Thursday, August 28, 2014

Values and Value, by Nicholas Schiller


I’m an idealist and my values drive a lot of my decision making. I want to share a little about my core library values and what happens when professional pressures start to compromise them.

It will probably help if I frame all of this in a story. A few years ago, I was at a local library instruction conference listening to a respected colleague present on a new program assessment effort she was leading. She encountered resistance from tenured colleagues who were slow to engage with assessment efforts that lacked clear incentives. I was newly tenured then and I had an epiphany: at some point I’d become one of these tenured barriers to new ideas. I’d stopped idealizing a “culture of assessment” and begun responding to it critically or even cynically.

I’m an information literacy librarian and a teacher because I value student learning. I’m emotionally engaged in my work; I imagine most instruction librarians are. When I’m doing my best work, I’m helping students unlock their curiosity and guiding them to master skills and methods for critical thinking. I’m making an important difference and this feels good. We should remember that our work has long-term social value. This is why I love what I do. On an individual level, my values are still rooted in reflective practice (from Char Booth’s Reflective Teaching, Effecting Learning: Instructional Literacy for Library Educators “Reflective practice: Instructor development strategies that observe and consider one’s own teaching effectiveness with the goal of improving the learner experience”), but on an organizational level I’d stopped believing in “the culture of assessment.”

This culture has been putting a lot of pressure on academic libraries being asked to demonstrate the value of libraries. Specifically, libraries are being pushed to provide systematic assessment of the impact of their programs. Demonstrating value involves assessment. Assessment involves setting program goals, listing leaning outcomes that demonstrate these goals, and then measuring how well we achieve these outcomes. Using this process we can know with greater certainty whether we are succeeding at what we set out to do and whether what we are doing is having a positive impact on library users. This is an unequivocally a good thing and a necessary part of reflective practice. It keeps us honest and helps steer our decisions with data. Assessment, however, is a loaded term with multiple meanings, some of which contradict each other. I want to be clear that I’m referring to “College Outcomes Assessment” which the ERIC Thesaurus describes as:
Formal or informal appraisal or judgment of two- or four-year college programs or students in relation to institutional or public expectations of achievement or development--often but not always measured against specific objectives.
College outcomes assessment is a necessary part of reflective practice, but it is not, by itself, sufficient to achieve reflective practice.  However, the definition above makes it easy to confuse outcomes assessment with reflective practice. This can be dangerous. Reflective practice is aligned with my core values, but merely “demonstrating value” is not. When it describes “College Outcomes Assessment,” the ERIC Thesaurus includes both assessment of programs and assessment of students. My assertion here is that assessment of student learning and the assessment of institutional effectiveness (program assessment) are significantly different efforts. Or, to paraphrase what a respected former colleague once told me: “There is the assessment you do to become a better teacher and there’s the assessment you do because the administration makes you.” My concern is that assessment of student learning appeals to the core values of instruction librarians and this appeal is being leveraged to entice us to engage in the kinds of assessment that don’t align with our core values. It can feel like a classic bait-and-switch con.

Good libraries assess because, when done correctly, assessment fosters student learning. However, when done incorrectly, assessment becomes a symbol for serious problems and issues in American higher education. Assessment can be a weapon used by administration to seize power from faculty. Assessment can be a Trojan horse for market values replacing the values of the public good and social justice. We love our work and we love student learning, but when this love and these values are co-opted to serve the neoliberal goals of demonstrating institutional effectiveness or to apply a market value to academic library services, it feels like betrayal. As an idealistic librarian, when I feel my values betrayed the quality of my work and my ability to help foster student learning diminishes.

So, how do we respond? To steal a simile, we should be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. We should know that the motivating agendas behind faculty and administration approaches to assessment are deeply rooted but rarely communicated openly. Assessment is political and its language is encrypted. We have to assess both to be true to our values and to survive in the current higher education environment. What we can do is to make sure that the value that we are demonstrating lines up with our values. We can be engaged, creative, and tireless in measuring student learning, social justice, and critical thinking. We can be more passive or somewhat-less-than- engaged, creative, and tireless when asked to measure return on investment, to value easy-to-quantify goals more highly than opaque goals, or to trade in our core values for the values of the marketplace.

