Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mara Meets the Giant: Going from a Small Private College to a Huge Public Research Institution, by Mara Thacker

Still from Mickey Meets the Giant. Source.

I never set out to work at a huge R1 university. Heck, I was barely settled on the public vs. academic library question when I graduated with my MSLS in 2010. Mostly because I was afraid my dream of being a South Asian subject specialist was too unrealistic, I was otherwise aiming for anything under the category of “public services”. So my first job out of library school was at a very small, private college in the Adirondacks in New York. I loved my job, and I loved that school. I still do, but when the University of Illinois was willing to take a chance on me and offer me the opportunity to be Visiting South Asian Studies Librarian, I jumped at the chance. And landed smack in the middle of an alien land. Don’t get me wrong, I love my new job and my new school just as much if not more than my first job, but it has been a major adjustment going from a small liberal arts(ish) college to behemoth of a university.

So for those of you who have the luxury of choice, and believe me I know that can be a rare thing in this economic climate, here are some of the things to consider if you’re trying to decide what kind of institution you’d like to work for (based, of course, on my experiences alone).

The first difference, which seems obvious enough now but didn’t quite hit home at first, is the R part of R1- research. Since the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has a tenure system, it is especially stringent in this regard. I suspect that it is the case for other R1 institutions as well, that in order succeed in your job you are expected, nay required, to contribute to the field by doing original research. And then you are required to publish that research in peer-reviewed journals, present that research at large national and/or international conferences, and maybe one day write a book about that research. This is non-negotiable and can be intimidating, but luckily…

Large universities often have large support networks in place to help newer faculty members stay on track with their research.  Even with the budgetary problems many state research universities face, based on size alone there are just more resources to go around. More colleagues mean more potential mentors for new librarians. If you have a question, chances are there is a more experienced librarian who has been there, done that, and can help you answer it.

Of course finding that exact colleague could be tricky. True story: my supervisor, a colleague, and I had this great idea for a research project. We called in another colleague to ask about getting a dataset only to be told that someone else was already doing this very project and had asked her for the same information a few months ago. Luckily, the colleague in question was happy to join forces on the project, but it underscores how difficult it is to stay abreast of who is doing what at any given time. Even day-to-day tasks can be made more complicated because the library is divided into fairly specific departments and despite efforts to collaborate, things become very decentralized.

To facilitate interdepartmental communication and collegiality, we have lots of meetings, committees, and committee meetings at Illinois. Oh. My. Gawd. The meetings. No lie I have had days where I had three or four meetings in a row. Mostly they’re useful, often they’re interesting, and they are essential for understanding the administrative ins and outs of research libraries-- but they are always a time suck as well. By the time you prepare for the meetings, walk to and from the meetings, answer emails, and try to sneak in lunch, an entire day has slipped by. At my previous job we might have  a meeting every two weeks. Maybe. But when there are only seven people on the library staff it’s much easier to stay on top of what everyone else is doing.

Depending on your point of view, or maybe just the day of the week, being on a tiny staff can be an exciting challenge or, well, just plain challenging. It was so cool to be fresh out of library school but with the freedom and authority to institute changes that affected the whole library. And changes happened relatively quickly. For example, in the Fall I did a survey and found that there was a demand for more popular reading materials and by the next semester we had a brand new popular reading collection and, a few months later, a new Kindle service. Other times it was just overwhelming, like when it came to the task of assessing instruction and overhauling the standard format of our first-year instruction sessions. Given the same task at Illinois, I’d get a lot of support from my colleagues which would make it a lot less overwhelming-- I’d just have to plan for it to take a lot longer to account for the millions of meetings that would have to happen first. And then write an article about it.               

Mara Thacker is the Visiting South Asian Studies Librarian at the new International and Area Studies Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. You can email her at

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Busman's Holiday, Or, Why Can't We Stay Away From Libraries?

Another week with more questions than answers, but here we go...

I sent this tweet on Saturday afternoon:

And I got a couple of interesting responses:

I've been thinking about this exchange a lot since. Tthis isn't the first time I've had a conversation along these lines, either. I was actually referring to my local public library in the tweet above, but I do typically go visit public libraries (or even academic ones) whenever I can when I'm away from home. Clearly I'm not alone in this. It makes me wonder what it is about libraries that makes it so hard for librarians stay away. 

For me, I know part of why I do it is that I'm always trying to learn from what others do, taking notes about their signage or how they've got the place arranged, but I don't think that's the whole story. Before this comes up, I don't think it's a secret society kind of thing, because I almost never reveal myself as an MLIS. Do other professions do this? Do lawyers go to other courts? Professors check out other colleges?

