Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect: Lily Troia Asks: Who are We When We Leave “The Library”?

When invited to write this former first-year librarian “where are you now” post some questions immediately popped into my head: What does it mean to be “a librarian;” is it synonymous with practicing “librarianship;” and perhaps, what most would assume — does it require you to work IN a library? Ironically, these were questions we often debated when I was earning my MLIS with a focus on archival practice — what were archivists? Were WE librarians, working in special collections, sometimes with “Librarian” in our title, yet technically members of an entirely different praxis? What about embedded librarians or those working for corporations, law firms, or (gasp) publishers? 

I look now at the circuitous path my career has taken and I see much more intersection and overlap than the converse — and find many ‘former’ librarians like me, who seem very much to live and breathe librarianship in all they do professionally. When folks ask me what I do for a living (pre-COVID), I always reply, “Oh, I’m a traveling librarian,” intended to sound seemingly oxymoronic, and always a conversation starter. Regardless, I love my job. 

For the past three and a half years I’ve been fortunate to be “at” Digital Science, working remotely and on the road, first as Engagement Manager for Altmetric — or as I liked to describe the position, an instruction and advocacy librarian to our global user base, supporting those interested in richer, more contextual bibliometrics, with an eye on connecting research visibility to broader impact. Now I specifically help research and scholarly institutions in this hemisphere develop frameworks for digital solutions that meet their unique needs — a role very similar to that of the electronic resources and scholarly communication librarians with whom I often work, only speaking from the solution-provider perspective. 

I cannot exaggerate how lucky I am to have found a company headquartered in London, providing me with numerous opportunities to explore the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany — plus time frequenting some of the most impressive cities North America offers: Toronto, Boston, Washington D.C., Montreal, etc. and exploring those less-appreciated but worth discovery, like Cincinnati, OH, Rochester, NY, and London, Ontario (“the other London”). The privilege of zipping cross time zones on a weekly basis is not lost on me, nor was it a lifestyle I’d ever previously enjoyed. And all this while working with exciting new technologies, furthering my own scholarly and professional pursuits, and diving deeper into a global community committed to open science and scholarship. 

When I was officially a First Year Librarian for ACRLog I worked in an actual academic library at William and Mary, where I helped launch research data management for the campus and digital services for the VIrginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). This was an amazing position for me coming out of Simmons, where I balanced a pastiche of part-time digital asset management and scholarly communication jobs. I got to spend time on open access advocacy, work directly with researchers, and get involved with organization-wide committees and a taskforce focused on aligning technical services across campus, thanks to the keen leadership of a director who ensured the library was engaged in broader discussions at the institution. 

Did I mention the corner office with a view of the York River and the occasional dolphin sighting?  

It is more coincidence and circumstance that I ended up leaving. I began researching altmetrics when tasked with assessing ways of measuring broader social impact at VIMS, and serendipitously found Altmetric’s job ad when the time was right for me to move. A position that splits remote work and travel is not for everyone but suddenly in today’s shifted, crisis-mode climate, getting accustomed to working from home seems an apt skill to have developed in advance. 

I realize I am a vendor — in sales even — maybe the furthest thing from what most would view as a librarian, but I am a part of the same ecosystem, and at the very least library-adjacent. I speak and work with librarians every day, not across but at the same table, working to develop and seek the best solutions for each institution. I still speak at conferences and webinars, publish posters and contribute to literature in the LIS field and beyond. I am collaborating with librarians, IT, research administrators, scholars, faculty affairs, and more — just like before. 

It’s hard not to see how I practice library and information science every day, from the skills I learned while earning my MLIS — information management, metadata, copyright and instruction — to my approaches to librarianship, scholarship, responsible metrics: I bring my librarian self into everything I do. Whether helping the Ohio Innovation Exchange craft a job posting for a Library Engagement Strategist or blogging for my own company about cross-organizational efforts around managing faculty data

Yes, I work for a commercial company, but I feel genuinely proud to work at Digital Science, an organization started by researchers and scientists, employing more than a few librarians, each functioning in a unique role of librarianship — from systems project management, to bibliometrics, data curation, or metadata mapping — skill sets valued by our peers, and seen as unique and critical to our successes. Further, we are a team committed to supporting the scholarly community via direct partnerships, free offerings, and continued technological developments and insights that enhance and improve our shared landscape.  

I may not be working out of one library, but we all know today that librarians have roles across a litany of professional fields, and many of us are taking our degrees and turning librarianship into something new that works for us. For that, I am proud to still call myself a librarian. 

