Thursday, October 8, 2015

My (Library) Life with Invisible Disabilities, by Jessica Schomberg

My first job in libraries was as a page in a public library. Shortly after I started, a librarian tried to have me fired because I have diabetes. This isn’t speculation, this was the actual reason given. And while this occurred after the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, it was well before the passage of the 2008 Amendments, which explicitly covers people like me, who can mitigate our condition with medication. Fortunately for me, the library director had been diagnosed with diabetes the week before, or my life story might have gone in a very different direction.

(Are you wondering, dear reader, whether I got diabetes because I’m an “innocent victim” or because I “deserved it”? You’re not the first. Keep reading.)

This blog post was prompted by several things. By Ta-Nehisi Coates’s  Between the World and Me, which presents an embodied view of discrimination. By a blog post by Netanel Ganin (@OpOpinions) in which he talks about disabilities as a social construct rather than a medical one, a post which has caused me to completely rethink who I am in this world. But it was mostly due to Jessica Olin’s use of anime eyes in her call for blog posts. Who can resist anime eyes?

How do you cure a social ill? How do you define people with disabilities? How do you make libraries accessible to people with disabilities? I have struggled for a long time about whether or not to identify as disabled. By calling myself disabled, am I being disrespectful to my sister, who has very visible disabilities and whose economic and career prospects are impossibly constrained? I have a job that I enjoy: I can accumulate savings: I can “pass.” And after all, it’s only when my body doesn’t work “normally” that I feel disabled… or is it?

About a decade after I was not fired from my first library job, after receiving my shiny MLIS, I was looking for full-time library jobs (like you do). And one of the people who worked at one of the places I interviewed told me not to disclose my medical history or I wouldn’t be hired. Not because I wasn’t qualified (I was), not because I didn’t have a good performance record (I did), but because I occasionally need to take time to keep my body working in its ideal condition and that makes people uncomfortable.

(No, dear reader, I’m not going to name that library. Just imagine it’s where you work, because that’s close enough to the truth.)

Now, fast forward another decade, and I am employed in a satisfying career and now also supervise, mentor, or otherwise provide leadership to a team that includes other people with disabilities. Knowing what I know about living with my own disabilities, living in a world where I am/we are repeatedly identified as sub-optimal, what does that mean for me-as-leader? It means:
  1. Recognizing that control is an illusion.
  2. Recognizing that different people with disabilities are first and foremost different people. Not all people with disabilities are magically going to get along. Not all disabilities are the same. I try to go into conversations by asking what people need to succeed, what impediments they’re dealing with, and by discussing work expectations of ourselves and others. If someone doesn’t trust me enough to share that, I try to work with people they do trust to make sure they have the resources and support they need even if it’s not coming from me. To re-state: making sure that the people on my team have what they need to do their jobs is more important than being either rule-bound or being recognized as their rescuer.
  3. Recognizing that many of us have swallowed the idea that productivity is more important than people. [Editor’s Note: Yes!] This sometimes means explicitly pointing out when work expectations are unreasonable, or harmful, or cause us to miss opportunities. If we’re not willing to examine how some of our practices exclude co-workers from full participation, how are we going to be mindful of our users? And vice versa.
  4. Recognizing that I’ve swallowed the same delusions that non-disabled people have. From another angle, recognizing that I’m part of my team. My energy level varies greatly depending on what’s going on with my body or how untenable I’ve let my schedule become. I have spent decades trying to “pass” or “overcome” my disabilities. I’m not sure that the profession  would have let me in if I hadn’t done those things, but now that I’m in a leadership position I feel an obligation to call out that expectation. That means letting my coworkers who have emotional leadership skills do that work without feeling the need to be Mr./Ms./Mx. Amazing Perfect Leader. It also means allowing myself to take the breaks I need without beating myself up. Because I’ve internalized those messages about normality and productivity, this is sometimes incredibly hard for me. It is thanks to many kind, generous, and sensible library folk on Twitter that I’ve been able to make progress on this.
  5. Resisting the urge to bop people on the nose when they say “everyone has a disability.” No. They don’t. I suck at math, but I haven’t been almost fired for sucking at math. I haven’t had to fight with insurance companies for the medicine that keeps me alive because I suck at math. I haven’t had to restrict my activities and monitor every aspect of my daily life because I suck at math. I have to do all that because my immune system killed my pancreas.

