Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Joys of an Academic Calendar, or Another Reason I Love Being an Academic Librarian

Normally I try to make my posts general so they're accessible to librarians of every ilk. I don't always succeed, but I do make the attempt. However, I'm breaking my own rules with this entry because of a brief conversation I had last week. I was talking with someone who is new-ish to the life of an academic librarian about winter break, about taking advantage of the down time for projects. As we conversed, I realized that I've grown so accustomed to planning my work flow with these breaks in mind that I'd forgotten not everyone knows what it's like. So, this week is all about me waxing rhapsodic about the traditional academic calendar.

For one thing, being on an academic calendar gives me a different relationship with my community than I would get at any other kind of library. I'll never forget how it was described to me early on in my career: "As soon as you start to get sick of them, they go away, and as soon as you start to miss them, they come back." Of all the advice anyone has ever given me about my career, this piece holds the most truth. I really appreciate the rhythm of it. Sometimes, towards the end of summer, it gets too quiet in my library, but I know when I start feeling like that it means the semester will be starting soon. The flip side is also true. I can endure and sometimes even enjoy the frenzy of the last couple of weeks of the semester when due dates are looming and tempers are short. I can handle it because, if nothing else, I know it's always followed by some down time.

Speaking of down time, that's another reason I enjoy the flow of an academic calendar. There are chunks of the semester when I'm so busy that I can barely breathe, and those times can be exhilarating. Further, I know I'll have quiet times during the year when I can concentrate all of my efforts on projects that need sustained attention. In fact, I plan for it. I weeded our fiction collection over the course of two summers. I wrote an assessment plan for the library last summer. I'm weeding our small children's nonfiction collection during the winter break. Next summer I'm going to put into action the wayfinding plan I've been creating. (Also, although this isn't true for all of higher ed, both of the colleges at which I've worked had the week between Christmas and New Year's as a bonus vacation week.)

I assume there's a rhythm to the calendar of other kinds of libraries. I've heard rumblings about tax season and also about summer reading programs. After eight and a half years of living and dying by an academic calendar, though, I wouldn't have it any other way.

What about you? For other academic librarians: do you agree? For others: thoughts?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Working 9 to 5: Keeping Your Options Open, by John Kirriemuir

Keeping your options open. Having many irons in the fire. Having a quiver full of arrows. Not putting all your eggs in one basket. All of these are cliches, but in the trauma of the economy of the 2010s they highlight the inescapable truth: job security is a rarity, or even an illusion, and it’s best to have several potential (or even better, actual) income sources.

After several years in the early 1990s as a researcher in a library school, I landed the job of information officer at UKOLN. In a hugely lucky break, the first project I was handed was to develop a web magazine called Ariadne for the library sector. Inevitably, this meant dealing with lots of people in the library sector: contributers, academics, librarians, readers, and funders.

And it’s those people who formed my early contact network, that became crucial when I decided to quit working for university library research units in 2001 (the tipping point was being forced to listen to irrelevant all-morning presentations on information granularity), and go full-time self-employed. That network gave me multiple sources of income as a self-employed information professional, which I’ve used for over a decade.

What exactly is a self-employed information professional? Probably whatever you want it to be - “information professional” covers a very, very wide array of consultancy, advisory and research possibilities, in the public and private sectors. For me, the job title gets tailored to something more specific depending on the work I am pursuing or doing. This could be researching the use of digital games in libraries, or looking at unconventional methods of raising funding for public libraries, or justifying on cost/benefit grounds the continued funding of such a resource. But that’s just three of hundreds, if not thousands, of tasks carried out by people who are not salaried library staff.

Tempted by the lifestyle of the self-employed? It’s not glamorous. Yes, I’ve travelled a lot (60 times abroad, including 10 visits to the US of A), and that’s mostly funded out of my own pocket, not that of an employer. You have to be committed to the work; if you don’t work, then you don’t eat. And you have to be committed to making periods of time when you don’t work; otherwise, the madness of no down-time descends.

But the key thing, even if you are happy in your current job and it appears to be secure, is never to rule out working for yourself. Your employment circumstances may change. You, yourself, may change over the years, in what you are happy spending those brief waking hours doing. The library and information sector may change. No, wait ... ebooks, funding, digitisation, the Internet, massive book chains such as Borders - it *is* changing, and rapidly. At the very least, keeping your options open is a sensible and prudent strategy.

Two key things, from experience and watching others make “the leap”. First, don’t start thinking about doing self-employed work in the library sector the day you stop doing your “regular” job. It’s a bit late then. Start at least three months, preferably six months, before. That’s the time to start asking yourself important questions like: what are you good at, and what do you like doing (these may not be the same things)? Which organisations will pay you to do these things? Who will you need to contact? What is your online and personal profile like i.e. how will you convince the people who authorise funding to give you some, to work for them?

Second. Be considerate to everyone, no matter how junior they are, throughout your employed and self-employed career. One day you may find that the intern, or undergraduate, or junior researcher, is now an informatics programme funding manager, and you’re an informatics consultant. People have good memories, and long memories, and you’ll never know in what context you will meet, or need, them again. The information sector is also highly intermeshed; bad tempered people are known, and a negative reputation is difficult to shake off. Be a good person; not just for your career and future income, but just ... well, so you’re a good person.

Above all, keep your income options open. And, even though self-employed people generally make their own fortune, good luck in your endeavors.

John Kirriemuir is a researcher (Silversprite), a blogger (, and Twitterer (@wordshore).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Comfort Zone, Shmomfort Zone, or The Benefits of Presenting at Non-Libr* Conferences

I presented a paper at the Midwest Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association (MPCA/ACA) annual conference this year. My talk was titled   "Zombies 101: Humans vs. Zombies at a Small Academic Library," and it was part of the Libraries, Museums, and Collecting panel. The kinds of topics that were presented at that conference varied a lot, from the highly esoteric to the extremely practical. Presenters ranged from undergraduates (they have a fab undergraduate paper competition) to well established scholars. It was a bit overwhelming and intimidating at first, but overall I had an amazing time.

