On secondary assignments and exploration

One of the things that got me excited—almost a year ago now—when I was applying for my job, was that here at the Michigan State University Libraries, it’s commonplace to have what we refer to as a secondary assignment. Essentially, this means that at least 25% of any given librarian’s week is spent working in a separate unit from that of their primary assignment. For example, many of my coworkers have secondary assignments in reference, but secondary assignments can be in anything from digital scholarship to special collections.

When I applied to this job, I was excited about the opportunity for cross-pollination and breaking out of single specializations that having secondary assignments provides. While I am in a residency program, which means that I am offered the space to explore different interests within librarianship, I also knew coming out of library school what sort of work I wanted to be doing. A secondary assignment seemed like the perfect way to balance exploring with focusing on my specific interests.

Thus far, secondary assignments have worked out well for me. I currently have two: accessibility and cataloging. Cataloging has been an interest of mine since library school, but my school also only offered one cataloging class, so after that any practice I got was exclusively through my internships. Having a secondary assignment in cataloging has helped me gain a more solid foundation as well as a chance to explore some of cataloging’s intricacies. Scheduling blocks of time for cataloging has also helped to make my schedule, which can sometimes feel untethered, a bit more structured.

My accessibility secondary assignment has been equally fruitful. I came into this position with little prior experience in accessibility work, but did know that I was interested and wanted to get involved. And thus far my secondary assignment has allowed me to do just that. I’ve not only learned about all the various accessibility initiatives happening in the libraries and on campus, but I’ve also started to make meaningful contributions, especially working with vendors. Having a secondary assignment has also given me time to focus on my own education with regard to accessibility, disability studies, and assistive technology. A secondary assignment so different from my area studies primary assignment also means that I can shake my days up, moving between different sorts of work to keep myself engaged.

Of course, having three different focuses can also be hectic. I have definitely spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how to balance everything and which of my assignments deserves focus at any given moment. There are weeks when one or another just doesn’t get attended to, but this is also the nature of library work in general: no day is completely routine, no matter what your job description might be.

Overall, though, I have certainly benefitted from my secondary assignments and have found them to be useful ways to interact with more people in the library and to learn about the work of other units. Ultimately, secondary assignments have been exactly what I hoped they would be.

Even if your library does not have an equivalent setup, there are ways to create a similar, if more informal experience. For example, I don’t have any reference responsibilities, but I have found attending reference meetings to be beneficial in hearing more about library-wide happenings and connecting with colleagues I might not otherwise see on a regular basis. Meetings, discussion groups, or other similar events can lead to opportunities for collaborations across units. Look for other ways to reach beyond your unit to find others with similar or complementary interests.

Another avenue to explore would be finding areas where your job is flexible. If you’ve always wanted to learn more about a certain area of librarianship, are there ways you can work that learning into your current practice? To whom can you reach out to learn more and open up doors for collaboration? Carving out time and space might not be possible for everyone, but it’s worth looking for small ways to explore if that’s something you’re interested in.


Does your library have anything similar to secondary assignments? What strategies have you used to interact with others beyond your closer colleagues or to learn about new-to-you areas of librarianship?

Supporting the other side

So far in my research career, I’ve put a lot of stock, energy, and passion around the benefits of hiring and supporting student employment in the library. It’s the topic that gets me most fired up at conferences, the thing I’ll tweet about until I can’t tweet anymore, and one part of my job that I keep coming back to, regardless of my job title. I believe in the potential of undergraduate employees to be crucial part of the library. I believe that if you set the bar high, undergraduates will rise to the occasion. But recently, I’ve realized that in that belief, I had forgotten about the other side: the role of the supervisor.

A few months ago, I worked with a colleague to put together a landscape survey around student employment in our libraries. The goal was to discover who in the library was supervising students and if we could find areas of synergy. We asked questions around hiring, on-boarding, continual training, and barriers to success. As we reviewed the answers, the one I remember the most clearly mentioned that as a supervisor, they felt unprepared because the rules and policies around hiring, training, and supporting student employees were unclear. It’s one of those things they never give you a manual for, you’re just suppose to know. And of course, any manual that might exist is in pieces, scattered throughout HR websites, the library’s intranet pages, and library legends told to you by your colleagues. This stuff isn’t clear or transparent and often requires lots of time to figure out. This was the first moment where I thought, “Okay, building a program is more than just for the students. The supervisors also are an audience to consider.”

