Thursday, September 10, 2015

Interview: Maura Smale

Maura's Cats. The catloaf on the left is Caramel. The upside down on the right is Gummy.


Maura Smale

Current job?

Chief Librarian, New York City College of Technology (City Tech), City University of New York

How long have you been in the field?

I finished my MLIS in 2007 and got my first full-time position as Coordinator of Library Instruction at City Tech in 2008 (which seems simultaneously like it was ages ago and just yesterday).

How Do You Work?

What is your office/workspace like?

I have a low tolerance for clutter so my office is fairly well-organized. A couple of shelves and file cabinets are for storage and I keep a vertical file organizer on my desk for current projects. I’m a standing desk convert -- I use a nifty desktop model that raises/lowers to move between sitting and standing and stand on an anti-fatigue mat. I’ve been slow about getting stuff hung up on my walls (though writing this made me focus on it, thanks Jessica!), with the exception of a big whiteboard that I can’t live without. When I became Chief Librarian last year we were also in the midst of some rearranging in the archives and I snagged an old wooden wardrobe that I love -- it has a mirror inside and space for four (!) umbrellas or canes.

How do you organize your days?
As much as I hate to admit it, I rely heavily on Google calendar for work. My colleagues and I use gcal to share our reference, instruction, and meeting schedules, which makes it easier to plan meetings. I typically put my commitments during work hours into the shared calendar so folks know where I am if they need me.

What do you spend most of your time doing?
During the semester I have lots and lots of meetings, both library meetings (which I’m often the one scheduling) and college/university faculty/administrative meetings. I also spend lots of time reading/responding to email, much more than when I was instruction coordinator. Depending on the time of year I might be planning the library’s budget and goals (and associated reporting) with colleagues or working on annual evaluations. I also chair the library’s appointments committee (in academic departments this group typically reviews and votes on annual reappointments, tenure, and promotions, and also serves as the search committee) which was very busy this past year as we recruited and hired to replace several retired library faculty.

What is a typical day like for you?
I usually have between 2-5 hrs of meetings each day during the semester, most of which are at City Tech with the occasional trip to another CUNY campus. I’m much more useful (and sane) if I don’t fill my *entire* day with meetings, so to the extent that I can make that happen, I do. My between-meeting interstices are usually filled with email, though I also try to carve out some time each day for professional reading (most often over lunch). When I’m my best me I get into the library a bit early to work on research and writing before the day kicks in -- writing is much much easier for me in the morning.

What are you reading right now?
I’m greedy when it comes to reading and I’ve constantly got more checked out/set aside than I really have time for. For fiction I’ve just finished Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon -- she’s amazing, one of my favorite authors -- and Kelly Link’s terrific new book of short stories Get In Trouble. For non-work-related nonfiction I’m (finally!) reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, and for work-related nonfiction I’m halfway through both Critical Journeys edited by Robert Schroeder and The Librarian Stereotype edited by Nicole Pagowsky and Miriam Rigby. Thanks to Megan, I’ve just checked out Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction, so that’s up next. 

What's the best professional advice you've ever received?
That it’s okay to say “I’ll have to think about that -- can I get back to you?” rather than say yes (or no) to something right away. When I’m presented with something new, I tend to need some time to explore all of the angles, but I’m also generally inclined to say yes to things which can sometimes result in overcommitting myself. Letting myself take that time has been helpful.

What have you found yourself doing at work that you never expected?
I learned so much from our former Chief Librarian, but I don’t know that I truly realized how much time I’d spend in meetings as an administrator. I actually like a productive meeting, meetings where discussion and decisions happen, so I’m okay with this. Still, it was a surprise.

Inside the Library Studio

What is your favorite word?
This and the next question were really hard for me to come up with answers to! I don’t know that it’s my favorite but I think a lot about the word “liminal” -- the in-betweenness that I think can describe the academic library, our undergraduates as they make their ways through college, and sometimes me as someone who was an anthropologist/archaeologist and web producer before becoming a librarian.

What is your least favorite word?
Ontology”, because I can never seem to remember its exact definition (and it seems like I should).

What profession other than your own would you love to attempt?
Serious answer: I spent much of my childhood thinking I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon -- I still find skeletal structure and bones to be fascinating. Perhaps-less-serious answer: radio DJ (I had a radio show in college).

What profession would you never want to attempt?
Anything in/related to financial services.

Everything Else

What superpower do you wish you had?
Is having a time-turner a superpower? Do all academics wish for more time? (Don’t answer that.) [Editor’s note: My own answer to this question - the ability to create and reabsorb clones of myself - is basically a wish for more time.]

What are you most proud of in your career?
I’m proud that I’m doing work as a librarian and researcher to support CUNY students in their academic endeavors. I’ve tended to be most interested in research that I can directly apply in my job, which I find really gratifying.

If you're willing to share, tell about a mistake you made on the job.
My internal review mechanism is turned way up which means that I tend to jump right in to analyze situations that seem like they didn’t go well, or at least that’s the reason I’m going to give for saying that I’m having trouble picking a specific mistake to share. When I was Coordinator of Library Instruction I did a lot of teaching, so many of my mistakes happened in the classroom. Most of the cringeworthy moments involved my teaching or demonstrating something that the course professor disagreed with. If it was around a requirement in the class of course I would defer to the instructor, but I did sometimes directly engage, with mixed results. I do think it’s worth speaking up if the course instructor says something incorrect about the library or research, though I acknowledge the difficulties librarians can face in doing that.

When you aren't at work, what are you likely doing?
Spending time with my spouse, our teenage son, and our two silly/stupid but lovable cats. Doing nerdy things: visiting science/natural history museums, watching (mostly) scifi movies and TV, playing board and videogames, reading. I love to walk in the city, though that’s more of a Fall/Spring activity than in the summer heat.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Rachel Fleming and Baharak Yousefi.

Maura Smale is on Twitter as @mauraweb. This is the first time she's written for Letters to a Young Librarian, and I hope it's not the last.

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