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.

Lesson: Culture is Hungry

Two weeks ago, I attended the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians at the University of Minnesota. The Institute is a week-long program focusing upon academic librarians within their first three years of librarianship from diverse backgrounds. The main faculty are Kathryn Deiss and DeEtta Jones.

This week, I am writing my last post as a First Year Academic Experience blogger for ACRLog. I hope that my posts have been relatable and helpful for those of you in similar and dissimilar worlds. After working in multiple careers, I have learned is that some professional concepts are career-agnostic, and we can apply our career experiences to our personal lives and vice versa.

One of the biggest takeaways from the Institute was the following: Culture Eats Strategy (for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). When these words came out of DeEtta’s mouth, I had chills. The truth of this phrase rings true in our families, communities, work environments, and global society. No matter how we plan things, no matter what policies we create, no matter what the strategic plan may be, the culture of the environments we are in will drive what actually happens.

When I was little, my mom wrote daily to-do lists of chores for my brother and me over our summer breaks. We were old enough to stay home on our own but young enough to want to watch TV all day long. Every one of those summer days, around 3:30pm, we would scramble to look at the list and do as much as we could before my parents came home. I would frantically clean grains of rice or moong dal and cross off as much as I could on the list, hoping my mom wouldn’t notice that I gave a less than mediocre effort. My brother would vacuum the whole house haphazardly, hoping it looked cleaner than it did in the morning.  My mom came home, discovered our incomplete to-do list, and yelled at us about it every summer day.

I tell you this because it didn’t matter that the to-do list strategy existed. It didn’t matter that we made an average-ish effort. What mattered is that it was summer and we were kids and we wanted to watch TV and hang with friends. Culture ate strategy.

I see how, as libraries, we need policies and strategic plans. We need to have a direction and a way of doing things. I’m all for that. But the shroud of culture will always loom and outmaneuver the best of intentions. Nicky Andrews, who was in my ARL IRDW cohort, is an NCSU Fellow, and is a friend of mine, posted the following tweet during the Digital Pedagogy Lab this past week:

Tweet from Nicky Andrews @maraebrarian reads: “I wish we invested in emotional intelligence as much as we do artificial intelligence. #digped” – July 30, 2018
Tweet from Nicky Andrews @maraebrarian reads: “I wish we invested in emotional intelligence as much as we do artificial intelligence. #digped” – July 30, 2018

Her words go hand-in-hand with the implications of Culture Eats Strategy. A huge component of culture is emotional intelligence. It isn’t everything; however, it is a great place to start so we can become aware and improve upon ourselves and the larger culture. In a way, we can equate strategy with artificial intelligence. It may not be synonymous, but Nicky’s tweet reiterated to me that what we focus upon can take away from what makes the biggest difference.

Addressing culture in an organization, in a neighborhood, or in a family is not an easy task. But it is a necessary task for true forward progress and to address what is underneath the surface of the cultural iceberg.

A good friend of mine, Dr. Nazia Kazi, is an anthropology professor, and a few years ago she wrote an incredible status update on Facebook. It said, “The day I saw the video of the Walter Scott shooting was the same day a student spoke up about how unfeasible any type of reparations would be… ‘Where would we get the money from? How would we even decide who gets them? And if we pay reparations to black Americans, what about others America has wronged? It’s all just too complicated.’ Capitalism allows us to imagine – even desire – indoor ski resorts in Dubai, but makes something that would *begin* to address endemic racism seem ‘too complicated’. Where did we ‘get the money from’ when it was the banking industry or the war machine or the construction of a new prison? How have our young people already internalized such a treacherous script?”

The culture of capitalism, the culture of working in silos, the culture of hierarchy, and the culture of the larger organizations we serve, affect the work we do every day and can make it difficult to make an inch of progress. But that doesn’t make it unfeasible.