How about you? Do you make a point of visiting other libraries when you're away from your own? Why? I'm especially interested to hear from the members of my readership who are in library science graduate programs &/or new to libraries.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hit the Ground Running: Some (Simple) Advice for Job-Hunters, by Valerie Forrestal

Picture Source

Last week at the New Jersey Library Association conference I volunteered for a resume-review service. The session was run speed-dating-style, where a job-seeker could bring their resume, and sit down for five minutes each with about 8 different librarians, who each gave comments and critiques.

The session turned out to be incredibly popular, and I ended up staying for an extra hour. It was fun to do for networking's-sake, but it was also very insightful regarding my own resume. I am by no means an expert on the topic, but I have served on a few search committees for academic library positions, so I felt comfortable making some pretty basic observations, which I am about to share with you lucky readers:
  1. Stop putting "objective" at the top of your resume. Your objective is obviously to get the job you're applying for. This is assumed.
  2. Don't hurt my eyes. Seriously. This should be a given, and not that hard to accomplish given the availability of templates and such. But apparently it is *not*, in fact, a given at all. Everything should line up. Indents should be equal. Random things should not be bold or italicized. There should not be random font switching. Every person who sat down across from me that had a well-formatted, eye-pleasing resume made me happy. If I'm about to decide if you go in the "yes," "no," or "maybe" pile, you should want me to be happy.
  3. Show me your education, experience, and skills, but don't waste my time with minutia. I actually had to tell a few people to take "internet" out of their skills section. "Internet" is not a skill, and you saying it is makes me think you're either padding your skills section because it's lackluster, or that you think I'm a luddite. While we're at it, unless the job advertisement specifically requests that you have experience with certain operating systems, please don't list "Windows XP" as a skill. (No, not even Windows Vista. #rimshot) While we're at it, I noticed that the hot new trend is starting your resume off with a bullet-point list of items summarizing your skills and qualifications. I, personally, don't think this is necessary for academic library jobs, but it doesn't bother me if you include it, as long as you abide by the above-mentioned rule: don't waste my time. It seems like a lot of people are using this resume section to say generic, incredibly unhelpful things like "good communicator," and "can work independently or in team." For goodness sake, can we stop putting that in every single job ad AND cover letter AND resume? I'm not saying you are not those things, I'm just saying that everybody *says* they are those things. If the job ad asks for them (and they will, because they *always* do) put those statements in your cover letter, backed up by actual examples of *how* you are good at them. Did you work on a successful team project? Did you start a regularly-scheduled meeting or work wiki? Did you co-write a paper? (Interdisciplinary cooperation is particularly hot right now. If you worked on a project with a non-librarian, in-school or out, highlight this.)
  4. Find someone to critique your resume, but don't take that criticism personally. A resume or cover letter is not a reflection of your writing skills in general. They're each a unique beast that is hard to explain, but easy to critique. It's hard to say what makes a great resume, but it's extremely easy to recognize a crappy one. So just get started, make sure all the formatting and spelling is correct, and get it in front of as many eyes as possible. Be open to what people say, especially people who have hired or been on search committees for the specific type of job you want. I noticed from this workshop that the public librarians differed slightly from the academic librarians in how they liked a resume to look. I'm sure corporate or school librarians are a whole different kettle of fish.
  5. Finally, if possible, don't just have people read your resume, but stage a little mock-interview, like this session. When you are speaking to someone in person, you get an idea of their immediate impressions of your resume, experience, and education, not just their thought-over, carefully formatted edits. Looking at one person's resume, I was prompted to ask them questions about their previous careers/degrees, if they had them, or about what they focused on in school, and why. This is extremely useful information to have for if (when) you get the interview, because it helps you identify and prepare for any concerns interviewers might have. It also helps you your experience in the best light. Learning what prospective employers value will make it so you don't waste your time in your interview talking about what might be insignificant details.

What about you? What job-hunting advice would you give recent graduates? Have any terrible resume horror stories to share?

Valerie Forrestal is the Communications and New Media Strategies Librarian at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. You can find her on twitter @vforrestal, or at

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

It Takes a Whole College, Or, Student Retention Is Everyone's Job

Picture Source

The African proverb, "It takes a whole village to raise a child," has been on my mind the last week or so. I know the proverb has been overused, but the essence still resonates with me: we are all responsible for the well-being of our young. I'd like to suggest a slight rewrite, though, to fit my context: "It takes a whole college or university to graduate a student." Or, more plainly: in higher ed, at least at small institutions like mine, we are all in the retention business.

