Doing Less with Less

Like so many of us in academic libraries and public higher education more generally, at my college and university we’ve experienced several successive years of budget cuts. My colleagues and I have done what we can to make changes that reduce costs with minimal impact to patrons, but unfortunately we are now at the point where it’s no longer possible to do more — or even the same — with less.

It’s challenging to do less with less in a profession that’s as focused on service as librarianship. My colleagues and I care about our students, each other, and our college community. We want to say yes, to offer support, to maintain our open hours, to teach that additional class. We need to keep our working hours realistic both for contractual reasons (library faculty and staff are unionized) and to stave off burnout; as the director, it’s important for me to take seriously the possibilities for burnout and low morale. When we reduce services and resources in the library we also experience a (completely understandable!) increase in complaints from students, which is an added emotional load on library workers.

It’s challenging to do less with less when we what we really want is to do more. My colleagues have expertise in and beyond their areas of focus in the library, and we’re interested in expanding our knowledge and skills as well. We know there are more services and resources we could offer in the library with increased funding, additional collaborations we could engage in with faculty and students, more work we could facilitate and support with facilities and infrastructure adequate to the campus population.

There’s no easy answer to budget cuts; while I continue to advocate for increased funding and to foreground student concerns, disinvestment in public higher education is not a problem that we in our library can solve. In working within and through the challenges of budget cuts we’re trying to identify the things that we do have control over, however small. I can’t add another floor to the library with more student seating, but we can revise and clarify our signage to make it easier for students to find what they need, especially during busy, crowded times. Keeping the front doors closed rather than propped open (with a sign that indicates that we’re open) this semester has helped cut down on the ambient noise from the hallways outside the library and has made it a little bit quieter overall, though we still lack a truly quiet study area.

Small changes don’t obviate the need for additional funding, nor my obligation to argue for it. It’s hard work keeping our chins up during times of austerity, and I want to acknowledge our feelings while we keep doing the best we can with the resources we have available, pushing for change while working within our current constraints.

Conferencing while Chronically Ill

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Katie Quirin Manwiller, Evening Public Services and Assessment Librarian at DeSales University, Center Valley, PA.

Travel time, packed schedules, and constant networking can make conferences exhausting for even the most outgoing librarians. For those of us who face mental and physical exhaustion as part of daily life, attending conferences can be a battle. I’m a spoonie librarian who deeply enjoys meeting and sharing with fellow LIS folks, but it takes a lot of extra effort for me to manage my health during professional events. Through navigating various national and regional conferences, I’ve developed a few tricks to help me make conferencing while chronically ill possible.

Some background: I work primarily in reference and instruction at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. I’m interested in assessment, student engagement, professional service, and accessibility in librarianship. I also have a handful of chronic illnesses you probably have never heard of: Hypermobility Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS). I manage an array of symptoms on a daily basis, such as chronic muscle pain, acute joint pain from dislocations, migraines, chronic fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, depression, nausea/GI upset, dizziness, and exercise intolerance. Sounds fun, right?

Like most chronically ill people, I will struggle with my health for the rest of my life, but the difficulty of that struggle varies greatly from year to year. After my initial hEDS diagnosis in 2013, my symptoms and pain management slowly improved for three years, only to go tumbling backwards in 2017. My health has been largely at a low point since then, which brings me to April 2019, and the inspiration for this post.

I attended ACRL 2019 in Cleveland and as an early-career instruction librarian, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to learn from my peers and be fully immersed in academic librarianship. Unfortunately, my body was not so thrilled. The travel sent me into a POTS flare and I was dizzy with a skyrocketing heart rate every day of the conference. I had a panic attack when someone in a session seemingly subtweeted me after I asked a question and I needed to leave the conference center for a break. ACRL had some helpful services for attendees, like a quiet room, but when my pain was high and my brain fogged I couldn’t even find the room to rest. Long story short, it was hard. Harder than any professional experience of my life.

