The Adventures of a Zillennial Librarian

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve attended a few library webinars focused on Generation Z out of my own curiosity. For full transparency, I am a fairly young librarian; I took one gap year in between undergrad and library school. I’m in that liminal space of not quite a millennial, not quite Generation Z (I’ve seen it referred to as a “zillennial”). My birth year has been in both generational cutoffs, depending on who you ask. I often relate to the experiences and outlooks of both of the generations. I still get mistaken as a student, and I am indeed on TikTok like a lot of the typical college-age students I teach.  

I felt particularly “Gen Z” in a research consultation I just had with one of my Environmental Studies students. She needed some legislation from the 80s and 90s, and my state’s government website only has the most recent version. My library is a government repository; we have a specific government documents section of our stacks. Was that the first place I went? Nope. I scoured many a website, and eventually did find the 1989 version we were looking for in the appendix of a 1993 thesis from the University of Montana. Thank goodness for OCR, searchable full text, and institutional repositories!

We did, however, have it in our Maryland Register up in the stacks. This allowed us to find the date it was proposed and the date it was passed, for both versions of the law (and cite it properly!). This consultation got me thinking though about my instincts as a librarian, and how my world experiences and generation relate to the way I go about finding information, even after being trained in it for my master’s degree. Looking in the physical collection is only a thought after I exhaust all of my online searching techniques.  I, and I’d wager to guess many of my students, prefer the ease of finding and reading something online. Although I had dial-up internet for perhaps longer than most folks (I had a version of it until about 2013 or so? Living in the middle of nowhere problems), the internet in general was a big part of growing up and learning how to research. Yes, I love a physical book as much as the next person – but I’m talking more about answering my own questions or doing research. In a webinar on Gen Z by ASERL recently, it was said that “[Gen Z is] so used to finding what they need on their own.” I heavily relate to this. My first impulse is to pull out my phone and perform a Google search; I’m sure this is the case for many now, regardless of generation.  

Another difference I’ve noticed in being a young librarian is that I actively encourage the use of Google Scholar (and actually use it myself). I have attended library sessions before where it is discouraged or interacted with faculty that do not want students using it. I personally find that it is a good steppingstone from performing regular Google searches to getting right into an academic database that might look completely foreign to them. They can still use natural language in Google Scholar and get some relevant results, but they get better ones when we as information professionals introduce them to Booleans and other strategies. It’s also been really useful if a student has too broad of a topic – searching in Google Scholar allows them to see all sorts of discipline conversations about a topic, and how other academics have narrowed things down. They can choose which pathway they’d like to explore further, and once they have a good research question and keywords to try, we can get into the library databases, all the while talking about the differences between Google Scholar and Academic Search Ultimate. The “Cited by” function has also been invaluable in teaching students about the academic conversation as a concept too.  

Another aspect of Gen Z from the ASERL webinar I attended is that despite being constantly online, we generally prefer face-to-face communication. In my personal experience, this preference is heightened due to the pandemic when face-to-face wasn’t even an option. I will take any and all other forms of communication over a phone call, though; I’m not sure that’s necessarily attributable to being Gen Z, but more of an “Emily” thing. The reason is because I can’t read the other person’s body language or facial expressions. You might now ask, Emily, you also can’t do that when it comes to chat, text, and email? But the difference is there isn’t an expectation to immediately respond – I can have a moment to really take in the other person’s words and consider my response.  

As an example for face-to-face communication in my workplace and work life, I would much rather go down to my colleague’s office and ask them my question as opposed to emailing. This is partly due to our collective open-door policy, but for some reason, emailing feels overly formal to me in a lot of cases. If that isn’t an option, I might send the message over Slack. Of course, if it’s important to have some sort of paper trail, I’ll gladly email – it is very helpful to have a record of what a professor and I talked about when I’m preparing the lesson plan, for instance. If my email data scarf had been expanded to all kinds of work communication, I’d be interested in how the percentages broke down! Perhaps that should be my next data project.

