So, Where Am I Going, Anyway?

In reference to my last post, and maybe in continuation of it, I’m asking a question about the rest of my career. This is also a continuation of the question that I first asked in my earliest blog posts,”Why do I want to be a librarian, anyway?” While my official job title may not say so, I’ve effectively reached my primary career goal coming out of library school: Become a Head of Access Services at an academic library. Great! Success! Now what?

What is the career path for someone in my position? My two previous supervisors became a head liaison librarian and a university librarian. Both would be remarkable and unrealistic jumps for me. My only publications are a promotional story about the library in a student newspaper and this blog. My two presentations were good, but not of the substance to show real professional staying power. Whatever is next for me, it will be hard for me to be taken seriously as a candidate without some highfalutin street cred.

I happen to work in a professionally prolific division of liaison and teaching & learning (T&L) Librarians. These are people who regularly publish and present and win awards for their efforts. While my job does not require me to emulate them I’m starting to feel like I should. I’ve always said I wanted to be active in the profession, regardless of my job description, but I have few ideas on where to start. One idea I mentioned in my previous post: get on a committee or committees. That, I plan to accomplish by Thanksgiving. But my experience with professional librarian committee work has not been all that positive, thus far. So, I can’t put my name on a committee roster and think that’s enough. I need to do work that is published in an industry publication. But again, where to start?

Paul Sharpe is my old boss and currently he is the University Librarian for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He also is the former editor of the Journal of Access Services (JOAS) and is still listed on its editorial board. Because of this, I’ve long known about JOAS‘s existence but never have I made the effort to see what they’re actually publishing, until today. Here’s a smattering of their recent article titles:

  1. Assessing Access Services: Building a Five-Year Plan to Sustainable Assessment
  2. Clinging to the Past: Circulation Policies in Academic Libraries in the United States
  3. Enhancing Access to Reading Matieals in Academic Libaries with Low Budgets Using a Book Bank System: Makerere Uinversity Library Experience
  4. When You Are in Charge: Reflections on Managing Staff in the Library
  5. Opportunities for Improved Patron Service with a New Integrated Library System

A few of these, and some others I didn’t type out actually look interesting to me. I hope to get to some of these in my professional reading discipline that I’m starting to build. It shouldn’t be surprising to me that some of these look interesting — it is my profession, after all — but considering my ambivalent attitude toward my profession the surprise is still occurring. Perhaps I’m not as jaded as I thought? Or perhaps they’ve lulled me in with their gentile song? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

I’m good in front of crowd and I word good.

I was speaking with a colleague recently, one of the T&L librarians, after I read a series of blog posts she co-wrote for The Librarian Parlor and without getting too much into my professional ambivalence told her how I didn’t know what I had to contribute and wouldn’t know where to start. She completely empathized with me and knew exactly where I was coming from. It’s some form of impostor syndrome, we agreed. It’s not that I don’t think I could do the work. I’ve always believed that I’m a good writer and a good public speaker. I’m good in front of crowd and I word good. That’s not the problem. The problem — or the question, anyway — is what situation do I have to describe that would be of interest to an editorial board or reader that may actually be professionally useful? What new data could I collect that would be illuminating? I have no freaking idea. What am I doing? Where am I going, anyway?

white shark with fish

Swimming with Purpose

In a few short weeks the new semester begins. This will be my second academic year in this position. Over the last year there have been so many changes at work including a roughly 83% (five out of six) turnover in personnel in my department. That means that only myself and one staff member are doing the jobs we were doing at this time last year. Another position was moved under me that I didn’t have at that time, and yet another position has been created out of whole cloth.

I’m nearly fully staffed. The new position has a person in place, while another unexpectedly became open a few weeks ago and is in the search process now. I’m skeptical, at this point if that position will be filled before classes start in the last week in August, but we can hope.

anakin skywalker fan artWhile I’m far from the expert manager I’d like to be, I’ve gained enough comfort and confidence that I’m starting to feel a little restless. I’m like a shark. I need to feel like I’m always moving forward. Stagnation leads to depression. Depression leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to the Dark Side of the Force. I’ve always been like this, but there are external pressures that lately have been niggling at the back of my brain creating the feeling of unease.

Success should never be measured just by money, but to be personally successful in the things I’m committed to the fact is that I need to make more money. While I’m making more money now than I ever have before, it won’t be enough to achieve the success to which I’m referring. The best way for me to make that money is to increase my professional success. While I’m off to a good — if delayed — start, I’m feeling that I need to broaden my portfolio to make myself more attractive to other positions that may open up in my current library or another library down the road.

I probably have to do this job at least two more years before I’m attractive to another library or for another position within this one. I’m okay with that. I like my job and where I work, and I don’t really want to leave the area in which I’m living. But the facts are, in librarianship, in order to move up one usually has to move out. I can’t do either of those things until I build more skills.