My challenge in coming to grips with the pressure to assess has been to find a middle ground. I’m looking for a space between the idealistic librarian who is lured by the siren’s song of “the culture of assessment” into becoming a tool for the neoliberal takeover of higher education and the cynical librarian who can’t see past the pain of his betrayed values to engage in critical and reflective practice. The serpent and dove approach is helping me to do this. It reminds me of why I love my job while also encouraging me to put my experience and understanding of how the institution works (even when these workings are opaque to outsiders) to work for my core idealism and values.

Nicholas Schiller is the systems & instruction librarian at Washington State University Vancouver. He blogs at Information. Games. He tweets about capybaras, geeky things, running, and libraries at @nnschiller.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Your Mileage May Vary: Job Hunting Advice


Breaking the rules is a good idea, except when it isn't. Especially when it comes to job hunting.

Let me give you an example: We hired someone recently to work part time, evenings at the circulation desk. The woman we hired came to the library in person, introduced herself to me, handed me her resume, expressed her enthusiasm for and interest in joining our organization, and shook my hand before leaving.

I loved it. I loved every minute of it. I can be quite the stickler for following the rules and doing exactly what it says to do in the job ad, but in this instance I was completely won over by her rule-breaking. This person who ended up being my new part time employee followed traditional job hunting advice and it worked. She wasn't the only person we interviewed; and we did have a hard time deciding between our top candidates; but the early good impression she'd made served her in good stead. It was a risky maneuver, but it paid off.

I say "risky" because it might not have. Coming to see me in person might have blown up in her face. On a different day, I might have been completely taken aback and put off by her approach. A different hiring manager might have put her in the NO pile automatically for her boldness. And that's the thing you rarely see in standard issue job hunting advice: that your mileage may vary.

Here are some additional things that I've seen written up as gospel that could or have backfired with me:
  • Be Persistent: A lot of advice about job hunting exhorts the hunter to call back repeatedly because it shows your eagerness. No, don't do that. Just don't. It's irritating for most people and can backfire like crazy.
  • Networking is the Only Way. Bull. Every job I've had as a librarian, I've been the outside candidate. I knew nobody at any of the three schools where I've worked before I was invited to interview. Don't ignore networking opportunities, but don't think you won't have a chance just because you're an external and/or unknown candidate. (If you've been in the field for a while, you may be known even if you're external, but that's a whole other thing.)
  • "Go In Person, Anyway." I've seen lots of job hunting columns talk about introducing yourself to hiring managers even when they aren't advertising. Most hiring managers in libraries are librarians first and foremost, so they have lots of other things to worrying about besides filling open positions that aren't even open yet. Speaking from experience, it's likely I'd forget someone by the next time I need to fill an opening.
  • Objective Statement: Make It Match the Position. Here's another thing that I'd like to see DIAF. When I read job application materials, I'm expecting you to have all the minimum requirements and pay little attention to your resume at first. In fact, our human resources department screens out people who don't qualify - I only see those who do. Don't put your objective in your resume/curriculum vitae; put it in your cover letter. Better yet, forget the objective statement all together. That's where I expect people to tell me why they are a good fit. However, I know people who have had a lot of success.

Will I automatically reject you if you do any of the above? It's all very complicated and the rules not only vary, but they also contradict each other. Not necessarily, but there are plenty of people who will. Especially in this job market, you don't want to eliminate yourself before you even get started. TL;DR? Know yourself as a candidate and be true to yourself. But, of course, I could be completely wrong. After all, your mileage may vary.

Thanks to Kristin LaLonde and Naomi House for giving me the idea for this post.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

So You Want to Be a Corporate Librarian?, by Leslie Howerton-Hicks


Like most corporate librarians I didn’t go to library school to become a soulless corporate drone (joking, I am pretty sure I have a soul). My background is in archaeology and museum studies, and I have always been interested in the more specialized side of librarianship. I always envisioned myself in a universities special collection or a museum, not a corporation.

