Introducing Yourself When You’re a New Librarian

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Yoonhee Lee, Learning & Curriculum Support Librarian at McLaughlin Library at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

“So, tell me about yourself…” is a question that I dread. Whether it’s in an interview situation or when you’re meeting someone for the first time in a professional or personal setting, I struggle with how to introduce myself in a succinct but engaging way. I’ve been introducing myself a lot the last couple months, as I’ve started my first academic librarian job. I’ve been meeting library colleagues, faculty, staff, and students in the hallway, meetings, orientation events, and classrooms. Depending on who I was talking to and the situation, I introduced myself in various ways, ranging from just saying my name to talking about my job as a Learning & Curriculum Support Librarian.

While in library school the importance of having a 30-second elevator pitch was stressed throughout my studies, particularly in relation to looking for work and networking. I’ve tried to hone my “I’m a library student looking for a library job” pitch while participating in networking events, attending library conferences, and going to interviews. Fumbling through answering questions about my new role, I realized that I needed to develop something similar for my new professional identity as an academic librarian. But I found it challenging to sum up what I do when I wasn’t sure or comfortable with this new identity yet. Even saying “I’m a librarian” still felt foreign to me.

A lot of the questions I have surrounding how to introduce myself is rooted in anxieties about my newness. Not only was I new, but due to my appearance, I’m often mistaken as a student. I wanted to present myself as someone who is confident and authoritative, particularly when I was talking to faculty about coming into their classrooms and providing library instruction. Trying to transition from library student to a professional librarian, I was super focused on presenting myself professionally.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to think about introductions differently during an orientation session for new faculty. In the morning, we did typical introductions, which involved going around the room sharing our name, department, and field of research. Many folks also shared their academic history, including previous institutions, degrees, and current projects. Feeling a bit conscious about not having research interests yet (imposter syndrome strikes again!), I quickly said my name and the subject areas I support. Later in the afternoon, during a session with the Office of Teaching and Learning, we were asked to reintroduced ourselves to the person sitting beside us. But, instead of listing our research interests, we were asked to introduce ourselves through discussing our parents and grandparents. This exercise was an intimate experience, as we shared our personal lives and journeys with one another. It was both thrilling and terrifying at the same time.

I felt awkward sharing about my Korean immigrant parents, which usually only my close friends know about — not my work colleagues. I felt vulnerable and a bit exposed. My family, however, is an integral part of who I am and how I view the world, not just personally but as a librarian too.

I’ve been inspired by the many librarians who’ve been discussing vulnerability, like sharing personal experiences or practicing supported vulnerability. Engaged and transformative learning involves taking risks and being vulnerable. In my library instruction classes (and at the reference desk), I ask students to share their previous experiences with library research, including challenges they’ve faced. I ask them to share what they already know and what they don’t know. I’m asking students to be vulnerable. But I also understand that I can’t ask students to be vulnerable without being vulnerable myself.

I’m not sure how to incorporate all this when I introduce myself at the beginning of class. I believe in teaching with your whole self and that my teaching is influenced by who I am, my position in the world, and my worldview. Some of who I am can be gleaned from my name and my appearance. Other aspects of myself, like the fact that I’m a new academic librarian that was a student just a few months ago, I would need to explicitly share. Usually, you gradually share yourself as you get to know someone better. With my library colleagues, as I develop relationships, they’ll get to know me beyond my name and job title and work. But with students in a classroom, I might only see them one time in a one-shot class. How do I introduce my authentic self? How can I share but also set boundaries? How do I share what I don’t know without undermining myself?

I don’t have the answers. Maybe I’ll have a better idea once I’m more confident in my role as a new academic librarian, or maybe I won’t. But I’m super excited to continue to think and reflect on this throughout my career and hone my “I’m a librarian who can help you, but also I don’t know everything, and I’m here to learn with you — also I’m a whole person with varying knowledge and lived experience just like you” pitch to students.

Supported Vulnerability and Help-Seeking

Early in my career I was my library’s liaison to the Graduate College of Social Work. The commonly held sentiment among my colleagues was that I would have no trouble encouraging social work students to meet with me or ask for help outside of class. In fact, the trouble I might have would be in finding the time to meet with all them individually. There was an unspoken judgement that, I’ll admit ashamedly, I initially bought into. It was that these students, who were primarily women, were needy. They needed a lot of “hand-holding” and “reassurance” and I would have to “set appropriate boundaries,” to do my work well.

The more I worked with and got to know these students, the less inclined I was to buy into this characterization of them as somehow deficient, less-than, or needy. They were intelligent, motivated, and eager to do good work. Meeting with them was easily the best part of my day. I remember eventually discussing my feelings towards these wonderful students with a colleague who shared a great bit of insight: Maybe they, as individuals entering a helping profession, were more comfortable with help-seeking and more confident that the people who say they are there to help you are actually, well, happy to help you. It was the best explanation I could muster for these students’ behavior, and their openness and acceptance at the time. I was a 26-year-old new librarian. Many of these students were returning to graduate school to bolster or change careers. They trusted me when I said I was there to help them and I was so thankful that they did.

