Seven years later

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Ian McCullough, Physical Sciences Librarian and Associate Professor of Bibliography at the University of Akron.

In 2012 I had the distinct pleasure of being a First Year Academic Librarian blogger for ACRLog. As part of this “where are they now” series, let’s talk about the years since I last blogged here.

One of the reasons I originally wanted to blog is I had absolutely no professional network as a new librarian. Librarianship was a second career and I worked in a lab while taking courses online at night. We had class meetups in Nashville, but the department was in Knoxville and things like collaboration, mentoring, and research opportunities were a step removed from campus. ACRLog got me the attention of people I still call friends. As a new and rootless academic librarian on the tenure trail, the blogging experience was incredibly helpful to me.

Since I stopped blogging in 2013, a lot of things have happened at University of Akron, many for the bad. Our enrollment has dropped by about 10,000 students total which caused predictable Survivor-style winnowing of the workforce via layoffs, not filling positions, and buyouts. There are about half the library faculty as when I arrived and a liaison system seems unrealistic given staffing levels that cannot support the number of subject librarians one would need to do the idea justice. I personally am liaison to nine departments, about 120 faculty and around 1,900 students. I remember being at a conference and someone saying they had 700 students they were liaison for and the room gasped. I was jealous.

I have had, as of now, five university presidents, three provosts, and two library deans. There were many retirements, one of which was my direct supervisor who retired at the end of 2015. I was asked if I would be interim head of the Science & Technology Library, which I agreed to and began in January 2016. A colleague who was more experienced turned down the opportunity, and I was the only other faculty in the branch at that moment. I took the job and had absolutely no reduction in my liaison librarian duties as physical sciences librarian.

I had more than five years of management experience going into the job, so the mechanical parts of management (budgeting and HR stuff) were pretty easy. But it was difficult to leave the faculty bargaining unit, my spot on Faculty Senate, and in general go over to “the other side”. I maintain that my most significant accomplishments as Interim head of the S&T Library are helping relocate the engineering tutoring program physically within the library and getting snack machines put outside the library entrance so students wouldn’t have to leave the building after hours for food. I believe students are more appreciative of the latter accomplishment. After a calm and relatively successful time in this position, another colleague left library management at University of Akron for library management at Harvard University – a career downgrade I still don’t understand. (Don’t send that email, it’s a joke.) Given the particular personal and professional dynamics of the workgroup, I was offered the opportunity to take over leadership of yet another unit. I accepted and became an assistant dean (“ass dean” of course) in December of 2017. If you are following along at home, this is lab rat to assistant dean in less than five and a half years. At the beginning of this position I had two staff, two contract professionals, and seven faculty librarians as direct reports.

When I took this new role, there was absolutely no reduction in my liaison librarian or interim department head duties. I was, quite simply, doing what had once been three jobs (actually more than three jobs, as the S&T Head had absorbed a third of a job before retirement). Also, I was on the tenure clock trying to produce an appropriate number of articles, presentations, and accomplishments in professional service to meet our promotion benchmarks. In this I was successful – I got tenure and promotion in July 2018. I would be curious to learn of other tenure track assistant deans who had the position without tenure yet. I gather it’s a very rare occurrence, but is also a sign of how much upheaval was happening at my place of work.

This is when burnout started to set in. I could do the job, or the three jobs, but I could not do the three jobs well. I was spinning plates, putting out fires, and other notable metaphors for spasmodic action. This period really sucked because working hard to be adequate is a poor trade. Department chairs had a group that met regularly and talked about common issues, not so with assistant deans. I felt my social world constrain at work, and being a manager is hard emotional labor. I learned about the fears, difficulties, illnesses, and family situations of my colleagues at a deeper level than I really wanted. Shouldering all that personal grief and pain for everyone was difficult, more so because the universe of people I could talk to about it was so, so small.

I also started having clashes with coworkers – sometimes about performance issues, sometimes about claims unbacked by facts, sometimes about the direction of the university and the library. It was honestly a miserable experience that I stayed in too long because of money (pro-tip – you make extra money in administration) and not wanting to abandon my dean who also has a huge workload. The final breaking point was an interim president seemingly hell-bent on making the worst decision possible, implemented and communicated in the worst and most aggressive way possible. I mulled it over for many months and asked to step down at the end of July 2019. When I told my wife about the decision, in part to apologize because we would be living leaner, she said, “Oh thank God.” The person who knows me best had been wishing for me to get out of the situation for months and was overjoyed.