In the past year, I have learned how to conduct a systematic review, how to write effective learning outcomes, and how to check my voicemail. But, in the end, the most powerful lessons have nothing to do with my job. The most powerful lessons have been, and always will be, about the deeper ways we create and imagine, how we work with each other, questioning existing boundaries, and how to serve others with justice. And the bonus lesson is that I have extremely intelligent friends.

 

Developing a Peer Support Group

There’s been a lot written here on ACRLog about the importance of mentorship, and I echo what many others have said: there is enormous value in learning from and being supporting by experienced librarians. There’s a separate kind of mentorship, one that doesn’t necessarily fall under the traditional mentor-mentee model, that has also been hugely beneficial to me as a first-year librarian: peer support. Quetzalli wrote a few weeks ago about the value of peer-to-peer relationships, and it inspired me to reflect on my own experience as a member of a newly formed Early to Mid-Career Librarian Support Group at my library.  

Last semester, a few of my colleagues at the University of Virginia convened a group for early- to mid-career librarians to share advice, ideas, and support. The group operates autonomously and informally. We meet every few weeks for a discussion, and anyone can contribute to the agenda or propose a project.  Our first meeting was a chance to introduce ourselves and discuss our career trajectory and what we wanted to get out of the group. While some people were looking simply for camaraderie and support, others were looking for more concrete advice on how to do to do things like pursue a research agenda or how to more purposefully develop their career. These early conversations have informed the direction the group has since gone. We’ve surveyed group members about their research interests, invited senior administrators to discuss professional development, and coalesced around some bigger documentation projects that I will discuss below.

While plenty of opportunities for collaboration and support arise naturally throughout the course of my daily work, having a more formalized avenue for this kind of peer support is especially valuable. Because of the size of my organization, there are people I still haven’t met yet, particularly in departments that I don’t work with closely. This group allowed me to connect with people across areas of the library that I wouldn’t normally encounter in the course of my workday. It’s also a great way for me to avoid some of the isolation that I can sometimes experience in a small branch library. Because meetings are kept collegial and informal, I’m able to start building some of the relationships that happen more easily if you see someone in an office every day.

Finally, conversations in this group have led to projects that would be overwhelming undertakings without the support of many people. For example, one of the most consistent themes that came from our early conversations was a desire for more robust documentation, especially among newer employees of the library. As we compared our on-boarding experiences, it became clear that we had all experienced some version of the same thing: not feeling sure how to do something and asking around until being directed to email a certain person or pointed towards documentation somewhere we never would have thought to look. As a group, we decided to pool our collective knowledge and document everything we wish we had known for future new employees. Working together, we compiled information about the University, the Library, digital spaces, physical spaces, money, time, and travel, for future employees to reference during the on-boarding process. The resulting document lists basic information like where to find forms or how to get access to certain pieces of software, but it also explicitly outlines some of the library’s conventions, like when to use which communication tool, that are not immediately obvious to people who are new to the organization.

While this type of documentation is often compiled by supervisors or administrators, it was actually really useful for it to be generated by people so close to the experience of being new, because we were able to remember what we had to figure out on our own. It’s easy to forget how overwhelming it is to be brand new to an organization, and easy to forget all the things we expect people to know without explicitly telling them.  The group dynamic also really helped us flesh out this document, since we all had overlapping but not quite identical lists of things we thought needed to go into it. Whether or not documentation like this already exists at your institution, I think there is value in asking newer employees what they wish had been spelled out for them when they started and sharing it with new hires. Having a pre-formed group that you can consult with will make this process that much easier.

Creating space in your organization for peer support groups can lead to collaborative projects, like this one, that might not have happened without all of us getting together and talking through some of the challenges we’ve experienced as early career librarians. It can also make employees who work in isolation, physical or otherwise, feel less alone, and open up space for us to ask questions and bounce ideas off each that we might not yet feel comfortable discussing with mentors who are more experienced. I imagine it could also be a useful concept to apply at all levels of experience, such as first-time managers or administrators, as they navigate new challenges. Do you have a peer support group, formal or informal, at your institution?