(We’re at the end, dear reader. And going back to the first question, I’m not a victim unless you make me one. And no one deserves diabetes, or any other type of chronic illness.)

For more on this topic, see Susan Wendell’s The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability.

Jessica Schomberg is currently serving as Library Services Department Chair at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where her other hats include Media Cataloger and Assessment Coordinator. She tweets as @schomj.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Continuity or Revolution: Choose Your Own Adventure

A little while ago I saw this tweet:
I shared that with a friend who then introduced me to the idea of "Kuhnian Paradigm Shift." Thomas Kuhn was a philosopher who looked at scientific development. He proposed that, unlike what had been conceived previously (and what I mostly learned in k-12, decades after his most important work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published), that scientific progress is not a steady thing. Rather than being an inevitable march forward, science goes through longer periods of tinkering and refinement, interspersed with major upheaval.

This strikes me as deeply relevant to libraries and librarians. Bringing this idea down to the day-to-day level, I don't think continuity is the worst thing in the world. We librarians are human (well, most of us are) who are supporting the needs of our community, who are also human, and humans tend not to like change. I'm including myself in this category. Unexpected change can bring both sleep and tummy troubles. And yet, I also consider myself an innovator. Practical innovation is a particular passion of mine. Seeing that tweet and subsequently learning about Kuhn has me thinking about change in libraries and higher education, and about how it happens both quickly and slowly. It also has me thinking about how we bring about how we and our communities react to them.

So what am I trying to say here? I guess it's that we need to be mindful of our own practices and preferences, but also recognize that not everyone feels the same. I've heard "because we've always done it that way" used in so many different ways. For some it's, "but I'm open to other ways of doing it." For others it's, "and I'm really afraid of changing because I'm a slow learner and I know how to do it this way." And yet others mean it to say, "and can we please change it yesterday?" Whether you're a stalwart champion of the status quo; or a tinkerer who makes things incrementally better; or are the Galileo of the library world who is going to cause upheaval on an inconceivable level... think about that question up there every once in a while. Think about our preference for continuity - not as a bad thing nor as a good one - before you choose the next step.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Just For Fun: Fire Bad, Tree Pretty

Here's the thing about being a fan of BtVS: it's a kind of equalizer. People who watched it when it was originally broadcast as well as people who are just finding it now have this lovely thing in common. It's not just the memories of Cordelia hating then loving then hating Xander, no. It's also about a common vocabulary. I once said, "Fire bad. Tree Pretty," to a friend, and he knew exactly what I meant (which was that I was too tired from doing hard but important work to have a coherent conversation). That's the best part of being a member of a fandom: the common vocabulary. I'm not going to try to convince you to watch this show. If you've clicked through to read this, I'm assuming you've already seen it. I'm assuming you love this show, too.

Now, let's talk about what makes it so fab:

Rupert Giles

He's a librarian. He's British. He's hilarious.

William the Bloody, a.k.a. Spike

Let's be 100% clear: when it comes to all of Buffy's many love/sex interests, I have always been and will always be Team Spike. He's more fun than any of the rest. He values her for her, plus let's not forget that fantastic leather coat.


Also, I adore Anya. From her fear of bunnies to her love of capitalism, she was a great part of the show.

Once More With Feeling

And then there's the music episode. Yes, I know all the words to all the songs by heart. Yes, even "They Got The Mustard Out."

