Building Opportunities for Shared Work

Why hello there, strangers. It’s been a while… over two years actually. We’re still friends though right? OK. Good. So…. Let’s talk about communication.

I’ve noticed that people tend to talk about communication only when it’s broken in some way. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say, “Oh yeah, we communicate really well here,” which makes sense. Systems, or parts of a system, often only come into focus when they are not working well.

While I consider myself a fairly optimistic person in the workplace and (often naively) believe that I can breakdown institutionally ingrained barriers and cultural attitudes, I am limited within my Library’s hierarchy on how much I can accomplish alone. My current conundrum is by no means unique – I’ve experienced the same tie up at other schools and I’ve heard many similar stories from peers across the country. How do we break down the walls that individual units, departments, and institutions unintentionally (and intentionally) create?

The classic example of these barriers is the public-facing vs. behind the scenes division, i.e. public services vs. technical services. But these barriers can exist within a discrete unit, such as public services. Institutional constraints are likely to impede how often, in what format, and degrees of transparency of traditional communication. What I would like to explore is how to circumvent these barriers through shared work.

What do I mean by shared work? Great question, and I don’t know that I have the full answer yet, but I certainly have a growing understanding. By shared work I am referring to the types of work that get us thinking beyond our individual positions and responsibilities. Not ignoring our jobs, but figuring out ways to leverage our skills, talents, and experience in conjunction with our coworkers’ skills, talents, and experiences.One could argue that in most libraries, mine included, this is already being done in some capacities.

So what do I feel is missing? I don’t think we do it enough, nor that we do it in meaningful ways that encourage cross-departmental communication and collegiality. Current venues for this type of work at my institution are committee work on Librarians’ Council, committee work at the University Libraries’ level, and search committees. These groups not only share work, but they also enable casual conversations about day-to-day duties; they afford members opportunities to share their joys, frustrations, and accomplishments in their work; they bring to light areas of overlap in job duties which hopefully leads to partnerships or collaborative projects. But the fact of the matter is that I have never heard someone say, “I really enjoy committee work.”

So what can we do to encourage these kinds of interactions outside the context of committee work? And what does this different kind of shared work look like? This is what I’m left wondering. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for almost two years. (Maybe that’s why I haven’t written a blog post in two years!) I clearly haven’t come to any solid conclusions. If you have an thoughts or suggestions, please share them in the comments.

In the mean time, I’ll continue to go to happy hours with my coworkers and see where that takes me.

It’s All Smoke and Mirrors: E-Cigarettes in the Library


Honestly, I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. I only caught it out of the corner of my eye, but I couldn’t deny what it was – smoke. A student was blatantly smoking in the Library. And then upon closer inspection, I saw it was an electronic cigarette. Not smoke at all, just  water vapor.

Nonetheless I was at a loss with what to do. My gut told me the student wasn’t doing anything wrong and they should be left alone. The Library certainly doesn’t have a policy against it and as far as I know neither does the University. The former public librarian in me thought, “Someone’s going to complain and we’ll need to have a plan.” I decided to ignore it.

When I returned to my office, my coworkers were all gathered together so I brought it up to them. We were all in agreement – the student has every right to smoke the e-cigarette. Shouldn’t we be encouraging students to quit smoking? If no one complains, let the student continue.

But again, what happens when someone does complain? The long term health risks of e-cigarettes are still questionable, as well as the risks of second hand exposure. The Library and University have no policy in place. Do we need to start considering writing such a policy?

I’m nervous of what universities might decide. Our society already tramples on the rights of cigarette smokers, are we going to see e-cigarette smokers’ rights trampled as well? I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that librarians need to start thinking today about how they will handle e-cigarettes in their libraries.

Why Use Your Brain When There’s Google?

I’ve played a lot of softball in my days. Catching and throwing a ball is now instinctual. My greatest achievement attributable to softball came one night in high school while I was off the field and babysitting on a Saturday night. I was playing outside with four kids ranging from 4 to 12. The neighbors had a little game of backyard baseball going, and unbeknownst to me, a future Prince Fielder was among us. I hear the crack of a bat and suddenly a baseball is flying, at what seems like 60 miles per hour, towards the 4 year old I’m watching. Without thinking, I pulled a Dottie Hinson:


I have no doubt it appeared as cool and collected, too. However it looked, I know that something took over me and I barehanded a baseball that would have led to tears, an emergency room visit, and the inevitable end to my blossoming babysitting career. Instinct took over.

When discussing Millenials, we often refer to them as digital natives. Their working memory exists almost entirely within a world where the World Wide Web was available to them easily and at a relatively low cost. So what happens when their instincts deceive them? When their instincts have been constructed under the belief in the Googlization of everything? When they see this:

they really seem to see this:

Millenials have bestowed the power of Google upon all search boxes. Their instincts tell them, “Oh, here’s a search box. Google is a search box. It must work like Google.” They’re not thinking critically about the tools their using. As librarians, this is by no means an earth shattering revelation. We know this from experience.

