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?