Moving Forward, Not Backward

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Cynthia Mari Orozco to the ACRLog team. Cynthia is the Equity + OER Librarian at East Los Angeles College and PhD Candidate in Information Studies at UCLA. She is a former resident librarian at Loyola Marymount University and tenure-track librarian at California State University Long Beach before moving into community college librarianship. Her interests include OER and open pedagogy, information literacy, and scholarly communications in community colleges.

I graduated from library school in 2011, and I recall library workers bemoaning the overuse of the term “21st century library” in publication and presentation titles. At the time, I mostly agreed with this criticism. However, having now been in the profession for over 10 years, it sometimes feels like some spaces are not operating in the present century.

But I get it. When I started my online MLIS at San José State University, I remember thinking, “Let’s try this out for a semester. If it doesn’t work out, we can apply to an in-person program.” I had previously attempted to take an online course at my local community college and failed miserably. The course wasn’t hard, I don’t think; I just forgot to sign into the learning management system (LMS) and do the work. Entering the SJSU program, I was now confronted with another LMS and many new technologies that I had long resisted or never even heard of: teleconferencing, blogging, wikis, and Second Life, among others. In this first semester, I also started my first and current Twitter account! I lurked for at least two years before actively tweeting, or at least attempting to tweet. These technologies were all new and scary to me, and it took years to develop the comfort and ease that I now am privileged to have. Through SJSU, I learned how to thrive in an online environment by communicating synchronously and asynchronously, working across time zones and geographies, working on projects with various groups of people, and developing a curiosity for utilizing and assessing new technologies to improve my library work.

In early 2020, I was pulled into a Zoom meeting in my library not because I was involved with this group in any way but rather to connect to and facilitate Zoom in one of our classrooms. I logged into my Zoom account as no one else in the room had one at the time, I brought my microphone as the computer had none, and I pushed buttons as requested by the group. While slightly annoyed at the time, again, I’ve had the privilege of having years of experience using teleconferencing for my work. And throughout the last several years, I’ve witnessed all of my colleagues rise to the occasion to work effectively online with even the Zoom resisters now able to fully use Zoom on their own. I’m incredibly proud of my colleagues, and I have been looking forward to seeing how our experience in working remotely and providing remote services will affect our work from this point forward.

At East Los Angeles College, we have a smaller campus 10 miles away in the city of South Gate, where I often work. The South Gate campus library is one large room with one librarian and one library technician who both work at a public-facing desk during all operating hours. Our campus conversations often include advocating for equitable student services at this campus, which is often overshadowed by our Monterey Park campus (known by most as the “Main Campus,” which further perpetuates the relative importance of this campus). Do you know where a lot of this advocacy work happens? In meetings! In conversations with the ELAC community! And through teleconferencing, employees at South Gate have been able to attend meetings that one would otherwise have to miss when tied to a physical location at a specific time. While the pandemic has admittedly been very isolating, remote meetings have raised attendance and participation, an amazing opportunity for advocacy and diversity of thought.

I see our campus starting to revert to our default in-person modalities and assumptions that everything in-person is “better.” Advocacy for our smaller South Gate campus is just one example of how online technology has allowed us to improve our work, thus improving campus conditions for our students. It would be an utter shame to dismiss the progress we’ve made over the last several years. It’s also worth remembering that 12-hour days on Zoom is not normal and probably way too much! But it also doesn’t mean that we ought to completely discard remote or hybrid options for meetings and conversations.

Things I Didn’t Know I Needed to Know

Hindsight is 20/20, right? In this collaborative post from our ACRLog team, we’re reflecting on the lessons and truths about libraries, librarianship, and higher ed that we wish we had come to understand sooner — the stuff we didn’t know to ask about earlier on in our careers, the stuff we didn’t know that we needed to know — and how our current understanding can perhaps help us to more clearly see the things we need to do differently. 

What’s something you wish someone had told you or that you wish you had asked in a job interview in order to get a clearer picture of the work, institution, or culture? 

[Alex] I wish I had the foresight to ask for more detail about what the tenure process looks like for a librarian, as this was not something I had encountered before. I had the rare opportunity to choose tenure-track or fixed-term when I was hired, and I assumed tenure-track was inherently the “better” choice and did not give it much critical consideration. 

[Hailley] A colleague and I were just talking about this recently – we wished we had asked about what the culture is around start and end times. At my current institution, we have a pretty standard 8:15-4:30 workday (university-wide). Knowing this might not change your mind to take or not to take a job, it is helpful to know what the general rule of thumb is before entering a new institution. 