Recently, I’ve been reminded of this fact when I was leading an informational session on our internship program. In the session, as we talked about the components of the program, including a new community of practice group I’m building, one participant asked, “Will the supervisors also meet regularly, just like the students?”

After a small beat, I nodded. “Of course.” I was reminded of the survey and once again reminded of my own assumptions around supervision. In reflecting on that situation, I think I assume that people who had studente employees for a long time just knew how to do in a meaningful way. But it’s becoming more clear that just because you have student employees, doesn’t mean that you know everything or feel supported.

And upon even further reflection, I realized that since I started trying to create some program structures for our interns, I’ve done my share of complaining about how I never hear from some interns and that I can’t seem to get through to some of their supervisors. I often chalk it up to structural issues, or a desire for an official announcement to the library about my role with our interns. However, the more I think about this angle, the more I realize part of the problem is that while I logically understand having an intern takes a ton of time and energy, I’m not valuing that idea in practice. I’m not recognizing or finding ways to support my colleagues who do this work. In other aspects of my job, I talk about how I am there to support my colleagues who do student engagement, and this also applies to student employees and their supervisors. This support can happens in many ways — from having intern community of practice meetings to getting the supervisors together to let them know they’re not alone in this. I’m a coordinator and that means both for students and for my colleagues.

For every program that we create to support our student employees, we are also responsible for creating the necessary structures and support for our supervisors. If we want unified programs, complimentary training modules, and a shared vision for student employment in the libraries, we have to create the network for our supervisors. This lines up so nicely with George Kuh’s definition of student engagement, where institutions must be willing to provides the resources and support for these opportunities. If we want meaningful internships or purposeful part-time employment, we have to be willing to provide the support (through professional development, regular meetings, and honest conversations) to our supervisors. Neither the students nor supervisors can do this work alone and both groups need to feel supported in this endeavor.

So where do I go from here? I’m trying to be more intentional and start thinking of how I can help build those structures in my role. I’ve started using the word “support” in talking to supervisors about my role with our interns. I’ll probably add monthly intern supervisor meetings to my calendar this fall, and start to note down obstacles that this group might face (and how we can problem solve together). As the moderator for both groups (students and supervisors), I’m in the best position to provide feedback to either group and translate each other’s needs to one another.  

At your library, how do you (or others) support the supervisors who oversee your student employees? Do supervisors meet on a regular basis? Are they given chances for professional development or ways to gain new supervisory skills? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!


Featured image by Riccardo Bresciani from Pexels

Thoughts on the DISC assessment

Earlier this year, everyone in my little division of the library, area studies, took a DISC assessment in order to learn more about dynamics within our group. The DISC assessment (trademarked DiSC for the particular version that we took) is based off the William Moulton Marston’s 1928 book Emotions of Normal People. Marston posited that people present one of three personality traits: dominance, inducement, submission, or compliance. In 1956, Walter Vernon Clarke developed a behavioral assessment tool based on Marston’s model. Over the years, this assessment has been further developed, and marketed to organizations as a tool to discover how people act at work, why they act that way, and how they can be encouraged to work more effectively with each other. The categories have also been changed to (the perhaps more appealing) dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness.

I’m a fan of personality tests as a rule, especially ones that tell me which book character I am, but I don’t take them too seriously and was fairly skeptical of the test in general. However, it was stressed to us that this was not a personality test but instead a test that would show how we act in the workplace, so I answered the questions with an open mind and waited for my results. And let me tell you, when my results came back they were dead on. I tend to be timid, I avoid conflict, I love routines, and all of that was there in my results. I was impressed. Of course, the categories are very general, so it likely is easy to find yourself in your results.

That said, in discussing with others, there were definitely characteristics embedded within results that some of my co-workers did not feel resonated with themselves or their work styles. Our facilitators were quick to suggest that we cross out any terms we felt did not fit and change them to other adjectives that better described us. I appreciated this flexibility: even if it did not change our overall result, it did allow for some fluidity within the more detailed report and afforded it a bit more of a personal touch.