Reflecting on Seven Years of Librarianship

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now?: Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Ariana Santiago, Open Educational Resources Coordinator at the University of Houston.

Just over seven years ago, I began my career as an academic librarian. I also had the opportunity to write for the ACRLog First Year Academic Librarian Experience series. I’m so glad I did, because writing a monthly post motivated me to assess and reflect, and now I’m thankful that my old posts capture the unique experience of my first year on the job. So what have I been up to since then? And how have things changed?

Let’s start at the beginning

I started as the Residency Librarian for Undergraduate Services at the University of Iowa in August 2013. In my undergraduate services role, I focused on library outreach and information literacy instruction, and had a lot of flexibility to try things out so that I could make the most of my residency program. I got involved in campus committees, collaborated on outreach and programming events, was introduced to critical librarianship, and dove into learning about instructional design. I participated in professional development programs that had long lasting impacts on me, specifically ACRL Immersion: Intentional Teaching and the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians from Traditionally Underrepresented Groups. I also dealt with uncertainty, knowing that I didn’t yet understand the full picture – of the library and university where I worked, and academia more broadly. I struggled with imposter syndrome, especially when it came to teaching, and hadn’t yet figured out how to ask for the help that I needed. I definitely didn’t have a long-term plan for my career, but I knew I wanted to improve and excel at what I was doing. 

Finding my niche with a side of burnout

After my residency, I moved to the University of Houston where I started as the Instruction Librarian in 2015. By this time I had gotten a lot more comfortable and confident with instruction, and really enjoyed not just being in the classroom and working with students, but the problem-solving nature of figuring out how to teach and engage students in different learning contexts. It was around this time that I started to realize my facilitation skills and that I really wanted to facilitate others’ success, whether through IL instruction, working with colleagues on their teaching, or leading a library project or committee. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize I was headed towards burnout. I got increasingly involved in professional service, started presenting and publishing as I prepared for eventual promotion, and was working on a second master’s degree (M.A. in Applied Learning and Instruction, which I completed in 2017), all the while maintaining a heavy teaching load. I think it’s safe to say I still hadn’t figured out how to ask for help, or even admit when I was struggling and needed help. 

Then in 2018, I got the opportunity to move into a new position at the University of Houston, and started as the Open Educational Resources (OER) Coordinator. I’ve read my fellow former FYAL’s posts and they all speak of the inspirations that shaped their career paths and landed them where they are today. For me, this part of my career trajectory was far less intentional. I had the opportunity to take on this position, though to be completely honest, at the time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. But I took a chance, and I’m definitely glad that I did. 

Although an OER position wasn’t something I had been purposefully working towards, I’m now 2+ years into it and clearly see how this work builds on my previous experience and strengths. I’m contributing to improving teaching and learning by helping instructors incorporate OER into their courses, allowing students to have free and immediate access to course materials. I get to incorporate elements of instructional design and campus outreach, and there’s no shortage of problem-solving on a regular basis. I enjoy working closely with instructors to support them in reaching their instructional goals, and further facilitating student success. 

However, because I didn’t start with a strong background in OER, I often went back to feelings of imposter syndrome. When I transitioned into this new area, I was reminded of how it feels to truly step outside of your comfort zone and became painfully aware of how much I didn’t know or understand yet. Fortunately, by this time (or perhaps because of this experience) I had gotten a lot better at identifying when I needed help and asking for it. In recent years, I’ve also practiced my ability to say “no” to things. Earlier on, my eagerness to get involved and help out wherever help was needed led to burnout from taking on too much. Now I know the value of my time and to be more selective about the commitments I take on. 

Still figuring it out

In my very last FYAL post, I gave the following advice: don’t take on too much, ask for help, and keep the big picture in mind. Turns out this was pretty good advice for me to listen to throughout the years! To add on to that advice now: it’s okay to not have things all figured out. I admire people who know exactly where they’re headed and what they want out of their careers, but I’m not that person (at least not right now), and I think it’s okay to figure things out as you go. 

Along with everyone else right now, I don’t know what the future holds. I know that I’m about to submit my portfolio for promotion, and that I’ll continue to work from home for the immediate future, but that’s about it. I don’t know what the next seven years will bring, but I’m excited to find out!

Where Are They Now? A FYAL Update

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Rebecca Halpern, Undergraduate Engagement Team Leader at The Claremont Colleges Library.