So how about you? Did I include your favorite thing about the show? If I missed it, let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Lifting One Another Up

I was recently asked to describe my ideal job, and the first thing that came to mind was that I want to work somewhere that I can help support and promote and lift up others, but especially other library professionals. I was fortunate to work for some amazing library directors and with some truly supportive coworkers, so I know this isn't a unique perspective. I'll never forget the time my director at my immediate past job sat me down and said something like, "We've talked before about how I can help you do your job better, but today I'd like to ask you how I can help you progress in your career." It blew my mind, really. And that conversation was fortunately timed, because it was shortly after I'd started to get the inkling that I might want to be a library director myself. I confessed to that ambition and he responded along the lines of, "okay, let's get you ready to apply for those jobs," and gave me a specific lists of things I needed to cultivate. He even pulled me into meetings with vendors so I could get an idea of what to expect.

I've tried to live up to their examples as best I could, to support and build up the people who work for me and who turn to me for advice. I've always felt this was important, this is what we're supposed to do. This ideal is so much a part of my day to day that I frequently forget it's not everyone's ideal. I was abruptly reminded by a recent post from The Library Loon, "Building One Another Up." It's worth a read, but I think the most important passage is:
"It is so easy to tear people down. So easy. It is so hard to build them up, not least when that option hardly seems to be on the table."
So let's do it. Let's put this option on the table. Let's talk about ways administration can support their staff:
  • Making sure everyone has professional development opportunities, even if it means giving up our own opportunities on occasion.
  • Not taking credit for the ideas of others when things go well.
  • Taking some of the blame when things don't go well.
  • Working to and with people's strengths.
Let's talk about ways to support coworkers:
  • Offering help as often as we ask for it.
  • Being open and friendly about things when we disagree.
  • Concentrate on behaviors and not personality traits when things go wrong.
  • Sharing the spotlight.
  • Phrasing things kindly and honestly when giving feedback.

Am I always a paragon of these kinds of behaviors? No. I'll admit to that time I basically told a coworker to shut up. I'll also admit that communicating with different kinds of people within the realm of libraries was a learning curve for me. But my instincts are to be kind and supportive.

What are some ways you've built people up?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Long and Winding Road to Librarianship, by Natalie DeJonghe

Once upon a time, in a land far away, I was a high school English teacher. At the ripe old age of 22 I was convinced I had my life plan all worked out. Teach long enough to work off my fellowship, get my MA and then my PhD in literature, teach college, and live happily ever after in academia. I really enjoyed teaching and was lucky enough to have student taught in a school with a great staff and administration, so this plan seemed completely feasible.

I like to think I was a fairly decent teacher and that I did some good in the world. But that wasn’t the whole story. There was a teacher in my department that I did not get along with; we will call her Ms. PITA. She had a tendency to run students out of her class which left her with classes of 11 or 12 students while other teachers were handling classes of 35. I was not subtle about the fact that I thought this was complete and utter crap that placed an underserved burden on me and my colleagues. My colleagues told me they appreciated my willingness to say things no one else would. My principal, on the other hand, told me I wasn’t a team player. Five years of repeatedly being told I wasn’t a team player and that I had a bad attitude. Five years of listening to that while absolutely nothing was done about the fact that Ms. PITA wasn’t pulling her weight and was bullying kids out of her classes. So I left.

I moved back home and through a series of very fortunate events I ended up in librarianship. I was excited for a fresh start in a new career. Only this time, I was determined to be more of a team player. And what my principal had taught me was that being a team player meant keeping my mouth shut and my head down. So that’s what I did. I went to work, I did my job, I didn’t volunteer for things and I didn’t want to be involved. I was my own little island of librarianship. So I had a great new career plan, go to work: answer reference questions, get my MLIS, and spend the rest of my days as a librarian. 

There was, however, one small snag in my plan. One of the problems currently plaguing librarianship is that there are a whole lot of librarians and not a whole lot of full-time positions. With many libraries receiving less funding, full-time positions are decreasing in favor of having multiple part-time staff. This was the situation in my library. We had five reference librarians, one full-time and four part-time. Our full-time librarian was a middle aged guy who had no intention of leaving anytime soon so my chance of advancement was zero.