Since ACRL, I’ve successfully presented at a conference for the first time. And best of all, my experience at ACRL led me to a community of other librarians with illness and disability for which I am deeply grateful (#SpoonieLibrarian or #CripLib on Twitter). I hope to support this community and want to begin by addressing one of my biggest challenges as a professionally-engaged spoonie. Here’s my advice for fellow librarians who conference while chronically ill:

1. Have a buddy. I was able to learn at and enjoy ACRL largely because I had a close friend also attending the conference who has known about my health issues for years. She went to restaurants with me when I was too dizzy to stand in the food truck lines, found a place for me to sit down in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when my heart rate was going crazy, and generally provided emotional support. If you don’t know someone else attending who you feel comfortable disclosing to, let someone in your support network know you will be having a challenging few days and reach out via text, call, whatever when you need to. Bonus tip: share this blog post with that buddy, so they can learn more about what you might be going through and how they can support you.

2. Plan rest time in advance. I do better when I plan rest into my schedule before I arrive at the conference. Plan for a quiet dinner in your hotel instead of attending the dine-out on the same day you traveled seven hours. Schedule time off for the day after the conference to rest and recover. If financially able, stay in the hotel adjacent to the conference center so it’s easier to get to your room if you need a break. If not, scope out the conference map beforehand and figure out where you can rest without having to go all the way back to your hotel.

3. Set reminders for your meds. I easily forget my medicine when I break from my regular schedule, which always happens at conferences. I got a daily pill organizer to keep track of what I have/have not taken, and set reminders in my phone to make sure I take them before heading to a session. Also, bring extra meds and make sure you have some with you so you don’t have to return to your room if symptoms come up.

4. Plan your outfits in advance. This may seem like a basic one but chronic illness makes it trickier. My MCAS flares if clothing is too tight on my abdomen, and my POTS makes it hard to regulate my body temperature. Bring clothes that you feel confident in but that are also comfortable enough to not increase symptoms. Add in a few options in case the conference center is colder or hotter than you expected. And plan outfits a few days in advance – a 10 pm Target run the night before you leave does not do your anxiety any favors (speaking from experience).

5. Skip sessions. The FOMO at conferences is real, especially when it costs $1000+ to attend. Try not to feel guilty about skipping sessions or events when your health won’t permit it. Prioritize certain sessions that you definitely want to attend, and determine what you can skip if necessary. Follow the conference hashtag on twitter to get a recap of the keynote you didn’t feel up to attending. Unless you actually need to meet with a vendor, consider skipping the exhibitor hall. You will probably spend an hour and a fair bit of energy collecting unnecessary freebies to carry around for the rest of the day. Plan to review the conference materials that go online afterward. Take advantage of the online options when you need to stay in your room.

6. Make your session work for you. If you’re presenting, do what you can to make the session cost the fewest spoons. Present with a colleague if possible to delegate responsibilities. Skip a meal out to practice and rest the night before. Arrive in the room early to set up and mentally prepare. Ask for a chair so don’t have to stand the whole time (this is totally fine! Your content is still excellent whether you present it standing or sitting). Incorporate small group discussion to give yourself a break. Plan extra rest before or after your session if you need to. Overall…

7. Be gentle with yourself. This goes along with skipping sessions, but be mindful of your limits. It can be easy to push yourself because you don’t want to miss anything, but in the long run you’ll end up missing more if you completely exhaust yourself. Stop before you get exhausted and before the pain is too much to keep going. That way you’ll not only be able to attend the sessions you want but actually focus on them and not your symptoms. Take a few minutes at the end of each session to check in with yourself, see how you’re feeling, and determine if a preventative break is the best option. You can also take that time to check in with your buddy, grab a cup of coffee, and discuss what you’ve learned so far.

Chronic illness and disability are experienced differently by each individual, so these tips will not work perfectly for everyone. They have made attending conferences easier for me, and I hope they will help other spoonie librarians successfully engage in LIS events. If you have any tricks or tips that have worked for you, please feel free to add them in the comments below.