During my MILS program at the University of South Florida (Go Bulls!), I landed a job at Hess working at their in-house technical library. Hess is an international oil company that specializes in exploration and production (E&P). The patrons of the Hess Technical Library are mostly the geologists, chemists, and engineers at the Houston E&P office, but also those who work at offices around the world.  I went into the Hess job just grateful to be getting paid library experience. I knew next to nothing about corporate libraries, so I thought I’d be working with a bunch of uptight oil obsessed men. I was wrong. Hess employs a diverse workforce in their Houston office as well as their offices around the world. I loved providing reference services to all our researchers around the globe.  I learned so much about their areas. I was hooked. This whole new world of librarianship had opened up for me and I thrived in the corporate culture. I loved the diversity of the tasks I got to perform, and I got to do it all… reference, cataloguing, outreach, project management, and archiving.

I left Hess in 2011 to move back to Oregon for family reasons. When I moved I was determined to find another corporate gig and, after a brief detour into public librarianship, I was lucky enough to land my current role. I am the Footwear Materials Librarian at a large footwear and athletic company whose WHQ is in Oregon. I will not be modest or lie to you good readers; I have the world’s coolest library job. What does a Footwear Materials Librarian do, you ask? I manage the Materials Center on our campus. I have approx. 15,000 material swatches from all our vendors. That is not including the thousands of shoelaces, webbings, and other components that are also housed in the library. Not only do I have to keep these items organized and searchable by our patrons I have to be a resource for them as well. A big part of my job is providing reference services. You need waterproof leather that has good abrasion and is sourced in Vietnam? Just ask Leslie! I also manage the day to day running of the Material Center, communicate with our raw material vendors, organize library events, and plan a bi-annual Material Show.

On one hand my job is very similar to that of a typical academic librarian; reference services, program development, research help, info literacy, etc.  On the other hand though, it is completely different. Corporate culture can take some getting used to if you have only worked in an academic or public setting. I will be the first one to admit that I work for an amazing company who treats their employees very well. They emphasize the work/life balance and provide many perks and opportunities for their employees. My favorite thing about my company is that we have absolutely no dress code. I come to work every day in jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt/sweatshirt and I blend right in.

I will warn you that not all corporate gigs are as good as mine. But they are out there! Many companies have librarian/archivist positions. You just have to look for them. Intel, Ralph Lauren, Fossil, Microsoft, Apple, all have librarian positions. Often positions will not have librarian in the title. Sometime companies do not even know that they want a librarian. I am actually the first MILS degree holding library manager in my position. I knew nothing about materials when I started. They hired me because they wanted their Materials Center run more efficiently and they wanted to increase its use by our community. They thought my past experiences at Hess and academic libraries, as well as my degree, would help them achieve these goals. All my materials knowledge has been learned on the job. I have devoted considerable time to shadowing my co-workers and learning all I can about the materials that are housed in the library. I have visited other materials libraries and talked to anyone I thought had insights. After a year and a half I feel confident giving reference help to all our patrons, but I still learn something new every day.

Does this sound fun to you? Would you too like to become a corporate drone? Here is my best advice:
  • Solo Librarian. As a corporate librarian, you might always be the only librarian in the room. Embrace it! Be prepared for lots of questions about what you do. A lot of times other employees will have no idea that there is a library/librarian position. Building your own network of librarians to bounce ideas off of is very helpful. I have found Twitter is a great resource for this. Twitter librarians are the best.
  • Relationship Building. I cannot over emphasize the importance of this. A huge part of my job is devoted to relationship building, both internally and externally with our material vendors. Corporations are here to make money, and they need to see you as a resource that helps them do that. Be your own advocate! Right after I started I was able to make some very simple changes to the library that drastically increased our usage (current usage is up 38% over last year). I got the idea for these changes by simply talking to our patrons.\
  • Special Library Association (SLA). SLA is by far my favorite professional organization for librarians. Most special librarians and corporate librarians belong to SLA and it is a great place to network. Their professional development resources are also very good. Their conferences are always fun. I have met some of the most interesting people, with the most interesting library jobs through SLA.
  • Enthusiasm. Be enthusiastic about your collection and what your company produces. I will admit that even before this job I loved shoes, especially sneakers. I also love running and working out in general, so this job was a great fit. I love all the shoes that we produce and I am super proud when I see a shoe that has a textile on it that I helped a designer pick.

