution is planning for a mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote courses. At the core of our many space-related conversations has been the recognition that access to physical space matters even in this very virtual incarnation of higher ed, particularly for our most vulnerable students. On a practical level, we need to offer on-campus space (and resources) to students who don’t have access to reliable technology at home or whose home environments aren’t productive or safe. We also need to offer on-campus space for students to participate in Zoom classes sandwiched between in-person classes. Like many folks, we’re working out how to safely open and manage access to our space.
Then, there are the more theoretical conversations about the sense of identity and community that physical (library) space fosters. We’ve cast our proposed Learning Commons, for example, as a welcoming learner-centered space where students can focus, study, collaborate, and access academic assistance. In our advocacy, we’ve cited the impact of the library’s and learning center’s physical constraints on students; they have had to vie for limited space or even leave campus, thereby missing out on opportunities to engage with services, programs, faculty and staff, and peers. We’ve argued that these missed opportunities reduce their ability to make connections on campus and build community. Library space helps our students dig in, connect, and belong. How can we attempt to recover or replace what we’re losing during this time? While perhaps not our most pressing concern given all the demands of planning for fall classes, it’s still an important one–for this coming semester and beyond.
The medium- and long-term vision for our space projects, then, feels murky. Surely, expanding the physical library with more square footage would mean that we could accommodate more library users while complying with physical distancing guidelines. But it’s more than that. In our newly upended world, the assets and liabilities of all public space are thrown into sharp relief. The pandemic calls on us to reconsider how spaces are designed and how they’re used. How do we plan for library space projects in this time of uncertainty not just in higher ed but in our world? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Craig Gibson, Professor & Professional Development Coordinator, Ohio State University Libraries.
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.”—Reinhold Niebuhr
One bright summer day in 2002, I saw in my email box a message from longtime colleague and friend Mary Jane Petrowski, informing me about her excitement about making a new hire for the ACRL Immersion Program. “We’re getting Dane Ward to join us,” she said. I could sense her anticipation about someone special joining our group and bringing talent and a new perspective to our discussions, and to our collective vision for the program.
I first met Dane Ward at one of our Immersion faculty meetings, and was immediately impressed by his genuineness, sense of humor, and easy grace in relating to others. He listened carefully to our wide-ranging discussions in Immersion faculty meetings, made pointed observations in those discussions, and quickly earned the respect and admiration of colleagues for his quiet but assertive confidence in his beliefs. He had obviously experienced enough of the world, and of our profession, to have firm convictions about what our larger purpose should be as librarians and as professionals.
Of course, all of us on the Immersion faculty learned quickly about Dane’s sense of humor and his willingness to take risks and be fully engaged in some of our experiments in creative programming. As many participants in Immersion from those years know, our group coalesced around a “Wizard of Oz” theme in pursuing the path to knowledge and information literacy enlightenment (a trip to the Emerald City, but ultimately, returning to home with much learning and growth). We invented numerous skits and followed the “Wizard of Oz” theme in performances. In his very first year as faculty member, Dane was asked to play the role of Munchkin with another long-term friend and colleague, Beth Woodard, and he was totally game for it. His performance in that role demonstrated his willingness to take risks, be vulnerable, and engage with our faculty group and participants alike in learning that builds a community through laughter and the sharing of vulnerable human moments.
Part of what I learned about Dane, and the immense respect I quickly developed for him, drew from my reading of the book The Collaborative Imperative: Librarians and Faculty Working Together in the Information Universe, which he co-edited with Richard Raspa. I found the book compelling because Dane had already imagined what is possible for academic librarians through that book, which continues to influence the thinking of many. Dane possessed an early and profound intuition about what true collaboration means, as opposed to what we often refer to as “collaboration”, which is more often performative and may be nothing more than coordination and protection of turf. For Dane, authentic collaboration involved reimagining roles in higher education in a transformative way so that a shared energy and collective work emerges from partnerships.
For years afterward, and beyond his time on the Immersion faculty, Dane and I would often share a hotel room at ALA conferences, and we had an ongoing discussion about cultures of organizations, the role of librarians, the concept of information literacy, and what matters in leading a good life that would encompass our professional and personal selves. I have often thought that I learned more from Dane in those conversations, over dinner or just talking between meetings or in extended discussions in the shared room, than I did from many of the conference speakers. Dane was an extraordinarily reflective person who could delve deeply into questions that he cared about, and he cared much about librarians becoming more integrated into their institutions and making a difference for students and faculty. I could often sense his impatience with the technocratic aspects of our work and how it might limit the imaginative and the productively ambiguous dimensions of it. For him, we need the wellsprings of creative thinking to energize our relationships within our campuses, and he was totally dedicated to those spaces and times within which creativity could flourish.
Dane’s influence on my own thinking, about the role of librarians as educators and as change agents in the academy, grew out of those many rich conversations. The way he conversed and listened, and offered insights that would cause me to pause or rethink some statement I’d made, were part of a continuing pattern of learning for me, of helping me to understand where I was falling short in my own thinking. He sometimes challenged me, quietly and humanely, and I grew better after each conversation. Conversations with him were like a tonic, sparkling and energizing and full of brightened prospects for even further learning together.