The best part of it, in retrospect, was stepping outside of the library science bubble/echo chamber. Yes, I was part of the library-related panel, but that was only one part of one day of a three-day conference. During the course of the entire thing, I talked to scholars who study the "Harry Potter" series, representations of disability in popular media, parenting magazines, and so on. One particularly good talk I attended was all about how the presenter uses the "Hunger Games" series to teach undergraduate teacher candidates about class and social structure. Most importantly, the MPCA/ACA annual has a mostly non-librarian audience. This gave me the opportunity to talk about what I'm doing and why libraries aren't just storehouses for books on college and university campuses to people outside of Biblioterra.

I don't know if I'll go back to that conference any time soon, since what I'm working on now doesn't quite fit topic-wise. However, there are other non-libr* presentation opportunities out there that might suit. Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not advocating a complete abdication of library science related conferences. For instance, I submitted a proposal to LOEX (wish me luck!) for the 2012 conference. I'm just saying that it's worth the time and effort to move beyond libr*, especially if we want to be seen as relevant.

What do you think?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Going Where the Road Takes You, or The Evolution of a Library Career, by Rob Sage

In 1991, I was a sophomore history major without a clue about what I wanted to do with my life, but pretty sure it would have nothing to do with business.  20 years later, I am the Business Librarian at Cal State Fullerton.  So, how did a kid from New York City with a distaste for capitalism, studying history at the University of South Carolina, end up as the Business Librarian for the largest business school on the West Coast?  It comes down to being able to recognize opportunities. The ability to change plans when opportunities present themselves is an important asset to anyone’s career.  The whole key is being flexible and patient.  Allow me to illustrate:

Opportunity #1: Wrong Way

I figured that archivist was a good profession for a history major, so I enrolled in the archives program at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Library and Information Science.  For a lot of reasons, the program just didn’t work out for me.  I was scared. What was I supposed to do now?  I definitely came close to quitting but I recognized an opportunity: I LOVED the intro to reference class I had to take as part of the archives program.  I switched tracks from archives to reference librarianship.  I also got a job doing evening & weekend reference at a small liberal arts college and did an internship at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.  An archivist died, but a reference librarian was born.

Opportunity #2: New York State Of Mind

I took a job back home in New York, at the Queens Borough Public Library (QBPL). Initially, I worked at a branch library and I hated it.  I mostly just told people if the new James Patterson book was in.  It was nothing like the in-depth research I was doing with the students at Chatham College or the researchers coming into the Carnegie Library. Worst of all, I couldn’t even put in for a transfer until I worked there for a year.  Then, I saw an announcement for a position that didn’t require the year’s wait.  It was with QBPL Special Services Department.  I was now going to be a Job Information Librarian! My job was to help people with their job searching skills.  Much of my work involved researching companies. I quickly discovered that I was very good at it and I really enjoyed it.

Opportunity #3: We’ve Gotta Get Outta This Place

There were two other important things I learned at the Job Information Center:
  1. Patrons of public libraries can be very difficult to deal with.
  2. New York is a hard place to live as an adult.
I needed to make a change. But, as much as I was desperate to leave QBPL, I knew that taking the wrong job would be just as bad as staying.  I was offered a position at a community college in New Jersey but I turned it down.  It was a great opportunity but it wasn’t the right opportunity. I would either have to commute to or move to New Jersey, meaning sitting in traffic for hours or moving to a place I knew I was going to leave eventually.  A few months later, I went to work for Long Island University (LIU) in Brooklyn.  It wasn’t perfect since I was still in New York, but it was a job that got me back into academia.  It was the right opportunity.  

Opportunity #4: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

LIU was a drastic improvement over QBPL and confirmed that academic librarianship was right for me. Still, I wanted out of NYC, so I never stopped applying for jobs.  After crisscrossing the country numerous times for interviews, I was offered a job as a “Temporary Full-Time Librarian” at Cal State Fullerton, but I was only offered a 1 year contract. I had a big decision to make. I weighed my options carefully and decided to take a chance.  I’ve now been at Cal State Fullerton for 12 years.

Opportunity #5: Everything In Its Right Place

Although I was hired as a generalist, I arrived the week after the previous Business Librarian left.  They needed someone to fill in fast, so I jumped right in. I maintained my generalist status for a few more years, but I was now known as a go-to guy for business. I really felt like I found my calling with business librarianship and I loved Cal State Fullerton.  I had opportunities at other schools to be their Business Librarian, but I turned them down to stay at Cal State Fullerton.  After a few years, my patience paid off and I officially became the Business Librarian at Cal State Fullerton.

We all like to think that we’re on a clear and straight career path, but almost none of us are.  There are twists and turns and forks in the road.   The key is to know yourself well enough so you’re aware of which opportunities are worth taking.  Be as flexible and as patient as you can and eventually you’ll have the fulfilling career that you want, not one that is forced on you.  

Rob Sage is the Business Librarian at Cal State Fullerton. He is on Twitter @svelteassassin.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

To Shush, or Not To Shush, That Is the Question...

...Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously noisy library patrons, or to ask them to be quiet, and by opposing end the noise. (My apologies to William Shakespeare for this bastardization of his work.)

Picture of Librarian Action Figure from Archie McPhee.

Sometimes I hate asking people in my library to be quiet. Partly it's because of the stereotype of the thing. It always makes me feel like I'm riffing on that scene from Ghostbusters where they first encounter a real ghost. Then there's the fact that it was one of the standard jokes my friends trotted out when I explained that I was going to get a master's degree in library and information science. "You need a master's degree to be a librarian? What are you going to take first? Shushing 101?" The main reason I hate it, though, is because I want members of my community to feel comfortable in my library. We never stop students from napping in here and we don't really mind when they move furniture around. I buy popular reading materials and host gaming events. My entire career has been about trying to get people to come into the library, and part of me worries that if I shush them too much they won't want to come back.