This morning my boss was reviewing usage statistics from our LibGuide pages. She found that users were searching the LibGuides with terms more applicable for our discovery service Summon. Terms ranged from authors’ names to journal titles to terms like “romanticism” or “effects of cocaine on fetuses.” To be fair, some searches were more appropriate, such as “psychology” or “EBSCO,” but most were misplaced. As the instructional services librarian, she asked me if I thought we were doing something wrong in either failing to teach our users the difference between Summon and LibGuides or if the wording on our LibGuides is misleading.

I’ve been thinking about this throughout the day. Information literacy is an imperative skill for the 21st century citizen. In most instructional sessions, we focus on teaching students how to critically evaluate information sources, but perhaps we’re overlooking teaching students to critically evaluate the tools they use when researching. And then I think about the one-shot session. I think about adding this piece to the larger instruction puzzle and I feel like I’m no longer teaching students to use their instincts and barehanded catch the baseball, but now I’ve got to take 10 steps back and teach students the difference between a baseball, a basketball, and a tennis ball. And then how to throw. And then how to catch. And so on.

None of these things is exactly like the other.

I’m still reflecting on these findings and their implication for future information literacy sessions. I still am unsure what I will do with this information. Has anyone else noticed this trend in searches done in LibGuides?

Listservs: Think Tanks or Shark Tanks?

When you decided to become a librarian, did you know about the power of listservs? I certainly did not. During my premiere week as an “official” librarian, my coworkers provided me with a laundry list of recommended listservs. Eager to learn from the collective wisdom of librarians across the country and world, I joined the ones I felt best suited my position, research interests, and institution.

Overall, I find  the listservs to which I subscribe very useful. In addition to sparking new ideas ranging from library instruction to organizational culture, listservs provide a continuous, professional pressure cooker for collaboration. Depending on the size and location of your library, you may feel as though you’re on a deserted island with limited flares to signal for help. Listservs not only bring the professional community to you, but you also have the power to decide how much you choose to interact with the community. You can simply be a receiver of the collective wisdom or you can actively contribute.

Because of the lack of immediate feedback that comes with email communications, your first contribution to a listserv may require a tremendous act of bravery. Your name and institution are attached for all of your colleagues to read. This could inhibit someone from asking a question they may deem as “stupid.” But as the old saying goes, there are no stupid questions except those that aren’t asked. While feedback is expected in these forums, feedback in the form of criticism should always remain constructive, not destructive. When feedback becomes destructive, it not only discourages participation, but it generally reflects poorly on both the criticizer and the profession as a whole. Additionally, when you provide constructive criticism, you should think about whether it’s appropriate to reply on or off list. Place yourself in the shoes of the recipient and ask yourself if you’d want to receive your comments individually or for the entire listserv to read.

Recently, a thread in one of my subscribed listservs experienced this jump from collegial to antagonistic. It began with a librarian asking if we would complete a short survey about librarian demographics and attitudes for her MBA market research class. The survey had standard demographic questions, but then asked a series of questions related to cats – whether or not you owned one, your attitudes about them, etc. You could see where she was going with the survey. The survey evoked a series of responses that ranged from amusement to pro-dog outcries to anger. The outraged questioned statistical methods, offensive stereotypes, and what they perceived as a misleading introduction to the survey. After a few days, the surveyor notified the group that 1600 self-identified librarians responded and that her group’s hypothesis, one to which the listserv was not privy, was proven mostly wrong. She concluded her summation by mentioning the possibility for publishing the study, which incited a series of critical responses regarding IRB approval, institutional affiliation, survey transparency, and the differences between data collection for research vs. educational purposes (as though the two are not inherently bond).

Although some of the questions asked by respondents are pertinent, I struggle with how they were posed. The tone was largely condescending and demeaning. They were destructive, not constructive. In many of the instances, respondents probably should have provided feedback off list. However, a handful of librarians quickly defended the surveyor. One such defended perfectly expressed my feelings:

Is it possible to ask these questions with a little humility? Why would anyone attempt anything new, let alone share it with a group of peers if they knew that any slip would be seized upon by a heavy dose of tactless criticism?

My fear is that if listservs continually see aggressive, self-satisfying, and humiliating responses, librarians may hesitate to participate. That would be the real tragedy.*

Finally, what if I and the handful of defenders are mistaken? Is it possible that we inferred a tone that wasn’t intended in the criticism? Were the critics truly attempting to be constructive? Was something lost in digital translation? How can we use this as a self-teaching moment? More specifically, can we use these digital miscommunications in our professional interactions to inform our instructional design choices when creating online courses and tutorials for distance learners?

