Tuesday, March 21, 2017

My Milk Bowl Brings All the Cats to the Yard: Some Thoughts on Faculty Outreach

You know that phrase, "herding cats"? I sometimes think it was invented to describe what it's like to work with faculty when you're an academic librarian. Please don't misunderstand. I have some amazing faculty colleagues (and plenty of them read my blog regularly). Further, and I know this next thing sounds like a joke, my best friend is a member of the faculty at a college where I used to work. Regardless, faculty are as diverse and hard to round up a group as cats. So, working on that idea, I'd like to share some of the ways I've metaphorically put a bowl of milk out in the yard and made working with me and with the library more appealing to members of the faculty.

First things first: get to know them. Find out about their interests, both professional and personal. Bonus points if you find out you have something in common. I got my foot in the door with a communication professor because of a shared love of Godzilla, and with a political science professor because of a shared love of a particular director. I made serious points with a provost because I was the one to let him know that his favorite poet was coming out with a new collection.

Next, be the first or one of the first people to make contact with new faculty. If you go out of your way to make them feel comfortable and welcome at your institution, they'll start to come to you for things they need - even non-library things. Also, if you build a relationship with the junior faculty in a department, you can sometimes parlay it into relationships with senior faculty. That political science professor I mentioned above? He helped me to get his department chair to answer my emails finally.

Another thing you need to do is show up to their events. Is that creative nonfiction writing instructor giving a reading of a new essay? Go. The biochemistry professor is hosting an open lab period? Go. If you really want to get on their good side, try hosting faculty events in the library. We had a faculty scholarship series at a previous job, and I'm starting to work on plans to create something similar here.

Those three ideas can be boiled down to one theme: be a good colleague. If you want to collaborate with faculty, show them that you are connecting with them for more reasons than fulfilling library needs. Faculty outreach needs to be about the connection, and then you can build it into collaboration. You want to demonstrate that you have a lot to offer.

By the way, I first got to know my best friend when I expressed interest in her research. She teaches animal cognition (among other things) and she had a rat lab when she first started at that institution. I asked some questions and next thing I knew, I was helping her socialize a litter of rat babies (pictured below). The library at that institution already had a good relationship with the psychology department, and our connection strengthened it even more.

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What do you think? Could you use these techniques? If you've had successful faculty outreach, did you use techniques similar to what I have listed above? Something I didn't mention? Please share!

p.s. I know it is probably bad form to use a picture of cute baby rats in a post that has cats in the title, but oh well. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Coffee is Not Just for Closers: Tips from a Recovering Salesman, by Matt Bird

The term “salesman” conjures negative emotions and stereotypes: sleazy mustachioed Glengarry Glen Ross slicksters, lying through their crocodile smiles, and grabbing Grandma’s last penny. We have all met these salespeople. We dislike these salespeople. Yet these salespeople take our money. How? I can tell you, because I used to be one of them.

In my eleven years of sales experience—mostly management—I was exposed to an array of training sessions on closing sales. It isn’t mysterious; it is a process of connection. Salespeople convince you to part with your cash/credit limit, for items you probably don’t need, because they connect with you—putting you at ease, gaining your trust, and ensuring you feel empowered.

The “art” of connection is a necessary need for better customer service in public libraries. It retires the stereotype of the stern, unapproachable, introverted librarian. It also increases library usage statistics. Higher usage statistics hopefully translate to your facility and job staying funded.

To clear up a misconception: “introverted” does not equal “lack of soft skills.” However, that is the association. If you are looking toward job fields where you interact with people and are worried about your interpersonal skills, here are things I do on a daily basis, acquired from my time in sales, to connect with co-workers and patrons in the public library where I work.

Smile. Smile. Smile. Smiling puts other people at ease. It doesn’t trigger the evolved spider-sense our brains developed to recognize danger. Smiling de-escalates and creates calm. Keep control of your emotions and how they are displayed in the professional setting. Do not bring your baggage to work. Smile and say hello to every co-worker you pass during the day and to every patron who walks into your department.

