Girl in Grief

Things They Don’t Teach in Library School: Part 1, Collective Grieving

It is a dark time for the library. A few months ago, one of my employees –a woman in her early forties — was diagnosed with colon cancer. This week we learned that she has passed away. I only knew the woman for a short time, but she was a quiet and kind person whom I could approach for an informed opinion both about library issues and management questions. While she technically worked for me, she had a lot of retail management experience that I was beginning to consult and utilize. I had looked forward to her being a vital part of my team for some time. Her loss is profoundly felt both personally and professionally.

After some confusion when the news first broke, the library administration was able to inform all of the staff members, and we are working to inform all of our student assistants. When the news finally did break we were told that at her request there would be no arrangements. This causes a bit of a practical problem, however. While the decent thing to do is to respect the family’s wishes, we are grieving as well as they are. Perhaps, not as deeply, but grieving just the same. We are in need of achieving closure with her loss no less than her family is. What do we do? How do we cope?

Administration is reminding us what campus facilities are available to us — for both employees and students — and we are already discussing what can be organized within the library that will give people the opportunity to pay their respects to our lost coworker and give everyone an outlet for their grief. The idea at this time is to have an in-house memorial event in which individuals can talk about their memories of her, sign cards, and provide gifts for the family.

This is one of those things they don’t teach in library school. How could they? Why would they? No one plans for the death of an employee or coworker. Even though we knew she was sick, and knew it was serious, we never imagined that it would have happened as quickly as it did.

As an undergrad I took a Death and Dying class that, while I had great difficulty with the instructor, has ended up being one of the most valuable classes I’ve ever taken in my life. While in that class we learned about the grief spectrum and how people manage that differently. Once I found out that the news about my employee was real I began looking for resources on how to deal with this situation as a manager. Most of the resources I found were about loosing a coworker and the grief process generally. However, Stanford University’s Faculty/Staff Help Center has a much needed resource available to us. It describes effects on individuals, coping strategies, and tips for supervisors, as well as other outside resources.

Just a few days into our own grieving process I feel that we are handling it well. Due to the fact that our lost colleague was a very reserved person, and the fact that we’re a better working group than a social one we are operating as best as can be expected. Her work had already been delegated to others as she dealt with her illness, and the sadness we feel has thus far been manageable. I, as a manager, must keep aware of changes in my employees and colleagues as they deal with the loss. Individuals may be emotional or short tempered, and there is no time limit on grief. Weeks may go by without outward signs of trouble, and then a seemingly innocuous event may trigger an emotional outburst. The most important thing I can do is give people the room they need to process their grief as they require.

Access Services Conference

Thanks to having an employer who actually sees the value in investing in its employees I was able to attend the Access Services Conference for the first time, this year, in Atlanta. If you’re not aware, this is a smaller conference that is dedicated — not surprisingly — to the Access Services zone of academic libraries; an area of the field typically neglected at other conferences and occasionally maligned by other areas of the profession. This is everything from ready reference and circulation to emergency preparedness. A sampling of the sessions conducted include:

  • Re-Evaluating Library Space Usage AFTER a Library Renovation
  • Badges of Service: Engaging, Customer-Oriented Student Employee Training
  • Librarian or Emergency Responder
  • Accessing Virtual Reality: Challenges Met and Lessons Learned
  • Are daily fines effective in reducing the number of days an item is kept out past its due date
  • A Bibliometric Analysis of ILL Data at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

It’s management and practical advice from those of us really in the trenches of our profession.

Day 1

The conference ran from Wednesday, November 15, through Friday, November 17. The first night was an opening reception of drinks and finger foods. About half-way through awards were given to those who won the travel scholarship and one for excellence in Access Services Librarianship. There was a recognition of the committees and members, as well. Mostly, though the event was a social time for the school-reunion aspect that these conferences inevitably have. For my part, my only reunion was with my former supervisor who is now the University Librarian at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He introduced me around a little and suggested I get on one of the committees, myself.