When creating information literacy tutorials or interacting in an online course as an embedded librarian, there are plenty of opportunities for miscommunication and misinterpretation. When a simple question or statement can easily be misinterpreted in a face-to-face environment, just think how a seemingly straightforward question or comment can be misinterpreted by an audience in a digital environment.


Miss Congeniality, 2000

* I’d be curious to research how many and how often threads divert down such negative paths, but I’m pretty sure I’d refrain from mentioning it on any listserv for fear of inciting an ironic series of antagonistic replies.

Tradition and the Rhetoric of the Modern Library

“Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

“…Tradition results from a conscious and deliberate acceptance.” – Igor Stravinsky

While at ACRL, I attended  “From the Periphery into the Mainstream: Library DIY Culture(s) and the Academy,” a panel session led by the librarians from In the Library with the Lead Pipe. I attended the session not only because I’m very interested in the topic, but I also wanted to see how/if they successfully flipped the standard panel session format. 

As the dust settled from the conference, a few commentaries about the session have emerged. In particular, I found the posts by Meredith Farkas and Brian Mathews both interesting and thought-provoking. They both left the session with quite different opinions on the DIY concept and the librarians who spoke at the session. I do not intend this post to be a response to either of those posts because I find facets of their arguments with which I  both agree and disagree, and I can’t seem to find a way to describe this dichotomy with any clarity. However, they both call attention to comments made during the session about the “traditional library.” As an audience member who made one such comment, I’d like to attempt to articulate in greater depth what I envisioned expressing.

Maybe it’s because I am a liaison for the Communication Studies department or maybe it’s because many of the issues my library faces can be attributed to ineffective communication of value, but in recent months I’ve found myself paying an increasing amount of attention to rhetoric. In particular, I have come to believe that librarians need to stop using the word “traditional” to describe what we do or what we are.

I want to be clear that I believe tradition exists and will forever remain an element of librarianship. Any profession that has survived as long as librarianship will maintain some sort of tradition. I’m not implying that we need to throw away the foundations of librarianship or what has brought us to our current state. What I wish to see happen is a transformation in the rhetoric.

My comment at the DIY panel session was along the lines of this: “We need to stop using the word ‘traditional.’ People often use that word and it generally implies something as static, but libraries have always been the opposite. We’re dynamic institutions, always changing.” In many ways, our tradition has been change – adapting to the needs of our users in an ever-evolving world, which is now highly defined by technology. As a profession, we understand this, but if an outsider was looking in, it’s my opinion that they’d hear the word “traditional” and apply the age-old stereotype of The Music Man‘s Marian the Librarian. These are the same people who expound about libraries not existing in the near future because of the internet. They hear the word “traditional” and think static. Unfortunately, these people seem to outnumber those who know what the true tradition of librarianship is, and these are the people who are more often than not making the administrative and policy decisions that affect how our libraries operate.

If we change the rhetoric, can we more effectively impact the administrative decisions being made regarding libraries? Communicating the value of libraries within our institutions has become increasingly important in an atmosphere of escalating costs among flat-lined or decreasing budgets, and initiatives like ACRL’s Value of Academic Libraries and ACRL’s Standards for Libraries in Higher Education perpetuate its importance. By changing the rhetoric of how we communicate our value, librarians can better position ourselves to create the change envisioned by those at the DIY panel session.

In many ways, this call for transformation in the rhetoric fits the attitudes of most of the librarians who commented at the ACRL panel session and what I believe is the essence of the DIY concept – the desire to transform our libraries outside of the traditional hierarchies, norms, and constraints, to meet the evolving demands of our users. What exactly this new rhetoric should sound and look like, I’m unsure. I do know that it needs to start within the profession and it needs to begin today. Until the profession as a whole decides to change the rhetoric, we cannot expect our surrounding external forces to buy into the vision of DIY culture.

On the Wings of #ACRL2013, or Brace Yourself for Landing

Having returned home from my inaugural appearance at an ACRL conference, I felt a sense of professional rejuvenation unlike almost anything I have previously experienced. I spent a good amount of time in my first days back trying to digest what I’d learned, prioritizing ideas I felt adaptable to my institution, sharing thoughts with colleagues, and emailing the new friends I met in Indianapolis. Now two weeks have passed and the honeymoon period seems to have fizzled, but I still want to attempt to do it all!

And voila, this blog rises from my post-ACRL priorities as a means to begin formalizing my thoughts on the profession and as a place to share those thoughts and ideas. Even if they only echo back to myself, this blog will be a place to explore new ideas and informally sift through new (and old) theories and practicalities of librarianship. My sandbox, if you will.

So, welcome. And please share your thoughts and opinions whether they align, diverge, or land somewhere in between. To paraphrase Geoffrey Canada’s opening keynote at ACRL 2013, I may be opinionated but that doesn’t mean I’m correct.