Work weeks, schedules, and supporting students

Recently, Facebook reminded me of a picture I posted when I was in undergrad. It’s a picture of my Google calendar, in the fall of 2012. I was a busy undergrad, especially that fall, but my caption when I reposted this picture was something like, “If only 2012 Hailley knew what 2019 Hailley’s calendar would look like.” 

A screenshot of a Google calendar, with many appointments, from 6 AM in the morning until 9 PM at night.
My 2012 calendar

Between working in Admissions, being a writing tutor, sitting on two committees, being a part of student government and a literary journal, taking four classes, and clarinet lessons, I was never bored. Back in 2012, it was normal for days to stretch from 8 AM until 9 PM. The day wasn’t even officially done at 9 PM: that just meant it was time for readings, homework, or hanging out with friends. I felt busy, and at times, busier than than my friends, but overall, the pace of my schedule felt normal and what it should be like as an undergrad. 

These days, a meeting ending at 9 PM seems “late.” I was on campus walking with friends to a play and overheard a student say they had a meeting starting at 9 PM. My friends and I shared a look that said, “I would not want to start a meeting at 9.” College can be a time when traditional 9-5 is lost. If you’re awake, a meeting can happen. 

As the Student Engagement Coordinator, working with undergraduates is a fundamental part of my job. It has always felt normal for me to stay late, to host a workshop after dinner, meet with a student group, or run a Pop Up Library. And when I saw that Facebook memory pop up this time, I started to think about who else (faculty, staff) had to stay late when I was in college to support my student engagement. In some ways, it’s all coming full circle, as I stay late to support a new group of students. 

I also feel like there is an expectation that I’ll stay late. Part of that pressure is internal, because I remember what it was like to be a student and trying to find time to meet with faculty or advisors during the day (see calendar above). Part of that is my personality, and the ways that I let my personal and professional life bleed together. Part of that also comes from my first experience at Penn State, where I worked from 1-10 PM and saw how the library changed after 5 PM, when the “day folks” left and something new settled in its place. Part of that pressure comes from my conditioning to be helpful, as a woman in a service-orientated profession (Harris, 1992; Hicks, 2014) and some of that pressure is probably imagined.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this pressure and how my ability to stay late is partially built on my identity. I’m a young, single lady with no dependents. I’m often (in both positive and negative connotations) told that I have a lot of energy. The undercurrent of some of these statements imply that with that energy I’m well-suited to work with undergraduates. I feel that these characteristics make people think that of course, I’ll always stay late, handle that evening workshop, or be okay with an after-dinner meeting. They assume that my lack of any dependents means my evenings are always open. If this is the logic, what does it mean when my life inevitably changes? Does the pressure go away? Do I stop staying late or doing workshops on the weekends? Is it implied that eventually I’ll move away from “after hours”? If I move away from that work, will I lose touch with the undergraduates I serve? And if I do stop staying late, how will that change my work (and impact) with undergraduate students? 

In a recent study, Lily Todorinova (2018) examined job position descriptions for undergraduate and first year librarian positions. In this process, she discovered that between 2014 and 2016, these types of positions were on the rise. Many of those positions were listed as entry-level and were offered entry-level salaries, for example, lower than the average salary in 2016 (Todorinova, 2018, p. 209). What does this trend mean for the profession? If we want these positions to recognize and respond to movements within higher education and find ways to integrate the library (broadly: information literacy, instruction, services, etc.) more meaningfully into student life, how are we supporting these new professionals? And how are we being flexible in that support, so that these colleagues are not regularly working 12 hour days, as they accommodate both the traditional work hours and the student hours? Do we allow for time to be flexed in these positions? Do we force our colleagues in these positions to “grow” out of them?