After I got the degree,I started looking for full-time jobs and was very fortunate to come across the position I now have. When I first started, I referred to myself as a “sort of” librarian. My job involves doing a lot of training for library staff and deals exclusively with e-books. I have zero contact with print books in my job and work in an office building instead of a library. I had my degree and I worked with libraries but didn’t really feel like I was a librarian and, to a certain extent, I felt like I was trespassing when trying to find my place in the field. But to be honest, this didn’t bother me a great deal at first because I was happy being my own little island.

This has changed for the better over the last two years as I inadvertently became less and less of an island, mainly through the influence of my boss and Twitter. I’ve met a lot of people, many not working in traditional library positions, and became involved in a number of projects and committees. After five years of being in the field, I finally feel like I’m a legitimate part of it. I think this is something that many people in the field struggle with, especially those coming to librarianship as a second career.

There is no short and simple checklist of what makes a librarian. No one size fits all job description or clearly marked path from start to finish. These are not bad things but they are things that can make it difficult for people to feel like they have a place where they belong in the field. It’s important to remember that just because your job doesn’t look like someone else’s idea of what librarianship is, doesn’t mean you don’t belong. 

Natalie DeJonghe is the e-book trainer/coordinator for the eRead Illinois project where she enjoys smooshing her education and librarianship backgrounds together in all manner of entertaining ways. She tweets as @InkyLibrarian.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Gender, Emotional Labor, and Anger: Some Unfocused Thoughts About Librarianship

I've tried to start this post a number of times, and it's kind of stumped me. I want to talk to you about the confluence of thinking about anger, gender, librarianship, emotional labor, and forward progression. As is often the case with topics that are important to me, my thinking is still kind of muddled and I've come to my blog with some solid ideas about questions to ask and some vague ideas about answers. I hope you'll bear with me as I work through this.

Idea #1: Gender
I've been reading and thinking and writing about gender, specifically the expression of gender in librarianship, lately. I'm co-writing an article about the role of gender in library leadership and all that research I'm consuming is making me think even more deeply about a topic that is close to my heart. I have plenty of personality traits that are seen as "female" but almost as many that are deemed "male," so it's been an interesting research project as I see things on the page that are or are not born out in my own leadership style.

Idea #2: Emotional Labor
If you're unfamiliar with the concept, let me introduce you to an idea that exploded in my mind when I first encountered it. This idea suddenly made sense of how tired I am at the end of a day when I mostly sat down. "Emotional labor" describes how we who work in service industries have to display a certain range of emotions during the course of our work life, how those emotions are part of the performance of our jobs. I'm not complaining here: I know I need to turn it on for our students, our faculty, and our staff. I want and need them to feel welcome and comfortable in the library. Some days it's easy, but some days it is hard work.

Idea #3: Anger
I've also recently been thinking about the ouvre of my writing in librarianship thus far, and how shouty I can be at times. There is so much good stuff in this field/industry, but there is also so much wrong and I - like most people I know - focus more on the negative. In the past, I might have seen that as a problem, but I'm starting to recognize that my anger can be useful because I do something with it. One of my favorite quotes about anger comes from a Buddhist philosopher/writer, Thích Nhất Hạnh, and I've been coming back to it in my mind almost daily. He says: "And if you have no compost, you have nothing to nourish the flower in you. You need the suffering, the afflictions in you." In my mind, that means, "it's okay to get angry or sad or whatever, just so long as you do something with it."

As I said above, these ideas are swirling around my head and I'm still trying to make sense of them. What I've been able to figure so far is that we are all going to have a range of emotions, and that we should expect and allow them. I've also concluded that people who work in libraries, especially people who work on the front lines, need down time - away from the front lines - on a regular basis. My other answer to the questions swirling around in my head is that this is true no matter your gender (or lack thereof). Women are going to get angry, drained, etc.  just as much as men (if you'll forgive my use of the false dichotomy of gender). I need to remember this as I work with my staff and I need to remember this as I manage myself.

