Embracing Vulnerability as a Perpetual Learner: Starting on the Tenure-Track as a Mid-Career Librarian

Editor’s note: This guest post has been authored by Nimisha Bhat. Nimisha (she/her) is a subject librarian for social sciences at the University of Cincinnati, and is passionate about helping students make connections between ideas and information.

I’m always telling prospective library school students that the best part of my job is learning something new everyday – I may not be a subject expert, but every time I have a research consultation with a student, they teach me something new while I determine the best way to connect them with the information they need. 

This is also something I have been trying to remind myself of everyday since I started a new tenure-track library position earlier this year. As a mid-career librarian ten years into academic librarianship, this is my first time navigating and developing a completely new identity as a faculty member. 

As a subject librarian, I’m used to leveraging new facets of information retrieval every time I pick up a new liaison area. I dedicate a large amount of my time to reading up on particular subjects before I do collection development. I’ve experienced my fair share of feeling like a fraud as I stand at the front of classrooms and speak to students about research in subjects in which I have no educational background. I’ve been teaching without any training in instruction or pedagogy for at least eight years. But like many librarians, what I lack in theoretical learning I’ve made up for in experiential learning as a practitioner. I’ve done my best to do deep reflection work in relation to my practice and engage in scholarship and conferences to learn from my amazing peers and colleagues doing this work in their own areas. And slowly over the years, I’ve been able to navigate my job in a way that satisfies me while also leaving room for curiosity and growth.

So here I am once again, adding another new facet to my work with which I lack experience – tenure-track faculty status. A brand new set of criteria, rules, and recommendations to measure myself up against. It’s an unmooring feeling, being considered a “mid-career” librarian while also feeling brand new at the same time. And since many of the reflections and guidance out there about starting the tenure clock and developing a research agenda are written by and for a largely early career audience, it sometimes feels like I’m “behind.” I feel like I’ve lived several lifetimes across all of my past jobs since graduating from library school over a decade ago – shouldn’t these feelings of doubt and vulnerability be behind me by now?

I had always been in positions before where research was not required, expected, or supported, but I loved to dabble in it anyway. Which is why I became a contributing and then lead editor for The Librarian Parlor, a blog where students and practitioners share their experiences, knowledge, advice, setbacks, and successes related to LIS research in an effort to demystify the process for our community. LibParlor’s mission was so important to me even at a time when I wasn’t pursuing research for reappointment, promotion, or tenure purposes. Now it feels serendipitous to be reading our past posts as an “official” researcher trying to develop my own research agenda and librarian-researcher identity. I find myself pulled in so many different directions, to research all of the different topics related to the profession that I find fascinating and important. Now that I have the institutional support to pursue the research I want to work on, where should I even begin? Will I ever feel like an expert in anything?

Thankfully, I have mentors and colleagues to learn from and with at my new institution. There is a genuine investment in us as junior faculty, and everyone is always willing to share what knowledge they have. I’ve created a cohort with my fellow junior faculty so that we may navigate the reappointment, promotion, and tenure process together, share and document answers to our questions and institutional resources, and serve as accountability partners to one another. We’ve expressed a desire to create documentation and guidance on all of this as we go, so that everyone coming up after us has the answers that we didn’t. I also find that as a person of color, I’m often unsure of how I’m being measured against my white peers. I’m hyper-aware that there are things I could be judged for differently, and so having clear and concise directions about how I’m expected to conduct my work as a faculty member is important to me. I’d especially like to be able to provide that kind of direction to fellow librarians of color in an effort to remove barriers to and increase retention in our profession, which is also something I’d like to make a part of my own research agenda.

So here I am again, learning something new and reminding myself that I love that aspect of my job. I am notorious for quitting things that I’m not automatically good at the first time I try it, which is why I have a tub of craft supplies buried in a closet related to various hobbies I’ve picked up and put down over the years. But now I’m trying to be more open, more vulnerable, more willing to ask questions in order to improve my craft and help others do the same. And instead of feeling like I’m behind, I’m going to embrace the part of me that loves learning. 

Are you a seasoned librarian navigating tenure for the first time? I’d love to hear how you’re feeling!

Getting started with professional development

Last week, I did my first conference presentation as a tenure-track academic librarian! I’m actively resisting the urge to qualify or minimize that statement – it was virtual, it wasn’t about my own hardcore research, etc. I did it, and I’m proud of that! It got me thinking about professional activity as it relates to tenure (or in Salisbury University’s case for librarians, permanent status). I am not someone who comes from a family of academics; I distinctly remember getting “librarian” on one of those career profiles in high school, and immediately thinking, “Oh, no. That requires a master’s degree.” I never thought I’d be here, entrenched in academia and needing to think about publishing research. I’ll talk a bit about my most recent presentation, then some of my broader thoughts.  