These are just a few things I’ve been thinking about as a strange middle-ground zillennial librarian lately, especially since that research consultation. I am endlessly fascinated by generational research as a whole, so if you’ve got any thoughts, please comment them down below.  

Communication & Leaving Things Behind

In March, I attended ACRL. The first session I attended was a morning panel entitled “Academic Library Leaders Discuss Difficult Topics.” The panelists (Jee Davis, Trevor Dawes, and Violete Illik) covered a range of topics and shared their insights with a full house. I took away many tidbits however, one insight stood out. The panel was discussing communication and how a common refrain from folks is that communication is just not transparent enough from leadership. In working through what this means, Trevor said, “Communication goes both ways.” 

A simple idea but for me, an insight that stood out. As both a current department head and someone who aspires to continue in administrator roles, I’m constantly trying to think about how to communicate information, at what level, and how frequently. But I think Trevor’s point serves as a good reminder; if you have the expectation for leaders to communicate, they also need you to communicate. Leaders can’t be expected to know everything, especially if the people who have that information aren’t sharing it up. Now granted, sometimes sharing up is hard because of the structures and or culture in place. However, this can be worked around. It requires folks to understand the structures and empower people to share, both good news and more challenging news. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about sharing up recently because of a situation I found myself in. A colleague left the institution and in an attempt to try to solve a problem at the reference desk, I opened a can of worms on a service I didn’t know much about. The colleague left behind some information but it wasn’t robust. They also hadn’t alerted the partners in this service about their departure so when I checked in to gain some more information, the partners were surprised to hear about me. 

Now I know that when folks leave institutions, it’s not always on the best terms or with the most generous timeline. I even wrote about the impossibility of tying up loose ends when I left my last institution a few years ago. There’s a lot procedurally to do to leave an institution and consequently, messes will get left for those still at the institution to clean up. However, what are ways to prevent messes, even before someone considers leaving? How do we encourage folks to lay the groundwork, document it along the way, and share that knowledge with more than just one person? This kind of structural work isn’t the most exciting but I think it can be some of the most important work.

This whole situation had me also thinking about my first post I wrote for ARCLog, about setting a project up for success, knowing full well that someday you might not be doing that work anymore. I know it can feel great to work on a project, know it inside and out, and feel secure that no one can do that work like you can. But ultimately, if we want that work to be sustainable and impactful, we have to make sure we are setting both the project and someone else up for success. I think this includes documentation of some kind and talking openly about the work (to all levels of the organization). 

To be honest, this scenario isn’t limited to only when someone leaves an institution. I remember one summer at my past institution where my colleague and I had some family issues arise. We were going to need to be out for parts of the summer, primarily over our larger outreach work that we co-led. When my supervisor asked what documentation we had to support our colleagues stepping in to do this work, we didn’t have anything. Luckily, we had some time to get everything squared away before we were out but life happens, our jobs are just one part of us, and we need to make sure we have information to pass along. 

So my takeaways from this situation is documenting what I can about this can of worms I opened up. I’m talking to folks (across, down, and up) in my organization about what I’m learning and how it applies to their work. I’m thinking even more about how I communicate department work to my supervisor and how I can create opportunities for the team to share their work, at a variety of levels, to various audiences. With summer just right around the corner, I’m hoping to get some time to work on some of that documentation for my work. It’s never too early to lay the groundwork for the work I’ve done and what I’ve learned along the way.

Would love to hear from you reader – do you have strategies to help communicate both ways? Do you have ways of creating work that is sustainable and actionable, even if someone has to leave your institution? Would love to hear your strategies and insights on this topic! 

Story Swap

“If a picture is worth a thousand words,
then a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures.”
-George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

In this collaborative post from our ACRLog team, we’re sharing some of the “stories”–allegories, analogies, anecdotes, images, memes, metaphors, and more–that we use across the domains of our work to make abstract concepts more concrete, prompt meaning making, demonstrate relevance, communicate impact, bring a dry concept to life, or simply connect with our colleagues, users, and stakeholders.

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate concepts related to information literacy and research skills?