The classic union song, “Which Side Are You On” was written by Florence Reece in 1931. My dad was an autoworker and union activist and I remember seeing Pete Seeger sing this evergreen tune live in Detroit. To say that unionism is part of my life is an understatement – it’s a bedrock element of my identity. Increasingly, while a dean, I felt that I was on the wrong side. The university response to economic crisis was, to me, authoritarian and inexplicable, explanations didn’t make sense and discussion was not welcome. The herky-jerky management led to a lot of wasted effort around the university as plans had to be discarded almost as fast as you could attempt implementation. If you do go into academic leadership, you are carrying water for the upper leadership and their decisions – you don’t get to hide when you disagree and leaving the position is the most honest thing you can do if you don’t like what’s happening. I think the only thing I really miss is the occasional (and very flattering) head hunter emails I used to get. Right after I left management, we hired a new university president who is, so far, “pinch yourself, am I dreaming” good. His wizardly move? Running the university like other institutions.

Since leaving management I have become union liaison for University Libraries and was then elected to the Akron-AAUP executive committee. Guess I just like being in the middle of things. I’ve been able to refocus on my librarianship, which I only had three years to figure out before taking on managerial duties, and reconnect with faculty friends. I’ve been able to refocus on previous projects I had to drop before – like learning more about data. I am happier and get more enjoyment from my job. Ultimately, my stint as an assistant dean didn’t suit my values and that internal conflict started leaking out in my disposition. I don’t think the state of Ohio or the university is well-served by eliminating traditional majors and steering students into class delivery modes, and possibly majors, they don’t really prefer. Right now there’s a risk of universities outsourcing their teaching to a cyborg nightmare of Pearson, Cengage, and Blackboard due to financial desperation. That is a future worth fighting against.

Which side are you on?

How to Become an Academic Librarian

Becoming an academic librarian is like entering an amnesic whirlwind. I can hardly recall what came prior because my work life is now a frenetic series of emails, meetings, conference proposals, meetings, reference desk hours, and meetings. Sometimes I indulge in a short break to quietly cry under my desk (kidding). Slowly the academic life, with its attendant paperwork and politics, is becoming normal for me.

Being on the “other side” of job applications is still strange, though, and I want to reflect on how I received this privilege. I would like to say that my hard work and persistence got me here, but a lot of it was luck. However, prospective academic librarians have to lay the groundwork to even get lucky. So what follows is my two cents on laying the groundwork for luck.1

To preface: I follow the “I’ve gotta eat and pay my bills” model of career planning. My priority has been to keep a roof over my head and food on the table, so I pursued any opportunity that helped me meet these goals. I have two master’s degrees but I worked full-time while earning each of them. And if I may be sassy for a moment, I highly recommend setting yourself up for academic career success by being born into a family of academics or upper-middle class professionals (which I was not). These sorts of families tend to put their kids through school/offer financial support as well as invaluable education and career advice. However, with a little extra work and a whole lot of networking, blue-collar upstarts like me might still find a path into academia.2

Step 1: Work in a Library

Work in a library before you get your library degree. Or while you get your library degree.3 Discover if library work is right for you before committing to a degree program or getting into debt for it. Working as a page or a circulation clerk gives you an inside view to how libraries work and offers opportunities to befriend librarians and other employees that have or are considering pursuing library degrees. Getting paid library experience on your resume will also be a huge boost in your job hunt, because many academic library staff/librarian job postings require a specific amount of experience and the hiring committee will carefully calculate each month of experience that you have to see if you meet the minimum (volunteer and intern experience is worth half as much as paid, in my experience). For one of my staff jobs my library experience barely made the cut, even though I had a library degree and the job required a bachelor’s.

Step 2: Make a Plan for Your Career

If you can’t find a job in a library, and you still get a library degree, don’t go into extreme debt for it.4 Come up with a solid, and realistic, game plan for what you’re going to do after you graduate. I did not have a career plan when I graduated with my bachelor’s in English and I really regret it, because I had no idea what to do with myself. (And also I graduated right before the recession began. See also: How to accidentally end up working for several years in a national park). To help make a plan, scope out other librarians’ CVs and LinkedIn pages (my tweep, Dan, @512dot72, reminded me of this trick). Thanks to the internet, you can discover how many librarians got to where they are. Find someone that has the kind of job you’re interested in, and google them. Poof: instant inspiration!

