Librarianship in the Time of COVID

As I write this, I’m entering my third month as an Outreach and Engagement Librarian. I’m excited to be starting this new position in a new field, but must admit that this is a strange time to be starting anything well…new. Yet, 2020 has been nothing but new adjustments in our household as we also welcomed a baby in the spring during the height of the pandemic.

It has now been eight months since the pandemic began and the campus remains quiet as students learn remotely. Faculty are teleworking, and with little reason to be there, most students are scattered as well. This means that I’m doing outreach and engagement from my bedroom rather than on campus. I quickly realized that I was presented with a challenge: I need to “put myself out there” on campus without being there.

I realized that to do my job I needed to be proactive and reach out to others rather than simply walking over to their offices. This has involved reaching out individually to campus members who typically work with the library, like the writing and student success centers. I’ve looked into a social media plan and am dusting off our old library newsletter. What has been far more challenging is finding ways to replicate online the student experience in the library. This is something that I continue to mull over in my mind. How can I create an online experience that is even a shadow of the one in person?

It is an honor to work with these students and I can’t believe that I get paid to talk about the library. Still- I can’t help reflect about the bizarre and terrifying situation unfolding in parallel with my work. I’m trying to ensure that we highlight the ways that students can receive basic care: counseling services, food assistance, help with utilities, alongside information literacy and citation help. My brain almost can’t process this dichotomy, but I suppose there is no time like the present to start trying.

Re-envisioning an Instruction Program with Critical Information Literacy in Mind

My name is Kevin Adams and I am one of the new First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) bloggers! My pronouns are he/him/his. I am interested in critical information literacy, pedagogy, all things punk, and a bunch of other stuff. I am so happy to be writing for this blog and I hope that by sharing some of my experiences I can spark some fun conversations or just brighten somebody’s day.

I am the Information Literacy Librarian at Alfred University. Alfred University is a small private university in a little village in upstate New York. The closest city of note is Rochester. Because Alfred University is so small, I am one of eight librarians (including the dean and director). I don’t want to speak too much to other librarians’ workloads, but suffice to say we all have a lot of different responsibilities. One responsibility that we all share is instruction, and in my new position I find myself leading the instruction team. In this post I want to share my experience navigating reconstructing an information literacy program shaped by Critical Information Literacy. I hope to share what my goals are, what some of my strategies are, and the challenges I have faced.

Goals

The United States is a hell scape. Late stage capitalism is siphoning money from the working and middle class folks in this country to support billionaires’ and corporations’ hoarding habits; cops are continuing to murder innocent black and brown folks with no significant repercussions; climate change is driving natural disasters that are forcing people from their homes; innocent immigrants are being held in concentration camps where agents of the state are carrying out forced sterilizations; over 200,000 people have died in the United States from COVID-19; and the list goes on. I am aware of this, my colleagues are aware of this, other teaching faculty at my university are aware of this, and students are ABSOLUTELY aware of this. So, creating a standard information literacy program that doesn’t recognize what is going on in the world felt totally useless. For this reason, and others, I am trying to create an information literacy program that integrates Critical Information Literacy (CIL) throughout the instruction design and delivery process.

CIL is not the answer to all of the problems that I have listed above, but it is an approach that does not actively ignore the situation that we find ourselves in. CIL is an approach to information literacy that is informed by critical theory and critical pedagogy. It recognizes that information is not neutral or objective; rather, it reflects social, political, and economic power systems and privileges. CIL engages with learners as contributors in the classroom to investigate, understand, and use the contours of information structures and manifestations (Wong and Saunders, 2020). In many ways, this is an approach to information literacy that uses a social justice lens. 

This approach has two elements: 1) a deep understanding that information and libraries are not neutral, and 2) a centering of students in the classroom stemming from an understanding that students are important, active agents in the classroom. This agency allows students to contribute their ideas, experiences, and even expertise.

Strategies

When I applied and interviewed for this position, I centered my commitment to an inclusive information literacy program that, if possible, would implement CIL. Keeping this method front and center in my communications with potential new colleagues set the stage for me to have challenging conversations about neutrality and the role of instruction librarians as I began my new position.

Fast forward to my first month on the job. After getting acclimated to the new culture and climate of the position as best I could over Zoom, I started putting together a written Information Literacy Plan. I found myself in a unique position. Due to some shifts in the library prior to my joining, the previous instruction models were still primarily based on the ACRL Standards. This created a need for a new plan that centered the ACRL Framework. In filling this need, I saw an opportunity to incorporate CIL as a basic tenet of the Information Literacy Plan.

In order to tie the Information Literacy Plan into the values of my library and university, I consulted the strategic plans and mission and values statements for each. Alfred University strives to be “outside of ordinary” and uses language about inclusivity and diversity, affecting individual students, and changing the world for the better. While this type of branding sometimes leaves an unsavory taste in my mouth, it has allowed me to connect the CIL goals of social justice and inclusivity to the broader goals of the university. This has proven to be a failsafe as the White House has released statements that attack Critical Race Theory, an important theoretical foundation for CIL.

Implementing a plan for information literacy that negates that libraries and information are neutral from the very first page might not be possible at all institutions and might be highly controversial at others. In addition to creating a plan that ties in the values of the university, I worked closely with library administration. The Dean of Libraries at my institution is very sympathetic to social justice issues and information literacy. He has provided ample support for this idea from the outset. This has been extremely helpful in drumming up support for the idea amongst the other librarians, all of whom have been very receptive.

CIL does not exist in a vacuum. I was thrilled to find that AU libraries were actively working on a commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression. In this commitment the librarians showed that they were already thinking about many of the concepts that inform a CIL approach, for example anti-racism, false neutrality in academic spaces, the history of white supremacy in libraries, etc. Finding ways to talk to fellow librarians about these topics created fertile ground for the seeds of CIL.

Challenges

A little over a month ago I introduced the librarians to the Information Literacy Plan. The plan is still a living document and will be adapted as necessary, but it lays out a shared groundwork that can inform each librarian’s instruction practice. The plan was so well received that I nearly cried after sharing. It can be difficult to find high points this semester, but that was certainly one of them.

In spite of how well received the plan was, explaining and implementing it is and will continue to be challenging. Most of the instruction practices at my institution have, up until recently, been primarily informed by the ACRL Standards. Updating the program to include both the ACRL Frameworks and CIL is a dramatic shift. While working with fellow librarians that are excited and curious, I continue to find myself asking and answering new questions about how to best connect with and platform students in the classroom.

These challenges are compounded by the fact that all our instruction sessions have been online this semester. Centering students in a meaningful way during a one shot can be challenging in any circumstance. Add to that Zoom fatigue, frequent technical difficulties, and all the social, political, and environmental challenges weighing on our minds in 2020. JEEZE. It is not easy, and feeling encouraged by or excited about a session is becoming a rare occurrence.

I am still figuring out new strategies to overcome these challenges. I am excited to continue to share about this and other new developments in my first year as an academic librarian! I would be thrilled to speak with anyone about what this process has looked like, share strategies, or just commiserate. You can reach me by email, or hit me up on twitter @a_rad_librarian.

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.