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.   

On Being a New Liaison

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Abby Flanigan, Research Librarian for Music and Performing Arts at the University of Virginia.

Last January, I joined the University of Virginia Libraries as the Research Librarian for Music and Performing Arts. This is my first professional position after graduating from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with my MSLS in May 2016, and I’ve found myself in an entirely new (to me) area of the profession: liaison librarianship. In graduate school, I heeded the advice I’ve seen echoed in every corner of the Internet about LIS programs, which is to get as much work experience as you can, and cobbled together a variety of internships in preservation, digital scholarship, cataloging, and reference services. Despite this list of jobs on my resume, I remember feeling instantly panicked when the first question in my interview was to describe my past experience as a liaison, because, of course, I didn’t have any. Luckily, I managed to collect myself and describe some other capacities in which I had worked with faculty, and ended up getting the job. Now that I’ve been here a few months I wanted to share some of my observations about what makes being a liaison both challenging and exciting as a new professional.

No two liaison positions look exactly alike. Because each academic department has different needs and histories with the library, each liaison I know works differently with their departments. Some are busy all semester teaching classes or doing research consultations with undergraduate students, while other collaborate on grants or do collection development for foreign-language sources. Similarly, liaisons are organized differently at many libraries, so it can also be difficult to directly compare positions or responsibilities with colleagues at peer institutions. At UVA, subject liaison responsibilities are decoupled from collection development, general reference, and first-year teaching responsibilities, so my day-to-day work looks very different than liaisons at other institutions whose responsibilities are split across a variety of areas. This was challenging when I first started because, not knowing exactly what I was supposed to do, my instinct was to model my strategy for engagement on my colleagues’, but it didn’t always transfer or apply.

This brings me to my second point: it takes time to be an effective liaison. Getting comfortable in any new position takes a while, of course, but the liaison model seems to benefit in particular from institutional knowledge. Part of the job is knowing faculty and students in the departments, including their research interests, information needs, and communication habits. Gathering this information can take many meetings, emails, and chance encounters; much of it is tacit knowledge that is built up over time and not necessarily passed on from a predecessor. Many liaisons also rely on the “ripple effect.” By working with a faculty member one semester, they may have more interest the next semester based on word-of-mouth between colleagues. This means that as a new liaison, I am working on laying groundwork for richer collaborations in the future. Building up relationships and projects is a longer process than I was expecting, but I think that’s a good thing because it means this is a job that I can grow into.

Finally, as I build these relationships, I’ve learned just how important communication skills are to this position. Being a liaison requires reaching out cold to people in your departments, and, more importantly, once you are meeting with them, articulating your role and value. It can be intimidating to present yourself as a resource to experts in their respective fields, especially without an advanced degree in the discipline for which you are a liaison, but over the past nine months, I’ve gotten more comfortable and confident doing so. In the beginning, I struggled to define exactly how I could help, and erred on the side of suggesting every possible way in which they might use the library’s resources. Now I try to reach out when I have a specific idea to suggest or information to communicate. After a few successful collaborations, I also have a clearer idea myself about what I bring to the table, so I’m able to more confidently offer my services.

“Liaison” is term which means very little to anyone outside of libraries (I know this from the blank stares I get from friends and family when I try to explain what I do) but can be a source of anxiety for people in them as we rethink and reorganize subject expertise in academic libraries. Being a good liaison or having a strong liaison program seems to be an ever-moving target. Stepping into a role of this nebulous nature as a new librarian can be stressful — it’s hard to know whether you’re doing it right! — but I’m learning to be more comfortable with figuring it out as I go.

Put a Process On It!

Editor’s Note: We welcome Angela Rathmel to the ACRLog team. Angela is the head of Acquisitions & Resource Sharing at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. Her research focuses on libraries’ organizational response to changes in scholarly publishing, acquisition, and access, particularly with respect to organizational communication, information seeking, and knowledge management.

Working in acquisitions and resource sharing, I sometimes struggle to navigate my unique and shared place in the various communities of this profession (ACRL, ALCTS, LLAMA, etc.). I’m often characterized as a “technical services” librarian, but this does not always adequately describe the work I do. In the past 15 years that I have worked in this part of the library, I have seen dramatic changes as a result of the material transition of print to electronic resources. Beyond just the physical format, these changes have meant that technical services staff now work more directly with library users and no longer just process behind the scenes. Our work also involves direct and frequent interaction across more areas of the library than ever before.

I genuinely enjoy working with people. Discovering new ways to communicate across the library, especially through radical change, fascinates me. In spite of these interpersonal interests, in many ways I fall right into the technical services stereotype. I’m a cautious communicator, and my go-to mode of thinking is to solve every issue with a systematized process. Give me a problem and I’ll “put a process on it”!