Step 3: Network and Intern

My best piece of advice for those aspiring to be academic librarians is: network and intern. The seeds of my career were planted in the connections I made. My first library internship gave me a taste of working in an academic library. In library school, another student I met through peer mentoring helped me get a second, unofficial, internship at UC Riverside. A librarian at UC Riverside helped me get another unofficial internship at Arizona State. My internship supervisor at Arizona State introduced me to everyone at the library, and when a staff position opened in another department, I had already met the supervising librarian and was somewhat familiar with the collection involved. I got the job! Good internal references are a beautiful thing. In that job, I was able to take on a lot of librarian-type duties (and get a practically free second masters as a university employee) that helped me get my current job. I also got invaluable training and advice from wonderful mentors. I am so grateful for the help they’ve given me.

I recognize that being able to intern, to spend hundreds of hours working for free, is extreme privilege. Again, this is why I credit luck with getting to where I am. I spent years working in hospitality in a national park, where the low cost of living in employee housing enabled me to pay-as-I-went for library school and also to save enough money to support my later internships.

Step 4: Customize Each Cover Letter and CV to the Job Posting

In my second internship, an experienced librarian clued me into the academic librarian hiring process. An academic librarian search committee thoughtfully prepares a job posting and carefully compares each application received to the requirements and qualifications outlined in the posting. Many committees use a spreadsheet to assign applicants scores on how well each bullet point is met. Scores are compiled and applicants are ranked.

For every job application that I prepared, I copy and pasted the job posting into a word document and broke it down into a table. Next to each required/desired qualification in the posting, I made a note about how I addressed it in my cover letter or CV. This means that I wrote a custom cover letter and tweaked my CV for each and every job posting. This took a lot of time, but also ensured that my application would be seriously considered and not thrown out just because I didn’t include all relevant experience and skills. Librarians on search committees will never assume, or extrapolate, that you meet each listed qualification. You have to clearly show that you do in your materials.

Step 5: Remember that You’re More than Just a Librarian

Treat your job hunt as a learning opportunity and you won’t be disappointed.5 I prepped and traveled for multiple out-of-state interviews over several years before I finally received an offer. I now have really good interview skills. I met a lot of interesting people. I write good cover letters. I’m grateful now that I didn’t get offers from some of the places I interviewed because I wouldn’t have been happy at those places in the long run. My favorite blogger, Alison Green at Ask A Manager, frequently offers the advice to forget about your applications once you send them in. Any time spent wondering about those jobs is time that could be spent applying for new jobs. This holds especially true in academic job hunts, because the time from application to offer (or rejection letter, more like) is usually measured in months, and you could drive yourself crazy thinking about what you’ve applied for. Once I got a rejection letter for a university I didn’t remember applying to because I had applied ten months prior. You also may not receive rejections at all, or receive emails addressed “To Whom It May Concern.”6

Finally, have a life outside of libraries and outside of your library job hunt. Avoid (excessive) moping and complaining, especially in public online spaces where you are easily identified. Negative thoughts beget negative thoughts. Keep up with your friends, and spend time with your family, and indulge in hobbies that make you happy. I took up running because it’s relaxing and helps me feel like I have control of my life! After three and a half years of librarian job-hunting, I finally got an offer and I was delighted to accept it. My job makes use of all of my degrees (amazing!) and I’m close to family and friends and I love our students.

Best of luck in your search! And if you have additional advice or useful resources, please comment below!

 

1 Full disclaimer: I have served on a search committee to hire library staff, but not to hire librarians, so this is really truly just my two cents. No refunds!

2 Highly recommended reading for blue-collar academics: This Fine Place So Far From Home.

3 I did neither of these things, though I did intern, and it took me forever to find a library job, let alone a librarian job. My saving grace was avoiding student debt.

4 I realize it’s too late for many librarians, and hindsight is 20/20, and also the economy was/is horrible.

5 You’ll still be disappointed. But positive spin can make you feel better!

6 Which happened to me and did not feel good since I spent two hours on that application and they couldn’t even be bothered to use mail merge to address their rejection emails. But I digress.

Shelfless Acts: Beginning a Non-Traditional Library Job

I work in a library without any books.  Yes, that’s right…no books.