And yet, there comes a point when you just have to tell people to hush. I try to be polite about it, as in: "I'm going to have to ask you to be a bit quieter. Your voices are carrying." If that doesn't work, I get a bit more forceful: "You need to be quieter in this area." Once in a while, I even cite a higher power (on campus): "Don't make me tell your coach about this." Earlier this week I had to shush a group of student workers - sure this is their workplace, but it's still a library. Besides, I know that the library is valued by students in our community precisely because it's a quiet place they can study.

So what do you think? How do you feel about maintaining quiet or even silent parts of the library? Am I being too stuffy? 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Interview Red Flags, by Joe Hardenbrook

Much has been written on the topic of “interview red flags” – but it’s mostly from the employer perspective: what to watch out for when interviewing candidates. But what about the view from the interviewee? Here are few red flags—along with a couple anecdotes—that should make you run and scream from a library interview.

Wildly Different Answers
During an interview day you meet with lots of people. Often you get asked the same questions over and over. Turn the tables! When appropriate, ask the different people you meet the same questions. For example: How would you describe the library’s organizational culture? What do you see as the library’s biggest challenges? How is the library perceived by its constituents? Although you will see differences in opinion, answers should not be wildly divergent. If so, it may indicate fundamental differences among the library’s staff when it comes to priorities, mission, and vision.

The Non-Answer
Also known as “hemming and hawing”—this is when you get a less-than-straightforward response to your questions. For example: Tell me about the library’s budget situation? How stable is funding for this position? Why is the position open? If you cannot get straightforward answers these important questions—red flag alert! What are they hiding?

Workplace Atmosphere
It is my duty to provide a warm and welcoming environment when interviewing candidates. I expect the same in return if I’m the interviewee. How do your potential co-workers or supervisor act during “small talk”? How do they interact with patrons? Do they say anything disparaging? Bottom line: Do you feel uncomfortable? Do you think you would have a hard time fitting in?

Let me give you a specific example: Several years ago, when I was getting ready to graduate with my MLS, I went on a round of interviews. On the morning of one of my interviews, I spilled juice all over my tie and shirt. I had the forethought to pack an extra dress shirt, but didn’t think about bringing an extra tie. So I had to proceed to the interview sans tie—an interview faux pas. The interview day was proceeding normally until I got royally reamed by a senior-level administrator. During the interview, the administrator said: “Can we just stop the interview for a second? I want to tell you how unprofessionally you are dressed. It’s very disrespectful. OK, now let’s continue…” That was enough. I was deflated. I didn’t even tell the administrator what had happened. It also gave me some insight into how the administrator might interact with employees. Luckily, I accepted a job elsewhere!

Keep your eyes and ears tuned for any potential interdepartmental or administrative conflicts. Do different departments get along? How do you perceive the relationship between administrators and staff? You may want to ask questions about communication styles and how departments share information.

Case in point: On one interview I went through almost the entire day without meeting my direct supervisor. That tipped off my radar as an odd thing. And this was not a large library where you might see your supervisor infrequently. I was allotted just 30 minutes to meet with the supervisor at the end of the interview day. The supervisor said that the previous person in the position I was interviewing for had been fired and that she could not go into the reasons (which is the standard HR response). Later I learned about serious conflicts between the supervisor and library staff. There was mutual distrust between both these groups.  

Sometimes it’s easier and the red flags are openly apparent: Once on a library interview for a job that involved working heavily with technology, I was told: “Did you notice that the I.T. staff isn’t here? They don’t work very well with the library.” Although you could see this as an opportunity to improve relations, the person hired would not only have to learn a new job but also walk a tightrope between the library and I.T. departments. No small feat!    

Small Things Matter
Scheduling and communication are key. Individually, the issues below do not automatically equal a red flag—but several added up do! Think about some of these: Is the library interview timeline inconveniently short? (“It’s Monday. Can you interview on Wednesday?”) Are you being reimbursed for your interview expenses? If not, was the library was upfront.? Were you left to find your own way to the hotel? Were you given a tour of the area (especially if you are unfamiliar)? Did the library change your presentation topic at the last minute? Ouch! Did they give you time to ask questions? A library with communication and scheduling issues may be indicative of larger problems.

The bottom line: Trust your gut! If something seems “off,” then it probably is. Proceed with caution and evaluate whether you think the job is worth it.

Joe Hardenbrook is an Instruction & Reference Librarian at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He blogs about libraries at and is on twitter @mrlibrarydude.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Popular Reading and the College Library

My Favorite Book

I know. I know. I've written about my collection development philosophy before, but recent events have me thinking about it again. You see, my library participated in Snapshot Day 2011: A Day in the Life of Ohio Libraries last month. I've been processing the gathered data slowly - other things to do and all - and today I finally had a chance to work through the titles that people named as their "all-time favorite book." Something struck me as I finished with the list: all but a few of the books named were works of fiction. Further, the books that weren't fiction were memoirs. At my library, at least, people's favorite books are things they've read for pleasure.

Please understand: this wasn't a scientific study. In fact, our sample was extremely biased. What we did was to ask people who were physically in the library to fill out a card explaining why the library is important to them and to name their all time favorite book. It's still a significant finding in my mind. I want to connect with passionate library users and getting data from people who actually come to the library is one part. Sure, the reasons that were given for why the library is important spanned a wide range - pleasure reading, study space, socializing, research support, etc. But when it came to their favorite books, the respondents all had one thing in mind: pleasure reading.

To my way of thinking, this is a big argument in favor of my policy of including genre fiction and popular appeal materials. However, I'm well aware of my own bias, so I'm wondering what you think about it. What's your favorite book? Why? And what do you think of including these kinds of materials in every library, regardless of the kind of library?

Monday, December 5, 2011

First Monday's Just for Fun: Urban Myths - Library Edition

Sinking Library by Paul Downey

Two of my favorite urban myths are related to libraries.