Understand Code-Switching. In linguistics, code-switching signifies shifts in language, usually from a form of dialect to a standard variation. Hence, you don’t talk to your friends in the same way you address your grandparents. Life isn’t Gilmore Girls. In the professional world, address others professionally. No cursing, no commonly objectionable conversations, and never demean someone else.

Connecting. Asking someone for help is intimidating. It is easy to assume that patrons understand we are here to help. They do not and will not unless you connect with them. Speaking as the manager of a department where customer interactions can take up to an hour or longer, the initial connection is highly important. Greet people. Assess them. What does their mood seem like? What are they wearing? Make general, obvious, non-offensive statements. If it’s winter and they are bundled up, a simple, “Cold out there, isn’t it?” will go a long way to put the patron at ease. When they leave, tell them thanks for stopping in. Throw a, “If you need anything else, you know where to find us” out there. As long as you never set yourself up for an argument, these types of interactions will ensure that the patron enjoys their time and gets the most out of the help you provide.

Another example of connection is my opening paragraph. I explained a common scenario to align your interest with mine so you will continue reading and become more open to advice. Devious, I know.
Personal space. Invasion of personal space is terrible. I dislike it. You dislike it. It’s a trap easily tripped if you aren’t careful. Working side by side with someone is a reality. Just like at the dinner table, never reach across. Ask for materials to be passed or switch places. If you happen to work with a group, ensure that you give attention to all members to ensure inclusion. A simple glance while you speak to quiet group members traverses miles.

Coffee. It isn’t just for closers. Help yourself, but always use breath mints.

An MLS is a degree in adaptation. It will not teach you all the skills you need for any given library job. Most library schools will leave you woefully unprepared for interpersonal interaction. It is your job as a future information professional to find ways and people to help you to bolster your soft-skills. Process the aforementioned connection techniques and you will develop better work environments and relationships with patrons and coworkers.

Matt Bird is the Special Collections Manager at Vigo County Public Library in Terre Haute, IN. Between sales and librarianship, Matt taught classical literature at Indiana State University. He still teaches in the ISU Honors program on the subjects of book and library history. He can be reached at mebird@indiana.edu or on Twitter and Instagram: @bird_point9186.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

“Fail Better” -- But How, Exactly?, by Laura Braunstein

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
                                          -- Samuel Beckett, “Worstward Ho” (1983)

“Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
                                          -- Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

I’m learning something new this year. (Never mind what it is.) I’ve been struck by how this process has an emotional dimension that throws me right back to my early 20s, when so much in my adult life was new, professionally and personally. Now that I’m apparently middle aged, I thought that I wouldn’t get discouraged anymore, or so quickly fall into self-doubt. But I was wrong: every frustration brings back the same emotional experience of those earlier frustrations, half my life ago.

And yet -- I am finding it easier to move past the setbacks, and more satisfying to persist. What’s the difference between then and now? I believe it’s because I now know a few ways to get through it, to have the discipline to work at the constant slog of improving, to keep going. I’m better at what Beckett called “failing better.” And I finally believe that failure – both the small, incremental failures along the way and the potential failure of a great investment of time, focus, and energy -- is not a referendum on my worth as a human being.

This may be sacrilege for someone of my generation to say, but I think Yoda was wrong. Sure, in a literal sense there is only doing, or not doing; but sometimes trying and doing badly – very badly -- is a way of getting better at simply doing.

