Tuesday, October 11, 2016

How I Do Reference Interviews

13+ years out from my MLIS graduation, a lot of memories about my time at Simmons have started to fade. However, one thing is still very clear: learning how to conduct a reference interview. Our professor (and our textbook) made a big deal of how it isn't the librarian's business why a patron needs this information, and I took that "don't ask why they are asking" admonition very much to heart... for about a month after I started working in an academic library. Don't get me wrong: I still respect my patrons' right to privacy, but making sure they can fulfill the professor's requirements is also a big part of my job. As a result, I've tweaked my reference interview tactics. I don't hit every one of these with every student, but hopefully you'll understand my thinking after you read through this list.
  1. "If you don't mind my asking, is this for an assignment?" If they tell me it's not, I revert immediately back to the method I was taught in graduate school. If they tell me it is for an assignment...
  2. "Do you have the assignment with you? It would help me to help you if I could see it." The student who was supposed to pick any painter from the Romantic period but who asked for information about a Renaissance painter? Or that other student who insisted they weren't allowed to use internet sources when really they weren't allowed to use web sources? Saved both of them a lot of time and heartache.
  3. "When is this due?" This lets me know if we have time for interlibrary loan, or to request things from other libraries in the consortium, or if we only have time to look at resources that are available right away.
  4. "Where have you looked? And it's totally cool if you haven't looked anywhere; I'm just trying to figure out where to start." Yes, I say that whole thing. Sometimes students get so overwhelmed that they can't even talk about their topic clearly, and I don't want them to feel bad about that. If a student has gotten to the point where they're willing to come to a librarian for help, I want them to feel good about it. However, if they have looked somewhere and had no luck, I can sometimes help immediately by pointing them to a different database or even sometimes a reference book.
  5. "Can you tell me why you picked this topic?" Here's where I'm fishing for search terms. Sure, there are the assignments I've seen so many times before that I know the right words from the get-go, but there are plenty of times when someone working on a senior capstone project introduces me to a brand new topic. And though I know plenty of good search phrases in the disciplines on my campus, I am always learning.
  6. "Do you feel comfortable working on this on your own? Do you have enough direction to get started?" I don't typically ask this until I'm fairly certain they'll say they are fine, but I still ask it so they can hear it themselves.
  7. "If you need any more help, [how to find me and how long I'll be available]. And good luck with your assignment." I also go back, about 5 to 10 minutes later, to see if everything is still going smoothly. It's about making sure that the student has the tools they need.

So there it is: my process for conducting reference interviews at an academic library. Other academics, did I leave anything out that you usually do? 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Just For Fun: Real Isn't How You Are Made

"It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
That quote is from one of my favoritest books from when I was a kid: The Velveteen Rabbit. The story imbued all my toys, especially my stuffed animals, with their own lives and personalities and heartaches in a way in a way that never left me. I guess what I'm trying to tell you is that I stil have a large collection of stuffed animals in my life, ranging in age from 43 years to less than a month old. Some of them have long and detailed personal histories, but I'm still getting to know others. Here's a sampling of my stuffed friends along with a little bit about each of them.


Dorothy the Bunny (with stuffies who have been loved as much as this lady has, it can be hard to tell the animal) has been in my life for as long as I can remember, although I know I haven't had her my entire life. I named her after Dorothy Gale... I was obsessed with The Wizard of Oz when I was a child, back when they'd play it on network television once per year. Also, I don't know if you can see from that picture, but Dorothy has eye shadow - a very young Jessica thought it would be fun.


I bought Francis Bacon at a Goodwill near my undergraduate institution the day before classes started my freshman year in college. I vaguely remember thinking it was a funny and inappropriate name for a bear, since clearly Francis Bacon sounds like a name for a pig, but other than that I don't know why I named him after a philosopher I had never and still have never read. I used to make up stories of derring-do featuring Francis, but these days he just lives on my bed in comfortable semi-retirement.


Chewbacca! What a Wookie! I've had my stuffed Chewie as long as I can remember, although I no longer have his bandoleer. Whenever anyone doubts my nerd credibility, I tell them about how I have a vintage Chewbacca stuffie that I've owned since it was brand new.

Mr. Bun
I found Mr. Bun, named after Susie Derkin's stuffie, in the middle of the parking lot of my apartment building. He'd obviously been run over by a car more than once, and he has a tear along the base of one of his ears as a result. I couldn't leave him there to get run over again. I just couldn't.