Depending on how the test is administered, there may be the opportunity for further reports to be generated to compare you to other people on your team. This is what we opted to do, and this meant that I received reports detailing areas where I would likely find the most difference between myself and my co-workers. The reports also gave us advice about how best to interact with each of our co-workers. With more discussion or group activities, this could be developed into an interesting exercise to discuss and improve upon group dynamics.

However, I do not see the DISC assessment as an immediate fix for teams. It might be a place to start, but it would take more work to build upon the results and create a constructive space within a group to discuss how to work together. It also seems that results could easily come out skewed, which might hamper further discussions. We were instructed to answer the questions while imagining work settings, which helps get at how you behave in work situations and not in your personal life (which might be very different). However, when taking the test, it would be easy to answer the questions based on how you aspire to act and not how you actually act, because we aren’t always aware of some of our faults or some of strengths. This, of course, could change your results and then change the baseline you’re starting from in any further discussions.

Another major qualm I have with the DISC assessment—brought up during our meeting by one of my co-workers—is that it does not address cultural differences. While it would be easy to claim that the test is not biased, this is an assessment based in the United States and it is therefore going to be relying on the norms and values of mainstream American culture. This especially applies when considering comparisons: how a person coming from one culture views their interactions with others could be very different than a person from another culture. There could be more value placed on being forthcoming or, conversely, more value placed on being tactful.

For me, I especially considered these ideas when answering the questions in the assessment and considering a work environment. I kept wondering what sort of work environment. I had my first serious job overseas in an office where fitting in and maintaining the status quo was very important, so I quickly learned not to allow any conflicts to surface and instead to work on them behind the scenes. While I know American work environments are much more up-front than this, I sometimes still slip into these patterns because I became good at interacting with others in these ways. Can the DISC assessment account for this sort of flexibility?

If your library is considering a DISC assessment, I think the biggest takeaway from my experience is to know what to expect. Learning everyone’s profile, even with comparison reports, will not in and of itself address conflicts or instances of miscommunication. To do this, you will still need to put in the work to have discussions about norms, expectations, and methods of communication. Do you need the DISC assessment to facilitate this? Certainly not, but if you’re finding that other methods aren’t working, this may be one way to get the conversation started.


If you’re interested in taking the DISC assessment, there are several free versions available online.

Have you ever taken a similar assessment in a work environment? What did you think of it?

Thank You, Next? (Consortia Edition)

As November calls for an attitude of gratitude, I will try to frame this post accordingly despite my exhaustion from this past month’s activities.  I’m not, as you may expect, referring to Thanksgiving dinner, holiday travel, or family arguments, but to journal package renewals — a critical annual activity for acquisitions and collection management librarians, vendors, publishers, and (as concerns this post) library consortia.

What are consortia?
Consortia are member organizations that utilize the greater power of a collective body in order to influence more favorable outcomes than the individual bodies might be able to alone.  Consortia in libraries historically began as a means of sharing resources, such as books via interlibrary loan or labor resources via union cataloging.  Consortia services evolved along with library collections to include collective e-resources licensing, acquisition, and access to online resources.  As a librarian responsible for acquiring, licensing, and sharing collection resources, I appreciate the efficiency of labor that consortia offers these workflows.  In the shared purchasing realm, consortia facilitate a singular license negotiation process for its member libraries and negotiate unique pricing terms for content, often packaged in the form of so-called ‘Big Deals’.  Perhaps less often, but just as important, consortia use a collective influence to represent and voice members’ shared concerns.  This summer, I participated with consortia voicing opposition to an unfavorable publisher policy that would limit access to online content, which succeeded in winning a reversal from the publisher. 

To blave…
Now libraries have been questioning the value of the Big Deal, consortia or not, for some time. Yet many libraries continue to commit their budget dollars to it year after year, perpetuating its existence and the lack of any market alternatives.  Being up to my eyeballs in four simultaneous Big Deal analyses for the past year and a half, I’m so ready to call these deals’ bluff.

via GIPHY

To be clear, Big Deals are not exclusive to consortia arrangements. Many libraries subscribe and break from such deals all on their own, as this popular SPARC resource can affirm. https://sparcopen.org/our-work/big-deal-cancellation-tracking/ However, consortia arrangements of Big Deals cause big problems for libraries because in the process and effect of these arrangements, consortia don’t function as a consortia.  Here’s why.

