Thursday, August 23, 2012

Initiation Pain Level: Zero, by Anthony Helm

About 17 months ago I joined a new community, one that I had only ever imagined myself joining about a dozen times before. But the entrance was barred, I believed, by the lack of a degree. Specifically, I became a part of the library community, and I did it without an MLIS degree. Much to my surprise, I was not alone, though I still refrain from calling myself a “librarian.” Librarians, after all, have earned the title through years of study, practice and/or a combination of both. Nevertheless, I was welcomed to the community and am quite happy to be here. Of course, it helped that the library staff and administration here at Dartmouth College Library made my transition a smooth one.

Before I go into how they managed that, allow me to provide a little background. I have been bouncing, albeit slowly, between technology positions (computers, multimedia) and teaching positions (Japanese, English, technology) for a number of years, ultimately bringing the two together as an academic technologist. I came to Dartmouth four years ago to head up the Arts & Humanities Resource Center (AHRC), which provided technology and teaching support to A&H faculty. During the economic crisis of the past few years, Dartmouth saw a lot of reorganization and the AHRC as it existed was no more. I applied for and was hired as the Head of Digital Media and Library Technologies in the spring of 2011.  That’s how I joined one of the biggest organizations on campus, with close to 150 staff members and probably the largest population of student employees, too. Despite having heard some rumors about the library community here from friends who work there, I still didn’t know what to expect. I have since learned that our library takes “community” very seriously. Here are some of the things we do to promote that:

Two or three times a year we run new employees through a library orientation process. Over the course of six weeks, the group spends up to an hour in each of the library’s departments (e.g. cataloging/metadata, acquisitions, interlibrary loan) and affiliate locations (e.g. special collections library, biomedical library, storage library), getting to know the staff in each location as well as gaining an understanding of the work done there and the role that department plays in the overall library organization. The orientation begins and ends with sessions with library administration. While the immediate benefits seem obvious, there is an additional benefit, too. The group of new hires is itself comprised of staff from around the library, which helps you make personal connections beyond your own department.

Candidate Presentations and Hiring
As you may expect, we do a fair amount of hiring throughout the library. For all professional positions, the candidates are expected to do a presentation. What is unusual is that the presentations are open to the entire library staff. Having gone through the experience myself, you can imagine the surprise on candidate’s faces when they have an audience of 50 people. What’s more, all staff members are invited to weigh in on the candidates through an open online feedback form. You may be a library programmer, but your opinion of the biomedical librarian candidate is just as valued. We’ve talked to candidates who have commented that the audience for the presentation was not only memorable in comparison to other interviews, but also that the diverse audience sent a strong message of library community. Oh, and once hired, there is almost always a welcoming event that is open to all staff.

All-Staff Meetings
Twice a year we have all-staff meetings. But if everyone’s in a meeting, who’s taking care of the Library? On all-staff meeting days, the program is run twice, with a morning session and an afternoon session. This allows staff to come at a time that is most convenient, while still keeping our service desks open. The meetings usually begin with introduction of new staff (sensing a theme here?) before launching into programs that are designed to inform the community of projects or changes, and may also include invited guests from other parts of campus. One all-staff meeting also becomes our annual “Inspiring Ideas Conference.” After opening comments and introductions, a keynote session is followed by break-out sessions where staff present to other staff on activities, tools, and services provided throughout the library. Past sessions have included coping with collection disasters (work, home, community), personal finance tools available through library resources, an insider’s look at the University Press of New England (UPNE), and hardware and software available for personal use through the media center.

Our organization also maintains a social support group known as the Dartmouth College Library Staff Association. You can see on the DCLSA home page  that the purpose of the group is three-fold:
  • Promote communication and cooperation among staff in the library through membership and participation in the DCLSA; 
  • Provide a scholarship fund that offers members partial tuition reimbursement for continuing education courses or programs; 
  • Promote staff morale and social relationships by welcoming new staff, administering staff welfare funds and sponsoring social or educational events

The events throughout the year are well-attended.

Taken altogether, I honestly can say that there is not another department or organization on campus that I’d rather be a part of. I’m glad to be a staff member of the library, and I do feel the initiation pain level was just about zero, without even a spoonful of sugar.

Anthony Helm is the Head of Digital Media and Library Technologies at Dartmouth College. Once in a great while, he tweets @kajiai, but you can contact him more easily by emailing him at

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