Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Seven Phases Related to Building My Job from Scratch, by Emily Thompson

Dom Williams checks out the first iPod Touch. © Emily Thompson

Phase 1: Elation
As many of my cohort will attest, 2011 was a rough year for job hunting - especially for librarians. Not quite as bad as 2010, and, of course, all of the years are a little bit awful. My hunt was compounded by my lack of reference experience. As a result, I had a very long summer of application writing with few interviews. I was really excited when I saw the posting from SUNY Oswego. They wanted someone who was good at technology and was good at teaching (the other skills could come later).

The job ad said that the library was looking for someone who could take the lead in helping faculty integrate multimedia assignments into their classes and then help the students accomplish them. There was also a tinge of “Emerging Technologies” to it, since Oswego needed someone to guide the library’s tech for checkout. It was the most amazing combination of everything I liked to do, and it was a tenure-track librarian position. So I worked very carefully on my application materials, aced the interview, and got an offer!

Getting the job felt amazing. I was going to get to teach people how to use gadgets. This was something I’d been doing informally for years anyway, but now I was going to get paid for it. In a library, even! The possibilities were endless, even if they were going to be covered in lake effect snow.

Phase 2: Anticipation
Any new job involves some level of not knowing what you’re supposed to be doing. There tends to be 3-6 months sitting in your office wondering if you should be somewhere else and being confused because everyone else is so busy. At this job, no one else was sure of what I should be doing either. With no precedent, the actual day to day was wide open.

Of course, there were other things to do. I had to learn how to apply all of the theory I’d learned in grad school to librarian reality. This was particularly true with collecting and reference. I also made my first foray into the “buy cool stuff to circulate” part of my job with the purchase of two portable projectors, the process of which completely blew up in my face.

Not literally of course, but let me explain the “blew up” part: as it turns out, one of the liabilities of having a cool job is that other people want in. My little, “let’s buy a mini projector” turned into a 6-week discussion of lumens, size, IT buy-in, and check-out times. Sometimes it takes a while to learn the politics, and sometimes you get a crash course.

Phase 3: Catalyst
Every campus has some cool thing you can tap into; it’s just a matter of figuring out what it is as riding the wave. After trying the usual roads of emailing contacts and trying to set up meetings, I found it: Winter Breakout. SUNY Oswego has an informal professional development conference between semesters. It’s a chance for professors to share what has been doing in their classes and get some new ideas before they head off for the winter or summer. Winter Breakout was also a chance to tell everyone about the Multimedia Production Room with my counterpart from IT and, more importantly, tell people about me.

Important side note: around the same time, another librarian quit. Normally, I would not have been given a liaison area two months into the gig, but they needed someone to take Psychology and Human Development. (Yes, they’re two different departments. Long story.) In other words, I had a captive audience.

Phase 4: Word Gets Out
The key to my success? It only takes one person to think you’re cool, but you’ve got to figure out the right people. For me, it was a combination of a couple of English professors who wanted digital stories (a personal experience essay narrated over pictures and music) and a Psychology professor who wanted to do something different than a paper. And then they turned out really well.

I also knew my way around campus better, so I was able to start making the rounds of departments to advertise my services. I won’t say that the class requests started to roll in, but I did start to get a few. Some were more successful than others. One professor asked me to teach a class in Excel. I explained that I don’t teach classes in Excel, but I would be happy to go over some graphics programs they could use with their data to make figures to enhance their papers. That’s the class I taught, and she sent an email to complain. It was OK, though. Sometimes you have to irritate people in order to figure out where the boundaries lie.

Then there was Summer Breakout, followed by New Faculty Orientation. In between, I talked to anyone who would listen. As I described my services, I could see wheels starting to turn. It turned out there were a number of professors who were interested in ditching the standard research paper. They just weren’t sure where to start.

Fall of 2012, the position started to feel like it had shape. I knew what I could teach, and more importantly, people wanted me to teach it. The iPod Touches arrived, so we had tools for the students to accomplish their projects. I was able to elbow my way into the Writing Center’s series of workshops rather than starting a competing series.

I felt pretty sure the rest of the year would be spent building up the multimedia classes. Then one of my colleagues announced that Campus Technology Services would be doing its Technology Initiative Project grants and the deadline was in three weeks. Since no one else had any ideas, I decided that I would go for it. With some help from my director and the Learning Commons Librarian, I wrote up an application. Three months later, our 3D printer was on its way, and Oswego’s Penfield Library had started to make news as one of the first academic libraries in the country to offer 3D printing.

Phase 5: Loneliness
I can’t even begin to write how excited I was to head to ACRL in 2013. I was positive that if I was so busy, someone else at another university had to be doing something similar. I had daydreams of coffee with someone who had great ideas of how to teach video editing. Instead I found a lot of confused looks and people saying, “Wow, sounds like you have an interesting job.” There were a few librarians who were calling their spaces “MakerSpaces,” but they only did the occasional workshop or it was only open for a specific class. I could see the seeds, but even though we only had a small room, I had grown a full-fledged program before it seemed to have occurred to anyone else.*

It was really disappointing, but that conference was also tinged with that terrifying freedom that comes with knowing no one has written the rules yet.

Phase 6: With Great Power . . .
And so I continued.

Most of my classes came back, and I started to get more as word of the 3D printer spread and faculty had time to think. I did lose a couple of the digital story classes, but it was because the professors felt like they had learned enough to teach the class and could just send the stragglers to me.

I like to be busy, so I didn’t really notice things were getting out of hand until I was pretty close to burning out. Again, this was my first job out of Library School. I had no idea what a workload was supposed to look like, and I like to be busy. I didn’t know that 60+ classes a semester would be considered excessive (about half were multimedia, the others were library instruction for my liaison area). I didn’t know how many committees were too many committees. I didn’t know that going to more than two conferences a year is a bit intense and that going to five in 2014 was insane.

I didn’t realize what I was doing to myself until a very strange spider bite erupted on my forehead in August of last year. It wasn’t a spider bite. It was shingles.

Phase 7: Leaving
Even before the shingles, I had made a decision to start looking around for my next job. SUNY Oswego gave me some amazing experience and some of the best friends I’ll ever have. However, the feeling of loneliness never quite went away. I like to have someone to bounce ideas off. My colleagues would let me talk at them, but since my work was so different they couldn’t throw much back, enthusiasm notwithstanding.

As any artist will tell you, one of the most difficult parts of a project is knowing when to stop.

When the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga advertised for a Studio Librarian, I knew I would regret it if I didn’t at least apply. When I went down for my interview and learned there would be a Studio Team, I almost wept with joy. There was no hesitation at all when they offered me the position.

To my replacement: You can do this. Penfield has its quirks, but they’ll let you work through ideas and no one expects everything to be a home run. If you can get something past Library Technology Services, you’re golden (not that it’s hard, they just ask good questions). Oh, and white is the worst color for that 3D printer. It’ll clog the extruder every time.

Ola Kaszpulska and her Set Design class check out the 3D printer. © Emily Thompson

Emily Thompson was born in Helena, Montana and her round about route to librarianship took her through a theater degree from Drake University, several years of costume designing, and teaching English in South Korea and Taiwan before she landed at the University of Michigan School of Information in Ann Arbor. She is currently a member of the merry band of miscreants at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Library as Studio Librarian. This means she spends her days teaching multimedia editing, drawing stop-motion animated movies, and swearing at the 3D printers. She tweets @librarianofdoom.

*I later found out that Bo Baker was doing similar things at UTC, but he wasn’t in Indianapolis.

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