Let me say that again: we are all in the retention business. Professors and residence deans and coaches have an obvious role to play, but librarians can still contribute. That's because one of the biggest factors in student retention is one that anyone can influence: making students feel like they belong on campus. It's all about the strength of the relationships they develop, not with whom they connect. That's where this librarian comes into the picture.

When I tell you that I think about student relationships every day, I'm not exaggerating. Building relationships with students was at the core of adding popular reading materials, of our participation in National Gaming Day, of hosting Humans vs. Zombies, of the cultural literacy series, and so on, and so on. And it's working. One of the benefits of doing these things at a small, liberal arts college is that, as a result, I'm able to be on a first name basis with a good chunk of our student population. I've gotten to be so well known on campus that I was actually the answer to a trivia question at a student run event. When I asked why, I was told: "Because everyone knows you." All I could do in response was to smile.

How about you? For those of you who work (or want to work) at academic libraries, is student retention part of your charge? What do you do? For those of you who don't work at academic libraries, do you have any suggestions for us who do?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Things to Know When Going Solo, by Lindsay Harmon

“Solo” librarians like me can be found in nearly every type of library, from school to academic to special to (generally branch or rural) public libraries. One thing that most of us probably have in common is that we didn’t start out intending to work in a one-person library, and we weren’t trained for it since there’s no library-school track designed with solos in mind. If I could have enrolled in one before I started my solo job, these are some things that would have been useful to know:

Everything is your specialty. It makes sense--if you’re the only one in the library, you do whatever needs to be done. But it’s hard to fully grasp what “everything” is until you’re doing it. Collection development, cataloging, circulation, technology, reference, instruction, copier repair... the tasks vary depending on the type of library, but rest assured that if it needs to be done, you’ll probably find yourself responsible. Even if you’re planning to specialize, it’s worth taking a variety of classes in library school, and taking them seriously. You never know where you might end up. If I’d known I was going to be cataloging, I probably would have paid more attention in that required course.

Learn whatever you can, however you can. Professional development is at least as important for a solo as for a librarian at a big institution, but it’s not as easy to come by. There are no in-service programs at a one-person library. Instead, look for workshops, webinars, and classes that can help you develop the skills you need. If the budget’s not there, look for instructional books (I’ve found Neal-Schuman’s How-to-Do-It Manuals to be a lifesaver on more than one occasion) and, if necessary, request them via interlibrary loan.

No one knows what you do. If you’re the only librarian in your institution, you’re probably the only one who knows what terms like “collection development” and “controlled vocabulary” mean, let alone why they’re important. This can make it difficult to make a case for projects or expenditures that wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow at a larger library. Your best bet is to drop the library jargon, phrase your ideas in terms that your bosses understand, and be prepared to demonstrate how your project/purchase will benefit your institution.

On the other hand, no one knows what you do. If you’re the only librarian at your institution, you’re probably the only one with a good understanding of what a librarian does. So as long as you meet your basic job responsibilities, the library can be what you make of it. Because I’m more interested in instruction and technology than my predecessor, the focus of my library has shifted in that direction since I started.

Solo doesn’t have to mean lonely if you network. One of the downsides to a one-person library is that there’s no one at the next desk to talk library shop with--you have to step outside your institution to find librarian colleagues.  In addition to being sources of continuing education opportunities, professional organizations are a great way to meet other librarians and to form relationships that will help you grow in your career. For instance, many organizations have programs that will match you up with a mentor. If your career goals include publishing in journals or presenting at conferences, networking can also help you meet those future co-authors or -presenters.

You’ll be amazed at what one person can accomplish. I’m coming up on 5 years as a solo academic librarian. I still wish every day for a clone, or at least a full-time assistant, but when I look back over the last few years, I’m also pleasantly surprised at how many projects I’ve been able to see through myself, from developing a library instruction program to rolling out a new website. Going solo can be scary, especially for a new librarian, but it can also be an incredibly rewarding experience.

Lindsay Harmon is THE librarian at the American Academy of Art, a small visual arts college in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @libraryofone.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

One Year of Letters to a Young Librarian

To celebrate this auspicious occasion, I'm going to have a contest. However, I first want to share my thoughts abut the last year.