These structures and this tension aren’t limited to academic librarians in engagement and first-year positions; student affairs professionals also have a high burnout rate (Marshall, Gardner, Hughes, & Lowery, 2016; Mullen, Malone, Denney, & Dietz, 2018). Many of the reasons why student affairs professionals leave are due to long hours and the struggle to maintain a work-life balance (Marshall et al., 2016). In a study done on new student affairs professionals, one respondent mentioned the long hours were a sacrifice that would result in long-term payoffs (Renn & Jessup-Anger, 2008). But that also feels problematic, especially in thinking of a library setting: if I set a precedent, what structure am I putting into place for those who do this work after me? Is that a tradition I want to instill?

So, what helps keep you student-centered, while setting boundaries and without it consuming your entire schedule? My thinking these days is remembering what it was like to be a student, who posted that picture of her calendar on Facebook because she was feeling overwhelmed, personally and academically. To remember those people who supported me in college and find ways to give that back, to a new group of students. And probably most importantly, to keep asking questions to the students I work with about their day-to-day. What does it mean to be a college student at Penn State? As Todorinova discovered, many librarians in engagement positions feel that they responsibility is to leverage student experiences (something I strongly agree with), and there has to be a way to get that insight, both within traditional working hours and sometimes, after 5.

At the end of the day, students will still meet at the end of their day. In wanting to support students, folks in these positions will work outside the bounds of 9-5. What we can do, both as employees and supervisors of these types of positions? I don’t have any firm answers but I do have a lot of thoughts. Currently they include:

  • Articulate our values and how those plays out in our work. If we want to be student-centered, what does that look like, for us as an organization?
  • Understand that just because you have “engagement” or “first-year” in your title, doesn’t mean that you’re the only person who can support the entire student population. This work has to be done collectively and not placed solely on one individual. 
  • Recognition that everyone’s time (ours, others, students, etc.) is valuable. It’s not a competition of who works the most, but instead an understanding that we all have things we care about and want to pursue outside our work responsibilities.   
  • Identify your colleagues that work outside the bounds of 9-5. Articulate why that is (position type, job description, population to serve, etc.) and reflect on something you’re doing to support their schedule. If you’re not sure of your answer, ask that person what’s one new way you can support their schedule.

I see and feel the tension, and don’t know exactly how those feelings and tension will change over the next few years. But I’m reflecting on these structures and trying to sort it out. I’m curious about what others think about these ideas and strategies around this topic.


Reference

Harris, R.M. (1992). Librarianship: The Erosion of a Woman’s Profession. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp.

Hicks, D. (2014). The Construction of Librarians’ Professional Identities: A Discourse Analysis / La construction de l’identité professionnelle du bibliothécaire?: Une analyse de discours. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science, 38(4), 251–270. https://doi.org/10.1353/ils.2014.0017

Marshall, S. M., Gardner, M. M., Hughes, C., & Lowery, U. (2016). Attrition from Student Affairs: Perspectives from Those Who Exited the Profession. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 53(2), 146–159. https://doi.org/10.1080/19496591.2016.1147359

Mullen, P. R., Malone, A., Denney, A., & Dietz, S. S. (2018). Job Stress, Burnout, Job Satisfaction, and Turnover Intention Among Student Affairs Professionals. College Student Affairs Journal, 36(1), 94–108. https://doi.org/10.1353/csj.2018.0006

Renn, K. A., & Jessup-Anger, E. R. (2008). Preparing New Professionals: Lessons for Graduate Preparation Programs from the National Study of New Professionals in Student Affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 49(4), 319–335. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.0.0022

Todorinova, L. (2018). A Mixed-Method Study of Undergraduate and First Year Librarian Positions in Academic Libraries in the United States. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 44(2), 207–215. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2018.02.005

You say you want a resolution…keep going!

Is it too late in January to talk about New Year’s Resolutions? Because, strangely, I don’t recall hearing much from friends or social media feeds about any of it, did you? January seemed to just slip into 2018 unobtrusively.  I investigated news sources citing “New Year’s Resolutions” for a more statistical snapshot, and looky there, a decline indeed!

Maybe all the obvious and tremendous work to be done in the world is too overwhelming. Is there a list even capable of containing it? The very concept of a list — resolution, checklist, done, contained, control – feels inadequate in the face of such chaos. We should learn better that our work here is never done.