One of them is a general myth, the kind you can even find on "The Sinking Library." I've only heard this on college campuses, although I wouldn't be surprised to find it being told about public libraries. According to the story, the architects of a specific university or college library did not account for the weight of the books when they were drafting up the plans for the building. As a result, the building is said to be sinking now that the shelves are full. I think I like this particular urban myth because of the implied symbolism. The impact of all the knowledge is enough to sink you.

The other is specific to the library where I work. At least a couple of times per semester, I overhear a tour guide telling prospective students and their parents that the colors on the walls of my library are the result of an extensive study that was done by our psychology department. Different students have different interpretations of how the colors were picked. "Conducive to studying" and "most relaxing colors" are the most common. I shouldn't admit this, but I take a lot of pleasure when I get to correct someone about this. You see, it wasn't a psychological study. It was a designer with an odd (but pretty) aesthetic.

How about you? Heard any good urban library myths lately?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I Got Accepted to an MLIS Program. Now What? (Or, Advice on Picking Classes in Your Library Science Program.)

When I started my library science graduate program, I had an end goal of public librarianship. That lasted until until midway through my first semester, when I realized I really wanted to work in an academic library. My adviser had been assigned to me because she knew public libraries, so she didn't feel comfortable helping me with the change. However, I managed to track down another member of the faculty who helped me redesign my program so that it suited the needs of a future academic librarian. In addition to pointing out classes he thought would help prepare me for life as a librarian, he also gave me some good general advice.

While I'd never pretend that I can reproduce it word for word since that conversation was over ten years ago, I do remember general themes. Since for a lot of schools it's that special time in the semester when students have to start figuring out what they'll be taking next, I thought it an appropriate time to talk to you about how I think you should approach your MLIS program. (Caveat: I'm assuming that you already have an idea about public vs. academic vs. special vs. etc. and about public services vs. tech services. That's a decision you have to make for yourself.)

When thinking about classes, I suggest you...
  1. Look at some classified ads for the kind of library job you want. One thing that the professor who helped me pointed out was that a lot of academic library positions mentioned something about teaching. To better prepare, I took Bibliographic Instruction. More recently, I've seen many ads that include technology and that tells me coding might be a good skill to have.
  2. Work on your weaknesses. I've always known I wanted to be in public services, even when I thought I was going to end up at a public library. Because of that, the professor in question urged me to take some kind of advanced cataloging and/or technology class. That's why I took Subject Analysis - which ended up being one of my favorite classes, incidentally. If I'd been thinking tech services, I'm sure he would have encouraged me to take an extra public services oriented class. Having multiple skill sets is a good thing.
  3. Take at least one class that is just for you. For me, this meant taking a class about the first amendment. The professor of that class made a point of presenting multiple perspectives on each aspect of the class, both through readings and through guest speakers. It does relate to librarianship in a general way, but I took it because the description made the course sound fascinating and because that professor got fantastic evaluations every time he taught it.
It's a tough job market out there, so please don't read this post as the way to be sure to get a job. On the other hand, if you do take my advice, I know you'll get a lot out of your graduate program.

How about you? How did you pick (or how are you picking) the classes in your graduate program?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Dealing with Politicized Reference Questions, by Amanda Maddock

Since starting my current position a little over two years ago, I've found myself regularly faced with reference interactions where a patron is looking for sources to support a position for which there is a lack of academic support. Some of these "hot topic" issues have actually been barred as research topics by professors who feel like abortion, gun rights, and gay rights often produce limited and repetitive arguments in student papers. As a librarian, however, I do not have the luxury of telling a patron that their topic isn't going to work. I'm there to provide objective information access, even if the topic in question challenges my own ideas of what is objective.

My library science coursework prepared me with theories and methods for conducting reference interviews. We addressed how to provide access to information ethically and subjectively, but we never quite discussed how to serve a patron who needs scholarly resources on a politicized topic. Luckily, the teaching experience I gained while earning an m.a. in women's studies has helped me to create a framework for approaching this kind of reference interaction. Although there is much to be said about the politics of providing this type of information to students, this post focuses on how to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument.  Since these issues vary in their degree of existing scholarly support, I use a tiered approach:

Level 1 :: These are the easiest politicized questions to answer, in that academic sources can be easily found to support a “pro” or “con” position. When a patron asks for help locating articles on a topic such as school uniforms, all they often need are some additional keywords to limit their search to the different for and against arguments (e.g. attitudes, social aspects, etc). This type of reference interaction is usually stress free as patrons are able to find what they are looking for with little difficulty.

Level 2 :: These types of questions are a little more difficult to answer, although supporting academic sources can be found. They typically require a more intensive reference interview as a patron usually has a definite opinion on the topic, but often lacks awareness of specific facts, data, or arguments. If someone asks for help finding articles against legalized gambling, I'll ask them why they are against it. If they are unable to express anything beyond a basic "anti" passion, I ask them questions--ones designed to get tangible answers--that pertain to the dominant discourses around the topic: what are the social affects of legalized gambling on a community? the economic? is there a correlation between high crime rates and legalized gambling?

Level 3 :: These types of questions are the most difficult to answer, as I find individuals who take an "anti" position often do so due to political rather than intellectual ideologies. This oftentimes results in the patron being unable to find any academic sources in support of their position. Sometimes this may be a result of them wanting the "perfect" article (i.e. one that says exactly what they want to say), but more often than not it is simply a result of little or no supporting scholarly research.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with the patron’s position, it is important to remain objective and explain their options to them. If there isn't much in the way of supportive material, suggest that they may want to read some of the article arguing against their position. Although this is almost always met with a wary look, it helps to explain that these types of articles often discuss both "pro" and "anti" discourses. Knowing what the "other side" thinks can also give someone a stronger place from which to make their own claims. If this doesn't seem to be grabbing them, I try to remind them that they are new scholars entering into an array of existing conversations and that, just because an article completely agreeing with them doesn't seem to exist, doesn't mean that their argument is wrong.