Looking back at my posts from the days in my early career, I’m struck by how uncertain I seem. I definitely don’t remember feeling uncertain at the time, though I am known to stick to a strict “fake it till you make it” policy which results in an overinflation of confidence. In those early days, I grappled with what it means to be a do-it-yourself librarian and the bounds of jurisdiction, how to incorporate my critical politics into one-shots, the role of reference work in critical librarianship, and what the point of my MLIS even was. Underneath all this was that I was also grappling with part-time and precarious employment, much like many of my peers who entered librarianship during The Great Recession. I was worried and anxious, but also curious and (I’ll admit) idealistic. So much has changed in the last 7 (!!) years, but also really not that much.

What’s Changed, or Where Am I Now

The professional experience I gained while writing for FYALE gave me insight into how libraries work. As a member of 3-person library team, I was involved in collections, ILS and LMS management, interlibrary loan, reference, and instruction. I was fortunate to have a strong mentor who allowed me to try (and fail) a variety of projects, and ultimately I was able to identify the areas of librarianship I was best suited for. The combination of a supportive mentor and a platform like FYALE to explore the profession and learn from peers, aided in my search for my niche within the profession.

After leaving that position, I became the liaison librarian to the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California. To say it was a complete change of pace from my previous job would be an incredible understatement. While my day-to-day work was largely the same (reference, instruction, collection development), working at a huge R-1 university where librarians were faculty and on a tenure-like system couldn’t have been a bigger culture shock. Suddenly I was faced with tenure and promotion schedules, publication and presentation requirements, and having to navigate a complex system of hierarchies and (sometimes unwritten) rules. More than anything, due to being part of a faculty system and serving on the library’s faculty council, I learned about power – how it works, how its distributed, how its sustained, and who doesn’t get any. I realized I wanted to move into a position that would allow me to have positional influence to be able to redistribute power to those least likely to get it.

With that realization, I changed positions and institutions to take on a role with positional authority and to continue to develop what were my burgeoning skills in facilitation and programmatic design and assessment. At The Claremont Colleges Library, I manage a team of two librarians and a handful of student staff members who do first-year instruction and non-curricular outreach, as well as overseeing our reference program. We’re a team that builds relationships and we especially look for ways to support students who are marginalized or historically underserved. It’s rewarding, but hard – and hoo boy do I still have a lot to learn about power.

What hasn’t changed, or How I’ll Always Be a Rabble Rouser

In one of my FYALE posts on critical librarianship (though I didn’t call it that at the time), I stated that my goal in instruction was for “my students to be rabble rousers.” While that statement shows my naivety to think that all students get a fair shake in their rabble-rousing opportunities, and obfuscates how the privileges I have allow me to a rabble rouse, I still kinda want to be around people who can shake things up, who are willing to confront and change harmful status quos. In addition to maintaining my, and developing a more complicated understanding of, critical library instruction practice, I’ve adopted anti-oppressive management techniques and seek out opportunities to identify ways to relinquish and redistribute power in my organization. I’m using the skills I’ve developed over the last 7 years – facilitation, lesson planning, program and outcomes assessment, qualitative methodology, and coalition building – for management, supervisory, and leadership roles in order to create more just and equitable processes in my workplace.

Moving Forward, or What Does the Future Hold

Like everyone else, I have no idea what the future will bring. I hope to move into more management and leadership positions, but what that will look like or where that will be is anyone’s guess. What I do know is that, in my experience, past is prelude. Since being an FYALE blogger, I’ve learned to do more listening than talking, more asking than answering. I try to attend at least one conference a year where I don’t present, so I can spend the time soaking up new knowledge rather than spending (at least part of it) obsessing over my slides and notes. And as I continue to find my way in this profession, as I take on more management and leadership roles, I know that deep and reflective listening will be my most-needed skill. I intend for the trajectory of my career to be one of inclusion and antiracist practice, and to continue the work of listening, problem-solving, and rabble rousing.

What Student Employees Have Taught Me

As a new librarian, and as someone who is new to working at a university, there’s a lot to learn. I’ve learned about some of the university’s history and how it affects day-to-day operations, the degree programs and course offerings, different colleges on campus, how each college has their own rules regarding faculty promotion and tenure, and the ebb and flow of different semester schedules. Then, there’s the current environment and culture of the campus. Much of what I’ve learned comes from faculty and staff who have been on campus for decades, and for that I’m grateful. They have the best insight into the political and structural nature of campus and faculty life; however, it’s the students and more specifically, student employees, in the library that provide the most holistic view of campus life and culture.