A particularly cogent example of this tendency occurred recently with some of my colleagues in “public services” (another phrase that no longer adequately describes their work). We were discussing our campus-wide initiatives in diversity, equity, and social justice and how the libraries could support these initiatives throughout all of our services, not just at the service desk.  I saw this as a perfect opportunity to once again lower the barriers between technical and public services. But I worried because I found myself expressing the challenge many of us in technical services face even initiating discussions about our own day-to-day work conflicts. I was fearful about my ability, especially as a leader, to initiate a productive conversation with my staff about conflicts, like microagressions, of which individuals may not even be aware. So, I did what I often do when faced with uncertainty — I put a process on it! I suggested that we solicit the help of trained facilitators from the libraries’ organizational development unit. As one of those trained facilitators, this seemed both a safe way for me get involved, while at the same time satisfying the requirements of scale.

I was amazed at how my colleague’s response could all at once genuinely honor my approach and also persuasively encourage each of us to find our own (maybe different) path. This was not the first time I have questioned the appropriateness of my knack to put a process on things. But that discussion was moment of clarity shaping everything I’ve encountered and thought about since. It has prompted me to examine more closely and even question this tendency that has served me well so far in my path in technical services. I thought I’d begin my introductory post to ACRLog sharing my experience as this kind of librarian, and hopefully in the process discover more about a path forward.

The draw of process

When I talk about process in this context, I mean the way in which I think through the steps of workflow, understand cause and effect, and most efficiently move from point A to point B, all while accounting for the connections in between. For acquisitions and resource sharing, the overarching process we are concerned with is the scholarly communication supply chain and its ability to get the resources users need as efficiently as possible. Individual motivations for this work vary, of course. Some enjoy improving these processes for the economic reasons: the joy of saving money, cutting costs, and demonstrating a return on investment. Some like the ever present source of a puzzle to solve. Many still are motivated by service and how the process makes it easy for other people. Some like fighting for our core values through the process of negotiation with vendors. For the more introverted among us, it seems that processes at their root help create predictability where a thing might otherwise be or feel out of control. This certainly describes the environment in which libraries and we librarians of all types have found ourselves ever since change became the new normal.

The benefit of process is not just for the individual coping with change. It has a direct benefit to the organization as a whole. In my experience, process helps me discover and understand how to use new technologies effectively.  Process has been the language I use to help others through ongoing training. In my library as whole, that language enables me to translate the impact of larger change on our work. Becoming a trained facilitator, I’ve learned better processes of communication between individuals or groups, made meetings run more smoothly, facilitated strategic planning and assessment efforts, and contributed to larger organizational change. How each area within the library addresses their own particular management of perpetual change has brought about all manner of processes, frameworks, assessment models, and mission statements. It seems librarians of all types can put a process on just about everything.

Process in the extreme

The consequence of taking process thinking too far is that it can get in the way of actual doing, or worse, overlook the human need in all of us for deeper meaning and connection. Technical process efficiency taken to its extreme is automation. Even the rise in library automation processes, however, has not eliminated the need for human aspects in the most technical of workflow processes because the environment is filled with people serving people.  I tend to perceive my own process as an act of creativity. As my leadership responsibilities move me from introversion to ambiversion, I prefer to process with others, creating new things and building new relationships. Additional research, suggesting that our minds do not even process or recall like computers at all, supports the notion that there is a more creative present and future for our work.

Processes involved in addressing continual change on an organizational level are essentially human-oriented. These can’t achieve the extreme of automation because they too require ongoing attention for the people involved. How our relationships change, how we communicate across new organizational structures, and how we respond to actual people, are a necessary part of our response to the rapid changes in our work. People and their relationships certainly don’t want to be processed; they need to be seen, understood, and valued.

Process to path

The conclusions I’ve come to are:

  • we need both technical process mindedness and relational mindedness
  • these are not necessarily mutually exclusive

Getting myself to that point means rediscovering the areas of research that piqued my curiosity and inspired my passion for this profession from the start – Devin’s sense-making and research around the reference interview. This research speaks directly to how our systematized human processes and automated systems can and should be relational. The fundamentals of communicating in our profession are constructive,  “tied to specific times, place, and perspectives” (Foreman-Wernet, 2003, p.5). This applies not only for dealing with patrons, but for dealing with one another, inside and across library departments.

I intend to stay involved in interactions and discussion like the one that prompted this reflection. I may not have the capacity yet to effectively communicate, or know how to take action, on issue of diversity, equity and social justice. But I know enough that it is my privilege to learn. My awareness and willingness seem small to me, but I can accept them as important and necessary steps on my larger path.