How about you? How do you allow for the mess of human emotions in your working life?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Worrying About My Post-PhD Life, by Abigail Phillips


At the moment, I’m in the final months of working on my dissertation. This means writing and crying and writing (and if we’re being honest, whining sessions while drinking with fellow doctoral students). When I entered the PhD program, I had the lofty goal of becoming LIS faculty. Now, I’m uncertain. But why else would you get a PhD if not going tenure-tracked? Why don’t you want to work in academia? A not-to-be-named faculty member has asked me this question recently. Unfortunately, I’ve had a few eye-opening experiences while presenting and attending academic conferences. I’ve also had a few eye-opening experiences while living and breathing academia for the past three years. Articles like this one by Oliver Lee about leaving a self-proclaimed “best” tenure-track faculty job, or this one by Claire Shaw and Lucy Ward about the high rate of mental illness among academics, haven’t exactly encouraged me to seek out faculty positions for post-PhD life.

Instead, I’m wondering how or even if I can go back to public libraries. While working on my PhD, I’ve applied to a few librarian positions without much luck. Maybe I talked about my research too much. Maybe my local library system is tired of doctoral students abandoning positions once they graduate. There are a lot of other possible maybes. I honestly don’t know. Before entering the doc program, I worked for six years in a small, rural public library system in Southwest Georgia. First as a library assistant while I worked my MLIS and then as a librarian. I miss you, public library work. I miss you so much. But how can I express this to public library directors? How can I convince you that although I’m probably overqualified and definitely overeducated I still want to work in a library? What do PhD holders offer public and academic libraries? How do we apply to librarian positions?

Here’s where the “selling the PhD” part comes in. I think.

First, we’re trained researchers. We can construct, plan, and carry out an entire project essentially by ourselves (this is also called a dissertation). Often this research involves interviewing people, statistics, community assessments, marketing, and management (aka handling participants and doctoral committees). While academic librarians are known to conduct research, research by librarians is undervalued in public libraries. This is disappointing, because public libraries NEED research. They need more researchers researching them (this is me), but public librarians also need to be conducting research themselves. A recent post on this blog highlights the importance of research for public libraries. Research can mean many different things within the context of public libraries. A few examples: A lot of the wonderful work EveryLibrary does is research-based. Carrying out community assessments is a type of research. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is research, which more libraries should know about and use (

Second, we are AMAZING at project management. We did complete a dissertation. Our levels of amazingness may vary, but at the very least we successfully defended our dissertation, which means we convinced a small group of people we can manage a project and write about it.

Third, we are trained instructors. We’ve taught and maybe even developed courses while working on our PhDs. Through teaching, we’ve learned the delicate balance of classroom management, lesson planning, evaluation, and incorporating technology into education.

Fourth, we are skilled presenters and great at self-marketing. Okay. Maybe. Maybe not. However, we have presented our research, our passion for libraries, and ourselves during conferences, class sessions, informal meetings, professional networking and weird conversations in bars.

Some final thoughts:

Librarians with PhDs have so much to offer the practitioner world of librarianship. We just have to figure out how to promote our degree as an advantage not a disadvantage. It sounds weird to say that having a doctorate opens a lot of doors, because it closes almost as many. I wonder if there are other LIS PhDers like me out there. We have experience in the field, working as librarians, but then we veered towards academia, and then veered (or are in the process of veering) away. This is another situation when I honestly don’t know the answer. For the most part, everyone around me still seems to be striving for a tenure-track position at a Research I (R1) university. I would love to hear from those who aren’t going that direction or who aren’t sure if they are!

Abigail Phillips is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the School of Information at Florida State University. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on rural librarians as a source of support for rural cyberbullied young adults. She will defend her dissertation this spring, which means she will be graduating very, very soon and job-hunting in the meantime! You can find her on Twitter (@abigailleigh), her blog (, and Tumblr (