Even though I never planned to be a corporate librarian, I am very happy that I ended up here. I feel like I found my “happy place” in the library world. Every day I go to a job I love, and work with people who are passionate about what they do. If you are interested in this type of work please reach out to us “special” librarians. From my experience we all love talking about what we do and how we do it.

Leslie Howerton-Hicks is the Footwear Materials Librarian at a large Athletic Footwear & Apparel Company based in Oregon. She graduated from the University of South Florida SLIS program in 2011. Reach out to her on Twitter @librarianninja.   

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Nice vs. Kind


I should probably admit, up front, that my thoughts on this topic are a bit jumbled. Some of it has to do with "nice" being a gender expectation, and then there's the growing students-as-customers mentality. Those two ideas are coming up against the fact that things are starting to ramp up on campus (new students coming this week, returning students this weekend). The end result is that I've been thinking a lot about the difference between "nice" and "kind" lately.

My mental conception of "nice" has always had a slightly negative connotation. That overused cliche about giving a man a fish versus teaching a man to fish? In my mind, "nice" is the person who gives the fish. "Nice" is making it easy for people without thought of what that might cause in the future. It's catering to the whims of our students without regards to long term plans or research in the field. [Side note: no, I'm not complaining about my current employer or any past employer. This is mostly on my mind because I'm taking on a new role at my current institution - teaching a class in the first year program.]

The thing is, I'm not "nice." As a professor, I'm a hard grader. As a librarian, I have no problems calling students on it when they are loud in the library. I've told students, faculty, staff, and even upper administration, "no." I will push back when I disagree. I am, however, kind. I will bend over backwards to help a student learn, to put faculty members in touch with resources they can use, and to make any member of my community more self-sufficient. It may be hard to get an A from me, but it's also hard to get an F.

Back to the fishing analogy, "kind" is teaching the man. Kind is about having patrons come back weeks or months or even years later to thank you. Kindness is why students come back to me and say, "thank you for pushing me when I was a freshmen; it made me a much better student." The difference between "nice" and "kind" is closely related to the differences between some students' expectations and institutional mission.

Further, it's also tied to why I refuse to call members of my community "customers." I've heard endless complaints about how self-entitled students, especially incoming freshmen, can be. I've been known to grumble about this myself. But I think we're feeding into it by thinking about students as customers. College is about learning to do things for yourself, including learning how to learn and learning how to think.

Being "nice" does a disservice to our communities in higher education. When I worked at a tiny two-year institution, I would often say, "the librarians at the school where you transfer might not be as available as we are, so I want to make sure you know how to do this for yourself." As a professor, I talk about how writing and public speaking are life skills my students will need in the job market. As an employer of student workers, I'm mindful of the fact that working for my library is frequently the first job our student employees have ever held and that we are teaching them how to be an employee. Holding students accountable after teaching them these skills will serve them better in the long run.

I know it sounds a bit paternalistic to say I know what students actually need, but with my experience and knowledge of the industry, especially with our accrediting bodies and the US Department of Education placing more and more emphasis on accountability, I do actually know better in some ways. I know we're a service industry and we want to take care of those who come to us, but it's much better if we teach them to care for themselves. Be kind, be friendly, but please... don't be nice.