[Jen] I’ve recently become very interested in using stories as a pedagogical technique. I don’t have a large repository of stories to call on yet, but a few examples I’ve been using to good effect come to mind:

  • Source integration – Images of a container ship and a cargo train help me illustrate the goal of synthesizing sources in a literature review versus stringing them together one-by-one. I start with the train photo and ask students to imagine that each container on the train is a source. I describe how the train illustrates a style of writing where the author treats each source individually–the author might summarize, analyze, or otherwise comment on each source one by one in a long string of paragraphs. By contrast, I note that the ship is full of the same containers (i.e., sources) as the train but draw students’ attention to how the containers are instead stacked in groups, that each column is made up of many containers. In this image, I suggest that each container still represents a source but a paragraph is this time represented by a column of containers illustrating the goal of weaving sources together for more skillful analysis and writing around themes across sources.
  • Source evaluation – Wineburg and McGrew’s study serves as an anecdote regarding approaches to source evaluation (as well as the idea of relative, or domain, expertise on occasion). The researchers observed 45 people evaluating websites: historians with PhDs, Stanford University undergraduates, and professional fact checkers. When I ask students to guess which group was best at evaluating information, they typically vote for the historians with PhDs. Yet findings showed that the “fact checkers arrived at more warranted conclusions in a fraction of the time.” A primary difference in their approach? Fact checkers read laterally, not vertically. Because lateral reading is a departure from the kinds of information evaluation that are commonly taught to high school students, this story helps illustrate the effectiveness of an unfamiliar approach.  

I’m motivated to use stories more (and to better effect) in my classes because I think it can be so powerful; the sense of clarity and connection these stories can offer for students is incredibly productive and gratifying.

[Alex] I have referred to truncation as “my favorite library magic trick” when demonstrating searches in databases, and it’s true! It’s such a simple thing to do but can really change the list of results you get back. I also refer to it as advanced… I don’t normally go into the details of truncation until the learners I’m addressing have mastered some of the other concepts like Boolean operators and selecting keywords. But when I do introduce truncation, I love to tell this story. I was working with someone who needed information on radiation and adjuvant chemotherapy. Looking at my list of search terms, I saw radiation, radiotherapy, radiation therapy, etc… so I thought, truncation time! Radi*, easy. Because of the complexity of the rest of the search, there were about two pages of results so I looked through all of them and behold, one of them was about… radishes. You can’t anticipate every possibility when you truncate, but that one was a real surprise. Truncate responsibly, everyone!

[Justin] I like to use the metaphor of gardening for the research process:  

  • Prep your garden: determine a topic and a focused research statement or question, along with background research.  
  • Care for your garden as it grows: identify keywords, makes a list of databases and sites to find information, create search strings, and save sources.  
  • Inspect your produce: evaluate your sources for relevance and credibility.
  • Cook! Use your sources in your writing to make something new.
  • Modify your approach if nothing is growing.

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate concepts related to teaching and learning more broadly?

[Alex] This is so common it hardly feels like a story or metaphor but teachers as coaches is such a great framework. I can run you through practicing a skill, I can tell you the plays, but I can’t make the shot for you from the sidelines. You have to be able to apply what we did in practice while you’re on the court.

I’ve also used my experience as a DM for Dungeons & Dragons to explain outlining activities and learning objectives for a class. (Not to students, to other educators.) If you tell your players “you’re going to go here and do this, then go here and do this, ad nauseum” that’s called railroading and it isn’t as much fun as letting the players make decisions for themselves. Giving them multiple threads to follow and seeing what they value and decide to do is part of the game! Same goes for the classroom: here are all the objectives we need to meet, but you can help me decide which one we’re going to address next, and exactly how that’s going to look.

[Justin] I’ve used the example of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey”. One of my favourite ways to illustrate the hero’s journey is using Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. I find it relates to learning quite well: there’s a problem, you set out on your journey with help from mentors, there’s transformation and atonement (and learning a lesson?!) and finally return. 

[Jen] I’ve gotten a lot of mileage over the past few years out of an anecdote I’ve drawn from Carrie Brownstein’s memoir in which she reflected on some of the key experiences of her adolescence that helped shape her as a musician. In short, Brownstein first described how enthralled she felt watching pop music giants perform in stadium-sized venues. The spectacle of those huge performances entranced and inspired her but they felt opaque and unattainable. “I had no idea how it [the music] had been assembled or how to break it apart,” she wrote. “I remained merely a fan …with no means of claiming the sounds as my own.” Brownstein went on to describe her experiences a few years later, this time at shows in small clubs. Here, Brownstein could get close to the musicians and observe their techniques and interactions. This is my favorite quote about her realization: “It seems obvious, but it was the first time I realized that music was playable, not just performable—that it had a process.” To me, her story showcases the power of uncovering process. At huge, heavily produced shows, she was an onlooker with no discernible entry point for her own participation. When the making of the music and the performances’ component parts were made visible at smaller shows, the performances felt more accessible and attainable; Brownstein could imagine doing it for herself. I’ve used this story time and again– when consulting with faculty on the design of research assignments, for example–to illustrate the power of uncovering the process of scholarly and creative work rather than focusing on polished products.

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate concepts related to library services, procedures, workflows?

[Maura] As a director I often find myself having to explain our work in the library to faculty and administrators on campus in a range of contexts: as library faculty progress through the tenure track, when sharing the institutional questions we get at our service desks in the library with Student Affairs staff, and especially when advocating to fill vacant faculty and staff lines in the library. The analogy I’ve found most useful is from the restaurant world: front of the house for Public Services, and back of the house for Technical Services/Technology. In my previous position I worked at a college that offered Hospitality Management degrees and this analogy was widely understood across campus. But with greater visibility in the media into food and restaurant services over the past few decades I think it could be a useful analogy for anyone trying to make visible the often invisible work that keeps the library functioning. 

[Justin] I’ve heard an interesting comparison from a friend of a librarian’s role to What We Do In The Shadows: there’s so much intellectual work happening behind the scenes, that not all of our students and faculty know about or are aware of. 

[Jen] I just started a new book and was struck by the proverb that the author used as an epigraph: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.” I’ve never personally used this proverb although I’m sure I’ve heard it before. But I’m thinking about it with fresh eyes through the lens of this post’s theme. It seems to me that it might serve as a “story” to illustrate the interconnectedness of different domains within library work not to mention the value and importance of the many small details in our day-to-day work. 

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate library impact and value?

[Justin] My friend mentioned the metaphor of weight of books to me recently. He’s interested in knowing how much our library collection weighs – why? I have no clue. But he’s right: it makes for an interesting metaphor of the weight of information.

[Hailley] I’ve been recently working on updating our library’s mission and vision statement. In our revision, we did a lot of looking at other library mission and vision statements and the idea that kept coming up is how the library is the “heart of the university.” I don’t have any brilliant thoughts on this at the moment, but it’s definitely a phrase I’ve been thinking about and thinking about if this phrase is useful in defining the impact, value, and place the library has at an institution. 

What stories do you use? To what effect? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Being Pro-Pronouns

October is a time for National Coming Out Day, International Pronouns Day, and also happened to be the month in which I was added to our institution’s Diversity Council and attended my first meeting thereof. So I’ve been thinking about pronouns more than usual (which is actually pretty often to begin with) for a few weeks.

I think it’s fairly common knowledge now that including your pronouns as part of your introduction is a simple practice that we can all participate in, that makes everyone (especially the trans community) feel more welcome in any space. We as a profession (and as a society) are talking more about doing this, including here on ACRLog, with mentions in posts like this one from guest poster Adrianna Martinez, and this one from Emily Hampton Haynes.

One of the first things I noticed when I was offered my new job (I haven’t been here a year, it still counts as “new,” right?) was that the person in human resources who was sending me paperwork and instructions had included her pronouns in her email signature, and I thought that was great. One of the first things I did when I got my institutional email account set up was to write my email signature, and deliberate for a solid five minutes over where my pronouns should go in said signature. (Under my name? Under the wall of text that is my contact information? On a line unto itself, separated from both name and contact information by a blank line?)

I have seen many email signatures from people across the institution and outside our institution with their pronouns in their email signatures. I have seen conference nametags that provide space for your pronouns, and I’ve seen people add their pronouns to conference nametags that did not provide that designated space. I have seen one or two people with colorful buttons on their lanyards declaring their pronouns.

Honestly, at first, the English major that still resides inside of me was just really excited that so many people can identify a part of speech so readily. But then I also got really excited that normalizing the sharing of pronouns is really happening. The first few times I brought it up (in meetings, in conference presentations, in introductions to new people) it felt clunky and awkward, but now it’s a more natural thing to do. I like to introduce myself first or early when we “go around the room” in a meeting, because if I start the trend, others will follow my pattern: name, pronouns, job title.

To give you context for the rest of this paragraph, I am a cisgender woman. My name is Alex, as you may have noticed. Fun fact about me: my husband’s name is also Alex. So, clearly, I am very aware that our first name is a unisex name. But I’m also very aware that most people’s default assumption is that someone named Alex is male. Even with my pronouns listed in my email signature, I get email replies addressed to “Mr. Harrington.” (To be entirely fair, I also get email replies addressed to “Alexandria,” since my institutional Outlook listing uses “Alexandra” instead of “Alex.”) Also, for a few months after I got married, some people who knew my husband’s name called me “Mrs. [Husband’s last name]” even though I frequently made jokes about how I didn’t change my last name only because paperwork would be a nightmare if we both had the same first AND last names. Honestly, none of these things bothered me very much, because I don’t really care if people think I prefer “Mr.” over “Mrs.” or that my first name has an “i” in it, or that I took my husband’s last name. However, this is not all about me. It can be very upsetting, for example, for a trans or genderfluid person to be referred to as the incorrect gender, or for a woman in a same-sex marriage to be assumed to have taken her spouse’s last name.

The only point I have here is really just that we should all commit to paying attention. My rule of thumb has always been to address someone in an email however they signed their last email to me. This has also unfailingly helped me navigate issues like whether someone prefers to be called by their first name or “Dr. Last Name.” If I don’t have that option (I haven’t received an email from them before; they didn’t sign their email; I’m communicating in a different medium) I default to gender-neutral language whenever possible and address them by first name, risking informality over choosing the wrong title (Mr., Ms., Mrs., Dr., etc).

This is the first step of the conversation. In the past few days alone, I’ve heard or read people arguing over things like, “Jonathan van Ness identifies as non-binary, you can’t say ‘him’!” when he has gone on record as preferring he/him but being fine with she/her or they/them pronouns. It also seems like every week or so, I see another discussion of how “they” can’t be a singular pronoun, even though it has been in use that way for ages. (If you need an example, ask yourself where an unidentified person is going. Didn’t it feel natural to say, “Where are they going?”) If we start by paying attention to what others want to be called (whether that’s “Rob” versus “Robert” or “they” instead of “he” or “she”) we can move toward better understanding for everyone.

So, happy belated International Pronouns Day to all!

Desperately Seeking Sense-Making

If you know a little about me, you know my practice of librarianship — what I like to call truthbrarianship — desperately seeks to express a deeper connection to the communicative side of our profession, whether that’s information-seeking or information-management.  I’m still working on an alternative word for the latter, but my truth-seeking approach is inspired by Brenda Dervin’s sense-making methodology, work which most famously contributed to the practice of the reference interview.  Dervin also addressed sense-making in information systems and the impact on the democratic principles of librarianship, which are vulnerable to “unexamined assumptions about the nature of information and the nature of communication” (Dervin, 2003, p74).   To examine these assumptions means approaching communication differently than just an act of sending and receiving messages.  Since learning about this methodology in graduate school, I have been working to apply it to internal communication in library organizations.   