Committee work is very important in professional academic librarianship. Most of them, I believe, don’t take too much extra work, and it shows potential employers — or tenure review boards — that you are engaged in the profession at more than a day-to-day level. I used to be on the RUSA: STARS ILL Committee, but had to resign after I’d a) missed several meetings because I couldn’t get to the conferences, and b) stopped working in ILL.

I made a joke at the time that the new guy always gets put on a committee — at least, that’s how it was at every church I ever went to — but it’s something that I really should consider doing. If for no other reason, it’s hard for your boss to tell you can’t go to a conference when your on one of the planning committees. Furthermore, it gets your name and face out in the profession and people can start to get to know you. The more you do that, the more you show up to these things and have friends and colleagues there with whom you’ve built a relationship and it makes conference much more enjoyable. Also, you could get a job or another exciting opportunity out of it.

Day 2

I started the day off right by oversleeping, only to follow that up by spilling an entire “tall” coffee on the floor of the front row right before the keynote speaker went on. Classy! The speaker, Brian Matthews, Associate Dean for Learning at Virginia Tech, talked about a variety of ideas, but the gist that I got out of it was that he encouraged the room to get out of our comfort zones and take risks in our leadership roles. Also, that sometimes break-dancing in the library is a good thing.

My first session was “Re-evaluating Library Usage AFTER a Library Renovation” (emphasis in original title), presented by Jo-Ann Cooley and Kari Mofford, which described a recent renovation at U-Mass Dartmouth’s library and how they made changes and improvements after the renovation was complete. From where I was sitting I feel that the most beneficial aspect of the session was the process they used to get the feedback to make those subsequent changes. There was a lot of open communication, survey’s, and focus groups of both students and staff that informed what needed to be done after the major changes that had already taken place. This reminds us of Raganathan‘s fifth law of library science, “The library is a growing organism.”

Next came “Badges of Service: Engaging, Customer-Oriented Student Employee Training,” by Bryan Feyerherm and Lori Hilterbrand of Oregon State University. This was one of the better sessions of the conference. OSU designed a standardized student assistant training and retention program that rewarded skills earned and time served with “flair;” colorful buttons that displayed achievements. Their training included a patron experience scavenger hunt that new employees do that ends in a pot of candy, and online quizzes to test knowledge and comprehension. This was one of the best sessions of the conference in my opinion.

…people were randomly walking around with ice cream treats…

After that was the most important part of the day: LUNCH. I haven’t said this yet. Wednesday night at the (complimentary!) wine social I was told that the food at this conference was awesome, and constant. Boy howdy! Was that correct! I’ve never had such good spreads at a library conference before. Plus, people were randomly walking around with ice cream treats both days. There was a constant supply of ice cream, people! Needless to say, no one went hungry.

After lunch, I attended “Accessing Virtual Reality: Challenges Met and Lessons Learned,” in which someone from North Carolina State University (his name is not noted in the program) presented an overview of VR technologies he’s piloting in his NCSU library. I went to this because a) I know next to nothing about VR and haven’t used it since my early teens (tweens?) in the early 90’s at St. Louis’ VP Fair. You might remember the giant headsets, circular platforms, and polygonal digital environments of those early setups. Or, you might not. And b) Lied Library has a VR setup we’re piloting in anticipation of our new Knowledge Production department which will begin full swing operations by next fall. This presentation was interesting and informative, but not practical based on my professional interests outside of giving me a basic introduction to the technology without the opportunity to use it.

Next was the poster sessions. I usually don’t pay too much attention to poster sessions, but this time I took photos of a number of them and talked to one of the presenters about how she communicates en masse with a bunch of student workers who WON’T READ EMAIL! ARRRRRGH!

But I digress.

All of the poster sessions over both days that I was most interested in were concerning managing, training, and mentoring student assistants. Reasons for this I should get into in a later blog post.

Last session of the day was an outlier for me: “A Bibliometric Analysis of ILL Data at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center,” by Brynne Norton. While I do have a fairly strong ILL background, anyone who knows me knows why I went to this, and it’s spelled N-A-S-A. I’m a life-long space nerd and just being in proximity to a NASA Librarian is enough to make me fanboy.