Failing each of these approaches, you can always turn to a co-worker if you aren't the only librarian. If you are a solo librarian like myself, turning to the librarian community at large (through blogs like this or other social media sources) may give you the answers you’re looking for.

Amanda Maddock is Reference & Instruction Librarian at a Big 10 regional campus. You can follow her on Twitter @infofeminist.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It's a Small World After All: Librarians Around the World

I'll admit it: I was considering slacking off this week. Between the stressed out atmosphere on campus (because of the way our semester works - a 12 week session and a 3 week session - this was finals week) and the US holiday on Thursday, I thought I had good reason not to post an update. Then I was kindly reminded of the fact that, "It's not Thanksgiving in Canada or most other places in the world."

That got me thinking about librarianship in general. I know that my readership isn't restricted to the US, or even to Anglophone countries. I also know that, in some ways, I have more in common with librarians on the other side of the globe than I do with a high school teacher who lives in the same city as I do. Sure, it's true that individual libraries are a reflection of the local culture, whether that's a municipality, a business, an educational institution, or whatever. It's also true that the differences in laws governing what happens inside a library can be vast from country to country (copyright issues, anyone?). But libraries are more than just the locale and the laws.

According to the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), "Culture is defined as the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group." Sounds an awful lot like librarianship, doesn't it?

So what do you think? Is there a global culture of librarianship? Why do you feel the way you do?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Be Courageous; Ask For Help, by David Green

I love my job, but no, I don’t always feel I am doing a good job. I definitely don’t always create amazing programs. Sometimes I’m fairly sure they suck – judging by the zero people that turn up. I can’t always find the right book/answer/database/website/photocopying method for the right person. I once visited a childcare centre and read them a book I hadn’t bothered to pre-read. The part about the cool pirate’s prized parrot dying and being buried at sea kinda deflated my whole pirate theme. Especially given the centre’s pet bird had recently died. Really, it had. Likewise, begging 7 staff to resuscitate my un-rehearsed first attempt at fine-arts-degree-level sewing with primary school kids, was a learning experience, to put it mildly. I am constantly trying to create amazing programs and generally ace my job. The truth is, I never really feel completely on top of my workload. Sometimes it feels like I am treading water.

Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed some real successes and I know I have more in the pipeline. I’m not writing this to fish for compliments, I’m writing to offer some advice.

Congratulations and welcome to the profession. You’ve got (or are working on) the degree and hopefully a staff badge (glasses and cardigan optional) and now many people will expect you to know everything. More significantly, it is very likely you expect this of yourself too. Please know, you don’t know everything and you can’t do everything. At times you will feel like you are just barely keeping on top of things (in fact, sometimes you’ll feel behind). Your job will constantly keep expanding. After all, you have your to-do list but then you open the doors to the members of your community and their lists become your lists too. You will need to say no sometimes because you cannot do everything. Trust me, I’ve tried. So ask for help. Repeat: ask for help. You’re in the information industry - people that like, and are trained, to help, surround you. Also, when you know it’s appropriate, try delegating.

I have a theory that anyone drawn to the information industry is in varying degrees a ‘stickler for order’ (read: anal retentive). This doesn’t mean we all have tidy desks, alphabetise our spice racks, or genre and alpha-order our cds (although a lot of us do). But we do like to classify, to catalogue, to order things. We like to find things and we definitely like ‘to get things right’. So what I would most like to offer advice about is what I struggle with most: perfectionism. Beware perfectionism and the procrastination and self-doubt that it manifests. You will never know everything. There will not be enough time to do everything as expertly and thoroughly as you would like.

It will be hard for you but you must be prepared to pump work out and 'go live' with stuff that you are not 100% happy with. Because tomorrow, more work is going to come in. As my supervisor wisely tells me: “you can only get done what you can get done, and what you can’t will be there tomorrow”.

This week a calming confidant gave me a postcard because it made her think of me. It is called 10 Tips To Stress Less. She felt (polite speak for ‘she knew’) the first tip especially applied to me. Serendipitously, it is also my advice to you:

“Have the courage to be imperfect”.

You should write that on a post-it for yourself. And I’d add “make mistakes” to your to-do list. Because you will. But nobody will die, you will just learn more. By entering this profession you have made an excellent commitment to lifelong-learning. I don’t mean you are committed to making mistakes, just passionate about finding the best way to do things for yourselves and most importantly, for your clients.

Best of luck and remember we’re a friendly, helpful bunch so ask for help!

David Green is a proud Children’s and Youth Librarian in an Australian public library. He blogs about libraries and learning (and occasional other loves) at and is on twitter @dpgreen.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Change in Blog Schedule

For those of you who actually pay attention to the schedule on which I publish new posts, I want to let you know that I'm changing to Mondays for guest author posts. Thanks.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Qualified Success: National Gaming Day

Humans vs. Zombies has spoiled me. The first time I ran it at my library, I had just under fifty students attend, and the second time I had sixty-four. This is on a campus that has roughly 1,200 students, too. I'm used to running gaming events that students love. So, when we only had eleven students show up at our National Gaming Day board game event this past weekend, I was underwhelmed.

My boss was there, and after he and I talked, I can guess at some of the factors that contributed to the smaller turn out:
  1. There was a football game happening on campus at the same time as our event. Further, it was the last game of the season.
  2. It was gorgeous outside. Sunny, a little breezy, and cool but not too cool. I'm not sure I would have been inside if I hadn't had this event to run.
  3. The event ran from 1 PM to 4 PM. When planning the event, I thought about whether or not college students are typically up before 1 PM on a Saturday. At this point, I think they're probably awake, but I don't know if they're out and about (unless there's football involved).
There are some other factors that may or may not have been involved, like where National Gaming Day fell in the course of the semester. For my institution, it fell between the second to last and the last week of the session (our semesters have a twelve week session and then a three week session). Also, it was an off weekend for our program that is geared towards non-traditional college students. Finally, maybe the choice of board games over console or live action role playing contributed.

