Navigating an Uncharted Path in Liaison Librarianship

Towards the end of fall 2023, the STEM Librarian stepped down from her position at CSU Northridge. Throughout her tenure, she covered liaison duties that spanned across many Science and Engineering departments. I heard about this news during a monthly department meeting. Our department chair requested support and asked us to reach out if interested in taking over the STEM liaison roles. Despite the fact that I have an academic background in the Humanities and Social Sciences, I recognized the urgency of the situation and offered my support. In the spirit of camaraderie, I contacted my chair and volunteered to help. Soon after, I was assigned to be the liaison for the single department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, which includes library instruction and collection development responsibilities.

When I started at CSU Northridge, I was initially assigned to be the Central American & Transborder Studies liaison. Due to my background in Ethnic Studies, particularly Chicana/o Studies and Latina/o Studies, I felt quite comfortable with this assignment. I felt at home as I taught information literacy sessions, facilitated research consultations, and performed my bibliographer duties for the department of Central American & Transborder Studies. It wasn’t until I became the liaison to Chemistry & Biochemistry that I began to feel like I was navigating an uncharted path.

Recently, I had to select publications to update the collection for Chemistry & Biochemistry. Since it was my first time performing my collection development duties for this department, I was out of my depth. As a liaison librarian, I must meet 3 important collection development deadlines throughout the academic school year. Just over a week ago, I met the second deadline and I spent 75% of all available funds. To be frank, this was easier said than done for an early career librarian without a STEM background. For more support, I reached out to several librarians in the Collection Access and Management Services (CAMS) department. Although I was already diving into book reviews and book spotlights offered by professional associations, I realized that I needed more guidance. As a result of my colleagues’ mentorship, I learned about ALMA analytics and I discovered how to search for slips in Gobi. These lessons allowed me to finalize my selections for Chemistry & Biochemistry.

As for library instruction, the fall semester will start tomorrow, so I have not taught any information literary sessions for Chemistry & Biochemistry. However, I already received 3 instruction requests from a professor teaching CHEM 464L – Principles of Biochemistry. To prepare, I have been exploring the already established CHEM 464L LibGuide. So far, I have set my focus on current topics and the American Chemical Society (ACS) citation style. Additionally, I intend to contact the former Science and Engineering Librarian with the hopes that she will be open to sharing her Google Slides, instructional handouts, and/or other resources. My intention is to learn as much as possible to help students locate the proper library resources. While I recognize that I have immersed myself into a completely different academic discipline, I am reassured by own professional experience, particularly my 10-year trajectory as an educator.  I am learning to trust the process, so that I may rely on my own skillset, which includes teaching topics like keyword selection, information evaluation, citation practices, and database search mechanics.

As I wrap up this blog post, I would like to encourage other liaison librarians to please reach out if you’ve had a similar experience. What were some of your approaches? How did you become familiarized with your new role? I would definitely appreciate guidance as I continue to dive into science liaison librarianship.

A First Year Academic Librarian’s Teaching Journey

For this blog post, I decided to document my teaching journey so far as a first-year academic librarian. Before I secured my current position as a Reference & Instruction Librarian at Cal State University, Northridge (CSUN) in July 2023, I had already been an educator for over ten years. My teaching background was instrumental as I transitioned into my current position. I already had experience teaching (and learning from) scholars of diverse backgrounds, such as, students of color, first generation students, parenting students, neurodiverse students, and students of various age groups. For instance, I had gained valuable experience as a Library Intern at East Los Angeles College where I taught information literacy and research sessions for various disciplines. While my past experiences provided a strong foundation for my current line of work, I still underwent a learning curve.

Before I started teaching my own sessions, I was quite intentional about shadowing experienced academic librarians. Throughout summer and fall of 2023, I observed several sessions conducted by 3 different academic librarians. As the new librarian, who had not yet developed any professional relationships at CSUN, I found this process to be a bit awkward. While I recommend that early career librarians take this step, it is important to tread carefully. Due to heavy workloads, not all librarians feel comfortable with taking on the responsibility of mentoring early career librarians. If you sense hesitation, move on and ask someone else. In my case, my colleagues were quite gracious and offered a helping hand. They shared resources like PowerPoint presentations and library handouts that eventually became part of my own toolkit. Observing a few librarians allowed me to learn about different teaching styles, pedagogical practices as well as active learning strategies.

Early in the fall semester, I began to receive instruction requests from faculty members teaching English, Central American & Transborder Studies and University 100 courses. For each session, I prepared extensively and tailored the session to the instructor’s specific assignment (i.e., annotated bibliography, persuasive essay, research paper, or group project). With each session, I became more confident in my ability to teach students how to use the library’s resources. During the last week of October, my chair observed one of my sessions. Admittedly, I was very nervous and this feeling became amplified when the course instructor spontaneously asked me to showcase a database that I was not familiar with at all. Despite a few hiccups, I thought the session went well.

When I received my observation letter, I was relieved since my chair highlighted many of my strengths. She also offered fair feedback. I was encouraged to pause more often and call for questions. Because each session runs for an hour and 15 minutes, I struggle with incorporating more time for student engagement. Time goes by so quickly and there’s so much to cover. After I received my chair’s observation letter, I began to ask myself: How can I be more intentional about engaging students? As suggested, I started to weave in more “check-in” questions throughout my sessions. Once I integrated more time for questions, I still felt unsatisfied and I knew there was room for improvement.

Surprisingly, the answer came to me last week during a Zoom breakout session. I am currently enrolled in a course called Equity Minded Pedagogy, which is offered by the CSU Chancellor’s office. During a conversation with a course facilitator, we discussed the impact of co-creation. Together, we thought about ways to collaborate with students in order to create more equitable and inclusive learning environments. I disclosed that as a first-year academic librarian, I rely heavily on my script and I need to incorporate more ways to engage students. Prior to each session, I develop keywords, select the most suitable databases, and test links. This serves as the preliminary work for my live OneSearch demonstration. However, I realized that my seemingly flawless demonstration could mislead students. It’s critical for students to witness the messy process of trial and error that is inherent to the search experience.

As I came to this realization, the course facilitator referred me to Dr. Brene Brown’s TED Talk. This video expanded my perception about the importance of embracing vulnerability. By facing uncertainty and imperfection, I may create a space to authentically connect with students because as Dr. Brown mentions, “for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.” Moving forward, I intend to centralize student engagement by asking for volunteers, brainstorming keywords with the entire class, and relinquishing control. Along the way, students will notice broken links or unsuccessful searches. My hope is that students will value our shared experience, create a sense of belonging, and muster the courage to be imperfect in a vulnerable world.

The Adventures of a Zillennial Librarian

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve attended a few library webinars focused on Generation Z out of my own curiosity. For full transparency, I am a fairly young librarian; I took one gap year in between undergrad and library school. I’m in that liminal space of not quite a millennial, not quite Generation Z (I’ve seen it referred to as a “zillennial”). My birth year has been in both generational cutoffs, depending on who you ask. I often relate to the experiences and outlooks of both of the generations. I still get mistaken as a student, and I am indeed on TikTok like a lot of the typical college-age students I teach.  

I felt particularly “Gen Z” in a research consultation I just had with one of my Environmental Studies students. She needed some legislation from the 80s and 90s, and my state’s government website only has the most recent version. My library is a government repository; we have a specific government documents section of our stacks. Was that the first place I went? Nope. I scoured many a website, and eventually did find the 1989 version we were looking for in the appendix of a 1993 thesis from the University of Montana. Thank goodness for OCR, searchable full text, and institutional repositories!

We did, however, have it in our Maryland Register up in the stacks. This allowed us to find the date it was proposed and the date it was passed, for both versions of the law (and cite it properly!). This consultation got me thinking though about my instincts as a librarian, and how my world experiences and generation relate to the way I go about finding information, even after being trained in it for my master’s degree. Looking in the physical collection is only a thought after I exhaust all of my online searching techniques.  I, and I’d wager to guess many of my students, prefer the ease of finding and reading something online. Although I had dial-up internet for perhaps longer than most folks (I had a version of it until about 2013 or so? Living in the middle of nowhere problems), the internet in general was a big part of growing up and learning how to research. Yes, I love a physical book as much as the next person – but I’m talking more about answering my own questions or doing research. In a webinar on Gen Z by ASERL recently, it was said that “[Gen Z is] so used to finding what they need on their own.” I heavily relate to this. My first impulse is to pull out my phone and perform a Google search; I’m sure this is the case for many now, regardless of generation.  

Another difference I’ve noticed in being a young librarian is that I actively encourage the use of Google Scholar (and actually use it myself). I have attended library sessions before where it is discouraged or interacted with faculty that do not want students using it. I personally find that it is a good steppingstone from performing regular Google searches to getting right into an academic database that might look completely foreign to them. They can still use natural language in Google Scholar and get some relevant results, but they get better ones when we as information professionals introduce them to Booleans and other strategies. It’s also been really useful if a student has too broad of a topic – searching in Google Scholar allows them to see all sorts of discipline conversations about a topic, and how other academics have narrowed things down. They can choose which pathway they’d like to explore further, and once they have a good research question and keywords to try, we can get into the library databases, all the while talking about the differences between Google Scholar and Academic Search Ultimate. The “Cited by” function has also been invaluable in teaching students about the academic conversation as a concept too.  

Another aspect of Gen Z from the ASERL webinar I attended is that despite being constantly online, we generally prefer face-to-face communication. In my personal experience, this preference is heightened due to the pandemic when face-to-face wasn’t even an option. I will take any and all other forms of communication over a phone call, though; I’m not sure that’s necessarily attributable to being Gen Z, but more of an “Emily” thing. The reason is because I can’t read the other person’s body language or facial expressions. You might now ask, Emily, you also can’t do that when it comes to chat, text, and email? But the difference is there isn’t an expectation to immediately respond – I can have a moment to really take in the other person’s words and consider my response.  

As an example for face-to-face communication in my workplace and work life, I would much rather go down to my colleague’s office and ask them my question as opposed to emailing. This is partly due to our collective open-door policy, but for some reason, emailing feels overly formal to me in a lot of cases. If that isn’t an option, I might send the message over Slack. Of course, if it’s important to have some sort of paper trail, I’ll gladly email – it is very helpful to have a record of what a professor and I talked about when I’m preparing the lesson plan, for instance. If my email data scarf had been expanded to all kinds of work communication, I’d be interested in how the percentages broke down! Perhaps that should be my next data project.

These are just a few things I’ve been thinking about as a strange middle-ground zillennial librarian lately, especially since that research consultation. I am endlessly fascinated by generational research as a whole, so if you’ve got any thoughts, please comment them down below.  

Learning from Public Libraries

Inspired by April Hines’s recent tweet about what academic librarians can learn from public librarians, I’ve been thinking about the topic myself. It’s been especially front of mind as someone who transitioned from working at public library branches to working at a community college library. Similar to April, I’ve also heard academic librarians shy away from conferences that they consider to be too focused on public library issues, such as social work and safety and/or security. In the back of my mind, I’m reminding myself that those are issues that those working in academic libraries are, or at least, should be concerned about as well.

Many of us have had an experience where we didn’t know how to best help a student who was in distress. That’s social work. Many of us have had an experience where we were faced with an emergency or natural disaster. That’s safety and security. Dismissing these concerns, and dismissing public librarians in general, does us all a disservice; especially at a time when librarianship, in and of itself, is under attack. There are many ways that public and academic librarianship are similar, including having to constantly prove our worth to stakeholders and having to manage and maintain collections and other resources on limited budgets. 

Among others, here is a list of skills that those of us working in academic libraries can learn from all staff working in public libraries.

Performing Outreach: Public libraries excel at outreach because, well, they don’t have a choice. When you’re constantly asked if you’re still relevant, you brainstorm ways remind your community of all you have to offer. Milwaukee Public Library has become known for their clever use of social media, including viral videos on both TikTok and Instagram reminding people that reference librarians can, in fact, help you with whatever questions you may have. Meanwhile, DC Public Library used Twitter to satirize current events, and remind the community about the library’s robust audiobook selection. In a time where many academic libraries could stand to do better at making our voice heard, it’s in our best interest to not only learn from, but also to ask our friends at public libraries for advice.

Navigating Censorship: Navigating bans and challenges is not new to public libraries (and school libraries as well). Voices of censorship have long sought to cater library collections to their point-of-view; since 2020 these attacks have increased in intensity. Academic libraries should not dismiss these as concerns that are only facing our colleagues working at public and school libraries. These concerns have already started moving toward higher education, with debates about what students should or shouldn’t be allowed to learn. Academic materials and collections are already becoming the next target in these ongoing attempts at censorship. We could learn from public libraries about strengthening our collection development policies and reconsideration forms,  and learning more about First Amendment Audits, so that we can be better prepared for when, not if, these challenges arise. 

Offering Literacy Resources: From answering complex reference questions to teaching courses to first-year students to staying up-to-date with ACRL’s Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, literacy is at the core of what we do as librarians on college campuses. Like all skills, developing competency in assisting students with information as well as digital literacy takes time, and we don’t always get it right on the right try; I know I don’t. And it’s always a good reminder that public librarians offer information, digital, financial, and even health literacy resources for their communities, both through programs and classes as well as at the reference desk. Instead of dismissing public librarians for not having a specialty, we should be appreciative of the fact that they are able to navigate complex fields of literacy, often with limited time and resources. 

Lastly, in the past few years, we have already seen colleges and universities throughout the United States eliminate departments and majors, scale back on tenure, and reduce library staff. Not only have public libraries been used to fewer staff and static budgets, they have also had to continue performing outreach, navigating censorship, and offering literacy programs while doing so. We are fighting the same fight in terms of figuring out how to best serve our communities while trying to prove our worth to those who might not value it otherwise. The least we could do is communicate with and learn from each other.

Learning to Teach Credit-Bearing Courses

One element that excited me about my current job was the opportunity to teach credit-bearing courses in our Library Informatics bachelor’s degree program. In my role as department head, I not only get the chance to teach and but also lead the program. For my first year, I mostly did the administrative work of leading a program. I worked with our advisor (one of our librarians in our department) to resolve student issues, coordinated our program assessment, set up our course rotation each semester, and assigned classes to the folks that report to me. My first year was really a chance to dive into the program, learn about its creation and context, and lead conversations with the department about the program’s future. It seems that my second year here has focused more on actually teaching the classes, something that excites me and also gives me a lot to think about.

My first chance to teach happened this past summer, where I co-taught LIN 175: Information Literacy, our general education course that covers the research process and gives students a look at research through an IL lens. We taught in a five-week, five days a week, two hours a day, synchronous format. I was able to learn the content, teach about ? of the class sessions, and work closely with the students enrolled. Their final project was a group poster (inspired by the better poster template introduced by Mike Morrison) on an IL related topic of their choice. This version of the class was also a heavy revision from ways the class had been taught previously; our team got together in May and reimagined how the content was introduced and created the final poster project. In many ways, our revisions worked well and the new structure kickstarted a lot of good discussion within the department about how we want this class to work. 

This fall, I had to pinch hit and teach a seven week, asynchronous version of LIN 175. I had never taught a credit course asynchronously before and relied on my department colleagues who let me look at their past syllabi and lurk in their Canvas shells. Teaching a seven week course was definitely eye opening. It was fast paced and pushed me to juggle my day-to-day job, creating content, and evaluating student work. Particularly, I ran into the following challenges and opportunities: 

  • Out of sight, out of mind. At first, I sort of forgot I was teaching an online class. I was involved in so many other projects and in-person activities that I had to actively remind myself there were students, online, waiting for my instruction and feedback. Like any other project, I had to find ways to build it into my to-do lists and my calendar.
  • Developing weekly content aka building the airplane while I was flying it. In general, I roll my eyes at the “building the airplane while we’re flying it” phrase, but it definitely was my experience this fall. Especially at the beginning of the course, I felt that the day before I “dropped” a new module, I was frantically recording lectures, organizing learning materials, and double checking the assignments were set up correctly. While I had a lot of the content from the summer class, there are vast differences between working with students daily, in-person, and having a student work online asynchronously. It’s not an easy transfer! It did get a little easier in terms of setting up modules as time went on, but it was anxiety inducing to start. 
  • How much content is too much content? With the in-person, five-week class, we had two hours each day to go through context, do activities, and learn the materials. I feel comfortable with lesson planning for two hours. I did not feel as confident designing asynchronous content. I still am learning what is reasonable/doable for a week’s worth of learning materials. I want to pick things that are relevant, engaging, and applicable to the students. I also want content that connects to each other and sets the stage for application assignments. Those assignments are really my only way to know if students have absorbed and learned the material, I don’t have the same in-person cues. I ended up with some good modules and I also made plenty of notes of how to improve content for future iterations of this class.  
  • Building connections with students. Something I’ve heard from both faculty who teach online courses and students who have taken online courses is that connecting with each other is tough. Just because I have students complete a reflection over VoiceThread doesn’t mean they connect with their peers or feel connected to me as their professor. I know there’s learning I need to do to better understand how to cultivate community in this time frame and virtual environment. In many ways, I feel like I’m VERY behind on this conversation after the pandemic (but look forward to reviewing all the content created in this time). 

When I submitted my grades on Monday afternoon, I felt a sense of relief. I did it! I don’t think I’ll teach this class, in this format, until the fall, so I have time to make some tweaks and build off what I learned the past seven weeks. For now, I’ll make a transition to preparing for a different seven-week class that starts in January. Wish me luck!


Featured image by Kelli Tungay on Unsplash