What we do as librarians is difficult enough to explain to people outside our field as it is…misconceptions about shushing and horn-rimmed glasses abound…but add a non traditional job description into the mix and most people just can’t contextualize you at all; they short circuit and tune out while you ramble into the void about your daily existence.

I am an Assistant Research Commons Librarian, which means that support the daily operations of a Research Commons, a flexible library workspace which was created to support the changing needs of researchers on my campus.  We occupy one floor of one wing of a much larger academic library (and yes, it has many, many books) but within the confines of the Commons we do things a little differently.

Sometimes I worry about the difficulty of explaining what I do here to my next prospective employer.  Many of the typical duties of an academic librarian are absent from my job description.  For instance, I don’t develop, acquire, or manage any print or electronic material collection.  In fact, there is no collection associated with my library unit.  Likewise, library instruction is not a part of my job description, and my reference duties are limited.

So what DO I do all day?  I know that I’m constantly busy, but the answer is complex.  The Research Commons was designed as a collaborative study space for students.  But we provide more than just space.  We are, as my boss likes to say “a library as salon,” which creates and implements innovative programming to foster interdisciplinary collaboration between students and faculty.   We also provide support for all aspects of the research process; writing, publishing, securing funding, and finding presentation opportunities. Managing the daily operations of one of the most heavily used library spaces on campus is a big task, as is the design and implementation of original programming.

Does my position represent the future of library jobs?  I’m not sure.  Certainly it tells us some things about the direction that libraries are headed; away from monolithic service models, unbound from responsibilities to house print collections, towards flexible space design and rich programming models.  But I have significant moments of doubt about my own ability to embody a “librarian of the future” ideal.  Although it doesn’t impact my ability to do my job, I often feel that I am personally sympathetic to the more individual and contemplative modes of scholarship that are associated with traditional library models. I’m committed to the idea that library models like mine can supplement; not supplant, the tried and true models that many of my colleagues inhabit.  When I reach the next stage in my career, wherever that may be, that’s the philosophy that I’ll try to express:  I may not contain multitudes, but I sure am trying.

The Beginning of the Middle

Today is the 5th anniversary of my job as an information literacy librarian, my first full-time library position. Five years: while it’s not all that long — certainly many of my colleagues have much more experience than I do — it seems momentous in some ways. In my previous two careers I had serious reservations about whether to continue down each path by the five year mark, and it’s wonderful to have none of those doubts this time around. Instead this seems like the very beginning of the middle of my career, and feels like a good time for reflection, for both looking back and projecting forward.

The past five years have flown by as I’ve worked on and learned about information literacy and library instruction, my library and institution, the research expectations for the tenure track, and service at my college, university, and beyond. In my first couple of years I spent lots of time engaging with new faculty at my college and new library faculty across my university, and I have to admit that I sort of miss it. I was in a meeting the other day with a Biologist in her first year at the college and her energy and enthusiasm was infectious (pun intended). I see announcements posted about meetings for new or junior faculty and realize somewhat wistfully that’s not me anymore, as I was (happily!) promoted last September.

While I’m a bit nostalgic for the strong camaraderie of the newbie experience, I’ve enjoyed transitioning into the role of a more knowledgeable colleague who (I hope) can offer support. The first few times I was asked for advice by colleagues it was genuinely surprising to me, but it’s less unexpected and more comfortable now. I’m also just about at the halfway mark in a leadership role in a large faculty development grant at my college. I’ve had the opportunity to work with new and seasoned faculty from across the college, and that’s definitely had an impact on my knowledge and self-perception.

This Spring both the college and the library where I work are creating five-year strategic plans. For me the immediate future seems fairly clear: I have two more years until I go up for tenure, I’m in the midst of writing up a big research project, our library instruction team is starting to pilot strategies we hope will help us reach more students with more relevant information literacy instruction. But farther out than that seems less certain. One aspect of being a faculty member that I’m very grateful for is that I have some freedom in considering projects to work on, especially in my own research but also as a librarian. And libraries and higher education are in a constant state of flux, from the introduction of new technologies and tools to the fact that the population we serve is ever-changing as students enter college and progress through their degrees, so certainty may be elusive.