Before January, I worked 9-hour shifts on Saturdays with the same staff. It was always me, a supervisor at circulation, and a mix of student employees. Saturdays, especially over the summer, were slow. My main duty on Saturdays was to staff the research help desk in case we had any drop-in questions. There would sometimes be long stretches where no one would come by with a question, and if I had nothing else going on, I frequently found myself chatting with the student employees.

I do not supervise any students, so I don’t have any insights about what that’s like (others have though, and talk about supervising and mentorship). I do, however, think that our student employees are great, which is why below, in no particular order, I’m listing out what I’ve learned from student employees along the way.

Campus life and history

Did you know that Main Hall is haunted by past Jesuits? And that, if you ask very nicely, campus safety will take you on a tour of the building’s basement on Halloween so that you can experience the ghosts firsthand? This tidbit came up in a larger conversation about ghosts, and suddenly, I knew about every haunted building on campus. This is the interesting type of myth that students know. Campus history is passed down from one class of students to another, and I’m not privy to it unless a student is willing to share. Any fun fact I know about the university most likely came from a student employee.

Beyond myths and campus lore, students have very strong opinions about their classes, professors, and perceptions of leadership. I’ve learned about what classes were difficult and why in different departments. One student ranted very openly and honestly about being treated as a dollar sign by campus administration instead of as a student who was learning and making mistakes in classes. Student employees will give you an idea of the general mood and morale on campus, especially during exams.

Basically, if I want to know how students feel about new construction plans, the history of a particular spot on campus, or the perception of an assignment, I just have to ask.

Reminder of what being in college is like

An employee had recently moved to off-campus apartments and was talking about how difficult grocery shopping was. They had never gone grocery shopping on their own before, and talked about trying to get the right amount of food on a college budget. They had to start from scratch with spices and staples, and it felt overwhelming. Conversations about life and firsts are a good reminder that, yes, college students are adults, but many that we label as traditional, undergraduate students are learning how to be independent for the first time. Students are taking classes, but also figuring out how to manage their bills, divide their time and energy, and take care of their health. Many of our student workers are undergrads, so I get the new college student perspective most often; however, I’m often reminded that graduate students or undergraduates that do not fit under the traditional student mold face a set of challenges all their own. It can be easy to fall into a trap of getting frustrated with the student in the back of the class that isn’t paying attention to my well thought-out and incredibly important assignment, but conversations about daily life and struggles remind me that student lives and experiences are rich, complex, and diverse. I’m grateful any time a student employee is willing to share their experience with me.

Great sounding board for ideas

I sometimes have what I think is a great idea for library instruction, or I want to try something new for outreach. I’ve taken these ideas to student employees who have been generous with their time to provide feedback. Now that they know me better, student employees are very honest about their opinions and provide some of their own ideas that have been helpful. I appreciate student input in things I’m designing for students. We’ve also had student employees play test the escape rooms we’ve created for finals week, give feedback about our surveys, and in general, be the student voice in the activities and materials we create for the library. Of course, student employees aren’t necessarily representative of the entire student population, so we don’t rely on them for everything; however, employees are a great start for engaging with students in general.

Assistance with our projects

Most of our student employees have defined job roles, but they are sometimes excited to try new projects or learn about different aspects of the library. For instance, I was working with our digital content librarian to weed DVDs in my subject area. A student employee I know very well was in the area, and I knew that she was heavily involved with the literature and poetry community. She ended up looking through content relevant to her major so that we could seek her input into the collection as well. Another student employee recommended popular biology titles that we didn’t have for our collection that she thought other students would be interested in checking out. If I haven’t made this point clear yet, then I’d like to emphasize that student voices are valuable to library operations. We can guess what materials are most relevant to students, or we can ask for their input. Student employee involvement in collection development has taught me more about what’s popular in certain subject areas or what students might be interested to see in a collection. Having student employees involved in library projects brings me to my final point.

Potential future librarians

If you ask your colleagues about their first library job, many of them will talk about being employed in the library as a student. I’m not sure what percentage of librarians started as student workers, but I think it’s significant. Some of our student employees today might be librarians in the future. The way that we engage with student employees, the projects that we give them, and the perception that we share of the library may shape future librarians.

Student employees are valuable to libraries. They provide honest feedback, give insight to campus life and culture, and have interesting perspectives. Getting to know the student employees has been one of my favorite parts of being a new librarian. If you haven’t already, take the time to find out more about the student employees in your library. I think we all have something we can learn from them.

Failure is an Option or When Things Go Wrong

Several times I thought about writing about my experiences as a first-year librarian at ACRL in Baltimore, but many others wrote about the controversies, the twitter fights, and the OA panel better than I could have. Zoe Fisher’s post about the twitter fiasco is a must read as well as Veronica’s post on ACRL.