The Courage of Asking for Help

It’s a decade later and I’ve never been able to shake the early connection I felt to students in that program and social workers in general. I’ve recently joined a Relational-Cultural Theory reading group, inspired to focus on this branch of scholarship by conversations I had a few years ago with a social worker friend of mine. In our reading group (shoutouts to Alana Kumbier, Anastasia Chiu, Lalitha Nataraj, and Jo Gadsby), we’ve been focusing on The Complexity of Connection, which are a series of writings from the Stone Center’s Jean Baker Miller Training Institute that explore the concept of connection and relational activity as central to human growth and empowerment. In a chapter on Relational Resilience, which is not the kind of resilience that’s proven so problematic in libraries in recent years, Judith V. Jordan writes:

Asking for support directly…is…putting the person doing the asking most at risk–we feel most vulnerable when we let people directly know about our need.

…we live in a cultural milieu that does not respect help-seeking and that tends to scorn the vulnerability implicit in our inevitable need for support (p. 33-34).

Reading these lines was mind-blowing. It completely reframed the way I remembered those social work students operating in an academic setting and has made me rethink the ways in which I conceptualize help-seeking in students now. Those social work students, who had no qualms about sharing their research ideas, talking through their searching dilemmas, and asking for feedback on their understanding of an issue, were brave. They were making themselves vulnerable to judgement, but were willing to take that risk in an effort to forge a connection with me, and seek empowerment for themselves as students, scholars, and clinicians. They couldn’t have known that I would be supportive or that I wouldn’t judge them in silence (or in conversation). But they took that risk, and that took so much courage.

Those students were practicing what Jordan refers to as “mutual empathy,” the willingness to be open to growth through connection. Our meetings always started off with what I initially thought of as “just a talk.” They always, without fail, wanted to learn about me–my background, my day, my semester, my work–and it in turn really made me interested in them as people and students. I never realized how rare that was. To me, it was just a part of library-work, but really, I was learning from those social work students how to engage in mutual empathy and understanding. They were modelling a method of fostering connection and affirmation, and it’s a practice I continue to engage in to this day.

The Judgement in Our Questioning

We are the profession of “Ask Us,” and “Get Help Here.” We lament that reference statistics keep dropping and encourage/cajole/beg our students to come to us for help. We are anxious about library anxiety and work to actively create positive interactions with students/patrons who come to us. What I think we don’t do enough of is considering the courage and vulnerability it takes for students to come to us for help. The onus is on them to seek us out and to admit what they may see as their own shortcomings. And how do we respond? We do the reference interview, which is built on the assumption that people don’t completely understand their own (information)needs. We ask questions that seem to be value-neutral:

  • when is this assignment due?
  • when did you start?
  • what have you done?
  • where have you looked?
  • what do you need?
  • is that really what you need?
  • really?

Yet I have seen far more students than not who, in the face of these questions, look guilty and ashamed. I’ve had students apologize in response to these questions. I’ve seen their bodies hunch over and their eyes look away. I’ve heard their voices get smaller or louder and defensive. I’ve listened to stories that explain their answers to these questions that broke my heart. I’ve had to actively work to combat the judgement inherent in those seemingly innocent questions. I’ve explicitly said, “there is no judgement in this space between us right now.” How can I, who am sitting on a pile of email that I’m too afraid to respond to, in good conscience be frustrated at any student who has decided to start researching at a time that is close to the project due date?

Supported Vulnerability

Jordan advocates for a model of connection that encourages “supported vulnerability.” We all need help and support to grow and be our best selves. As librarians, I think we need to stop advocating for two very different ideals that are in direct conflict with one another: the notion of the independent, information literate researcher/student and the researcher/student who feels supported in the vulnerability necessary to seek help. By holding up the independent individual as our ideal we are implicitly saying that the help-seeker is dependent, weaker, and not quite fully developed. There is no way to full-development in this model unless what you want is a researcher who is so afraid of appearing wrong or vulnerable that they just persist in their ignorance without bothering to learn from the people around them.

So what does that mean for our reference practice? One of my reading group buddies talked about a time when they had a 30 minute conversation with a student about their research. There was no “help” involved, no bestowing of knowledge from librarian to student, but it wasn’t really about that. It was about fostering a connection. Now the librarian knows what the student is working on and feels invested in them as a person and interested in their research. It’s the beginning of a foundation on which to build a relationship.

I don’t just want students to come to me when they have a problem or need help. I don’t want them to feel like they have to put themselves out there without me having to do the same. I want to get to know them as people and foster a connection that will help both of us grow and learn. I’ve seen students eager for even the slightest kernel of connection and relatability during a one-on-one. It’s both heartening to know they want this and depressing to think it’s so rare.

I don’t think this focus on connection and mutuality is a part of the model of research support and reference we currently adhere to collectively, as a profession, but I do think it’s one that we could easily shift towards. I know that I am writing about vulnerability from a position of privilege. I am tenured. I read as white to others (despite my best efforts to the contrary). I am a femme ciswoman. But I do think that there is a place for this kind of supported vulnerability in our profession if those of us with privilege could be courageous enough to support the vulnerability of our peers and characterize it as an asset and a strength, not a liability.