Fake Roy

At a former institution, there were a lot of faculty members who brought their dogs to work. Although I adored them all (and still do), I had a special relationship with Roy the Pug. Roy looooved me and, if I passed his domain without stopping to say hello, Roy would yell at the top of his lungs in that special high pitched pug yell. When I announced I was leaving that job to become a library director, Roy's human bought me a Webkinz pug who looks just like Roy, and I named the Webkinz pug Fake Roy.

So, how about you? Any stuffed animals hanging around your home or office?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Neverending Story (of Assessment)

A while back, during the first year of this blog's existence, I wrote about how I see librarianship as an asymptote. I never stop trying to improve my professional practice. The same thing, obviously applies to the library where I'm a director. That's why assessment is such a crucial part of my (and every librarian's) job. Lots of people act like "assessment" is a vulgar word, but if you approach it properly, it can be your friend.

The thing that everyone hates is assessing things just to assess them. The useless counting heads without figuring out why people are there, or the circulation stats that mean nothing in a vacuum. But I'm here to tell you that assessment needs to be part of everything you do, and if you plan for it assessment can be easy. (In this post, I'm intentionally focusing on a more typical set of circumstances. I'm glossing things over a bit to show you how you can and should integrate assessment with everything you do.)

Let me walk you through a typical project, and how assessment factors into each stage:

  1. Identifying a Need: the beginning of any project is an assessment in and of itself. Paying attention to what's going on around you and noticing a need - whether in your work processes or to address community concerns - is making a judgement and therefore an assessment.
  2. Initiating the Project: gathering your stakeholders and discussing why the project is needed, even if it's just making your case to your boss, already has judgement involved as well. The issue here is making sure you do it intentionally. Stakeholders are people who will be effected by a project, and this is an important step of any effort. Sure, Project Awesome will make things smoother for your patrons, but how will it change the workflow of the person/people who manage your circulation desk or your website or whatever? Thinking that through is one of the most important assessments in any project and you can't do it alone. This is also where people typically establish a goal (why are you doing this project?) and desired outcomes (specific, measurable end results). 
  3. Design/Development: Sure, sometimes the perfect solution presents itself, but just as often you need to design something to solve the problem. Keeping stakeholders involved so they can give you feedback is crucial. If something is complicated enough, you will want to test early iterations of the solution as well. That can be a pilot of your new instruction technique with a faculty member who trusts you or asking a friend who works at another library to try to find something on the test website. Take lots of notes here. 
  4. Implementing the Project: This is rolling out your shiny new "thing". Taking notes about timing and people involved and such is important. How long did it take? Did people say anything about the "thing" while it was happening?
  5. Formal Assessment: Did you achieve your goals? Outcomes? Why/why not? This is writing the report for your director or reporting back to the instruction committee. This is also the point at which you try to figure out how to improve even further, which starts this list all over again since it's another example of identifying a need.

The biggest thing is that it absolutely has to be a cycle. You never stop assessing just like you never stop trying to improve. And with a little luck (dragon), that's exactly what you'll do.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Are There Any Questions? My First Month as a Full-Time Librarian, by Lauren Connolly

Hello! I’m new. New to this library, new to this state, and new to the world of full-time employment. I moved away from my native state of Delaware to the wilds of Northwest Ohio, the farthest I’ve ever lived from my family, to begin my new librarian life. I had a weekend to adjust to my temporary housing, and then my career began. That was a lot of change in a short amount of time, but surprisingly I only cried once, and luckily I was not at work during that temporary emotional overload. I count that as a major success.

I believe part of what has helped me keep it together is the fact that everyone here is kind to me. So simple, but so important. Even a job you don’t like can be made better by the people you work with; fortunately, I have a good job, and I am surrounded by great people. This is something I didn’t think about too much when I was job hunting. I’m an agreeable, non-confrontational person, and I thought I would be fine with whoever I ended up working alongside. When I received this offer, it came more than a year out from earning my MLIS, so I know the desperation that comes with a long job search: the little voice in the back of your head that convinces you any job offer is a good one, because at least you’ll be working.

Oh, just get a job?

But seriously, who you work with is important. People here smile, and say hello to me throughout the day. They asked me about my apartment search, and gave me recommendations on where to find cheap furniture. When I have a question, they don’t roll their eyes, they answer it, and then offer guidance. My office is right next to the library director’s, and it is not uncommon for me sidle over with one of my many questions. So far he hasn’t shut the door in my face, so I don’t think I’ve become too annoying… yet.

That was something I had to push myself to do in the beginning: ask questions. There have already been plenty of times when I’ve felt like I was missing something, like everyone else understood what was going on, and I was nodding and smiling and trying to keep up. I doubted my abilities as a librarian, feeling like I was simply mimicking people who actually knew what the hell was going on. 