I’ve made my feelings about my library school experience clear throughout this blog. To be honest, only three years from graduation and I feel like the education I received is already obsolete for academic librarianship. At best it would have been sufficient for an ’00s era librarian, but when it was 2015 and I was seeing librarian jobs posted for functions I’d never heard of (e.g. GIS Librarianship) I knew there was a problem. Furthermore, I still have the problem of no teaching experience and no way to get it, as far as I know.

I’ve looked into digital humanities as a possible interest, but haven’t found a passion for it. I’m interested in outreach, but have little time to participate in my outreach librarian’s programs. I have the capacity for metadata, but not the interest. I’m frightened that I’m going to be stuck in middle management making not-quite enough money for the foreseeable future.

While in my position I’m not technically a “professional” librarian, one way I can increase my value is to act like one. The best way for me to do that is become active in committee work though a conference or other professional group. I’ll be returning to the Access Services Conference, this year, where there may be opportunities to jump on a committee with them. They tried to talk me into it last year, actually. I felt like the new guy at a church in which the old-timers were eager to put the new person to work.

I’m also making a concerted effort to up my professional reading. I have books that my boss has given me on various aspects of management in libraries and I have access to Lynda.com and other online materials in which I can build management skills. I also can read more literature in the field, especially from the two major librarian professional organizations of which I’m a member: ALA and ACRL. Right now, I’m hoping for two hours a week. I’ve already done an hour, this morning. This may not seem like a lot to you, but it’s a big deal for me.

minions rejoicing

I still feel like I need to build library-relevant skills that are outside of the management realm. What that looks like, though, I just don’t know. Hopefully, being engaged in my professional reading and taking whatever other learning opportunities I have will help. It’s easy for one to say “follow your passion,” but that seems trite and unrealistic. Only a lucky few of us get to truly make a profession out of our passions. If my inner shark is going to swim with purpose, I need to keep exploring my options to find that purpose. So, for the time being, at least, my purpose is to find my purpose.

avenue q purpose

The Ambivalent Librarian

About six months ago I wrote about the perception of professionalism in libraries. About three months ago I began a post with the above title. That post was begun at a point of emotional nadir in which my depression had had a significant resurgence. I was in fear of losing my job, and I really didn’t know what I was doing in the profession anymore. Fortunately, that time has passed and I have since deleted all of the content from that depressive would-be post.

Why Am I an Ambivalent Librarian?

I was twenty-six years old and halfway through my undergraduate degree when I began working in my first library job. Over the next two years I began to really enjoy the environment and the work I was doing and decided to make libraries my new career. I knew that for the best paying and most career advancing jobs I’d have to get a Master’s degree in Library Science. But, as I looked around at the librarians and paraprofessionals I worked closely with I saw no significant difference in the work they were doing. Even my department head was little better than a retail manager. What then was the purpose of a library degree? Later, I worked at a local public library, where again, the librarians in charge were little better than retail management and they did many of the same tasks as the paraprofessional staff. What was the degree good for? Later, still, I got my first full-time library job at a university library and again, I couldn’t tell what was so special about the library science degree. As far as I could tell, all of the specialized work that was being done — in the front of house, at least — was stuff that was relatively easy to learn through one-on-one instruction and trial and error. Now, I was never involved in library instruction, subject selecting, and the like, but I still didn’t see what was so important about that library degree.

I did see that I was never ever going to get a better job without it, though.

I enrolled in library school and spent the next four years mostly complaining about the lack of depth and generally low instructor expectations from something that claimed to be a Master’s degree. I was not a happy student and did not make many friends in that time. With only a few exceptions I felt that I was required to work much harder as an undergraduate than a graduate student, which seems upside-down to me. Furthermore, I was learning that that for so many jobs in academic libraries one was expected to have a second Master’s degree in a certain subject. Still, the question persisted, what was the purpose or use of a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science?

I Call It “Librarian Hazing.”

It’s the gauntlet; the basic training, of a profession that rarely looks like what is presented in the classroom. I’ve talked to librarians from all across the country who went to any number of library programs. Some, seem to had wonderful and challenging experiences in library school that they are grateful for. Others, like me, had disappointing experiences that really put into question the value of the whole process. I, for one, think the whole thing is done incorrectly.

I’d endorse a medieval-style apprenticeship program that placed a novitiate in the library on day one in which they develop skills based on actual library work, rather than relying on textbooks and theory. Textbooks and theory are important, of course, but can’t convey the realities of the work. Ever. This approach would not only make better librarians, but also stem the market flood of inexperienced library graduates that hit the streets every year. This would also greatly extend the time required to train librarians and be so relationship-based — rather than classroom-based — that it would be financially unfeasible for universities to implement. So this won’t happen, but it’s a dream.