The effect
Purchasing bulk packaged content like the Big Deal based on libraries’ historic spend, as opposed to publisher list price, does translate to a kind of library savings.  It also creates a predictable budget projection for libraries and a predictable profit for publishers due to fixed annual increases negotiated as part of these deals.  That’s pretty much it for the benefits, and even those don’t hold together.   Any consortia benefit from predictability in library budgets gets completely outweighed by the elimination of libraries’ flexibility to reduce spend when needed, as both commitment to spend and content are locked into these deals.  Likewise, the compounding cost of annual increases have a predictably deficit effect on library budgets.

CC-BY @atruthbrarian

This inflexibility also leads to homogenized library collection-building (Thomson, Peters, & Hulbert, 2002), as libraries share and provide access to the same scholarly content, rather than (as in traditional resource sharing) resources unique to their respective collections.  Also, a significant portion of Big Deal package content remains unused, falsely inflating its overall value and trapping libraries in multi-year agreements to buy what they don’t need and increasingly can’t afford. This kind of purchase means fewer library collection dollars spent on more diverse collection needs, whether because there are fewer such purchases that can be afforded, or even simply that these remain more possible to cancel.

The process
Quite basically, the normal expectation for a renewal process means library data gets analyzed by collection representatives in the spring for final decisions in the summer. Ideally, those decisions get communicated to acquisitions representatives, vendors, and/or consortia reps in the early fall.  Then consortia and e-resource librarians (plus respective general counsel) negotiate new contracts before the December expire.  The actual renewal process looks quite different. Since publishers don’t release current pricing until summer, consortia get offers out for its members’ collection representatives to analyze in early fall.  This compressed timeframe leaves little room for libraries making consortia purchase decisions to analyze anything, nor does it allow sufficient collaboration from all necessary stakeholders.

CC-BY @atruthbrarian

To share is the Latin root of ‘communication’.  Again, quite basically, the shared information concerning consortia ranges from books to labor to negotiating power.  But what works well for sharing books and its associated labor is quite different from sharing information related to negotiating power and the labor associated with managing online resources.  Besides the varying usage value of these purchases, the contract and term needs continue to vary from library to library.  Those needs can change more frequently each year for libraries than buying, sharing, and cataloging books ever has.  New formats beget new kinds of information, requiring new structures, methods, and individuals involved in the communicating.

From my vantage point — and, I grant you, there are many that I am missing here — libraries and consortia are falling short of what’s necessary to collectively communicate in ways that make consortia purchases beneficial to libraries.

The alternatives
Machovec (2017) sees two competing forces at stake for consortia and libraries: “the need to grow collaboration to more efficiently acquire products and services; and the need to cut programs and services that can no longer be funded” [emphasis mine]. To grow collaboration, as I interpret Machovec to suggest, means allowing more time to share, react, analyze, and compare collaboratively, not just the group individually.  I know it sounds counterintuitive that more communication would be necessary for efficiency.  But understand, efficiency doesn’t just deal in the currency of predictability.  The currency we should value is flexibility.

Currently, consortia purchasing models, while designed to save libraries money, still offer no comparable programs and service alternatives to address libraries’ collective declining funding.  I believe consortia have a role to play in negotiating favorable alternatives or so-called “exit terms” for its members, just as they may continue to offer well-negotiated Big Deals for members needing and willing to afford that kind of predictability.  I don’t believe these two interest necessarily conflict, considering how libraries have historically participated in consortia.  But having been part of a group of libraries working on that kind of proposal, I have greater appreciation for the complexity and skill involved and a new perspective on future possibilities.

For consortia to stay in the purchasing game, from which at least part of their operational funds rely, they will need to grow the facilitation and communication side of their business.  Investing in people, systems, skills, and new relationships will be key to negotiating different alternatives and to negotiating the complexity of members’ changing needs.

References

The title for this post inspired by the song by Ariana Grande, in case you wanna listen.

Thompson, J., Peters, T., & Hulbert, L. (2002). Library Consortia. The Serials Librarian, 42(3-4), 177-182.

Machovec, G. (2017). Trends in Higher Education and Library Consortia. Journal of Library Administration, 57(5), 577-584.