Communication theorists still debate whether organizational communication is best measured as a product of organizational structure, or whether communication itself leads to the formation of organizational structures.   Nevertheless, I observe people fairly consistently credit or blame organizational morale and culture on communication.  When/if communication is good, morale is high.  When/if communication is bad, morale is low.  However, this link between communication and culture doesn’t make a bit of sense to those who approach communication primarily as messages.  Because messages can be controlled, communication problems are easily addressed by increasing or better-targeting messages, right?  People who see communication as connection, on the other hand, would rarely get what they need from messages alone, no matter how abundantly or frequently messages are sent, or even if they were received. Since the target, if you will, is connection, its lack is perceived as a more fundamental organizational problem.    

In the absence of clear solutions, I’m left to make peace with perpetually seeking.  But a couple of workplace examples recently paved some hope on this path.   One is a wonderfully challenging development series I’ve started attending, called “Compassionate Communication”. Based on Michael Rosenberg’s book, Non-violent communication: a language of life, the introductory focus of this workshop intentionally distinguishes the use of judgement (problem-solving) and empathy (connection) when communicating, especially when communicating within conflict.  What I like most about the series so far is how it hasn’t discarded rational, judgement-based thinking in communication altogether.  Rather, it shows where this has value and where it doesn’t. With mindfulness and emotional intelligence, the Compassionate Communication: An Introduction course prescribes “translating judgments into observations, emphasizing needs instead of strategies, replacing thoughts with feelings, and changing demands into requests.” Like the reference interview compassionate communication considers that in situations people may not always know how to communicate their needs.  Dialogue offers a way to connect to needs and feelings in order to make meaningful requests.  So far (and I’m only two classes in) it promises to deliver what leaders sometimes struggle to accomplish with planning, hierarchy, and logic alone.

Another sense-making example took place in a recent email exchange about a new and somewhat contentious library policy.  In this scenario, most might have just chalked up the policy decision to “it’s complicated”, accepted it by virtue of hierarchy or expertise, and moved on.  Instead, this administrator and staff each made room to express and examine the different and often hidden circumstances at play.  I consider this kind of sense-making giving transparency to complexity. I have advocated and worked to develop this in my own communication and know the extra work it requires.  In my experience you can either pay the price of that work in confusion, frustration, and ongoing inefficiency, or in the work of communicating through those complexities.  I find only the latter builds trust, and I believe Dervin would say the act of building that trust is what matters most.  

Unfortunately, both approaches are still somewhat rare and sometimes discouraged in library leadership generally, despite similarities to LIS methodologies. Like Dervin’s sense-making, these two examples approach communication with questioning.  In compassionate communication, observations beyond the surface messages lead to more connected requests (aka questions) about what is needed. In the email exchange I observed, it was the willingness of this staff and administrator to first question whether they understood the whole picture and to thoroughly engage in seeking connections between those understandings.  Neutral questioning in the library reference interview demonstrates a shift in the balance of information power to create space for dialogue and understanding.  Shouldn’t that process, which translates to improved communication with users of library services and in the usability of library systems, also apply to our internal communication and information systems in a similar way?  Do we assume an expertise in sense-making with our users, and does this create an expectation that we can or should provide sense for our own needs?   

Left unexamined, such an assumption might result in providing our own messages and dialogues for ourselves. That seems both silly and irresponsible, especially as individuals and organizations seek truthfully to examine practices related to diversity and inclusion. This must mean understanding experiences beyond ourselves and our expertise as librarians. In the most basic sense, attending to these relational aspects of our work will require librarians to see each other as information seekers, balance informational power, and learn how to effectively ask questions of each other. Translating sense-making to organizations calls for us “to listen and to address differences and contests in human beings’ understandings and experiences” (Foreman-Wernet, 2003, p6).  The point is not understanding difference as characteristics or experiences that will define (read: label) how we interpret or listen in communication but connecting these differences toward understanding. Making sense of our internal information needs are necessary not just to solve collective problems, but for making sense of each other as human beings, our relationships in practices, and the ways in which these relationships are always changing.