Special Forces Formats

My business card states that I am head of the special formats cataloging unit. It’s an odd title – one of the many unusual titles that people who work in libraries have. Even speaking to an audience of librarians, special formats is such a broad classification that it requires some explication.

Organizationally, I work in the cataloging and technical services department. Our department is organized into units, each with an area of focus – monographs and acquisitions, serials, binding, database maintenance, special collections, and special formats. The primary focus of special formats are the theses and dissertations deposited at the library. We work closely with the graduate school to both preserve and provide access to these scholarly works. The nature of both access and preservation is changing – but perhaps that’s for another time. The University of Arkansas is unusual in that it describes the theses and dissertations with “full-level” cataloging, so that our library users have the best possible access to these items. After processing, the manuscripts are sent to the binding department and bound. Here’s the result – the bound theses and dissertations from May of 2012:


When I started in this position, I looked at the workflow for these items and worked with public services librarians to make the processing more efficient, while increasing access to these items in the catalog. This prompts me to share with you one of my favorite quotes from one of the titans of cataloging, Charles Ammi Cutter:

The convenience of the public is always to be set before the ease of the cataloger. ((Charles A. Cutter, W.P. Cutter, Worthington Chauncey Ford, Philip Lee Phillips, and Oscar George Theodore Sonneck. 1904. Rules for a dictionary catalog. Washington [D.C.]: G.P.O., p. 5))

Indeed, one could replace “cataloger” with “librarian” and you would have an excellent directive for all librarians, and a pertinent reminder for me as a first-year academic librarian – that I work to serve the patron, and their ease and convenience should be foremost in our minds in the work we do as librarians.

In addition to theses and dissertations, our unit is also responsible for a wide array of other media formats – video, microfilm, and internet resources. When I arrived, there was a sizable (but not insurmountable) backlog of microfilm and microfiche, as well as a few CD ROMS. With the “newbie” energy I had, I tackled those backlogs so that users could find those items in the catalog, and use them. Your energy and enthusiasm as a new academic librarian can be put to uses that help the user – but just because you are new doesn’t mean you need to reinvent the wheel. Take time to learn not only how things are done, but why. Work in an appropriate way to change the things that need changing – and direct your enthusiasm on projects that you might not want to do later on. Working on that backlog was perhaps not the flashiest of projects, but it’s something that helped the user and the department almost immediately. I’ve already identified some things I would like to change long-term, things I could not really do on my own. I need to build consensus to do these things – building consensus on “big” things both inside and outside the library being a major part of that “work in an appropriate way” idea I mentioned above.

Another reflection that comes to mind is that it’s important to adjust to change, and to accommodate new opportunities. Though not in my job description exactly, I’ve been working on a digital project of early Arkansas history, the Colonial Arkansas Post Ancestry digital collection. It has been an exciting opportunity for me to hone my skills in CONTENTdm, and to gain some interesting knowledge not only of early Arkansas history, but also the history of the colonial Americas. Being open to this change and the new opportunity it represented has not only made me a more effective professional, but also has provided me with an opportunity to collaborate and work outside the library and serve the needs of a very wide community – one beyond the library here, and even beyond the state of Arkansas.

Putting the user – faculty, staff, student, and even worldwide users – first helps me be centered in my daily work as a new academic librarian. Keeping the user first in any work that a librarian does is something we should all strive for.

Autumn and New Beginnings

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Jason Dean, Assistant Librarian and Head of Special Formats Cataloging at the University of Arkansas.

It was only after I started in my new tenure-track position at the University of Arkansas Libraries that I learned how scarce these positions are in academia. Almost every issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education that crosses my desk has an essay or an article on the reduction in tenure-track faculty in higher education about the reduction in tenure-track teaching and faculty jobs in higher education. This made me even more humbled that I am in a faculty, tenure-track position

To be frank, I felt a bit like a pretender. Yes, I have a master’s degree from a top-ranked library school, and I had several presentations and one peer-reviewed article published, but my fellow faculty members at the university are titans of their fields. One colleague comes to mind – he is teaching at Oxford this semester, and has published several books to much acclaim. In the library, there are faculty who have published widely, and to great recognition – so I felt a bit like a pretender, much like many other first year tenure track faculty.

But, they hired me. There was a national search and some of the most rigorous interviews I have had in my professional career. After that rigorous process, they selected me to fill the position. People seem to be very happy to have me here, and more than that, I feel as though I belong here as a faculty member.

And in the six months since I started this position, I feel as though I’ve blossomed here. Unlike Moses, I do not presume to deliver you wisdom from the mountain, but instead, reflections on why I feel at home here, and why I feel that I can succeed in tenure and promotion amidst such august colleagues – and furthermore – which of these thoughts might be pertinent to my fellow first year academic librarians.

The first reflection is that one should listen. Listen to senior library faculty, and to senior faculty in general. It seems that new librarians have a reputation for disregarding how things were done in the past, the general history of the library, and the collective memory of your colleagues who have far more service – let’s set out to change that reputation, shall we? Having that institutional and social memory helps you formulate new ideas and place them in an appropriate context and forum. Indeed, knowing when and where to share ideas is important – as is being collegial. One of my interesting discoveries in this process has been the Library Handbook for Students of 1949, pictured below:


Second – the currency of the realm in academia is the written word. It behooves the new faculty member to write well, and often. Write in a private journal, blog for yourself, or for others, and work on your tenure-related publications. You have interests you would like to research – pursue those. Write about things that you see that intrigue you, or spark your objection. Write well-crafted emails. Many times the first impression of a new faculty member is not made in-person, but through the medium of their writing – so make that as good as it can be, and continually improve through practice and criticism.

A natural complement to writing is reading. You should read. Ravenously. Read blogs, journals, and newspapers that you enjoy and that are pertinent to your field. Here at the library, faculty members can be “routed” on new publications, and I am probably on the list for more than is logical – but it exposes me to a wide array of journals it would cost me thousands of dollars to subscribe to. Journals of rare books, librarianship, and history are on my list. Read widely, talk about what you’ve read, and connect your reading to your job, or your research.

Excel and exceed. The tenure and promotion process here at the University of Arkansas and for librarians specifically is quite clear, thankfully. Find out what the requirements for tenure and promotion are – and though the requirements are high, exceed them. One publication a year? Do two. Start serving on national and international committees. Publish with colleagues outside the library in your institution and beyond. And do these things well.

When does one do all of these things? Well, perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

I want to close with a picture – a picture from the University of Arkansas’ campus that shows why fall is the most magical time of year on college campuses – that it is a time of new beginnings, and one of lovely color.