[Veronica] It’s incredibly important to ask what the organization is doing to ensure their workplace is equitable, inclusive, and accessible. Both the answer, and the way that it is answered are especially important for librarians with marginalized identities, but should be a concern for all librarians. You can usually get a sense of a place by how the people you are talking to react to that question. 

What’s an unwritten rule at your current or past institution(s) or within your area of librarianship that you had to learn as you go?

[Alex] At each institution I’ve worked at, the unwritten rules are mostly workplace culture, processes for the way things are done. My best example is that I have had scheduled reference shifts at both of my librarian jobs, and it is done very differently at each: on a weekly basis vs. six months at a time; in hourly shifts vs. 90-minute shifts; all open hours vs. a six-hour period of the day on weekdays only. It demonstrated to me that not only are types of libraries very different, but so are individual locations. 

[Maura] When I started at my current institution as Instruction Coordinator 14 years ago, I also noted a few things about workplace culture that were perhaps a bit more formal than I expected. Most of my library colleagues dressed up a bit for reference shifts and teaching, and across the college when faculty referred to each other in front of students they tended to use “Professor So and so” rather than first names. The former has definitely changed somewhat since the pandemic though I’m not sure if the latter has.

[Jen] When I moved to my current institution to take on this job almost five years ago, it was my first time in a faculty position. I had already worked in libraries for a long time by that point but always in positions classified as staff. I didn’t take this job because it was classified as faculty; I saw it as a plus, but certainly not the deciding factor. It’s taken me some time to fully grasp what it means to have faculty status in terms of planning my work and organizing my time, as well as in terms of my opportunities and responsibilities–not only of the position itself, but also as a faculty member. Of course, faculty classification while working in a public service-oriented unit and also being an administrator and manager is different from a typical faculty role. But I think this vantage point has given me new perspective on what a position’s classification can mean with respect to autonomy, advocacy, and the like. Having worked from both sides of this coin now, though, I still believe that it is up to us to not only practice and embody the full potential of our roles, but to also challenge it (or, perhaps more accurately, to challenge others’ assumptions and expectations of our roles). Whether because or in spite of classifications, we can play a significant part in making our places in our library and institutional landscapes what we want them to be. 

What’s something simple or fundamental about higher ed, libraries, or your current/past job(s) that you wish you’d understood sooner?

[Hailley] Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how decisions are made. Overtime, and especially as a current middle manager, I can more clearly see the many people above me who might influence, inform, or make a decision. Even if I don’t love a decision, I try to keep in mind the bigger picture and context for that specific decision. 

[Angie]  Absolutely what Hailey points out. I try to share this perspective with others as well.  Another reality I wish I knew sooner is how people in higher ed – from students to faculty to administrators – understand so little about the work of libraries, and how even those who communicate well, it remains a constant endeavor.  I am starting to accept this as work that is never done.

[Jen] I decided to go to library school without much library work experience, really. I had a job at the circulation desk in my college library, but my experience doing research for my senior thesis played a much bigger part in prompting me to take this path. While in grad school, I worked at the reference desk in one of my university’s libraries. This was a valuable experience that helped me solidify my grad school (and job search) focus on reference, instruction, and outreach work in academic libraries, but I don’t think I gave other areas of librarianship as much thought as I should have. All that to say, I didn’t come to this field with much pre-existing foundational knowledge about libraries. I feel particularly lucky, then, to have had a supervisor in my first professional position (a one-year stint) who took great pains to connect me with colleagues and projects in a wide range of areas and departments to help expand my awareness and skill set. And I feel very lucky, too, to have spent a significant chunk of my career early on at a small liberal arts college library. Because our library team was relatively small, collegial, and collaborative (read: everyone wore a lot of hats), I had many opportunities to get involved in projects outside the scope of my specific position. Moreover, the daily work of each person and department was literally visible to me. As such, I feel like I got a broad view of how libraries work. My current position at a small branch of an enormous university library system still requires me to wear a lot of hats and also still regularly offers me new insight into how libraries–and higher ed–work, too. But had I started my career in a system of this size, I don’t think I would have had occasion to participate in or observe so many aspects of academic library work so closely. I would have very little understanding, for example, of the technical work of my cataloging, serials, and licensing colleagues or of what’s involved in implementing a new discovery system. I regularly rely and expand on the broader, foundational understanding those early positions afforded. I’m grateful for the opportunities I had to build it.