In the spirit of one of those new year’s articles, I too am doing away with resolutions, preferring to work where I am with what I’ve got.  What I’ve got is a need for perpetual action.  Revolutions, if you will, marked by a sense of continuity, evolving, moving, growing.  Where what counts is not volume amassed, nor time spent, but meaningful motion.  A way to keep going through the change I wish to see in the world, and through the inevitable blocks that judgement and insecurity so often bring.  While it may frustrate me and bore you to repeatedly use these path-finding, me-centering approaches to problem-solving, repetition plays an important part in my New Year’s revolution.

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In my early library days, when introversion prevailed, I habitually avoided eye contact and small talk. Strangers, acquaintances, colleagues, it didn’t matter.  Better, I thought, just to keep my head down. Sometimes, I’d vary it by looking over at something that [hadn’t] distracted me just then, or up as if trying to remember something I’d [not really] forgotten. Always with a twinge of guilty knowing. For the sake of professional collegiality and my actual desire to make new friends, I gradually chipped away at this habit through repetition.  I still do avoid sometimes, and then I remember to begin again.  One step at a time.  That kind repetition led to other, larger personal growth in my work.  This year’s revolution takes that growth to places and relationships in my life that need work.  The revolution comes by recognizing work-life balance as in motion, arriving, and moving again.

This year both my father and mother experienced serious health events, throwing me way off balance.  This meant gathering siblings, uncomfortable conversations, and a lot of travel.  Just as in work (e.g. meetings, uncomfortable conversations, and conference travel), I’ve struggled to navigate the boundaries of our respective competing needs, expectations, and disappointments.  Moving through this new reality has meant accepting each of my parents where they are (which I’m pretty good at), and also staying regularly connected with them (which I’m not really good at).  When I slow down my thinking of the ends, and go through the process of the means, as I often do at work, I find that I’m actually quite good at connection.  For me, the focus on initiation is what unlocks the door to connection.  When I apply my strengths as an activator with individualization to this more personal context, it allows me to examine my own expectations and ask, “What is enough for me?”  That revelation clears the way for initiating those connections each time, and time again.

There remains a necessary element in this, which is more physical at its core.  This year’s resurgence of two movements, #MeToo and The Body is not an Apology,  have a hand in my thinking on this.   So, too, did seeing my father, once a tall, towering cowboy, confined to the limited view and mobility of a wheel chair.  As my own body grows old, I’m also confronted with physical realities that no longer respond to introverted solutions of my youth.  In fact, those solutions manifest all manner of outward, physical ailments.  No surprise, as New Year’s resolutions go; this requires more moving of my body. My advice for revolutionizing exercise comes down to — you guessed it — initiating.  Finding physical continuity, less in regularity than in ongoing beginnings.  Each time you stop, start again. Initiate more physical connections with friends, family, and colleagues, whether in something as small as a touch of hand in greeting or conversation, to something  as large as a constant, even pestering, persistence to schedule a meal with friends at my actual dinner table (rather than Instagram).

Straight to the soul and thighs with this Sunday #supp

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Bringing this around full circle to my library, its current strategic areas of focus share a need for acts of initiation.  It only just occurs to me, the intention for calling this a strategic focus map (not a strategic plan) carries that revolutionary quality of shifting in and out, adjusting, and constant motion.  Hidden within these focus areas, I see specific calls for my own initiation. While I often talk about better communication, collaboration, and the breaking down of silos in the library, my experience shows individual initiation more powerfully connects people and ideas together.  Initiating these kinds of connections in very real, physical space and time serves not only this strategic work, but creates relationships of trust, well being, and workplaces that continue growing.