Another Digression: My friend Nick Fry, who’s now the curator of the Barriger Railway Collection at Mercantile Library in St. Louis is also a former NASA librarian. In short, I know some really cool nerds!

Brynne talked about measuring the impact of Goddard’s ILL service using title, keyword and regular expression searches, as well as tools like Openrefine.orgRegexr.com, and Sublime text editor. While I’m not sure I understood it all (I’ve never been a blood-and-guts librarian) I found her talk way more interesting that I thought I would have by the title and description. Good job Brynne!

Day 3

“Holding onto the values of the past is the quickest path to irrelevance.” — Katie Glaeser

Friday began much better than Thursday did. I got plenty of sleep, woke up on time, and still got breakfast at the conference. I chose another student assistant management session to start my day with. This time Christopher Bishop (of Agnes Scott) and Jalesia Horton (of Augusta University) talked about their parallel experience working in small academic libraries in which they included — and expected — their student workers to do so much more than shelve books and sit at the circ desk. Their students were active in outreach, advocacy, and marketing with an eye toward building student skill sets for transference to other later opportunities. They gave their students real responsibilities, and received buy-in from them. While much of what they talked about wouldn’t work in a large institution, they did say something I liked a lot, “The student employee who understands the big picture becomes the ideal student employee.” We have to include the students in what we are doing and thinking so they can understand their jobs in a larger context and perform to their highest degree.

The second session of the day was “User-centered Access: Planning and Implementing a Fine-free Policy” by Maryke Barber and Karen Ryan of Hollins University told us all how they went FINE FREE in their library; fantasy I have written about before. What a wonderful thing to do.

According to them — and why wouldn’t I trust a librarian? — there’s more an more data that says that fines do nothing to preserve a collection or encourage quicker returns for the average circulating monograph. Hallelujah! What does work is longer lending periods, more frequent communication, billing for replacements, and blocking accounts of the worst offenders. From my experience at UMSL I can say anecdotally that this pan’s out. One thing that they did that I thought was genius was to increase the undergraduate loan period to 120 days with a single renewal, just like faculty and grad students. Brilliant! Oh, how I want to do that at UNLV! The caveat to this is that it’s only standard overdue fines they stopped collecting. They’re still fining for reserves, tech, and replacements, but still, good on them!

Poster sessions, then another totally awesome lunch.

The last regular session of the conference that I attended was “Navigating the Storm: Leadership in Times of Crisis,” by Katie Glaeser (Sweet Briar College). Another fabulous session that provided my favorite quote of the whole conference, “Holding onto the values of the past is the quickest path to irrelevance.” OMG, I was so happy to hear her say that! The presentation was really about empathetic leadership during stressful transitions to manage not only the events, but the psyches of the people affected by that change. There was a lot in this forty-five minute presentation, but I’ll sum it up with Katie’s own bullet points.

Summary:

  • Focus on Mission
  • Clarity precedes competence
  • Lead with Care
  • Information & Communication

And…

Emergency Toolkit:

  • Remain Calm
  • Focus on the Mission
  • Prioritize the Welfare of Others

Like I said, that was the last regular session I attended. There was one more, but instead I spent that time networking with my former boss, Paul Sharpe.

The last event of this wonderful conference was a panel discussion with Paul (UTRGV), David McCaslin (Cal Tech and editor of the Journal of Access Services), Krista Higham (Millersville Univ.), Brad Warren (Yale), and Trevor Dawes (Univ. of Delaware). Each of whom have been associated with the conference for all or most of its nine-year history. It was great to hear these very successful people talk about what access services has meant to them throughout their careers. Cheers, all around!

Takeaways

I’ve been going to conferences since 2011. I’ve been to big conferences and small ones, national ones and regional ones, but this is the first time I’ve really been to a conference focused on a particular service area — most importantly, mine. I was a pilot fish at this conference. I was to go there and report back to my AD whether or not it is worthwhile to send others in the future. Indubitably, it is! I had always heard wonderful things about this conference (mostly from Paul), but had never had the opportunity to come, myself. The way that I’m feeling right now. For anyone who works or aspires to work in access services, this is probably a far more enriching experience that even going to the big 20,000 librarian-strong ALA Annual every June. ALA has it’s own charms and it’s own value, but for area-specific content and the best camaraderie you can’t beat what happens in Atlanta every November.

A-leader-leading-a-team

Soft Power and Changing Workplace Culture

Updated: 2017-10-27, 10:17

I recently worked a Sunday evening shift for the first time, 1:00-9:00 PM. I didn’t stay until closing, but long enough to support my daytime and evening crew while the normal closer was on vacation. I’m glad I did, because I certainly saw some things I want to work on changing. I won’t go into details, because this isn’t the correct forum for that, but let’s just say I’m interested in running a tighter ship around here.

I’m almost five months into this position and I’ve begun getting my footing and growing in confidence. I’m seeing the lay of the land better. I’m seeing things that I’d like to change and am now processing the best way to go about it. I feel like I’m ready to start throwing a little weight around, but I’m not sure how. One of my problems is that every time I’ve ever tried to be the alpha male I’ve just ended up embarrassing myself. Another problem is that every time I act from a purely emotional state I make the wrong choice and either look like a fool or an asshole, and usually both. I don’t have the strength of personality to lead from the top. What I think I need to do is develop some soft-power skills to push things the way I want to go.

What is soft power? Soft power comes from the international relations field and is roughly defined as the ability to achieve one’s goals through persuasion, rather than coercion. I can tell people to do and act in certain ways, but I won’t get the results I want if they don’t want to make the changes I desire. I can and should make direct requests, fiats, commands, and decrees, but I also need to be able to convince, cajole, encourage, and display the changes I seek.

For instance, in the past I’ve not felt that it was the student supervisor’s job to teach the student how to be a good employee for someone else. I’m second-guessing that now. My previous experience was at a much smaller institution that demanded much less of the front-line students. Here, our busiest times, not surprisingly, are during the class switches. Between 8:15 AM and 8:30 PM, students leave whichever building their class was in and come to the library for this, that, or the other, and we can have, literally, thousands of people in the building at one time. Compare this to my last library when they were busy before classes, at lunch, and in 3:00-5:00 PM range, after afternoon classes and before evening classes. There were never more than a couple hundred people in that building at any one time.

With the service environment being so different I’m beginning to feel that we need to be holding our student workers to a higher, more professional, standard. I’m even seriously considering instituting a loose dress code: e.g. no gym clothes, no open toed shoes, etc. I’m also concerned about the work spaces being relatively tidy. We have these bursts of activity where one cannot sit down, much less be expected to put away all returned items, but they are cyclical and predictable and in their troughs we have opportunities to return our returns to their home. That hasn’t been happening, necessarily, and I am now actively encouraging and performing these duties.

So far, the tidy desk initiative seems to be working. I’ve communicated to everyone my desire and the reasoning for it via email. When I’ve noticed it not being done I’ve been able to ask or gently remind for it to be done. I’ve not lost my temper or otherwise had to be mean about it, and as far as I can tell people are complying without resentment. I believe that a mix of hard and soft power has worked to my benefit, here.

Getting cooperation on a tidy circulation desk is something that I can implement on my own, but larger changes in the culture of our student assistants is something that will have to take buy-in from my direct reports. Do I have sufficient credibility to bring them along? I don’t know. I’m considering having a series of meetings in which we discuss what we want and need from our student assistants. Ultimately, I’d like to produce a clear manual that lays out our expectations and standards for our student assistants with a document that each student signs and can be used as a reminder and codified document for the times when discipline is necessary.

I’m actually thinking that this won’t be such a difficult thing to get traction on. I’ve actually received independent feedback on this from people underneath me without ever mentioning that I was considering it. If I can show that multiple parties are having the same thoughts I am it only bolsters my argument. For all I know, everyone is having the same thoughts, we just aren’t communicating them.

The first step is to float the idea and get feedback from my full-timers. Only then, can I move forward with my plans. I’ve been lax on the subject of meetings, because there are already a lot of meetings scheduled for us, but I’m beginning to think that this is an opportunity to begin a meeting schedule that will have a real purpose and open communication between ourselves to align our goals.

UPDATE: They all seemed receptive to the idea. I think we’re going to start a working group to build both a standards and expectations document and a formal training program.

Humanist Leadership

I’m new to being a boss. I’ve supervised student assistants for years, but this is the first job in which I’ve supervised “grown-ups.” Currently, I have five full-timers and two part-timers underneath me, not counting the small army of student workers they supervise. There are whole ranges in libraries that contain everything I don’t know about management and leadership. Everything I do know I learned from my own bosses through the years.* Mostly, what I learned was not to do. I have had a lot of bad managers; some of whom probably never should have been in a position of power. I learned good things from the few good ones I’ve had, too.

One of the best things I have learned is communication. I don’t mean communication theory, or the importance of sharing information (very important, of course). I mean how one communicates. In a toxic work environment no one feels valued. If one does not feel that one has input, then one’s interest in performing at a high level is probably the first thing to go and the organization begins to suffer.

In my previous job there was essentially no library outreach, and social media was viewed suspiciously or derisively. There was no effort to post to social media unless there was a change in service hours or (rarely) if some special event was going to take place. Thinking myself a savvy Xennial and enthusiastic library employee I took it upon myself to begin an Instagram account for my library one Thursday. I made a few posts that day and a few more on Friday. I talked to a colleague who had access to the library’s Facebook page and he gave me the login so that I could cross-post. It is true that I asked no one’s permission prior to this, but neither was I violating any posted university or library policies. By Monday, mine and my colleague’s access to Facebook had been surreptitiously rescinded, and by Tuesday I received a phone call from my boss who had been away at jury duty (!) saying that I was to cease and desist my posts and that he got told that someone else was “embarrassed” by my actions.

Who was embarrassed? I don’t know. What did they think was so terrible? I don’t know. Why was this of such importance to contact my boss while he was off doing his civic duty? I don’t know that, either. I don’t know any of that because no one ever communicated with me until my boss called me from the courthouse. I took on the risk at the beginning because I was thinking I’d try “ask forgiveness rather than permission.” But I was never able to ask forgiveness since my accuser never approached me. No one was courageous enough to get my attention and have the difficult conversation with me. They ranted about me in some other room and then told my boss to reign me in, but no one ever tried to work with me.

No one was courageous enough to get my attention and have the difficult conversation with me.

In another instance a different colleague had an excellent idea for streamlining the department, improving services, and even saving the library money in salary. He went to our boss with the idea. I got involved because the change would affect how I do things. I saw the idea and, too, thought it was great. Our boss agreed and moved it up the ladder. Within a day the big boss came back with a response that said exactly, “None of this is possible.”

That was the whole response. There was no, “Wow! That’s a great idea for the future but unfortunately at present time it is not a feasible change.” Or, “I’m sorry we can’t do that right now, but please, keep thinking of ways to improve the department.”

We got nothing. Nothing supportive or encouraging. Nothing to show that our work or input was valued. Nothing to show that any good idea could could come from the bottom, even if it was not practical at the time. In both examples, low level employees were treated like they had no value, regardless of their work history, attitude, or intentions, and all our bosses had to do was to take a moment and use a softer touch.

In both examples, low level employees were treated like they had no value, regardless of their work history, attitude, or intentions, and all one had to do was to take a moment and use a softer touch.

I’m not arguing that employees need to be coddled, or that every suggestion from above, below, or beside needs to be seriously entertained. Some ideas are just silly. But is it it so difficult to look someone in the face or write an email to explain your thinking? We’re not exactly doing national security work, here. There is no need for secrets and there is no need for flippant dismissals.

The Instagram incident, frankly, does not paint me in the best light. It shows that I have a stubborn provocateur streak in me that comes out sometimes. The truth is, though, that I never would have tried it had I thought I had something to lose. My reputation in that workplace was already as a loud and up-jumped trouble maker who dared attempt to join the ranks of the “real” librarians. The attempt wasn’t something I could get fired over, because I violated no laws and no policies, so I thought there was no harm in the trying.