This blog actually taught me what that feeling is: imposter syndrome. Honestly, is there any way to avoid that when you start a new job? You have this fancy title, but everything is unfamiliar. What do they expect you to know, and how soon? Whenever I feel the onslaught of self-doubt, I try to take a moment to myself and have an inner conversation that goes a little something like this:

Me: “What the hell is a widget? And a proxy server? What class did I skip where those were explained?!”
Me: “Lauren, calm down. We can figure this out.”
Me: “How?! I bet every other librarian knows what those things are, and has been working with them for years! How did I even get this job?!”
Me: “It’s going to be okay Lauren. Remember when you didn’t know what a LibGuide was? You were freaking out then too, but now not only do you know what they are, you’ve made them.”
Me: “Yeah, I guess…”
Me: “You know what you’re really good at? Learning. Anything they want you to do here, you can learn it. When they ask you about widgets that’s what you say. You’re not sure yet, but you’ll learn. We’ve been doing it for years. So calm down, and start researching.”
Me: “You’re right. I can do this.”

So that’s a glimpse inside my brain, and pretty much my thought process throughout my first month. I go through waves of stress, but recovery time is quick because of my co-workers. Plenty of people will tell you that when you start a new job it’s okay to ask questions. I’ve found it’s equally as important to find a place full of people who will answer those questions, and sometimes even thank you for asking them.

Lauren Connolly is the Online Services Librarian at the University ofFindlay. She tweets at @laurenaliciaCon, and also runs the Shafer Library social media pages (@ShaferLibrary).  [Editor’s note: And in the interest of full disclosure, Lauren used to work for me at Wesley College. I’m happy for her success, but I miss having her around my library.]

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Interview Post: Jacob Berg



Jacob Berg

Current job?

Senior Librarian, Foreign Service Institute, United States Department of State, via The LAC Group

How long have you been in the field?

Off and on since 1996, but totally all the way on since 2007.

How Do You Work?

What is your office/workspace like?

I've got a windowless office with some bookshelves, cork boards on two walls, and a sit-stand desk. I try to stand about two-thirds of the time. There's also a table and two other chairs for meetings, and there is almost always chocolate as well as trail mix on hand.

How do you organize your days?
It's a small library, and I know I'm going to be working the reference desk for at least an hour per day, so I try to work around that. For the most part, I try to handle internal library issues in the morning, and external in the afternoon.

What do you spend most of your time doing?
Administrating, usually strategic planning, plotting a library renovation, marketing and outreach, and a bit of collection development.

What is a typical day like for you?
I'm training myself to be more of a morning person, and with enough cold brew coffee I can almost fake it. I get to work at 7:30am and scour social media and library listservs for good ideas to steal. Then I stand, check in with the other staff, check email, and start writing. Documenting workflows, strategic planning, brainstorming outreach... I'm out on the desk for an hour in the middle of the day, then I take lunch, and then I'm back at it, standing, often with collection development, and reaching out to schools and divisions within the Foreign Service Institute to see what they need, suggesting edits and editing the website, and the occasional cataloging. I leave around 4:30.

What are you reading right now?
Shadowshaper, by D.J. Older. Young adult fiction, thriller-horror set in Brooklyn. Authors take note: I am reading this primarily due to Older's excellent twitter presence, @djolder. I also enjoy longform journalism.

What's the best professional advice you've ever received?
I'm not going to declare something the best, but please, document everything. Write it down! I'll credit Becky Yoose, @yo_bj, for this through her use of #writethedocs. Also, this is a good time to mention that for librarians like me that don't have and/or haven't had mentors, peer networks are everything. Find your people, please. They're out there.

What have you found yourself doing at work that you never expected?
I had no idea how much outreach to the FSI community I'd be doing. I'm not an extrovert or type A, so this has been interesting, to say the least.

Inside the Library Studio

What is your favorite word?
"Piglet." Just say it with me. Hard not to smile, right?

What is your least favorite word?
Cliché, but I am one of those people who really does not like the word "moist." <shudders>

What profession other than your own would you love to attempt?
Working at a zoo. Poop aside, being outside, with animals... Cheese-mongering would be fun, too, plus it's another good word.

What profession would you never want to attempt?
There are so many. Acting. Lawyering.

Everything Else

What superpower do you wish you had?
Befitting an introvert, invisibility.

What are you most proud of in your career?
At a previous job I worked with a vendor to build open access into our discovery layer, raising awareness on campus and providing access to resources that would otherwise go unfound. Also, I've been able to take advantage of DC's job market, hiring, and training library staff from a wide array of backgrounds.