Dane was the best kind of colleague and teacher for me—one who was interested in working alongside me in a collaborative spirit as we searched for a more compelling understanding of information literacy and the role of libraries. He also understood, in a very fundamental way, that teaching and leading are relational activities that draw on the full emotions and imaginations of the teacher, who leads students in discovering their previously unknown talents and in knowing themselves better; and of the leader, who teaches others through example and building community. In the words of Henry Mintzberg, Dane believed in “communityship,” not in models of leadership that focus on the single heroic individual at the apex.
At various times in the past fifteen years, my conversations with Dane have shown me his character and wisdom. Dane and I co-taught the “Leadership” track in the Immersion Program, and our conversations about that large topic while planning the curriculum and teaching it together showed me that his ideas about the collaborative search for meaning in the academy are integral to the practice of leadership; that leadership is not a formulaic, technocratic, practice; and that disciplined character and judgement, combined with humanity, kindness, and cultivation of others through listening, are crucial in leading, guiding, and mentoring others. Dane did not care about the trappings of leadership or those who use the word “leadership” too carelessly, because he believed that leadership is always a journey, a disciplined practice of becoming more human in guiding others and helping everyone develop a shared purpose and meaning. Dane’s wisdom, intuitively gained, mirrored that of Parker Palmer, who was part of our Immersion journey. Palmer wrote in his Courage to Teach that “the power for authentic leadership is found not in external arrangements, but in the human heart.”
I recently finished reading Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking: A RadicalApproach to Saving the University, written by a digital humanist and scholar at Michigan State. Among much else, that book is about reinventing the university and helping us reimagine its core purposes around engagement with what we often refer to as our “constituents,” and to learn new ways of listening and talking to each other to help build community within our institutions. I couldn’t help thinking of Dane as I finished this book, and pondering how he had identified the same search for meaning through building community. Dane himself embodied the call to a new way of thinking—the “Generous Thinking” of the book’s title. He was always a “generous thinker” for colleagues and friends wherever he worked and in whatever role—someone who believed in bringing out the best in us and creating new bonds for the greater good.
Dane aspired to help all of us understand how to build a new academy, based on the collaborative spirit and creative imagination, and would show us the role of the library as energizing hub within that new academy—a collegium of partners who learn from each other, who found new initiatives together, and who look outward toward their larger mission and inward in forging new bonds of friendship and community, instead of accelerating the hypercompetitive individualism and prestige obsessions rampant in the academy. To Dane, the library had a special mission for creating conversation, community, and networks of friendship that enliven a campus and point it to a higher calling, a community of scholars, teachers, and learners. The activated collection and library as essential partner would be integral in that new academy, where, in these fraught and pandemic times, our work aspires to great meaning and moral purpose in making a better world. Dane’s voice of leadership was prophetic: the need for greater community in these times of tribalism, polarization, and fractured institutions speaks to his intuition in what matters most in helping all of us reach for our better selves.
Dane’s own learning took him to places that he and none of us, neither his family nor his friends, would ever have wanted for him. Two years ago, after moving to Boone, North Carolina, to accept the Dean of Libraries position at Appalachian State, he received a diagnosis of ALS, an incurable neurological disease. When I learned of the diagnosis, I, along with all of his friends and colleagues, were heartbroken because of the nature of the disorder. But we immediately learned of Dane’s great courage and spirit in his response. He wrote about the need to learn about the disease as an information literacy problem, the scattered nature of medical information about ALS, and his need to educate himself. This determination to continue learning shone in all of his later communication. He was also determined to support others, in whatever way possible, through ALS fundraising and education. He no doubt found a new community through ALS patients, and a new bond with them and their families. The shared recognition of human possibility and frailty alike is one of the key attributes of a true leader, and the need for compassion and bringing forth the best in people under the most challenging personal circumstances.
Dane found meaning and purpose in the last part of his life through that community, through continuing friendships, and the love of his family. He was, I believe, one of the most humane teacher/leaders in our profession, and it was because he lived the great questions of life. Across the years I knew him, we always returned to those questions in our talks. In the spirit of words from the New Testament, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation,” he lived the questions across the arc of his life.
When I think of Dane, I recall the words of Rilke from his Letters to a Young Poet:
“. . . be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Dane lived the great questions of teaching, of learning, of the role of libraries, of the mission of the academy, throughout his days, and drew others into his reflections. He did not pretend to have answers when he lacked them, but he did teach me to inquire, to be curious, and to aim for better understandings, in a continued conversation with others. He also never considered himself an expert, but a teacher who helps others discover themselves. His spirit of teaching is best captured by a well-known quote about the famous art historian and part-time boys football coach Kirk Varnedoe, described by Adam Gopnik in a New Yorker article in this way:
“A guru gives us himself, and then his system; a teacher gives us his subject, and then ourselves.”
Dane Ward’s life is a testament of faith in the spirit of collaborative leadership, searching for shared purpose in forging new roles for academic libraries in the academy. As a leader and teacher, he has truly given us ourselves, and we will always remember his example and be inspired by it.
Thank you, Dane Ward, for coming our way.
Celebration Ceremony Link
Dane Ward’s family hosted a Celebration of Life in his memory on July 18, 2020. Friends and colleagues can view the virtual event at this link:
Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving theUniversity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.