[Veronica] Like Jen, I also spent a significant chunk of my career at a small liberal arts college library. What that time taught me, and what I wish I’d realized sooner, is that everyone in higher ed–staff, faculty (tenure track, adjuncts, lecturers), librarians–is trying to do their best with the limited time, bandwidth, and resources that we have. There can be this tendency in larger institutions to feel like it’s us versus them, or fall into victim-villain thinking, when in reality everyone is trying their best and no one is ignoring you on purpose. Yes, there will always be people who are rude, but the vast majority of folks are really just trying to get by as best as they can. I think the more that we can listen to our colleagues and get to know them and their wants, needs, worries, and hopes, the better we can support one another and show solidarity in higher education. 

What’s something in higher ed, libraries, or your area of librarianship that everyone just does but doesn’t work well or should be re-thought?

[Angie] I truly don’t understand how, especially as information scientists, we haven’t prioritized the problem that is email. When I first moved into my own place after college, I remember the internet offerings advertised “up to 5 email accounts!”, and I thought why would anyone need that many? In my work within technical services, we have more than that; I know their purpose, and still wonder why these systems can’t serve us better. Many band-aids out there endeavor to help us “manage” email, but not a lot of solutions recognize the problematic level of reliance on email in the workplace. I don’t want to manage email. As ubiquitous as email is, it ought to more effortlessly help or at least get out of the way.

[Maura] I am so grateful to my colleagues that we are a well-functioning, kind, and thoughtful team. Not that we don’t have challenges, because every workplace has challenges, but we’re committed to asking questions and taking responsibility for our inevitable mistakes (because everyone makes mistakes). I was in academia right after college and then took some time in the publishing industry before returning to academia as a librarian, and I’d forgotten about the conflict avoidance that seems endemic to so many academic settings. I wish that institutions offered more support for doing the necessary work of moving through conflict thoughtfully and respectfully.

[Jen] We need to increase transparency around salaries. To withhold salary information from position descriptions and during the interview process can make what is already a difficult undertaking even more uncertain and fraught–not to mention a waste of time for everyone involved if candidates drop out late in the process after finally learning that salaries don’t meet their needs. And then, once hired, the lack of communication within and across institutions about salary data leaves library workers siloed and in the dark about potential earnings equity issues and missing key information with which to advocate for themselves. On a related note, we need to create more internal advancement opportunities in libraries. It seems that the general thinking is that in order to move up, one has to move out. I agree with that approach to some degree–transition is typically healthy for an organization and individuals (fresh perspectives and new horizons!). However, the lack of growth potential for folks within an institution can result in stagnancy, frustration, and low morale. While an organizational culture that supports experimentation and innovation can keep motivated library workers interested and invested, the lack of structural elements to support such folks to move into new positions (with real salary growth) is hurting us on both individual and organizational levels.

[Veronica] Like Jen, I definitely feel as though pipelines to leadership are something that need to be addressed within libraries with equity in mind. There is a strong push towards diversifying the profession, but it often stops with the hiring and onboarding process. What happens after that? Why do people leave the organization or the profession? At my library we are looking into how to help all librarians access professional development and support that will help them advance their careers within our library or elsewhere. Some things we need to ask ourselves are: Who are we sharing leadership opportunities with and why? Who within the organization has access to training, mentoring, and coaching? Who is missing from conversations about leadership potential and career advancement? If we, as a profession, spent time on these ideas we might be able to ensure that people stay within librarianship.

What are some of the lessons and truths that hindsight has helped you to see better? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 

In and out of context: Musings on information literacy, institutional, and higher ed landscapes

After more than a decade at a private small liberal arts college, my recent transition to a large, public research university has been full of learning opportunities regarding both the content of my work and the culture of this organization. Since arriving, I’ve identified a need for jumpstarting and growing a dormant information literacy program. Developing information literacy initiatives–including course-embedded instruction and faculty development, for example–was a significant focus for me at my previous institution. My experiences and the expertise I developed there certainly apply here. Yet that application requires some translation; my previous work, no surprise, was deeply steeped in that institution’s context.

In my previous position, talking about information literacy by articulating its connections with critical thinking, for example, packed a solid punch for faculty and students. My former institution’s mission statement illustrates the context of our discourse and work, dedicated to the development of “independent critical thinkers who are intellectually agile” and “committed to life-long learning.”

Don’t get me wrong. This kind of language and these values aren’t hard to find at my new institution either. In our general education learning objectives alone, I can point to both explicit and implicit language about information literacy. Telling the story of information literacy in terms of strengthening our abilities to think and learn and live is still compelling. But it doesn’t feel like it goes quite as far a distance here–where I’ve heard gen ed branded as “connecting curiosity and career,” for example–as it did in my previous context.