The Long and Winding Blog Road

Wow. A year had gone by since my very first blog post. Most of my thinking about the last year seems so cliched. For instance, it really does seem like just yesterday that I first had the idea for this blog. I was reading about how and why someone else started her blog and thinking about my frustration with what I was hearing about some library science graduate programs, when BLAMMO, the seed for Letters to a Young Librarian was germinated. On the other hand, I don't remember what it was like not to have a writing deadline every week. I know the deadlines are self-imposed, but this blog has always felt like a way to pay back my obligation to the libr* and higher ed communities, so meeting the deadline is important. Besides, posting something every week, regardless of whatever else might be happening, has made professional self-reflection a habit. For me, this is a good mental space to inhabit.

It seems that this is also a good space for you to inhabit. My readership has steadily grown. The conversations that happen in the comments keep getting richer. Blogs that I respect and read have started linking to posts on my blog. And, if the blog analytics are to be believed, Letters to a Young Librarian has started to make an impression on those who are teaching library science grad students. I really did start this blog for me, but it's been an amazing experience to realize that what I and my guest authors have to say is resonating with the broader community. I'm grateful for that.

The Contest 

Yup. I did mention something about a contest. Just a small way to pay you all back for embracing my blog. What will you win? A copy of the children's book, Librarians A to Z by Jean Johnson, that was published in 1989. I recently weeded it from my library's collection, but bought it for myself. Much of the alphabet is out of date, but not as much as you'd think for a 23 year old book. A children's book that shows how much our profession has changed seems an apt prize. Here's a picture of one of the pages, to give you an idea of how fabulous it is:

In order to enter you must, before midnight on June 13, 2012 (EDT), leave a comment on this post in which you:
  1. ...give me constructive feedback about the blog. You could share which was your favorite post and why. You could tell me something I could do to improve the blog. You could even suggest topics and/or guest authors you'd like to see featured in the future. So long as it's constructive feedback, it counts.
  2. ...include a way to get in touch with you. I'd prefer an email address, but a Twitter handle or a Google+ link will work as well if you don't want to advertise your email address publicly.
The rest of the rules are simple:
  • One entry per person.
  • The winner will be selected, as randomly as I can manage, from all entries.
  • I reserve the right to tweak the rules as necessary.
Once I've picked the winner, I will contact him/her for a mailing address. After that, I'll announce the winner.

Now it's your turn. How can I improve this blog? What should I never change?

And, as always, thank you for reading.

UPDATE: And the winner is... JC Brown! Thanks for the feedback everyone.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

First Thursday's Just For Fun: Library Graffiti

Yup. You read that title correctly. The topic for this month's "just for fun" post is graffiti. Library graffiti, to be specific. You see, I started another blog: a single topic Tumlbr deal that is devoted to recording and sharing graffiti I find at libraries.

Here are some of my favorites that I've seen so far:

I have no idea what's going on here, but I wish I could ask.

"Pink is the new black."

Literature discussion.

And then there's my favorite image. This is the one that inspired the Tumblr blog in the first place:

The librarian part of me is dutifully horrified at the destruction of school property, but the rest of me is completely fascinated.

Why do they do it? Is it a sense of ownership? Of "fighting the man"? Boredom? Lack of paper?

And then there's the fact that some of the pieces have evolved. The literature discussion above is just one example of conversations I've seen in graffiti. One person starts, other people add, and so on. Most of what I've shared so far is from my own library, but I have gone on one field expedition already. It seems to be a fairly common phenomenon, and I find that even more fascinating.

What about you? Have you seen graffiti in your library? If so, what was it of?

(P. S. If you're interested to see more, the Tumblr is named for the subject: Library Graffiti. Also, I'd love any submissions you might have. Anything found in or on a library counts.)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Librarianship as Asymptote

I don't really have a lot to say about this topic, but it's been on my mind a lot lately and I thought I'd share. So...

If you're unfamiliar, an asymptote is a curve that approaches a straight line, gets closer and closer, but never crosses or even touches the line. I learned about this mathematical concept last year when I read Drive. The author, Daniel Pink, uses this concept to talk about motivation and skill mastery and about how, if you're really passionate about something, developing your practice never stops.

Wow, did that idea resonate with me. I realized that librarianship, and more specifically the marketing/outreach and strategic planning parts of my job, were my personal asymptote. Here are some of the signs:
  1. I'm always looking for a new challenge in librarianship. A new program? A new partnership? Yes, please.
  2. I am voracious, although selective, in the way I seek professional development opportunities. Will this help me get better at my job and/or prepare me for a job I want in the future? Bring it on, then.
  3. I'm never quite satisfied with the work I do. I'm constantly striving to improve and to learn from my past successes and failures.
I'm wondering how many other people feel this way about librarianship. Do any of you? How so?