Maybe you have already heard that. [Editor’s Note: I have quoted Jake the Dog on this website.] What you might be missing are the actual concrete strategies to help you keep doing badly in the face of warnings, explanations, the damnation of faint praise, and other discouragements. How, exactly, does one “fail better”? Here are a few suggestions:
  • Commit to failing for a given amount of time, or a given amount of tries. For instance, spend 10-15 minutes, every day, failing. Have no goals other than spending that time. The objective is not, “I’m going to knit a sweater by the end of the month” but “Every day I’m going to spend 15 minutes with this yarn and these needles, and knit some crap.” If you’re trying a Couch-to-5K, understand that the program is predicated on your failing, for weeks, to actually run a 5K. You may be miserable at times, and you’ll just want to quit. Don’t.
  • Save or record your failures. Write down how many minutes you spend each day squawking on the clarinet or writing crappy code. Have a folder called “Shitty First Drafts” and put a shitty first draft in it every day. Even if you never ever look at them again, your early failures may contain ideas to expand upon once you feel more confident. Documentation of the specific places or processes where you tend to screw up or get frustrated is also valuable information.
  • Ask for help from mentors, but be very realistic about your expectations of their time and energy, particularly if they are volunteering (as opposed to someone from whom you are taking paid lessons). Getting a quick email that says, “This works, do more of it; this doesn’t work, try something different” is valid and useful feedback, and more likely to foster your eventual independence. Beware of mentors who seem to have ulterior motives, or who seem to be overly invested in your success -- or, sad to say, who interpret your request for help as having ulterior motives. (A whole ‘nother guest column could be written about effective ways to be a mentee.)
  • Share the fact that you are trying, even if you don’t share your failures. Make sure -- and this may be counterintuitive advice -- to share with people who are not experts in the thing you are trying to do, but rather are experts in supporting you. Ask your partner, not a published poet, to read your first few pathetic poems. Eventually you’ll want an expert opinion, but the point of sharing early failures is not to get feedback but to get the support to keep trying in the face of the drudgery of failure. These are the people in your life to whom you can say, merely, “I did this and I failed” and they will say “yay, go fail at it again.”
  • Or, don’t share. Fail privately if that’s what works best for you. There’s no reason that you have to broadcast your attempts. Failure does not have to be a social process, or be out there on every social media account. It is okay to take some time alone and apart to work on something that only you know about. Failure can be very humbling and it can demand a lot of humility. You may feel more comfortable keeping those feelings to yourself.
  • Find something to inspire you to keep failing -- a song, a quotation, a book, or an activity like running or meditating or wandering in the woods or singing loudly and off-key while alone in your car. Every time I know I’m going to fail at something new, I play a song that was recorded the month that I was born: “The first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry anymore.”

There is no last word on failure (until, of course, you die -- which in itself is not a failure: think of how long you got to live!), but eventually you’ll feel like you’ve failed enough that one of your efforts might represent something approaching a qualified success. By all means, share it. Let it go out into the world. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. But remember to honor the failure that got you there, the missteps and the shitty first drafts crumpled in the wastebasket and the stupid ideas that finally led to the ones that might not have succeeded, exactly, but at least failed better than all of the other ones.

Laura Braunstein is the Digital Humanities Librarian at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. She has two children, two cats, one husband, and a hell of a lot of stuff to get done. She would like either Rachel Bloom or Julia Louis-Dreyfus to play her in a movie. Follow her on Twitter at @laurabrarian.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

I Was Wrong, But I'm Trying to Learn

The tweet up there is the beginning of a long-ish thread. Each tweet (I highly recommend reading it in its entirety) made me catch my breath. I have been wrong about so many of the same topics. I'm sure there are a lot of us who can identify. I was originally planning to write something about community building for today, but then I saw Crocker's thread and knew I had to write something similar for LtaYL.

So, here are some things about which I have been wrong, oh so very wrong wrongity wrong, with a focus on library-centric ideas.

It's my job to make libraries better for marginalized populations and people of color. Oh, the arrogance in that thought. It makes me cringe just reading it, but I really believed that a few years ago. The idea that I was a knight in shining armor, no matter how well intentioned, still centered my experience and my role in fighting racism in higher ed and in libraries. Further, it ignored the voices of people already in the room. Yes, I do need to fight racism and sexism and transphobia and other prejudices whenever and wherever I can, but one of the most important things I can do as a librarian - and as a library administrator - is to shut my mouth and listen.

If there is nothing in my library's collection that makes my skin crawl, then I'm not doing my job. I can't be a first amendment purist anymore. Sure, the first amendment doesn't strictly apply to the work I do since it discusses government restricting speech, and I've always worked at private institutions. The thing is, I still took it as my job to represent culture in all its various expressions on my shelves. No, we can't ignore the Nazis - either in the past or in our present - but I can no longer blithely buy the kinds of books that represent Holocaust Denier theories as fact. I now know I've given a platform to hate speech, and that bothers me more than I can ever explain. I know this may be a little confusing to read, so let me put it in concrete terms for you: this change in philosophy is why I bought Glenn Beck in the past but refuse to buy Milo Yiannopoulos now.