But instead of being talked to about it, even sternly, actions were taken in secret and back-channel back-biting found its way to my boss away on jury duty. I was an embarrassment who was not worthy of regard. In the other story, my colleague, already frustrated with being locked in to a role he didn’t appreciate, was made to feel that he, too, had little value regardless of the amount or quality of work he did.

There was nothing that was going to salvage my reputation in my last workplace, before or after the Instagram incident. And I don’t know if anything would have helped my colleague other than simply getting a different job someplace else. However, both incidents could have been handled much better with better quality of communication. For starters, our humanity could have been acknowledged on some level. Next, our clear intent to improve or promote library services could have been commended. After that a clear explanation about why the attempt could not work or should not have been tried would have been in order. Instead, we got cowardly tattling and a glib “no.”

No one is obligated to like their boss, and no boss is obligated to like their employees. That being said, there is no good reason to treat anyone like they don’t matter. No matter how busy you are you can always find a moment to soften the “no” and explain yourself. It doesn’t have to be a long and detailed answer and you shouldn’t be hugging it out, but there is always a way to react to your employees with sensitivity and humanity. When I see people in a place of power who don’t seem to understand that, or seem to see their employees and a nuisance, I am always sad and wonder A) how they got to that position in the first place, and B) why they can’t empathize with people. What is wrong with that person?

I was fortunate enough to get out of my terrible work environment. My colleague is still languishing in his. I hope things get better for him, soon. What I’m attempting to do in my first leadership position is to incorporate my experiences in a toxic work environment, observed failures and successes of past managers, and my own humanist values into a cohesive whole that creates an effective and respectful environment for my employees and my superiors. I’m sure to make plenty of mistakes, but creating that environment is why I’m here.


*I learned nothing in my library management class in grad school because my “instructor” didn’t know a darn thing about it, either.

book and red wine on a marble table

Obligatory Weekly Update

Not much has been going on. The second week of the semester is over and I feel like we’ve settled in.

DeLyle was here for about twenty-four hours on Tuesday and Wednesday for a job interview on campus. Our fingers are crossed but her would-be supervisor said outright that she’d never supervised anyone older than her and was looking for someone to mentor,* so our hopes aren’t up too much.

My sister is in Florida in the run-up to Hurricane Irma, but last I heard from Mom was that they’re going to be leaving before the storm gets there**.

Oh, my sister got married and went to Florida for her honeymoon. I wasn’t able to attend.

I have two employee evaluations due in the next few weeks. This is something that I’m still learning how to do. I’d done one last month, but as the sidekick. This next one I’m the leader and my boss is the sidekick, then the third one is all me.

It’s less than a month before I go back to St. Louis for the MLA conference and visit with my family.

Somewhere in the back of my brain I’m putting together a post about communication and mentoring from supervisors. It’s still percolating, though. I’ll have something more substantial to post in a few days, I hope.

I’m sorry this post is so lame.***


*This is probably illegal ageism.

**She just posted on Facebook that they’re on their way home now.

***No, really, I am.

triumphant-dude-bro

I’m a Survivor!

After last week’s freak out over the beginning of the new semester, three days into it and it’s not so bad. I’m exhausted and my feet hurt, but at no point have I been overwhelmed. This is in large part to the completely awesome staff I have working under me. There were times when we had all six of our service points in use to help our patrons, where we normally just use three or four. I saw no employee lose their cool and no patrons lose their patience.

Granted, this is the first week of the semester. Come mid-terms and finals the students will likely be far less amenable.

Let me say again, my staff is awesome. We have full-timers, part-timers, and student assistants who have all rocked their stripy socks off. I couldn’t be happier with how things have gone. They exceeded my wildest expectations. Long-time employees supported us newbies and I, personally, was far more prepared for the challenges of the semester than I thought I was last week. I even learned two new things in the midst of all the craziness and nothing fell apart.

There are still two days left to this crazy week, but the worst part of it is over — or so I’m told. If this is as bad as it gets I’m going to be just fine.

stripy-socks
Rock my Stripy Socks!