Thank you to the North American Virtual Reference Conference for the opportunity to speak. My talk was titled, Supervisor at a distance: supporting undergraduate reference workers. At Salisbury University, I am the Research Help Desk Coordinator. I am responsible for hiring and supervising 4-5 student workers in a given semester; they are tasked with answering all sorts of questions, including reference and research help ones. The presentation focused on current training and feedback strategies as well as initiatives I’d like to implement in the future. I don’t ever work on the desk with them – the research help desk only has one person at any given time, which is why I refer to myself as “at a distance.” I am not that far removed from my own student worker experience, so I’m constantly thinking about what I had or wished I had for their experience, too. For this first year, I made some minor changes – giving students more consistent feedback on their work and implementing a “Chat Transcript of the Month” email – but for the most part, I’ve been trying to see how the desk runs now before making drastic changes. These are my slides and references, though I’m happy to talk and answer any questions.  

What was cool about this particular conference was that I’d actually presented here before; my supervisor as a graduate assistant gave me the opportunity to co-present here about my own entirely remote training as a result of COVID.  Additionally, while I was a senior in undergrad, I presented at a statewide conference for writing centers. I hope to offer a similar collaboration to my student workers at some point. I try to make sure they know that I’m invested in their success, not just as workers but also as students. I’m positive that having that previous experience as a student gave me the confidence to submit now.  

Even still, I find it hard sometimes to pursue broader research opportunities. Publishing in something like a journal still feels enigmatic or nebulous, even though I am intimately familiar with different publications, given the nature of my daily work as a research librarian. I think part of this is personal; I can be a true champion of others’ work and cheer on students and faculty alike with their research topics, but when it comes to my own, it’s harder to do. The imposter syndrome can be really intense. My inner critic questions how I could possibly add to the already bustling academic conversation, or my attempts at writing something like a journal article get held up in the research phase, wherein I try to consume everything possible about the topic. (My Zotero library is… robust, to say the least. Thank goodness for collections!) I also have so many different interests that it’s hard to narrow my focus on one research topic; I’ve heard this sentiment over and over from librarians, too. I often set out to learn more about one thing and find myself down an entirely different pathway. 

In that vein, I’d like to turn it over to you, readers: what did your first foray into research or conferences look like? How did it come about? Did you have collaborators, or was it a solo venture? Do you have advice for new academic librarians who are navigating what “professional activity” means for them in their job expectations?  

Supporting Each Other as Librarian Researchers

We’re at an interesting stage in the library where I work. Retirements and folks moving on to other opportunities have meant that we’ve done a fair amount of hiring over the past almost-five years. The result is that right now we have more untenured library faculty than tenured, and most of our tenured library faculty are interested in seeking promotion in the future. With so many research-active librarians (myself included!), I’ve been thinking a lot about how best to support us all in our scholarly goals. We’re all at different stages in our scholarly work, some beginning to develop a research agenda, and others immersed in long-term projects; some of us working individually, and others in collaboration with colleagues in and outside our library, at our institution and others.

I’ve been interested to read about Angie’s and Hailley’s experiences at the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship, which have provided lots of food for thought about how to integrate research into our work as academic librarians. At my university we’re fortunate that library faculty have research leave available for the first 5 years of their tenure track (as do faculty in other departments), and all librarians have a fairly generous annual leave allocation and can apply for additional research time as well. While library faculty are on 12-month contracts and still don’t have as much time for their research as do faculty in other departments, the various forms of leave are super important for making progress on our scholarship.

Even with our leave, it can be a challenge to develop and sustain our research in practice. Over the summer I spent some time talking with my colleagues in small groups of folks who are at roughly the same point in their tenure or promotion track, chatting over coffee about what kinds of support they’re most interested in, and thinking on ways we might all support each other. Collectively our research is topically diverse: some of us work primarily in LIS, others outside of LIS, and some do both. We’re a small library — including me, we have 13 library faculty right now — and, combined with our varying degrees of experience in scholarly research, we’re in a good position to mentor each other both collaboratively as well as individually.

It’s been terrific to see the informal mentoring and support we’re all giving each other at the library where I work, and I’m actively working on ways we can keep that going and add more structure. Each week over the summer I blocked two hours in our library classroom for what we’re calling reading-writing-research coworking. Scholarly work can be lonely work, and while it’s expected that we’ll do our scholarship off-campus while on those various forms of leave, we wanted to make some space for that work together in the library as well. Everyone’s schedule is different, and of course folks were out for vacation over the summer, too, but we held that space and time every week for whomever was around and available (myself included!) to come in and get some work done on their research.

With the busy semester starting up soon (and our library classroom needed for instruction) we will probably reduce the coworking timeslots to once or twice a month, and I’m thinking on other opportunities for support. Earlier in the summer I pulled together an annotated list of research-focused resources, including long-time favorites like A Library Writer’s Blog and relative newcomer The Librarian Parlor, just to name two. I’ve shared this with my colleagues and left it open for editing so that we can continue to add to it. During our summer group chats I also heard that more informal opportunities for research conversations would be welcome, so I’m hoping to schedule some time for coffee and cookies and research conversations a few times during the upcoming semester, too. And I’ll keep asking my colleagues what they need to support their research; in my experience it’s completely normal for a research agenda and practice to evolve over time, and I expect we’ll need to change or add to our scholarly support strategies over time, too.

What are your best practices for supporting librarian research? Drop us a line in the comments and let us know.