Big Picture Librarian

We are part of an amazing profession built on helping others. As I’ve been pondering my next steps in the profession and what my place is in it (here and here) I reminded myself that I don’t have to struggle with the question on my own.

I am fortunate to be surrounded by a large number of friendly, supportive, and prolific librarians with whom I can share my questions. And I have. While my existential professional conundrums haven’t been solved, I’ve at least been able to get a little practical advice and a lot of commiseration. It also occurred to me that I can reach out to librarians I don’t know through social media and the biblioblogosphere. I’ve done that, too.

My first attempt to reach out resulted in several emails being traded between myself and a contributing blogger to Librarian Parlor (probably the best academic librarian oriented offering in the biblioblogosphere). She suggested that I’m more of a “big picture librarian,” and ever since I’ve been trying to unpack that idea and figure out what it means for me and my career.

“Big picture librarian” feels like an apt description. It feels right. But what does that mean? How is that applicable in a professional environment that seems so interested in the minutia of data?

I Don’t Care.

It’s not unusual for my employees to hear me say “I don’t care” on any number of issues. It’s not said in a context of apathy towards the job, but an apathy towards some of the details. A reference librarian who had a problem with the keyboard at the Circulation Supervisors station that we share asked if I’d mind if she put in a systems request to replace the keyboard. I said, “I have no strong feelings about this.” A.K.A., “I don’t care.” When my staff need desk shifts or other assigned tasks to be covered because of a conflict they’ll frequently work it out between themselves before letting me know about it. I’ll say, “I don’t care how you do it, just let me know what’s going on.” When I was the consortial lending coordinator at UMSL and was training my student workers the process of pulling, processing, and packing the daily courier shipments I’d show them how I did it and how it worked for me, then tell them “I don’t care how you do this, so long as it’s done quickly and accurately.” There were a few parts of the process that had to be done to complete the job, but the rest was open to personal work habits.

I guess you could say that I’m not a details guy. When it comes to management, you’re right. I’m terrified of being a micromanager, so, if anything, I under manage. So far, this hasn’t been a problem. My staff is good at keeping me informed and I’m getting them all trained to give me at least one (preferably more) written reminders of any schedule changes.

Boss Man

Thus far, it seems that my career is on a management track. That’s fine with me. The parts of my job I’ve been enjoying the most, lately are the administrative parts more than the service parts. I’m concerned, though, that without a subsequent Master’s degree, or “real” librarian experience that my career may have already plateaued. What if I do this job for five years, then start looking for AD jobs or other department head jobs in other libraries? What if no matter how awesome of an administrator I become I can never move up in that realm because I lack some necessary bullet on the required or preferred qualifications list? I don’t think that I’d necessarily have to be a tenured librarian to move along in the career, but I’m going to have to be able to show professional engagement beyond going to a few favorite conferences each year.

I Really Do Care

User Services exists to get our patrons what they need to be successful. I am increasingly prioritizing students over other patron types. This is expressed in my increased concern about the number of laptops being checked out to faculty and staff for reasons that may or may not support teaching and learning. We have approximately forty laptops for circulation. Right now, six are out for extended periods. That’s 15% of our laptops that any number of students can’t use for a significant part of the semester, perhaps the whole semester.

Not long ago someone came to me asking for a laptop for two months. My first question was, “Who are you?”. He acted a little bruised and said his name and that he worked on a back-of-house part of Special Collections and Archives. I guess I should have just known that, even though, he’d never made an effort to interact with me before. I explained that we had been running out of laptops for students more than ever and that I couldn’t remove another one from circulation for an extended period of time. “It was fine last year,” he whined, and I heroically refrained from punching him in the face. I offered to make a compromise with him, but he said he’d find other solutions instead. Around the same time, my library’s development officers wanted two laptops for a whole day for an event they were working on. Also, the teaching librarians (whom I have good relationships with) wanted twelve laptops for an outreach event they were doing on a Wednesday. I darn near laughed in their face at that request. I told them to show up after the 2:15 class switch on the day of the event and see what we had left. There was absolutely no way I could guarantee any number of laptops would be available at any time from when we opened on Monday morning until about 3:00 PM on Thursday afternoon.

This has bothered me enough that I’ve begun collecting statistics on laptop refusals — the number of times we have to say “no” to patrons because they’re all checked out. I had a stats question in place in time for the outreach event mentioned above, but since I’m still learning the vagaries of LibAnalytics I didn’t have it quite right and It took me about a week to get a reliable dataset. This, unfortunately, does not include the outreach event, but the data I do have makes it appear that there were eight times in forty minutes that we had to deny laptops to students who needed them because they were being used for the outreach event.

Since I’ve figured out LibAnalytics (at least for this purpose) the data has been scant on this issue. Since October 19 — the first day of good data — there have only been three instances of laptop refusals, all on November 1. If things keep going this way I may have to give up my dream of telling my colleagues to get their own darn laptops.

Widening the Focus Again

In order to make arguments to accomplish big picture goals I’m going to have to dig down into the details to support those arguments. Perhaps that’s what “big picture librarianship” looks like? It looks like coming up with a goal in mind, building the arguments through data and a philosophical vision, and then using those arguments to create changes.

I’m probably selling scholarly librarianship short, but I’m not not sure how much of it approaches problems like that. Perhaps most of it. We’re not doing pure science, so I’d imagine much of our research is done to ask a larger question. “What teaching methods are best?” “What do the students actually need?” Etc.

Perhaps this has all been a circular argument that gets me right back where I started. Perhaps the answer was here all along. Perhaps all I need to do is to stop being snide about library scholarship and see if from the broader perspective than the narrow perspective of individual works. Perhaps I’m just a jerk and need to finally buy in to this great profession of ours. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

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