References:

Dervin, B. and Foreman-Wernet, L. (2003). Sense-making methodology reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. New Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc.

“Playable, not just performable”: Telling the story of information literacy

I was reading Carrie Brownstein’s book, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir, a month or two ago, and a particular passage grabbed me so much that I keep going back to it. If you don’t know Carrie’s work, the short version is that she’s an indie rock/punk icon (best known for her band Sleater-Kinney) and more recently an indie comedy star, too (of TV series Portlandia fame).

Early on in her book, Carrie reflects on the massive stadium-size concerts she attended as a girl. Seeing Madonna and George Michael live was awe-inspiring and set her young adolescent heart and mind alight. She describes “witnessing” the “spectacle” of these events: “The experience … was immense; the grandiosity was ungraspable, it was the Olympics, it was a mountain, it was outer space.”

But Carrie’s story is not just about watching and witnessing; it’s about becoming and making. Which brings me to the part I really love (the underlining is mine for emphasis):

Yet the music I was hearing and the concerts I was witnessing were also mystifying and inaccessible. It was the ‘80s, and much of what I loved was synthed-out pop and Top 40 music, more programmed than played. The music was in the room and in my body, yet I had no idea how it had been assembled or how to break it apart.

This, I thought to myself, is exactly what I mean when I talk about information literacy. Carrie’s reflection continued as she described how she bought her first guitar and started going to punk and rock shows at smaller venues (again, the underlining is mine for emphasis):

Here I could get close to the players themselves. I could see how the drums worked with the guitars and bass, I could watch fingers move along frets and feet stomp down on effects pedals, I saw the set lists taped to the floor, and sometimes I was close enough to see the amp or pickup settings. I observed the nature of the bands, their internal interactions, their relationships to one another, as much as I listened. It seems obvious, but it was the first time I realized that music was playable, not just performable–that it had a process and a seed, a beginning, middle, and end. Everyone who plays music needs to have a moment that ignites and inspires them, calls them into the world of sound and urges them to make it. And I suppose this form of witness could happen aurally; perhaps it’s as easy as hearing an Andy Gill riff or a Kim Gordon cadence and knowing intuitively how that all works. Then you form those sounds yourself, with your own hands and your own voice. Or maybe you see it on a video, in footage of a musician who finally translates and unlocks what you thought was a mystery. For me, however, I needed to be there–to see guitarists … in the wholly relatable attire of threadbare T-shirts and jean shorts, enact a weird nerd sexiness, strangely minimal, maximally perverse. I could watch them play songs that weren’t coming out of thin air or from behind a curtain. I needed to press myself up against small stages, risking crushed toes, bruised sides, and the unpredictable undulation of the pit, just so I could get a glimpse of who I wanted to be.

It was in the small clubs with small bands, up close and personal, that Carrie could not only experience the music and witness the final product in all its glory, but also figure out how the music was constructed. And better still, how she could construct it, too. I’m not suggesting information literacy has the allure of music shows, large or small. Ha! Instead, I’m saying that I recognize in Carrie’s reflection the power of uncovering process to enable an individual’s participation and agency that is also at the core of information literacy. Her story serves as an illustration of the disconnects that students experience and why it’s important to help them uncover, develop, and articulate process. To see the “mystifying” final product (of scholarly research as published in a journal article or book, for example) is impressive and edifying, but for many is a closed door. To instead understand how something (again, that research) is made–to see its final whole, but also the pieces that make it up and the process of its making–is to open the door to one’s own potential participation.

A few months ago, I posted about some activities I used with students to “dissect” articles. Through these guided activities, we explored how sample articles (one from a scholarly journal, one from The New Yorker) were constructed. The most immediate goal was to help students parse these samples to see how authors use and synthesize sources and to what effect. Dissecting the sources broke open the elegant final products such that students could better see their component parts. By “decoding complexities that can sometimes seem a mystery and make research and writing feel insurmountable,” then, the goal was to set students up for constructing their own work, helping them recognize their own potential participation. Not quite the blood and guts of the pit at a punk rock show, but still a developmental and empowering step in its own right.

I’ve put Carrie’s story to use a few times in recent weeks, most notably in conversation with faculty about assignment design and pedagogy. The anecdote’s resonance was apparent in their faces and in our conversation. It occurs to me that this is, at least in part, the kind of thing I meant when I wrote about “writing it better” over a year ago. I’m calling to mind now some of the disappointing moments when I attempted to show others the breadth and depth of information literacy as I see it, but my message fell short or our connection was missed. Compelling examples, stories, and metaphors go a long way to helping us all recognize our common ground. How do you effectively tell the story of information literacy and its power? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments…