Saying Good-Bye in Slow-Motion: Keeping a Student-Centered Focus Amidst Great Change

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jennifer Joe, Owensboro Campus Librarian at Western Kentucky University.

I will be leaving my students at the end of this semester. That’s the first time I’ve written that out (though by the time this is published, everyone will know.) I will be moving on to a new position, at a new university, in a new state. It will be a good move for me, personally and professionally, but it was not my choice.

I would have happily stayed at my current position, but budget cuts forced the elimination of not only my position, but many others at the university. I was lucky. I had a year to look for a new position, and I didn’t need the whole year. Others were not so lucky. Still others have left my campus (a small, regional campus which is part of the larger university system) of their own accord. Some of the best people we have ever had are gone.

For my part, at the time of this writing, I have almost exactly three months left in which I will be working. (I’ll start my new position in January.) How do I continue to serve my students in this climate? It has already required an immense amount of flexibility on my part. I’ve had to forge new relationships with new hires (some of whom will only be temporary.) Treating them as permanent employees, at least for now, is the only way to go forward. I’ve also expanded what it means to me to be a librarian. I’ve unleashed my research skills on career searches for soon to be graduates and used my critical thinking and analysis to troubleshoot IT problems for faculty. I even helped someone retrieve the contents from the hard drive of their dead laptop yesterday. (It was my student worker, and I repeated 1,000 times that I WAS NOT LIABLE if things went pear-shaped. Everything worked out and we retrieved the family photos he thought were lost.)

Going forward, I will need to have that same flexibility.

It isn’t a new or unique situation. I know for a fact I’m not the only one doing this – there is at the very least another librarian at a campus about 90 miles from mine doing the exact same thing for the exact same university and there are librarians across the country doing the same thing for other reasons: a colleague’s extended illness, a retirement or sudden death, staff who have quit unexpectedly or couldn’t be replaced on schedule. I’ve been in a few of those situations, too.

The question then becomes: how do I do this from a mental and emotional standpoint? For that, I rely on the student-centered approach I’ve always taken to librarianship. My students may not always feel like they need me, but I know their lives will be better when they have the critical thinking and research skills that make up information literacy, and their lives will also be better when they know how to find (and land!) appropriate jobs that reflect their education and when their professors can use technology to teach their classes.

What does that mean for my workload? That means continuing to organize presentations, displays, contests, and anything else that will continue engaging my students. There are some I do every year, and I am grateful to my past self for keeping good records of those events so that I can replicate them even as I am making arrangements to sign contracts, pack my house, and eventually move away. It also means trying to keep my tenuous hold on the relationships I have built with faculty who allow me to come into their classroom and use some of their precious time to teach their students about information literacy, while being unable to tell them with certainty what will happen to the library when I am gone.

I hope my students will remember me when I move on to my new position, because I will remember them. They are what has motivated me these last few months, knowing that my job was coming to an end. I also hope that in the midst of budget cuts, staff turnover, never ending assessment, repeated requests for justification, and all the other things that can make being a librarian unpleasant, my fellow librarians will also look to their students for motivation and inspiration.

Have you faced morale problems in your library recently? Were they things in your control or out of it? How did you cope with them? Share your experiences in the comments – it’s always nice to know you’re not alone!

Bit of a Steep Learning Curve

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Erin Miller, Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of North Texas.

Having worked as a librarian for more than a decade I feel fairly confident in my ability to navigate the various paths through my chosen profession. Before attending the School of Library & Information Science at the University of Kentucky I worked part time in Circulation at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. During grad school I was a student assistant in the Appalachian Archives, creating finding aids and organizing collections. My first job with an MLS was as a Content Manager for SirsiDynix, working with a team to design and develop a totally new research tool and content management system. Next stop was the library of a private high school in Cincinnati where I managed every aspect of the library, from circulation to database instruction, from supervising volunteers to collection and budget management. I also organized a small library in Peru – in Spanish­ – as a service-oriented project during several weeks I spent in the Andes. Luckily, I like learning new things and adapting to new situations because in each of these library settings there has been a learning curve…but none quite so steep as there has been here at the University of North Texas.

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Some of the learning curve is to be expected at any new job and mostly involves both unfamiliar technological and unfamiliar geographic landscapes. For example, here at UNT our ILS is Sierra from Integrated Interfaces, Inc. while both the public library and the high school library ran on SirsiDynix. Similarly, we use a different content management system for web content. Being extremely directionally challenged, for me any new job (much less new city) results in what can be a very frustrating process of wrong turns and time consuming, usually useless, conversations with Siri about where on campus is that d@#! building in which my meeting starts in five minutes, etc. These are all part of the expected learning curve and, as such, do not cause me much stress. I ask lots of questions and have made it to almost every meeting on time (except the ones that happened during my first month – pretty sure I was late to every single on-campus meeting for the first few weeks).

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However, some things here at UNT are so new to me that I find myself looking not only for directions but also re-evaluating the ways that I have worked successfully for the past ten years. For one thing, librarians at UNT are faculty-equivalent which means we are expected not only to be responsible for keeping the library running smoothly, but are also expected to publish in peer-reviewed journals, to present at conferences and to serve in various ways at various levels, from within the library to university wide to national organizations. While none of these things are inherently difficult on their own, I do find it challenging to have so many more balls in the air at any one time. I can easily fill up a 40-hour-and-then-some week with just day-to-day tasks…how in the world do I find time to write a proposal for a conference or to meet with the students I’m mentoring, etc.? This pressure has already forced me to evaluate my time management skills and to reassess how well I use tools like Outlook to improve my own efficiency. Additionally, because of the intensive tenure-track evaluation process I’m also spending valuable work time keeping track of what I do on an ongoing basis. Other than the brief time I spent as a consultant with billable hours while I was at SirsiDynix I have never had to be so concerned with the minute-by-minute flow of each workday. Let’s just say that keeping track involves multiple spreadsheets, a Word document and a very detailed Outlook task list.

Then there is the new-to-me challenge of having to figure out where I fit in to the department workflow. With all of my previously-held library positions there were specific and easily visible responsibilities. At my last job it was very clear – if I didn’t do it, nobody did! Here we have a fairly good-sized collection management department and people tend to work collaboratively – which is great, even though sometimes I’m not sure if I am responsible for something or if somebody else is already working on it. For example, the process for ordering a new electronic resource involves different people being involved at different stages of the process, from decision-making to order records to contracts to invoicing to cataloging. When it comes to a straightforward new order I think I’ve gotten my role figured out…but if the order is for something a bit different – say, for converting a standing print order to a series of ongoing firm ebook orders – well, it can be confusing. Thankfully, I have colleagues that are willing to work together to figure out how to move forward in such situations!

I just don’t have time to list everything I’ve learned so far at UNT. I haven’t even gotten to the part about what it’s like being an Electronic Resources Librarian, a position relatively new to the library and lacking a universal job description (the ERLs I know all have widely disparate responsibilities). I will save that discussion for the presentation called ‘Fake it Til you Make It’ that I’m hoping to do at the ER&L Conference in Austin. Just to be clear, I am not complaining! I am very grateful for these new opportunities, enjoying the challenges, loving the personal growth I’m experiencing…and I even like Texas, especially the great big Texas skies.

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Managing the Overwhelm

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Lindsay O’Neill, Instructional Design Librarian at California State University, Fullerton.

The minute I accepted Cal State Fullerton’s offer to become a tenure-track librarian at Pollak Library, I entered The Overwhelm. I had to negotiate an out-of-state move with my partner (who had recently returned home from a year-long deployment), quit my job, resign as president and help find a replacement for my Toastmasters club, pack up our home, find a place to live, and start all over in a new place trying to make new friends while figuring out what an Instructional Design Librarian was supposed to do in a library that just created the position, while also finishing a second graduate degree.

I had almost exactly six weeks from offer to start date – in a new state! Fortunately California is right next door to Arizona; I can’t imagine having to make a cross-country move. When my first day finally arrived, I had mostly settled into my new apartment and was ready to work, and felt like if I could get through those six weeks of moving stress, I could get through anything. However, the tenure-track comes with its own special set of challenges, and these will last at least six years. Before I started, I don’t think I truly processed how much work a tenure-track position would be, and I kept hearing this word “research.” What is this “research” I’m supposed to perform, anyway? I think I spent the first month of work in a daze.

A contributing factor to The Overwhelm (a great term I got from this article) is the fact that I’m brand new to librarianship. I earned my MLIS in 2011 after working on it for three and a half years while I was employed full-time at a resort in Yosemite National Park. I interned several times and was a finalist for several out-of-state librarian jobs that didn’t pan out before I landed a staff position at Arizona State University’s Hayden Library in 2012.

After three library internships, I was delighted to be getting paid for my labors – in a full-time position with benefits, no less! As a staff-person I was lucky to have a supportive boss that encouraged me to do committee work, pitch in with freshman instruction sessions, and promote our department through displays and a Twitter account. Working in a library allowed me expanded access to networking and professional development. I had the opportunity to attend two Arizona State Library Association annual conferences, which so far are the only conferences I’ve been able to attend. I even presented a poster at last year’s on using Twitter to promote unique collections.

What was really great about working at a university was being able to take advantage of the employee tuition waiver to pursue a second master’s degree in Instructional Design. I’m finishing it up this semester and I’m delighted that I landed a job that uses both of my graduate degrees. Heck, it uses my English degree, too. What are the odds?

In my brief experience so far as a shiny new librarian, I’ve discovered that being a librarian means a lot more collaboration and a lot less working in a silo, and figuring out most of your job yourself rather than being handed set duties. I was granted my very own office with a computer and a gorgeous view and then basically left to myself. I spent my first month attending trainings, meeting new people, and trying to keep my head from spinning as I crammed more and more information about my new workplace into it.

Figuring out my job really meant figuring out who I should talk to, and asking lots of questions. I listened carefully when I was introduced to someone new. It seemed like everyone had a different idea about what I would be working on (Video tutorials? LibGuides redesign? Learning badges? Assessment? All of the above?). I also spent a lot of quality time exploring the library’s online presence in particular to help me decide where the library’s instructional needs lay – and decided to start with video tutorials, since the library’s YouTube offerings were sparse and a little dated. For my in-person interview, they asked me to teach them to create a learning object in a short twenty-minute lesson, so that’s a natural direction to take in my first year.

I’m happy to report that the first month at my new job was the hardest (so far). In the second month I started to emerge from The Overwhelm. Couldn’t say the same for my partner – he split his time between here and Arizona for months until he found something local. But he’s really happy with his new position (new commute, not so much) and while he’s dealing with his own Overwhelm now, I have nothing but optimism that his job hunt and my new career will be successful.