 

Keeping Track of Your Commitments

I’m not the first FYAL blogger to note this, but there are significant differences between professional and student life. Lindsay O’Neill previously wrote about the culture shock of academic life, as well as her techniques for time management, and how the amount of freedom you have to shape your own days is both liberating and overwhelming. I’ve noticed many similar differences. When you’re a student, the semester feels like a sprint towards the finish line. When I became a librarian, there was suddenly a vast amount of time stretching out before me, and it was up to me to figure out how to fill it. As a student, assignments and deadlines are clearly defined for you by somebody else. Now, a lot of the work I do is self-generated and much less defined in its contours.  In this post, I wanted to discuss some of the strategies and tools I’ve used to adjust to this environment.

Last year, I received the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen as a gift (and a subtle hint, perhaps). I’m naturally averse to most things that seem like they’d be found on a CEO’s bookshelf, but this book has actually proved to be helpful as I’ve transitioned into my new job. Although I was able to define some big picture projects and goals for myself when I started, I wasn’t quite sure how to accomplish them. When a goal is as loosely-defined as “figure out how to support graduate students” or “plan successful outreach initiatives”, the next steps are not immediately obvious. More than once, I found myself feeling stressed or anxious about projects I was working on outside of work or while I was falling asleep, without making much progress on them while at work because I wasn’t exactly sure how to move forward.

Allen posits that the stress most people experience comes from “inappropriately managed commitments they make or accept” (Allen 13). Whether these commitments are with yourself or someone else, they generate “open loops” that need to be attended to. His system for managing commitments requires three basic tasks:

  1. Capture anything that is unfinished in a collection tool.
  2. Clarify your commitment and what you have to do to make progress towards it.
  3. Keep reminders of the actions you need to take in a system you review regularly.

I decided to commit to Allen’s system. I downloaded the task management application Wunderlist, where I keep both a list of ongoing projects and a list of immediate to-do items. For any given project, I spend a few moments thinking about what a successful outcome would look like, what the next actionable step I can take to get there is, and capture it in my to-do list. Allen’s book helped me see that this kind of work — planning, clarifying, and prioritizing — is, actually, work. This was a revelation to me, as I had previously felt that unless I was producing something, I wasn’t really working.

This system makes it much more manageable to keep track of long-term or bigger projects by breaking them into smaller, actionable pieces. If the next step on a project requires action from another person, I can transfer that to-do item into my “waiting for” list, so that I know where the project stands, and that I’m not personally responsible for the next action. It’s helped me keep track of ongoing or informal responsibilities, too. For example, I have a recurring weekly reminder to input my reference and teaching stats, so I don’t forget and try to do them all at the end of the semester. If I say “oh, I’ll email that to you!” to someone, I put it on my to-do list so I don’t forget. I also have a space to keep track of the things that need doing in my personal life, like “schedule dentist appointment” or “oil change” (both real life items from my current to-do list — very glamorous).

Another thing I’ve learned about the pacing of academic life, and working life in general, is that you cannot work at your full capacity all of the time. There are natural dips in energy and motivation, and allowing for those is a necessary part of avoiding burnout. I select items to work on from my to-do list based on how I’m feeling and how much time I have before the next meeting or appointment. On a Friday afternoon, when I’m feeling bleary and my brain is turning off, I might choose to update links on a LibGuide. On a Monday afternoon, when I’ve just had my post-lunch coffee, I’ll tackle a writing project or draft a particularly complicated email. Having a list of all the things I’m on the hook for helps me make those decisions more easily.

Breaking bigger projects down into actionable items and writing down what those next steps are has helped me immeasurably. If this is sounding very common sense to you, I imagine you are a more naturally organized person than I am. My personal organizational system prior to reading this book was to keep about five different to-do lists at any time, scattered throughout different notebooks and digital spaces. I generally used to-do lists as a tool to review my commitments in that current moment, but rarely referred back to them. The mental energy I was expending on storing all of the things I had to do in my brain was enormous, and not particularly efficient or effective. Now, I’ve outsourced this memory work, and it’s helped me feel more at ease with long-term or big picture projects. For any given project, I’ve identified a next step, and it’s on my to-do list.

What are your techniques for moving forward with gooey projects? How do you manage your time and stay productive in a less regimented environment?

Works Cited

Allen, David. Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. Penguin, 2015.