As a new librarian, something stuck with me though, and that is the idea of failure and works in progress at the conference. A conversation with Katlyn Griffin, a fellow new librarian,  and I had via twitter and in person about the idea of “works in progress” or even “failed projects” as learning opportunities at conferences. ACRL, as I’m sure many of you know, isn’t the venue for unfinished or failed products.

As a field that feels on the brink, it is difficult to talk about projects that fall flat. No one, least of all me, wants to broadcast failures. Unfortunately, if you’re a new person, it is often the failed projects or the work-in-progress projects are all that you have to contribute. I think there is a difference between work-in-progress and failures, but they exist at this periphery of prepared and completed national conference level discussion. I presented a work-in-progress at ACRL and it actually went very well; I learned a lot about the process and it helped me move towards a conclusion, and I believe that conferences should encourage unfinished work outside of the lightning rounds where the blur makes the projects blend in with the background. But where does failure stand?

Scenes from NASA

“Failure is Not an Option” Gene Kranz, Flight Director of Apollo 13

It is difficult to broadcast or talk about failing, especially in competitive circles, but I am a product of failure.

Prior to library school I was on a traditional academic path. I interviewed at PRESTIGIOUS UNIVERSITY for a PhD program in Media Studies. After three days of being wined and/or dined, tours of campus, meetings with students and faculty, talking about my future there, I was not given a spot in the program. I felt rejected, like all that I had been working toward was squashed on the whims of a committee. I thought a lot about why I was drawn to the field and where I was the happiest when I was a student. That place for me was the library. I was interested in memory and media but more than that I was interested in knowledge as an academic field.

Ultimately, the library was the better and wiser choice for me. I am thankful that prestigious university did not pick me for their PhD program, as much as it hurt at the time.  I’m able to write and publish about topics I feel passionate about, teach and work with students, support faculty, and I’m extremely happy to be where I am. Libraries are my home, but still I felt like it was a “plan b.” I’m certain that I’m not the only one out there in our field who has a similar story.

Even writing this paragraph was difficult because failures, or the perceptions of failure or disappointment, are difficult to talk about.  It would be even more difficult to stand in front of an audience of colleagues and say “this is what went wrong.” Imagine that during a staff meeting… now imagine it during a National conference.

Given the response that accompanied the polished, but controversial, papers presented at ACRL, I wonder what the response would be if a paper concluded with “this project failed.” Would it be seen as a waste of time? Would the twitter-sphere explode in rage at the failed project? Currently, we all struggle silently alone.

In the past year I’ve had a few projects go awry. I had our Research Week Student Research Symposium hosted entirely by our Institutional Repository, it did not go well. In the end, our research office decided to go another direction but will now require students to deposit their materials. This was my first professional set back, but it allowed me to grow and see where the edges were in our partnerships across campus. I worked extremely hard on getting this to work, and in the end it just could not do what our research office wanted. Does this reflect poorly on me as a librarian? I thought so at the time. When I took a step back and thought about it, I really began to believe that this was a bump on a long road. Sharing this experience with the other librarians and saying “here is what didn’t work,” allowed all of us to learn from this experience. Getting all of the student projects deposited in the IR after the fact is all that I wanted in the first place, so this failure ended up as a slight win.

Projects fail. We do not know when that they will fail when we start them, if we did we probably wouldn’t repeat the mistakes that caused the problems, but these are valuable opportunities to learn about the process and the problems we all share. If creativity and experimentation are valued in our field then there should be expectations of failure and we should talk about them openly. I firmly believe that opening forums like ACRL or ALA to “failure talks” could be a great asset for new and old librarians. Talking frankly about what went wrong instead of sweeping it under the rug should be a goal of the larger library community.

More importantly, we fail. Failure has formed me as a librarian. We sometimes do not get the jobs we desperately wanted, or the promotion, or the book chapter. Right now the culture tells us to be quiet about these instances and shames; because being a sore loser or being upset about losing out on a fellowship or project is unbecoming and might jeopardize our future goals. I don’t agree with this because I think as a field we should grow to a place where we are not ashamed of our baggage and our failures and drop the feelings of animosity and competition. Especially for new librarians where the road upwards is the most difficult, letting  individual failures be known is a powerful reminder of what we have to gain and lose as a field. Ultimately, this means that successful librarians must lift up those around us when projects or goals fail. We should be open about our failures to serve as a guide to those who will follow, and lift up those who are not as lucky as we.