How about you? What are your thoughts on the topic?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Job Fit Revisited: What to Do When You Are the Square Peg, by Megan Brooks

Congratulations, employed Young Librarian. After finishing your degree and going through a job search, you’ve finally landed a job that requires that degree. Or maybe you’re in the job you had while you were getting your degree, even though it might not require your degree. At any rate, once you’re in a job of any sort, you will find yourself in one of a few situations.

The OMG This Is Awesome situation: you enjoy the work, you enjoy working with your colleagues and patrons, and you enjoy the organization you’re working for. If this is you, congratulations; it’s time to party!

The OMGWTF situation: the work isn’t at all what it was billed to be, every coworker could have stepped out of a horror movie, and/or the organization is morally bankrupt. If this is you, you may find something helpful in what I have to say, but focus on self-preservation first, and if you can, get the heck out of there, following Captain Awkward’s fabulous advice on quitting.

The Meh situation: you enjoy the work somewhat, although it’s not quite what you envisioned during your interview; your colleagues and patrons aren’t troglodytes, but neither are they folks you’d ever call BFFLs; and the organization you’re working for has some problems, none of which are easily solved, but on the whole they’re not awful. You’re not quite sure you really want to be working for them, but it’s kind of
okay, but still a little weird. In short, the FIT between you and your job are off just enough that things feel weird and a little uncomfortable; you are a square peg. If that’s the case, this post is for you.

Please remember this: only YOU are the authority on your situation. I’m lucky enough to have avoided OMGWTF. I’ve been in OMG This is Awesome a couple of times (and am lucky enough to be there now, praise your higher deity or lack thereof of choice.) And I’ve been at Meh in every single one of my jobs at some point. And that, I believe, is telling: often times a job may start out as OMG This is Awesome, and due to changing responsibilities, projects, and colleagues, shift to Meh, and then back again. So what do you do when the fit between you and your job isn’t quite right?
  • Keep your ear to the ground: Keep your resume updated and monitor INALJ and other places where your particular flavor or location of library jobs are advertised. You never know when something might pop up that is potentially your dream job, in your dream locale, working with great people.
  • Maintain work-life balance: Develop or maintain your outside-of-work interests, while engaging in self-care. Outside of work, I play ice hockey, downhill ski, and lift stupid heavy weights. My self-care practices include reading whatever I want to, avoiding negative people, and sleeping at least 7 hours a night. The key is finding those things that get you into a happy place, practicing them regularly, and surrounding yourself with people who help you be your best.

ski photo © Owen Ringwall, lifting photo courtesy of author
  • Then, and only then, focus on changing things at work. Try to figure out three things about your job and focus your energies there: 
    • Identify small, concrete actions you can take on a clearly-defined timeframe to reduce the impact of the biggest obstacles to being successful in your job. Do those actions and see what happens. Voila! You’re a step closer to being successful. Rinse, repeat.
    • Find a way to leverage your exceptional skill so you can you be the biggest asset possible to your organization. Me? I’m great at translating between organizational subcultures, so during a time when one of my jobs didn’t quite fit, I volunteered to be the liaison to IT. Don’t have an exceptional skill? Think harder - you do. But if you really can’t figure it out, volunteer for one thing that’s really important to do (but everyone hates doing it), and then shine at it.
    • There is something to learn in every job: identify what those are in your ill-fitting  job and learn the daylights out of them (even if they are what a therapist of mine affectionately referred to as AFOGs.) Things I’ve learned during times when my jobs didn’t quite fit: I am mediocre at regular collection development. Reporting to two bosses makes me anxious. Presenting at conferences has a fair amount in common with library instruction. I am outstanding at helping people negotiate ridiculously uncomfortable changes. Taking a step backwards career-wise was the smartest thing I could possibly do for my long-term career success.

So, Young Librarian in a slightly-weird-fitting job, those are my words of advice to you. You never know what’s around the corner… in a new job or in the job you already have that might just fit just a little better tomorrow than it did yesterday.