Vocational Awe and Professional Identity

A few days ago, In the Library with the Lead Pipe published an article by Fobazi Ettarh titled Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves. Ettarh uses the term “vocational awe” to “refer to the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in beliefs that libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” Her article masterfully traces the root of this vocational awe, from the intertwining history of faith and librarianship to our current state, where librarians are expected to literally save lives. Ettarh argues that vocational awe leads to some of the structural problems in our profession, like lack of diversity, undercompensation, and burnout.

I will admit that I initially felt some defensiveness when I started reading this article. One of the reasons I became a librarian is because I wanted to care about and be engaged with the mission of my work, and I do deeply believe in the values that libraries try to uphold. When I got past that initial reaction, I realized how Ettarh’s research allows us to talk about our profession more honestly. As the author clearly states, the article doesn’t ask librarians not to take pride in their work. Nor is it an indictment of our core values (although it does, rightly, point out they are inequitably distributed across society).  Rather, it encourages us to challenge the idea that our profession is beyond critique, and therefore opens up space for us to better it.

Although this is not its primary intent, I wonder whether this research direction will help us resolve some of our own tortured professional identity issues. I am among those who became a librarian partly out of passion and partly out of convenience. I didn’t feel called to the profession. Instead, I made a conscious decision based on my interests and the sort of life I wanted for myself. I knew I wanted to be in a job where I would be helping people, with the opportunity for intellectual growth, and that I wanted to have a stable job with a balance between work and my other personal interests. Librarianship seemed like a very natural fit. But the vocational awe in librarianship means that you’re surrounded by the idea that being a good librarian means being driven solely by passion. Heidi Johnson previously wrote about the isolating feeling of not being a “born librarian” here at ACRLog, and I remember this post resonating deeply with me when I first started to become self-conscious that my professional identity was built less on my sacred calling to it than some of my peers. I think that unpacking the vocational awe that makes us feel this way might help to dispel some of the professional identity issues that so many librarians, and particularly new ones, seem to have.

As I was thinking about this article, I also realized that my own version of vocational awe usually manifests when I’m talking to non-librarians. Telling people I’m a librarian produces surprisingly revealing responses. Some people respond a well-meaning, but misinformed, “how fun! I wish I could read books all day, while others respond with some variation of “but aren’t libraries dying?” I suspect that this is partially a result of the slew of articles that are published every year on the decline of libraries and the death of librarianship. After responses like this, I feel compelled to defend librarianship in the strongest terms. I talk about information literacy, intellectual freedom, public spaces, privacy, access to information, democracy, you name it. I turn into a library evangelist. None of my own hesitations, challenges, or frustrations find their way into these conversations. Several people have already written about the exhaustion of constantly defending and explaining our profession. But this article made me wonder if there is some connection between how often we find ourselves needing to defend what we do — to friends, to faculty, to funding agencies, to the public — and tendency to resist the idea that there is a lot of internal work we need to do to truly uphold the values we claim. Ettarh’s article made me think about how to balance these two ideas: believing in and advocating for my profession, while working to make it better for the people in it.

What does that look like? I’m not entirely sure yet. But I think it entails being more honest. It means advocating for our value, but not pretending that we can do everything. And it means contributing to a culture that doesn’t valorize martyrdom. For me, that means saying no if I don’t have the bandwidth for a project. It means using my all my vacation time, and stopping using busyness as a measure of worth. There is much more to the article than I can unpack here, and I hope that everyone will go read it. I’m looking forward to hearing other people’s thoughts on how vocational awe impacts our profession, and how we might work to stop using it, as Ettarh puts it, as the only way to be a librarian.