Surely, it’s not institutional culture alone that explains the difference. The landscape of higher ed altogether has been and continues to be shifting. Yesterday’s joint statement by AAC&U and AAUP, for example, characterizes the trend in this way: “Politicians have proposed linking tuition to the alleged market value of given majors. Students majoring in literature, art, philosophy, and history are routinely considered unemployable in the technology and information economy, despite the fact that employers in that economy strenuously argue that liberal arts majors make great tech-sector workers precisely because they are trained to think critically and creatively, and to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.”

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m against pre-professional training nor that liberal arts will save us. This is not an either/or situation. One of the reasons I sought this type of job at this type of institution was to find a new context, a new learning experience. After so much time at one institution, I wanted to see other ways that higher ed works. But I certainly still subscribe to the maxim that critical thinking is just as important, if not more, as content knowledge for our students’ (and our society’s) future success and that information literacy is an elemental part of those critical thinking habits, attitudes, and skills.

So as I’m thinking about growing our information literacy program here, I’m thinking about our institutional context and higher ed landscape with fresh eyes, too. I’m thinking now about all the ways to make the long reach of information literacy visible beyond the classroom. My thoughts turn first to the application and impact of information literacy skills in students’ internships, a signature experience on my campus. How have you illustrated the power of information literacy for your context(s)? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

People and place: Musings on organizational culture

Last year, a few of my colleagues and I were awarded a small grant to develop an information literacy learning community for faculty, librarians, and staff in regional colleges and universities. In this first year of our grant, we’ve been facilitating discussion groups with stakeholders to better understand information literacy practices and needs at each of the six institutions. We’re trying to identify shared needs and themes across institutions so we can effectively shape the learning community. We’ve met with 80+ stakeholders. These discussion groups have been valuable and revealing. We’ve learned a good deal about each institution’s varied approaches to and perspectives on (not to mention challenges with) information literacy. We’ve been talking with stakeholders about institutional values and change, too. We want to find hooks to help connect the learning community to each campus and anticipate what might impede its implementation and success. Of course, we can glean this from the conversation generally–its nature and tone–but we have also been explicitly asking questions like: What’s valued on your campus? What drives change? What are obstacles to change?

In some ways, these have been the most interesting parts of the conversations, providing a glimpse into how each campus works, what each campus most esteems, and how people communicate and participate in the life and work of each campus. These institutions are grouped primarily because of geographic proximity. The variations in institution type and mission, then, can explain some differences: the emphasis on undergraduate teaching in the small liberal arts college versus the emphasis on research in the university, for example. Financial status and its accompanying freedoms or restrictions–money may flow more freely at a well-endowed institution, for example, whereas resources may be more limited at a tuition-driven institution–can also influence people’s behaviors and outlooks. Still, the differences between the schools seem deeper and more nuanced than mission and money alone can explain. These conversations have really thrown the nature and impact of organizational culture into sharp relief.

What struck me most in our discussion groups were the differences in collegiality, interconnectedness, and agency: how participants spoke to and about each other, how interested participants seemed in the opportunity to learn from and share with each other in a future learning community, and how much power over and engagement in their campus environment they felt they had. Of course, individual personalities play a significant role in such interactions and outlooks. And, again, institutional mission and funding contribute, too. But there are still other forces that shape relationships, attitudes, and behavior. Jason Martin, for example, suggests that “rites and rituals,” or “the way we do things around here,” are powerful influences on and manifestations of an organization’s culture.

So as I reflect on the differences I’ve observed in the institutional snapshots afforded to me through these discussion groups, what I wonder about most is how does organizational culture change (for better or worse)? And then, how do we change organizational culture?

Swirl” by Zack Jones is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

A selection of examples from the corporate/business sector (like this one and this one) suggests that effective and sustained change requires a multi-faceted, and mostly top-down, approach including: leadership and management, control systems and reward systems, and more. Indeed, a skilled manager and/or a visionary leader (not necessarily one and the same, of course) are powerful motivators and change agents in both business and higher education generally, and libraries more specifically. Yet leadership in libraries–in my experience, at least–is often distributed. To ignore the role of individuals as not only players, but agents of change, seems both erroneous and perilous.

So what does organizational change look like in libraries? In their article about the University of Saskatchewan Library, Carol Shepstone and Lyn Currie stress the important role each library staff member plays in perpetuating an existing culture, identifying a preferred culture, and effectively changing culture. They identify staff new to the organization especially as important in influencing change.

I’ve witnessed and participated in large-scale organizational change directed by a titled leader and some of it has been to great effect. But it seems to me that organizational change can and does happen in smaller, more incremental ways, too. I think of the daily aspirations my colleagues and I pursue and the affirmations we try to offer each other. I think of how a single person’s tone or attitude or behavior can change the temperature of a room or the potential of an organization.

How do you think change happens? Please share your thoughts in the comments.