Megan Brooks is no longer technically a young librarian, having earned her MLS way back in the 20th century. She is currently director of research services for Wellesley College’s Library & Technology Services. She’s on Twitter as @librarygrrrl.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

No Post Today

I thought I was going to have jury duty this week. I don't since I ended up being excused, but I spent the weekend getting ready to be away from work for two weeks. That means I didn't write a new blog post yet. I'll be back next week with something new, but in the meanwhile here are some ridiculously cute things to counteract the horrifying and heartbreaking things that have been happening lately.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Just For Fun: Old Lady Kitty

I'm a bit obsessed with my cat. Well, more than "a bit." But really, she's great cat and she's definitely obsession worthy. Her given name is Holly Golightly (yes, I was going through a heavy duty Audrey Hepburn phase when my cat came into my life), but I almost never call her. Instead, she is, variously,
  • Holly
  • Fuzz Face
  • Fuzzy Butt
  • Fuzzy Buttons
  • Fussy Buttons
  • Bossy Britches
  • Feline Overlord
  • Her Royal Highness
  • HRH Princess Holly Butt, which, when I said that on Twitter, led to one of my favorite tweets of all time:

I figured it was high time I write about her here. Or at least show you some of my favorite pictures:

If there's even a teeny amount of lap available, she wants it.

Holly was a shelter cat, but I didn't pick her. No. She picked me. I was looking for an adult cat, and she fit the bill at 2 years old, so I chatted with her briefly. When I thought we were done, I bent down to chat with the cat in the cage below. That's when Holly made her move and swatted me on my shoulder. I stood up and she meowed while looking me in the eye. It was as if she was saying, "Can we please just go home already, silly furless ape?" That's the moment I fell in love.

My current apartment has a porch. She loves it.

She's moved around the country almost as much as I have. Holly has lived in 7 states so far. That's a lot of moving for a little (8.5 pounds) cat.

I know all cats do this, but it always tickles me when she sleeps like a pretzel.

And make no mistake: she is NOT my furchild. She is my furboss. I'm definitely not the one in charge here.

I am cat furniture.

The 16th anniversary of the moment when she picked me is at the end of this month. Yes, that makes her 18. (No, I'm not going to let her register to vote, even if she would vote for the same candidates I pick.) I'm glad I measured up to her standards back then, because it's for sure that I haven't measured up since. Here, my very first YouTube is video evidence of how disappointed she is in me:

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What Library Work Isn't Outreach?

Maybe it's because I started my librarian life as public services (well, technically I was called "research services"), or maybe it's because I've always worked at smaller libraries where pretty much everyone is cross-trained and wears multiple hats, but everything in libraries seems like public services to me. Even if you never work directly with the public, you're still working to serve them in some way. We are all in the outreach business. Even when it seems impossible, we might as well relax and appreciate it.

The outreach is obvious if you're doing instruction or reference or programming, but public services aren't the only ones serving our communities. If you're working on the catalog, you're making it easier for the public to access all the things. If you're the person who cleans the restrooms and empties the trash, you're doing it to make the library nicer for your community. This is a service industry after all, and we are all here to give good service to our constituents.

No, I'm not saying that "the customer is always right." They aren't. Heck, in my part of the library world, academic libraries, the customer is frequently at least a little wrong. I've lost count of how many times have I had to say some version of, "let me show you how to search for it in the catalog," when a student asks me to look a book up for them. You can still give good customer service while pointing out the "customer" is wrong. We need to respect that the people who come into the library, virtually or physically, are people. We should also remember that fellow librarians are among our constituents in this hyper-connected world.

When people know you're "that librarian lady" or "that librarian guy" in your community, they always see you that way. It can be hard sometimes, especially if you tend towards introversion. But really, even when it gets tedious answering the same question or fixing the same problem in the catalog or shushing the same loud group of teenagers again and again, it helps to remember that we're all in the outreach business. I don't remember who said it, but "if we didn't have patrons, libraries would just be book museums" has always rung true to me.

Am I wrong? Is there some part of librarianship that doesn't serve our communities in some way, even remotely? I'd love to hear. I'd also love to hear if you have any tricks for reminding yourself that outreach is part of everything we do.