When I began thinking about librarianship as a career, I was thinking of getting into ILL or cataloging (i.e. back of house operations), but by the time I was half-way through my librarian education I had realized that while I do have a cataloger’s brain and could be very successful in that kind of work, that the lack of variety and patron interaction were something that I’d miss. I’d accidentally become a public services (i.e. front of house) librarian. I couldn’t have made that change without direct experience in the field.

I would get very frustrated with classmates — who usually were lovely people — who seemed to enter library school on a whim; who did not or had never worked in a library. People who seemed to have romantic notions of what library work was like and saw it as the greener grass on the other side of the septic tank. Library schools, by not being able to provide these people with hands-on work, only did these people an expensive disservice. I wanted to shake them by their shoulders and tell them that they were wasting their time and their money, especially when they would look you in the face and say they could never relocate from their tiny Missouri town because they had children or whichever honorably sentimental excuse they were using.

After I received my Master’s degree it took me two years to get another job, and even that one only required a high-school diploma. I’m still not a “professional” librarian by industry standards, regardless of the work I perform. The reasons it took me that long to get a job are complex and we can’t ignore the significance of sheer dumb luck, but there are two relevant professional reasons that my job search was longer than advertised:

  1. I had no full-time employee management experience (student assistants only).
  2. I had never been a teacher.

Lack of management and teaching experience disqualified me from ninety percent of the jobs out there. If a decade’s experience as a student assistant and paraprofessional weren’t enough to qualify me for librarian job after achieving my master’s degree, my wistful classmates wouldn’t have a prayer.

So, we have a situation in which the library degree, by itself, is not enough for the best-paying, most advancing careers, and is sometimes seen as secondary to your other Master’s degree. Furthermore, librarian education is uneven, at best. Yet, we have this culture that only says your a “real” librarian if you been through the MLIS degree process. Library school is truly librarian hazing: an expensive, difficult, and time consuming process with few tangible rewards.

That’s Library School, Yeah, but the Work…

The work. I really like the work. I get frustrated like anyone else, but I get to come to work every day and work with college students on both sides of the desk. I get to work with these remarkable and ambitious people and be a small part of their education. With the youngest of them who work for me I get to be a small part of finishing their journey to adulthood. I get to support my amazing colleagues who are teaching research skills and information literacy. I get to lean on talented technicians making sure the information is findable.

The thing about the work, though, is that it is largely moving away from what is stereotypically seen as library work. The traditional reference desk is dying the slow painful death of suburban shopping malls as more and more information is readily accessible online. SMS and Chat services mean that many questions about library access can be managed from any computer. With the advent of RFID tagging and self-checkout stations, plus, tablets and web-based circulation software the traditional circulation desk will soon begin to die out as the reference desk has. Neither will disappear completely, but if you can purchase an iMac at the Apple store without a cash register, then why do we need a massive piece of furniture dedicated to book circulation or ready reference consultation?

My colleagues in the back of the house are performing work more akin to a computer scientist than the catalogers of the past. Newer features like makerspaces and whole departments like my library’s new “Knowledge Production” group are asking fundamental questions about what an academic library can or should be. We’re putting in audio and video production studios, video editing suites, 3D printers, and a GIS lab. None of this is covered in any library school I’ve ever heard of. It’s almost like the term “librarian” doesn’t mean anything anymore. That’s not bad or good. It is just reality.

I’m an ambivalent librarian because I see the wonderful work and true value of us dedicating our professional lives to ensure students and faculty have access to the resources they need to be successful in their studies, but I also see the anachronistic approach to librarian education and credentials that do not reflect the future — or even the present — of the profession.

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.

The “P” Word

In the first year that I was in library school my early classes were frequently preoccupied with the question “Is librarianship a profession?” And the answer was, of course, “yes!” But the yes wasn’t a confident one as much as a desperate defense of the profession as such. In fact, the early classes were more successful in putting me on the Proud Professional Librarian path than they were at teaching me anything valuable or practical about doing the work of librarianship, being that I already been working in libraries for six-plus years. Indeed, it seems that librarianship has been preoccupied with this question for approximately 150 years. If you spend that much time wringing your hands about it, perhaps it’s not really true?

Okay, for the record, I actually think that librarianship IS a profession, and we have every reason to be proud of what we do and what we offer to our communities. However, I don’t want to overstate things. Most of us are professionals in the same way that a plumber is professional. Providing a much needed and basic service that requires specialized skills and knowledge. We’re not professionals in the same way that a research scientist or nuclear arms negotiator is.

Much of the self-conscious hand-wringing comes, I believe, from the academic side of librarianship. Typically, academic librarians hold faculty status — tenure-track, or not — in their institutions. But there frequently seems to be a sense that they’re not “real” faculty. This may come from the librarians themselves, from the teaching faculty, or the administration, but it is a common occurrence that can be overt, or simply bubbling under the surface of the academic community.