Here's the thing: considering all we had going against us, we actually did fine. This was our first foray into National Gaming Day territory, and we learned a lot from the event. Also, the students who came to eat pizza and play Clue and Sorry and Uno and Scrabble had a great time. Finally, some of the students who came on Saturday have never been to an event I've run before.

I've decided to call this one a qualified success, and to apply what I learned this year to our event next year. Honestly, though, I missed the zombies.

How about you? What makes a library program successful in your opinion?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Doing Research Lets You Justify Why You’re Doing What You’re Doing, by Jacob Berg

In the course of doing your job, wherever and whatever that may be, you’ll be asked to justify why you’re doing what you’re doing. This justification can take many forms. Quantitative measurements like gate counts and qualitative feedback like comment boxes are simple ways of collecting data that can help provide justification for future actions. For example, the library where I work has used gate counts to alter hours and user statistics from databases as a factor in renewal decisions, among others. However, the vast majority of Library and Information Science programs have done us all a disservice by not offering courses on research methodologies, and by not making them compulsory. To those schools that do offer these courses (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Clarion University, among others) or makes the class mandatory (San Jose State University, the University of Washington, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, among too few others), take a bow. As for the rest of us, we have some catching up to do.

Why do we as librarians need to know research methodologies?
  • Because without them we don’t know how we know what we know. Behind every observation, every piece of data, is a method to how that data was collected. Did x number of patrons mention, even as an aside, y happening over a period of time z in a similar fashion? If x gets high enough in that time period, you’ve got something more than anecdotal evidence. Please act on it, or take this information to someone who can.
  • Because without them we don’t know what we know and because they help us make a stronger statement. Designing a survey? Conducting a focus group? The questions you ask the community you serve will influence the answers you get, which may bias the results, leading to
  • Because libraries struggle with funding, and a combination of data that is reliable, accessible, and replicable, along with emotional appeals from patrons and community members is an effective and proven way to advocate for an increase in resources.
  • Because your patrons are conducting research, whether it’s looking up ancestors or writing a book.
  • Because you, young librarian, may want to share (or have to share, if your position is tenure-track) your successes (and failures, which are more interesting anyway) with colleagues, in peer-reviewed journals, presentations, and poster sessions.
Wondering where to start? Odds are you’re not going back to library school, but if you’re an academic librarian, you may get free tuition at your institution. If your college or university offers an introductory course in research methods, I suggest you take it. Otherwise, the Library Research Service is your friend. There are other useful sites, and materials online as well. Best of luck, and heed the wise words of G.I. Joe, “Knowing is half the battle.”

Jacob Berg is library director at a small, academic library in Washington, DC. He blogs about libraries and beer, roughly in that order, at and is on twitter, @jacobsberg.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Learn From My Mistakes: Reference Interviews

Helping patrons at the reference desk is one of the hardest things I do as a librarian. I can locate pretty much any kind of information, but ferreting out a patron's actual information need is tricky. There's a whole verbal dance I do, trying to establish the context of the information need without being too nosy and asking process questions without sounding judgmental. Sure, I took a class in reference and information services in my graduate program, and that gave me some of the theory. [After feedback and discussions on Google+, I want to make something clear. We did role play in my class, but there was a big difference for me between what happened in that professor's classroom and what actually happens on the reference desk.] However, really learning how to conduct a reference interview didn't start until I had my first professional position.

I'll never forget one of the big mistakes I made early in my career. A college student came to me for help and I would have sworn I heard her ask for "information on zebra muscles." Earlier that day, I had seen a book about equine biology, so I was excited. I found her an article and then brought her up to the stacks to show her that perfect book. Then, about 10 or 15 minutes into our conversation, I noticed a look of confusion on her face. I think I said something really smart like, "This isn't what you need, is it?" She confirmed my suspicion that I was off base, so I asked her to tell me more about her topic. It turned out that she was writing a paper about an invasive species of bivalves; she wanted "information on zebra mussels." I felt really stupid, but I learned the value of the reference interview that day.

In the intervening years, I've made other mistakes but I've also gotten a lot better at helping people with their research. In the hopes of saving you some of the embarrassment I've experienced, here are some of the things I've learned to do when conducting reference interviews:
  1. Listen empathetically. If you've never heard of this concept, it's about showing the other person that you hear what he or she is saying. It isn't just parroting his/her words; it's showing your understanding of what was said. I've saved myself so much trouble since I started doing this. Here's an example: A student who came to the reference desk asked me for help finding a source about cultural differences in dining etiquette, and I responded, "So you need something that talks about the different kinds table manners people use in different cultures?"
  2. Look beyond the surface question. A graduate student who asked me where to find the New York Times online really needed movie reviews from the 1950s. An undergraduate who wanted to know where the poetry section was really looking for a feminist analysis of a specific famous poem. Part of looking beyond the question is figuring out the context of the information need. This can be hard in a public library context, but I think my technique might be applicable. I usually ask some version of, "Is this for a school assignment or for your own purposes?" If I'm told it's personal, I stop asking questions in that vein. If I'm told it's for school, I ask to see the assignment sheet.
  3. Ask process questions, but ask them in a way that puts people at ease. "Have you had a chance to look for this information yet? If so, can you tell me where? If not, it's not a problem." won't put someone on the defensive as readily as "Have you tried looking for it yet?" will. (You also want to ask how quickly the information is needed, but I've never had a patron get their back up over this kind of question.)
  4. Pay attention to body language and changes in expression. If the community member I'm helping starts to look confused, I know I'm off topic. On the other hand, if she walked up to the reference desk with her shoulders up near her ears and then she starts to look more relaxed as the conversation progresses, I know I'm on track.
  5. Remember this is a customer service interaction. Maybe I'm biased because I put myself through graduate school by waiting tables, but I think the customer service aspect is hugely important. I always ask questions like "Is this the kind of thing you need?" while I'm still in the reference interview. When we finish, I make sure to tell him or her how much longer I'll be on the reference desk, when I will be back, and how he or she can get help if I'm not available. Finally, if s/he stays in the library after we're done at the reference desk, I try to follow up with a simple "Did that work out?" after 10-15 minutes.
I'm a lot better than I was on the day of the zebra muscles/mussels debacle, but I'm still working towards that perfect reference interview technique. Nevertheless, this list represents a lot of hard learned lessons, so I'm hoping you'll read it and learn from my mistakes.