If you're willing to share, tell about a mistake you made on the job.
I am forever making mistakes. They happen. They happened. They'll happen again. If you can, please give people space to make mistakes, and to fail. I even have a tag for it on my seldom-updated blog: http://beerbrarian.blogspot.com/search/label/failure. Specifics are there.

When you aren't at work, what are you likely doing?
Bemoaning the current state of the world online; gaming with my ten year old; talking about dinosaurs, Star Wars, and Legos with my four year old; petting dogs; gardening and cooking; reading and writing about beer; binge watching TV shows; and rooting in vain for the New York Mets, my favorite squadron.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Kenny Nero, Jr. (@kennynerojr).

Jake tweets at @jacobsberg and blogs at Beerbrarian. This is the third post he's written for Letters to a Young Librarian. The first was "Doing Research Lets You Justify Why You’re Doing What You’re Doing" and the second was Ethics, Copyright, and Information Literacy,

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How I Manage


I know I still have plenty to learn about managing people, but after close to four years in this job I've learned a lot. And I realized I've talked around this topic, but never wrote a whole post about it. Decided it was time... For those of you who intend to go into management, or who are new to it, here are some of the most important things I've learned about being a manager:
  1. You need to individualize how you work with people. Some people like more guidance on projects, and others will want to make a task their own. After a period of getting to know each other, and knowing how people work, it's best to let someone work to their strengths. We can't all be good at everything, so letting people shine is more effective and makes people happy to come to work.
  2. You need to trust the people who work for and with you. If you can't trust the people you've hired, why did you hire them in the first place? Don't get me wrong, "trust but verify" is an important part of my management style, but people who feel trusted will also be happy to come to work.
  3. Trust is a two way street. You've got to keep your promises and admit your mistakes. If you have to say "no" to a proposal, tell people why. On a rare occasion, when you're in a management position, you'll be constrained by those above you, but you can at least say that: "We can't do that right now, and I've been told not to explain this just yet. As soon as I can, though, I'll explain this." 
  4. You need to check in regularly. Having meetings just to have meetings may sound like a waste of time, and it can be, but everyone who works for me gets a certain amount of guaranteed, individual time with me. Sometimes we have an agenda, sometimes we just chat. Part of it is that I have a glass office, and regular meetings will dispel any "oh, Jane's in the boss' office! What did they do wrong?" Another part of it is that sometimes people will have ideas that they want to share, but not in front of coworkers. Sure, we have monthly staff meetings as well, but one-on-one time, especially for people with whom I don't normally overlap on the schedule, is crucial.
  5. Be their umbrella and their foundation. A big part of my job is making it easier for my staff to do their jobs. When the circulation desk computer started to crap out, I was relentlessly cheerful and cheerfully relentless with IT. When the budget gets tight, I make sure to protect the things my staff needs. I require professional development and, when the opportunity comes up, happily give good references - even for current employees - when they apply for jobs that will make better use of their skills and knowledge. Strategic vision and guidance is what head cheese in charge library administrators are supposed to do, and helping the staff succeed is one crucial way to achieve that.

So how about you? For those of you in management positions, what other advice do you have? For those of you who are managed, what do you like to see?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Surviving Peer Review on Your Own Terms, by Alison Skyrme, Jane Schmidt, and Curtis Sassur


A new librarian, an experienced librarian and an archivist got together to do a research project. What happened along the way was not quite what we expected. Maybe you’ve experienced something like it, or maybe you’ll face a similar situation in the future. We want to share our experience with the joy, excitement, trials, and disappointment in the world of academic publishing.

Why we did the research

For us, finding the topic was the easy part. We had decided that we would purposefully avoid supervising unpaid internships as a matter of professional integrity, and only take on students that our library could properly fund. During the course of this decision, it was clear that the topic had been neglected in library research and we wanted to take a close look at the institutionalization of unpaid internships within accredited library science graduate programs. There was (and remains) a climate of scrutiny on the misuse of unpaid interns in many sectors. Work-study programs are an accepted part of librarian education - we thought it was prudent to take a critical look at how well it’s working. We wanted to hear what the interns had to say. Are they really benefitting? Is their work valued? Is the experience worthwhile? So, with ethics board approval, a research plan, and a literature review in hand we were on our way.