Lesson: Culture is Hungry

Two weeks ago, I attended the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians at the University of Minnesota. The Institute is a week-long program focusing upon academic librarians within their first three years of librarianship from diverse backgrounds. The main faculty are Kathryn Deiss and DeEtta Jones.

This week, I am writing my last post as a First Year Academic Experience blogger for ACRLog. I hope that my posts have been relatable and helpful for those of you in similar and dissimilar worlds. After working in multiple careers, I have learned is that some professional concepts are career-agnostic, and we can apply our career experiences to our personal lives and vice versa.

One of the biggest takeaways from the Institute was the following: Culture Eats Strategy (for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). When these words came out of DeEtta’s mouth, I had chills. The truth of this phrase rings true in our families, communities, work environments, and global society. No matter how we plan things, no matter what policies we create, no matter what the strategic plan may be, the culture of the environments we are in will drive what actually happens.

When I was little, my mom wrote daily to-do lists of chores for my brother and me over our summer breaks. We were old enough to stay home on our own but young enough to want to watch TV all day long. Every one of those summer days, around 3:30pm, we would scramble to look at the list and do as much as we could before my parents came home. I would frantically clean grains of rice or moong dal and cross off as much as I could on the list, hoping my mom wouldn’t notice that I gave a less than mediocre effort. My brother would vacuum the whole house haphazardly, hoping it looked cleaner than it did in the morning.  My mom came home, discovered our incomplete to-do list, and yelled at us about it every summer day.

I tell you this because it didn’t matter that the to-do list strategy existed. It didn’t matter that we made an average-ish effort. What mattered is that it was summer and we were kids and we wanted to watch TV and hang with friends. Culture ate strategy.

I see how, as libraries, we need policies and strategic plans. We need to have a direction and a way of doing things. I’m all for that. But the shroud of culture will always loom and outmaneuver the best of intentions. Nicky Andrews, who was in my ARL IRDW cohort, is an NCSU Fellow, and is a friend of mine, posted the following tweet during the Digital Pedagogy Lab this past week:

Tweet from Nicky Andrews @maraebrarian reads: “I wish we invested in emotional intelligence as much as we do artificial intelligence. #digped” – July 30, 2018
Tweet from Nicky Andrews @maraebrarian reads: “I wish we invested in emotional intelligence as much as we do artificial intelligence. #digped” – July 30, 2018

Her words go hand-in-hand with the implications of Culture Eats Strategy. A huge component of culture is emotional intelligence. It isn’t everything; however, it is a great place to start so we can become aware and improve upon ourselves and the larger culture. In a way, we can equate strategy with artificial intelligence. It may not be synonymous, but Nicky’s tweet reiterated to me that what we focus upon can take away from what makes the biggest difference.

Addressing culture in an organization, in a neighborhood, or in a family is not an easy task. But it is a necessary task for true forward progress and to address what is underneath the surface of the cultural iceberg.

A good friend of mine, Dr. Nazia Kazi, is an anthropology professor, and a few years ago she wrote an incredible status update on Facebook. It said, “The day I saw the video of the Walter Scott shooting was the same day a student spoke up about how unfeasible any type of reparations would be… ‘Where would we get the money from? How would we even decide who gets them? And if we pay reparations to black Americans, what about others America has wronged? It’s all just too complicated.’ Capitalism allows us to imagine – even desire – indoor ski resorts in Dubai, but makes something that would *begin* to address endemic racism seem ‘too complicated’. Where did we ‘get the money from’ when it was the banking industry or the war machine or the construction of a new prison? How have our young people already internalized such a treacherous script?”

The culture of capitalism, the culture of working in silos, the culture of hierarchy, and the culture of the larger organizations we serve, affect the work we do every day and can make it difficult to make an inch of progress. But that doesn’t make it unfeasible.

In the past year, I have learned how to conduct a systematic review, how to write effective learning outcomes, and how to check my voicemail. But, in the end, the most powerful lessons have nothing to do with my job. The most powerful lessons have been, and always will be, about the deeper ways we create and imagine, how we work with each other, questioning existing boundaries, and how to serve others with justice. And the bonus lesson is that I have extremely intelligent friends.