How about you? What have you learned so far about conducting reference interviews? Any mistakes you'd care to share?

Friday, November 4, 2011

First Friday's Just for Fun: Madame Pince

Sally Mortemore as Madam Irma Pince
Because I am unwilling to let go of Harry Potter just yet, I've been listening to the books on CD for the last couple of months' worth of commutes. I just started Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince a couple of days ago, so it won't be long before I will be Potter-less. However, I'm not as upset about this prospect as I thought I would have been.

You see, like a lot of people, I found the series engaging. I read the books multiple times. The same goes for the movies. Something's been different this time around, though. It's like I'm seeing the cracks in the facade. An example of this is that I've been a lot more aware of Madame Pince, Hogwart's librarian, and how she is described. I'm not sure why I'm more sensitive this time. Maybe it's the medium, after all audiobooks have a very different feel to them. Or perhaps I'm becoming more cynical as I get older, more curmudgeonly. Another possibility is that I didn't have my MLIS the first time I read the early books and wasn't quite as tuned into popular culture representations of librarians.

Regardless of what happened before, I'm aware now. And the main thing of which I'm aware is that J. K. Rowling doesn't like librarians. Oh, sure, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, it is acknowledged that Harry, Ron, and Hermoine knew Madame Pince would be able to help them find the information they needed, but they didn't want her to know about what they were trying to learn. After that, though, Madame Pince is never mentioned without being shown as a harridan who is more concerned with the sanctity of her books than with anything else. She distrusts, and obviously dislikes, students. She even bewitches books to attack students when she catches them eating in the library.

The school librarians I know now are accessible, intelligent, and fun. Same goes for the children's and teen librarians in my acquaintance. They all seem to care about their patrons more than anything else. Of course, I mostly know librarians in North America, so it could be that ocean between us and the UK makes a difference, but I doubt it. I'd really like to know what the librarians that Rowling knew as a child did do to her that made her portray us in such a poor light.

What do you think? Outrageous overdue fees or an over-zealous shushing? If not those, then what?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Would a Database By Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?

Lately, I've been thinking and talking about library jargon a lot. You see, I'm part of the group that is getting ready to redesign the library's website. We had a meeting last week where we spent a lot of time talking about structure, but towards the end we touched on what kinds of language we want to use to label the structures. This isn't as easy as you might think. We want to make our website more accessible, more usable, more intuitive, but I keep asking myself one thing: who are we doing this for?

This thought was plaguing me well before I published Michael Steeleworthy's guest post, but his piece definitely intensified things for me. If I'm supposed to keep the students at my college in mind, we'll label things one way. If I'm designing for the faculty, it will happen another way. However, between Michael's piece and a couple of meetings I attended last week, my thinking on this subject is starting to clear up.

If members of the faculty at my college are indeed my main audience, I can keep a lot of the existing structure in place. These people have been part of academia for a long time and so have been inculcated to our ways of thinking and talking. These people call a database, "database," call a quarto, "quarto," and so on. If I follow this line of thought to its conclusion, it means I don't have to do much to the website other than prettying it up. What could be easier, right? Except we know that the status quo isn't working. Students don't come to library resources to start projects the way they used to do. Heck, sometimes they don't ever use our resources. 

Changing the current state of affairs means we have to start designing with the students in mind, and that's much harder. I'm not even 100% sure how students at my college talk about the resources we have at the library. I've heard them say things like "books" and "articles," but I'm not sure how many are distinguishing between electronic and print versions in those categories. I know some of them are making those distinctions, since their professors are, but I know some of our students don't differentiate. Also, how do differences like popular press vs. scholarly and primary/secondary/tertiary enter into how our students talk about information sources? Finally, how am I going to ask students to teach me their vocabulary without prejudicing their answers?

A colleague of mine said, in one of the meetings, something along the lines of: "It will be easier to get our faculty to come down a level in their language than to get the students to take a step up." I think he's right. Regardless, we've got a lot of work to do, but if we can build on what the students are already doing and show the faculty why this makes sense, it will be worth it.

What about you? How do you talk about library resources with your community members?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Write With Your Reader In Mind, by Michael Steeleworthy

I have a challenge for anyone writes documents or develops a presentation, which means I have a challenge for pretty much everyone reading this post.  This challenge is simple to take up and easy to do, so it may sound like I’m talking about something we all know about already. But as easy as this challenge is to do, it’s often easier to forget, so it always bears repeating, and here it is:

Know your audience and make your writing accessible to them.