Diversity initiatives are the answer. This is another complicated mess of an idea, but the core of why it is problematic is that the initiatives are just the beginning. In fact, Harvard Business Review has written about how diversity programs fail. Inclusion and acceptance are not the same thing. By putting all our emphasis on creating diversity, we end up working hard to get people on campus or in the library without considering making people feel welcome and heard and part of the conversation once they arrive. Even more, we need to stop putting the onus on the people around us who are members of one or more minority groups. I was raised Jewish and I'm a practicing Buddhist, and have repeatedly been expected to be the voice of "my people" in professional circumstances, so you'd think with my experiences I'd have grasped this sooner. However, my conditional whiteness (I'm in a minority but I don't read that way at a glance) has made things smoother for me. And one of my favorite definitions of privilege is that the biggest benefit you gain is the ability to be blind to the benefits it affords you.

Back to the thread that got me thinking in this way:

I'm with you, Katherine. Writing this post was hard, knowing the mistakes I've made in the past and knowing the mistakes I'll make in the future.

Despite frequent accusations that I am really a Time Lord, the truth is I'm human. I'm going to make mistakes. The important thing to remember moving forward is that I need to learn from them.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Just For Fun: Yippie Kayak, Other Buckets

I know I'm late to this particular party, but wow I'm in love with this show. I'm going to try to write this with minimal spoilers, and as a result I'm not going to be able to write about some of my favorite things about the show.

My favorite thing about this show? How intersectional it is. There are two Hispanic women characters, Diaz and Santiago, and neither are a stereotype. Also two African American men, also not stereotypes. In fact, the only stereotypical cop behavior - donut eating anyone? - comes from two older, white men. Later on in the series, one of the characters says something like "I liked that movie up until the end when it got a bit transphobic." A character on a prime time, network television show that says the word "transphobic"? Sign me up. (One caveat: this series is fatphobic at times, but that's the only drawback for me.)

Another thing to love is that characters are allowed to grow and change. They are so relatable! The relationship between Amy Santiago and Jake Peralta is one, small example of this growth. I adore watching Gina grow up and yet not grow up. Some characters soften over time, and others harden (but in good ways). Even secondary characters have growth! Detective Lohank, anyone?

The fact that they don't shy away from hard issues also pleases me. Subjects like police brutality, racism, sexism, and homophobia are in the mix on a regular basis. Best part? The show also doesn't rely on stale and boring tropes to make these topics fit the comedy of the show... like the time there was a joke about same sex marriage, but the joke was that they were so worried it wouldn't stay legal that they rushed through the ceremony.

When I first announced on Twitter that I was going to watch this, someone (I don't remember who - sorry!) asked me to let them know my favorite running gag. I also have a couple of favorite characters to share:

Favorite running gag: Die Hard. Jake Peralta's obsession with this movie series is beyond over the top, and it reminds me so much of how obsessed I get about things - like Brooklyn Nine-Nine for instance. The title of this post comes from an episode where Jake's obsession gets to be the basis of an entire episode.

Favorite regular character: Captain Ray Holt. Here is a man who is open and honest about who he is - a gay, African American police officer - and does not let it stop him from going after his dreams. The moments when he can admit his own mistakes and grows as a result are some of my favorite moments in the series. I recently took a Buzzfeed quiz, "Which Brooklyn Nine-Nine Character Are You?" and even though I didn't game the quiz in the slightest, I got Holt as my result:

Favorite recurring character: Doug Judy. If you've watched this show, you can probably guess why I adore him. He's got charisma and charm and is all about playing into your stereotypical expectations while also flouting them. By the time I got to his most recent appearance on the show, I actually clapped when I saw him come on screen. And oh wow when he sings...

Okay, so if you already know this series, what's your favorite thing? And if you haven't watched it yet, have I convinced you to give it a go?