I’m not going to define what “real faculty” means, as it is a logical fallacy to argue from purity. My boss is a real faculty member in that she is a tenured faculty member of a university, even though she teaches nothing. I am not a “real faculty” member because my job status is “classified staff” (but more on that later).

I’ll be honest, at this point, I only want to be a faculty librarian for the pay and status. After twelve years’ experience, two years past earning the MLIS degree, and moving 1,600 miles to get a better job, I’d really like to have “Librarian” printed on my official business cards. I don’t.

I don’t give a good gosh-darn if I’m ever tenured. It’s not because I’m not engaged in my profession — I try to be — it’s because I’m going to do the same things that tenure-track faculty do whether or not I’m technically tenure-track. In librarianship, I don’t see the tenure label as much more than a merit badge. Sure, technically, tenured librarians have more job security, but academic librarianship doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being an unstable work environment.

I’ve written a fair amount about going to professional conferences and networking. I’m going to keep going to these things as much as I can for as long as I can. By 11:00 AM, CDT, October 6, I’ll have two conference presentations under my belt, and I hope and expect to do more over the years. This blog, I hope, will inspire me to do more formal writing that would be publishable in one of our profession’s journals. That hasn’t happened yet, but there’s still time.

By the way, if someone’s looking for a co-author on a professional paper, I’m happy to jump on-board.

By most standards, I’m not a professional. Some, especially at my last job, even think I’m “unprofessional.” It makes it very hard to get a professional position when that is the case. Regardless of the type of work I’ve done, my education, the years of service I posses or the number of “meets…” or “exceeds expectations” performance evaluations I’ve been given I am not now, nor have I ever been considered a “professional.”

If I were to draw an allegory to public libraries, I’d be an assistant branch manager. But according to my institution, I’m not a professional.

The job I currently holds gives me a large amount of authority over a public services unit that includes the circulation desk and course reserves for a major U. S. research institution. It is my job to see that the department is staffed and operating smoothly and my patrons have access to what they need when they need it, so long as it’s available. It is a serious management job that requires skill, tact, and finesse, and can’t be successful if it doesn’t have a team willing to step up and take on extra loads from time to time. It cannot be done by just anyone. You have to like working with people from all walks of life and be able to shrug off the difficult ones. I have to be willing to move directly from giving an employee their yearly evaluation, to directing a patron to the parking and transportation office, to leaving my desk to go to Library Marketing and Communications meeting (all of which I’m doing tomorrow). If I were to draw an allegory to public libraries, I’d be an assistant branch manager. But according to my institution, I’m not a professional.

At least, not yet. It may change in the future, but I’m not holding my breath.

When I was applying for jobs, still, I had a version of my cover letter that described the work I’d done and responsibilities I’d held over the years as being professional-level work regardless of what my title was. I got a few interviews out of it, but not a job.

Because I’m not a “professional” librarian, there will be colleagues that will never see me as an equal. Unless my job classification changes it will be very difficult to get a bigger job at a different institution because I’ve never been a “professional” librarian before. It is classist. It is elitist. It is myopic. Once that hill has been crested, though, there will be another with the question about my tenure status. Presumably, it would end there, unless they want to know if I have a PhD, or not.

For a profession that tends to draw politically leftist and socially liberal people (even Marian the Librarian was a progressive feminist in 1912 Iowa), this preoccupation with professionalism betrays a frightful paranoid conservative strain lurking under the surface. How many professional librarians see working a circulation desk as beneath them? Most, it seems. How many Reference and Instruction librarians hate working at the reference desk? Too many, in my experience. How many administrators see public services librarianship as “professional suicide”? I don’t know, but it happens.

One of the reasons that I’m still not a “professional” librarian is that the professional librarians in my last job did not respect the work that classified staff was doing and did not think it was appropriate to bring one of us in to learn the professional aspects of the profession, regardless of our interest or education in the profession. As such, I’ve never been allowed much time to perform as a reference librarian (even though they resented doing it, themselves), and I surely couldn’t be allowed to work with the instruction librarians to learn at their feet. Being so, it took me two-and-a-half years to get a different job because I had no formal teaching experience, little reference experience, and no experience managing full-time staff, and there was not a blessed thing I could do about it because I was not a “professional” librarian, already.

Similarly, I couldn’t make the change to public librarianship because I had not already done the work. They did not want to hear about my years of experience or transferable skills. My experience was not sufficiently appropriate and therefore I was beyond consideration. In other words, “Not one of us!”

I love being a librarian. And I love being a member of this profession. I am, indeed a proud librarian. To anyone I’m talking to on the street, I’m a librarian. I think of myself as a librarian. My friends and family refer to me as a librarian, but due to antiquated and classist attitudes within the profession — therefore with the people who matter — I am not now, and have never been a professional librarian. And that is a problem not just for me, but for the profession as a whole.