Research: The good, the bad, and the anti-climactic

We thought a social sciences-based approach would best serve our needs, so we used survey tools and interviews to examine the value of the internships. Our background research went well: it showed a gap in the research, offered guidance in the form of similar studies from other fields, and highlighted issues to investigate. The dreaded ethics approval process was a useful exercise, even though it did feel a bit fastidious in the moment. Gaps in our survey tools, ethical considerations we’d missed, and practical issues were highlighted and remedied. With approval in hand, we eagerly sent our surveys and interview requests out into the world and waited for the data and volunteers to come flooding in.

Cue the crickets.

Sometimes, despite best efforts, all you get is a small sample size. In our case, very small. Tiny, really. Why? Some institutions may have been unwilling to participate, some individuals were perhaps afraid of giving negative feedback that may affect their future career, despite assurances of privacy. Others may have simply deleted the email. Still others may have had survey fatigue. There is no way to know why we got a a poor response rate, but we did. We re-sent requests, we widened our search, we ensured messages were being received, but we still only received a small amount of responses. What next? We sought the advice of our ethics review board to see if we should proceed. They told us that we could, but we would have to note that the sample size would have to be acknowledged in the final product. And so, we carried on - we’d gotten this far, right?

The interviews we did with former unpaid interns that did contact us were fascinating. They shared experiences we hadn’t considered and gave us a point of view we hadn’t anticipated. That’s what research is supposed to do, right? We became so immersed in the rich narratives before us, our concerns about the sample size were assuaged.

Putting it out there

When we had collected all the data we could, we found a journal that seemed in line with the kind of research we did. We followed the structure, formatting and submission instructions, and then we waited. And waited. By the time we received the good news that our publication had been accepted (with “extensive and comprehensive revisions”), the research was well over a year old, and we were starting to lose enthusiasm. But we rallied, and began to carefully review the required changes. Receiving negative feedback is never a hootenanny. We understand the process is designed to ensure high quality - and certainly there were changes that needed to be made - but upon reviewing the portions that were re-written as per the reviewers suggestions, we no longer felt the paper was meaningful enough to be published.

Making the hard choice

So, now what? When you have annual reviews pending and research is expected, it’s difficult to say “no” to a publication, even if the final product would feel inauthentic. While our paper was technically accepted, the required revisions would have nullified any conclusions we made, and we honestly wondered why they wanted to publish it. We concluded that we didn’t need to shoehorn our research into a box that didn’t fit. We also decided we didn’t want to let it go, and opted for Plan B - alternative dissemination.

Plan “B” doesn’t have to be Bad

This must be prefaced with an acknowledgement that we are lucky enough to work for an institution that takes a relatively broad view of publishing. Poster presentations, self-publishing, and blog posts are all reasonably considered. This isn’t the case for everyone, of course. But if librarians are meant to be at the forefront of a bold new world of scholarly dissemination, we need to walk the talk. This project may not have gone exactly as planned in the traditional sense, but even with its shortcomings, there is value to its existence. We are sharing it now, for the wisdom to be gleaned from its (limited) results and to talk about the experience we had from idea to peer review. We feel privileged to be able to take this approach and hope that it helps inspire others to explore a similar path if they find themselves in a similar situation.

Alternative dissemination is ok. [Editor’s Note: I’m obviously a fan of alternative dissemination.] We don’t need to publish in an academic journal to have our voices heard, to start a discussion, to make people think. Certainly the traditional peer-review model has its place, but it is not always the best way to reach your audience. We cannot expect scholarly communications to evolve if we aren’t willing to take the lead by example.

Sounds like a great research opportunity….

Alison Skyrme is the Special Collections Librarian at the Ryerson University Library and Archives, and an instructor in the Film + Photographic Preservation and Collections Management graduate program at Ryerson. Alison holds a Master of Information from the University of Toronto, 2015, and specializes in the management of photographic collections. She is currently the Image Arts liaison librarian. She tweets at @A_Skyrme.

Jane Schmidt has worked in collections management at Ryerson University in Toronto since she graduated from University of Alberta in 2004. She has previously presented and published on issues related to monograph acquisitions including weeding, demand driven acquisitions and budget management. She is presently the Engineering liaison librarian. Her current research interests include Little Free Libraries, public libraries, political economy and dinosaurs, thanks to her 5 year old son Elliott. She tweets at @janeschmidt and blogs at The Incidental Academic Librarian.

Curtis Sassur currently serves as the Archivist and Coordinator of Archives & Special Collections at Ryerson University. Curtis holds a Masters of Information Studies (MISt) from the University of Toronto, and a BA in philosophy from the University of Guelph. Curtis' current research interests include the Canadian cultural donation/tax credit system and the increasing encroachment of private sector paradigms and practices into the library sector. He tweets at @RU_Archivist.