As a communications instructor and as a librarian, I regularly encounter documents and presentations that are full of substantial content that don't effectively convey it to the reader.  There are a number of ways to improve a document’s readability, including its appearance and organization of ideas, but before anyone puts pen to paper or starts tapping out words in Google Docs, Word, or PowerPoint, it’s essential that you know your audience and are orienting your message to meet their needs.Writing for your audience isn’t difficult to do, but it’s something we often slide away from since writing is an everyday practice in the workplace.  When you are drafting your documents, consider some of these pointers to help you keep your reader in mind:
  • Meet your audience’s needs.  If you are drafting a handout or a presentation for an English literature class, then focus your efforts on how to effectively find abstracts in ProjectMUSE instead of how many journals it has indexed.  Your students' main concern is how they can get the best mark they can on their assignments, so tailor your work to meet this need while you teach them the bigger picture.  This doesn’t mean you can ignore explaining what backfiles and moving walls are, but it does mean tailoring your talk on JSTOR so it can perhaps emphasize the  benefit of using this resource to examine a subject’s scholarly record.  Put your audience’s needs first and tailor your message towards them.
  • Avoid jargon.  Most students (and faculty) don’t know what “information literacy” means and most of them won’t care, either.  What is important to them is the lesson or the takeaway from session, so use plain language to get your point across (e.g., try using “Effective Research Skills” instead of “Information Literacy” in your first-year classes).  When you use plain language, you help your audience focus on the significance of your argument instead of what you mean by the picky words you may choose.
  • Chunk out your information with sections and bullets.  Avoid information dumps at all costs.  Make sure your document, whatever it might be, is easy to skim.  Do this by using headers and bullets.  Mark off your work with sections, and use boldface (but use it sparingly).  If your audience can’t find what they’re looking for the first time they read your document, then they’ll never return to it.
  • Guide your reader through your document with strong headlines.  This applies to projected presentations but applies to print documents, too:  Make your headlines active so your audience knows what to do with the information you give them.   A headline such as “MLA Database” may help your audience know what you’re about to talk about, but it can’t guide them as effectively as “Make the MLA Database your primary research tool” can.  The best headlines are contentions that your audience will be able to remember - and act upon.
Writing isn’t rocket science, but it can take effort.  Remember that the words we use stand beside us when we’re presenting to students, and stand in for us after the class has ended.  So make sure your writing - whether it’s a handout, an e-mail, or a PowerPoint deck - is accessible and meets your audience’s expectations.

Michael Steeleworthy is a librarian who blogs as

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Small Libraries are Big with Me

I work at the library at a small liberal arts college, and I love it. I get opportunities and experiences I never would at a bigger college or university. Since library science graduate programs are typically part of big institutions, I know a lot of MLIS candidates and recent graduates who want to be academic librarians think that big libraries are the place to be. I disagree. I think that small liberal arts colleges are where it's at. Here's why:
  1. I get to try new things with a minimum of bureaucratic nonsense. I've written posts about gaming and about popular reading materials. I know I'm not the only academic librarian doing these things, but whenever I talk about it among librarians I hear jealousy from librarians at bigger schools.
  2. I have developed personal relationships with most of the faculty. At bigger institutions, I know I'd be lucky to know all the members of the departments to which I was the liaison. We have 79 full time faculty members, so I've gotten to know them and vice versa. 
  3. I have developed personal relationships with many students. I serve as an adjunct instructor. I have refereed late night dodge ball. Heck, a past student senate president used me as a clue in a scavenger hunt because I'm "the librarian everyone knows."
  4. I get to wear many different hats. I am: the coordinator for our instruction program; on a couple of important campus wide committees; the liaison to five different departments; responsible for marketing and outreach; and leading our assessment efforts. (This is just the high level stuff.) I'd get bored if I had to concentrate on just one of these, even if it were for a larger group.
  5. Most importantly, my voice is heard. I don't have to go through channels or wait my turn. I get to speak... and people listen. Further, faculty come to me and ask for my feedback. I can't imagine not having a say in the life of my institution, but I don't have to worry about it at a small school.
What do you think? Am I crazy? Also, what do you like about your library?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Take a Hike! by Anna Mickelsen

I’m sure you’ve heard about recent studies and their dire warnings that “sitting kills you!,” but many librarians have jobs that keep us in front of a monitor for long stretches at a time. Casting aside any pretension of a discussion of the health benefits of regular exercise, I’d like to encourage all librarians to take a walk--for (library) science! One of the first things I try to do when I start a shift on the reference desk is to take a quick stroll around the area I’m responsible for. I collect a few books for the put-away shelf, discover if any teen couples are skulking together in the dark recesses of the stacks, and generally make sure that everything is in order. I find that walking around the library, especially the public areas, can be just as beneficial when I’m off desk as well.

When you start working at a new library, becoming familiar with the layout and collection is of paramount importance, because patrons (and sometimes other staff) will expect you to know where things are. Even in an increasingly digital landscape, the location of the restrooms is still going to be high on the FAQ. Every reference question is an opportunity to create a mental map through the collection that will enable you to field “on the fly” questions with greater ease. For example, if you’re helping a patron finding books on autism and they suddenly ask for help learning Spanish, it helps to be able to guide them to that part of the collection without dragging the patron back to the catalog. Other than a basic sense of knowing where to find things--especially useful when the online catalog goes down--there are several benefits to moving around.

The Benefits of a Nice Walk

  1. Information on the state of the collection: What shelves are overflowing with books? Does a certain section require weeding and/or shifting? What books are patrons regularly browsing (and leaving on shelves and tables in a haphazard manner)?
  2. Opportunity to interact with patrons: A desk can create an intimidating barrier, especially for someone who fears that their question might be “stupid.” A roving librarian has the opportunity to answer questions in a setting that is somewhat more private. My director encourages us to leave the desk to assist lost-looking people and answer reference questions, although sometimes a line of patrons forms, making that difficult. Everything in moderation.
  3. General information: As I work at a reasonably large library, I’m not always sure what’s on display at any given time. Walking around allows me to peruse the thoughtful choices my co-workers have made for whatever the theme of the month happens to be. Also, I can end problems before they start. Are we low on brochures? Is there some kind of sanitary disaster brewing in the public restroom? Some things are better to know sooner rather than later.
  4. Getting outside your comfort zone: It can’t hurt to have a basic familiarity with where things are and what’s available in other departments. This is a perfect opportunity to talk to co-workers that you might not usually interact with. Talk to people who may not technically be “librarians” but have probably worked at your new library a long time. Familiarize yourself with who is responsible for what, and ask a lot of questions.
  5. Think like a patron: Is it easy to find things at your library? How’s the signage--too much or too little or too shouty? By approaching the collection as a patron would, you can get a different perspective on how well the library is working.
Finally, it will give you a great excuse to get out of that killer chair once in a while.

Anna Mickelsen is a reference librarian in Springfield, MA, where she answers patrons' questions, manages both fiction and nonfiction collections, and teaches computer classes. In her spare time, she blogs about collection development at Collection Reflection and shares her library experiences on Twitter (username: @helgagrace).