Keeping Track of Your Commitments

I’m not the first FYAL blogger to note this, but there are significant differences between professional and student life. Lindsay O’Neill previously wrote about the culture shock of academic life, as well as her techniques for time management, and how the amount of freedom you have to shape your own days is both liberating and overwhelming. I’ve noticed many similar differences. When you’re a student, the semester feels like a sprint towards the finish line. When I became a librarian, there was suddenly a vast amount of time stretching out before me, and it was up to me to figure out how to fill it. As a student, assignments and deadlines are clearly defined for you by somebody else. Now, a lot of the work I do is self-generated and much less defined in its contours.  In this post, I wanted to discuss some of the strategies and tools I’ve used to adjust to this environment.

Last year, I received the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen as a gift (and a subtle hint, perhaps). I’m naturally averse to most things that seem like they’d be found on a CEO’s bookshelf, but this book has actually proved to be helpful as I’ve transitioned into my new job. Although I was able to define some big picture projects and goals for myself when I started, I wasn’t quite sure how to accomplish them. When a goal is as loosely-defined as “figure out how to support graduate students” or “plan successful outreach initiatives”, the next steps are not immediately obvious. More than once, I found myself feeling stressed or anxious about projects I was working on outside of work or while I was falling asleep, without making much progress on them while at work because I wasn’t exactly sure how to move forward.

Allen posits that the stress most people experience comes from “inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept” (Allen 13). Whether these commitments are with yourself or someone else, they generate “open loops” that need to be attended to. His system for managing commitments requires three basic tasks:

  1. Capture anything that is unfinished in a collection tool.
  2. Clarify your commitment and what you have to do to make progress towards it.
  3. Keep reminders of the actions you need to take in a system you review regularly.

I decided to commit to Allen’s system. I downloaded the task management application Wunderlist, where I keep both a list of ongoing projects and a list of immediate to-do items. For any given project, I spend a few moments thinking about what a successful outcome would look like, what the next actionable step I can take to get there is, and capture it in my to-do list. Allen’s book helped me see that this kind of work — planning, clarifying, and prioritizing — is, actually, work. This was a revelation to me, as I had previously felt that unless I was producing something, I wasn’t really working.

This system makes it much more manageable to keep track of long-term or bigger projects by breaking them into smaller, actionable pieces. If the next step on a project requires action from another person, I can transfer that to-do item into my “waiting for” list, so that I know where the project stands, and that I’m not personally responsible for the next action. It’s helped me keep track of ongoing or informal responsibilities, too. For example, I have a recurring weekly reminder to input my reference and teaching stats, so I don’t forget and try to do them all at the end of the semester. If I say “oh, I’ll email that to you!” to someone, I put it on my to-do list so I don’t forget. I also have a space to keep track of the things that need doing in my personal life, like “schedule dentist appointment” or “oil change” (both real life items from my current to-do list — very glamorous).

Another thing I’ve learned about the pacing of academic life, and working life in general, is that you cannot work at your full capacity all of the time. There are natural dips in energy and motivation, and allowing for those is a necessary part of avoiding burnout. I select items to work on from my to-do list based on how I’m feeling and how much time I have before the next meeting or appointment. On a Friday afternoon, when I’m feeling bleary and my brain is turning off, I might choose to update links on a LibGuide. On a Monday afternoon, when I’ve just had my post-lunch coffee, I’ll tackle a writing project or draft a particularly complicated email. Having a list of all the things I’m on the hook for helps me make those decisions more easily.

Breaking bigger projects down into actionable items and writing down what those next steps are has helped me immeasurably. If this is sounding very common sense to you, I imagine you are a more naturally organized person than I am. My personal organizational system prior to reading this book was to keep about five different to-do lists at any time, scattered throughout different notebooks and digital spaces. I generally used to-do lists as a tool to review my commitments in that current moment, but rarely referred back to them. The mental energy I was expending on storing all of the things I had to do in my brain was enormous, and not particularly efficient or effective. Now, I’ve outsourced this memory work, and it’s helped me feel more at ease with long-term or big picture projects. For any given project, I’ve identified a next step, and it’s on my to-do list.

What are your techniques for moving forward with gooey projects? How do you manage your time and stay productive in a less regimented environment?

Works Cited

Allen, David. Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. Penguin, 2015.