If you’re at the beginning of the middle, do you have a five-year plan for yourself? Have you taken on new responsibilities as you’ve become a more experienced librarian? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Does Where You Work Define Who You Are As An Academic Librarian

The great thing about our higher education system is the enormous diversity found in the approximately 4,000 institutions that offer degree programs. Having too many options is sometimes a challenge, but a more significant issue in American higher education is the disparity between the have’s and the have not’s. The same could be said of academic libraries. Some have incredible resources while others subsist on a shoestring budget. I’ve worked in both environments, and I’ve enjoyed both though I now tend to think there are greater benefits to working in the latter. For one thing, it forces you to be much more creative in how you attack problems because the luxury of just throwing money at them isn’t an option. The victories, when they come, may be small but are far sweeter and rewarding. If you are or have been in this situation, or if you’ve ever been part of a team that’s turned around a challenged academic library, I think you know what I mean.

I’ve also known academic librarians who work in the former and would never consider a position at the latter because they like the prestige associated with being at their well-off institution. That’s not to say they dislike their jobs but stick it out for the prestige, but they might not consider the possibilities afforded at less well-off libraries. That’s also not to suggest they see their well-resourced academic libraries as problem-free havens. Those libraries also have their share of difficulties and challenges, though they might be significantly different ones than what those at poorly-resourced libraries are encountering. And by all means, I’m not suggesting our colleagues who enjoy working at a prestigious institution are snobs. Having an abundance of resources – even despite the economic challenges of the past two years – is an asset, and I know well the advantages it can offer in allowing the library to make a difference for the academic community.

But do we define who we are in the field of higher education by where we work? This question was the subject of a short essay by David Evan titled “Going Home”, in which he visits his alma mater for a reunion and contemplates the contrast between it prestigiousness and the place where he teaches which is far less well resourced. He writes:

Like a lot of academics, I’ve had the interesting experience of working at institutions that are much less prosperous and prestigious than the one where I earned my degree…My undergraduate institution is rich and has been for a long time. Although its endowment has shrunk in the past couple of years, it could come close to supporting its entire generous annual budget through conservative spending of its endowment income. Even 29 years ago, when I was about to start as a freshman, it had physical and instructional resources that beggar those at most institutions. The faculty teaching load is 2-2; the average faculty salary is nearly twice that at my current institution (and my current institution pays quite well, relatively speaking). A degree from there has, beyond doubt, been a foundation for my subsequent career.For a long time, I had a strong urge to return to work at a similar institution—a rich, selective liberal-arts college with highly talented students in a desirable location. My first job was at a much less rich (not rich at all, actually), noticeably less selective liberal-arts college in a location that many young faculty members would find less compelling. None of my subsequent jobs have been much different.

While this section of the essay makes it sound like Evan regrets his employment decisions, nothing could be farther from the truth. He goes on to write about how much he has enjoyed and learned from all of his different experiences at the four institutions he has worked in his career, though none of them carried the prestige of his alma mater. He concludes by sharing what’s he’s learned over the course of his career and offer this as advice to others:

Prestige is an immense factor in the academy. We are acculturated by the “big brands” of higher education, and many of us were taught to measure our value by our professional proximity to those big brands. I am convinced that this is one of the main reasons so many academics are unhappy. They were highly talented, motivated students at the most prosperous and accommodating institutions in higher education. Being removed from that rarefied context can be a rude shock, and enduring it can be hard for many people. But there’s a lot to do in higher education that doesn’t depend much on prestige or even institutional wealth. There are a lot of worthy missions in colleges, and a lot of excellent places to have a fine career. I wish I’d figure that out earlier.

At ALA Annual there were several programs directed to newer-to-the-profession librarians. Many of the speakers and attendees were academic librarians. I attended one where the panelists were all new to their jobs and just starting their careers, and at another I was a panelist where we were all well-seasoned academic librarians reflecting on our career paths, and offering advice to newer colleagues. At all of these programs there were both presenters and participants from all types of institutions, both well and poorly resourced. The question of whether it is better to pursue a position at one or the other never came up. In fact, most of those new graduates still seeking their first position indicated they’d be willing to work just about anywhere; institutional prestige or the lack thereof was certainly not on their minds. Had it come it up I would have wanted those who attended these programs to know that where you work, as Evan eventually discovered in his career, should not define your status as an academic librarian, nor should any academic librarian feel inferior or unhappy because he or she doesn’t work at a “big brand” college or university. The rewards of being an academic librarian can be discovered and achieved at almost any institution – just as being at a prestigious one is no guarantee of job satisfaction.