Thoughts on Academic Librarianship, part 2

General Disclaimer: My soon-to-be FPOW is by no means unique when it comes to academic libraries. After talking, and sometimes grumping, with librarians from many different academic libraries, I have come to the conclusion that MPOW is the middle of the pack when it comes to both good and bad organizational themes. It is not my institution that drives me insane at times, but they way academic libraries work in general. For many of these problems, it is simply the size of the organization that works against it. These observations are based on my experiences in my academic library. Your experiences may vary.

I have written this post so many times in my head that when I finally was able to write it, I could not articulate the words. I have always wanted to be more transparent about MPOW in this space, but I never felt like that was an option. I am leaving my library now and I no longer have to play the politics that keeps up outward appearances above all else. I do not see this post as bridge burning by any means. I think it is honest, fair, and I hope the administration accepts it in that spirit.

The introduction leads me right into the first issue: lack of transparency. One of the most frustrating things about this issue was that my administration was usually under the impression they were being transparent. As long as things looked ok from the top they must be ok. The problem was often a communication breakdown somewhere on the totem pole and the people on the bottom are rarely asked if everything is actually going OK. When you have an organization of any kind that is large, transparency is hard simply because it must travel through level after level of employees. We did receive meeting minutes from all the managerial type meetings, but they were bulleted lists of decisions and explained nothing about the why. I am not asking for a tome, but if the decision effects my work or me, I want to know why certain things were decided, not just the outcome.

Transparency can be a hit or miss affair. Sometimes things were handled fabulously. I think our original Strategic Directions process was very transparent with information coming out in many different formats and with many opportunities for participation from the library. However, I am sure there are differing opinions about it from someone who was displeased with the flow of information. Transparency is sometimes about perspective.

Transparency was even more complex when it involved a mistake or something was not going quite right. Then everyone was talking about it, except all the managers, and we peons were all left wondering why no one would just own up. The first step is admitting you have a problem. The second is actually addressing the issue.

Academic libraries want to be innovative, they think they are, but processes keep them from ever doing anything remotely cutting edge. In order start a new, innovative project you have to, at the very least, complete the following steps more or less in this order:

  • You have a brilliant idea, X, and you tell your boss about it.
  • Boss tells you to research X to see if anyone else has successfully done X because you need proof of concept and ROI first. (This immediately assures you that X is not a new idea since what you are conducting is a literature review of research articles.)
  • You present findings to managers/admin and argue for X being implemented.
  • Your managers/admin decide it might be worth trying so they create a Task Force to investigate the idea and write a report.
  • The Task Force does the research and writes a report.
  • The report goes to admin and they approve it.

  • Admin creates an Implementation Committee.
  • Implementation Committee goes over report, does more research, makes more plans, and writes their own report.
  • Report goes to admin.
  • Admin approves of monies to spend.
  • Implementation Committee starts the process of actually implementing X.
  • All these process often take a year at the very least. By that point, anything you wanted to do is so past being new that everyone is already doing it – except academic libraries. We make committees for everything and the committees are rarely efficient. It is also hard to have transparency when so much of the work of the organization is spread out in countless committees. Sounds a lot like ALA, yes?

    Academic libraries are very inflexible when it comes to traditional roles of librarians or allowing librarians to grow into different jobs. Once you get hired to do a job, that is your job. You may get work duties added to your position, but you will rarely get to recreate yourself, even if it meets an expressed need at YPOW. If you grow as a professional, the only way to move into a new position is to move up, often into management. There is no way to move sideways, to become more expert at something and be compensated or promoted in the same fashion as if you were moving up the ladder of the organization. Not everyone wants to or should be a manager.

    My work situation is a perfect example of this. I was hired as a Social Studies Librarian. I was hired to do collection development, reference, and instruction, but over time I became more interested in technology and training. There was no one on staff to do troubleshooting, exploration, and training of staff in regards to technology. We had a Systems Department, but that was not their job nor did they have time to train people. At first I did the extra stuff because I loved it and I argued that we needed a full time person to do this job. Training was added to my current job, for which I was compensated, but I still had regular duties to do. I was doing, in my opinion, two full-time jobs and eventually, I was doing neither well. I was only one person, after all. I declined a renewal of the training duties so that I could focus on my core job responsibilities. I told my managers that I was unable to do what I considered two full time jobs with limited time in a respectable manner. It was my way of telling them, I would be a band-aid for this problem no longer.

    There is still no one doing technology training at MPOW, nor will there be any time soon though the need is most definitely there. It is just not a priority. In my previous post, I said that there was always money in the bank and there was, for things. There was never money for people. We could always buy books, furniture, and shelving, but rarely new people. In my opinion, we need the people more and they are more important than things. Unfortunately, budgets do not work the way we would like and thus, no new positions. If my admin had moved me into a different position, they would have had to hire someone to replace me in my old position. I am assuming that there was just not money for everything and admin made a hard choice.

    In the end, I just do not think my personality and big bureaucracies are a good fit. I am continually frustrated by the red tape, the sacred cows, the lack of transparency, lack of flexibility, and the politics. My library was great for me because it allowed me to find something I love, technology and teaching. With monetary support to go to conferences with infinite networking opportunities, I was able to make enough contacts to enable me to seek my own career path. I will be eternally grateful to my first professional job for the fostering I received. I have outgrown my position and so it was time for me to move on. Baby or not, I have been considering my options for a long time.

    –Jane, needed a little more room to fly

    Thoughts on Academic Librarianship, part one

    I have decided to write this post in two parts because it may end up being a wee bit long for one gigantic post. I wanted to write about the positives of working in an academic library first because starting out on a positive note is nice. This post could be subtitled: Why academic libraries are good places to work.

    I became an academic librarian for two reasons: 1) I love academia and thus wanted to stay in higher education without staying in graduate school and 2) it was the first job offer I received, I desperately needed a job, and I was bound geographically to Houston. Technically, that is at least four reasons, but go with me here. The job was an answer to many prayers, hopes, and dreams. In many ways, it lived up to my expectations and in some ways it did not.

    I have condensed the good into five themes.

    There was always money in the bank. In many places, library budgets, including academic library budgets, have been slashed to ribbons. However, the larger universities in Texas have not had this problem. We still compete heavily with other departments on campus for money, but I have a dean who has excelled in getting money for the library and our budget goes up every year. As a result, I have always been able to buy almost anything in print I wanted. I was able to get some very nice electronic resources for my subject areas, the ethnic studies areas, even though they are small and interdisciplinary. We also had money for new computers, renovations to our building, and many other things.

    As a result of having money, collection development has never been a headache. I do think, with the way approval plans work these days, librarians should be spending a lot less time doing collection development. I have actually said in a meeting, “Any monkey can buy books.” It won me some raised eyebrows, but I was being honest. When you have the money you need, choosing books is not hard. That is a discussion for another post. In general, academic libraries are well funded and that is definitely a good thing.

    Faculty are fun and challenging. Working with faculty was one of my favorite things because they were almost universally thankful for the help. In addition, the research they were doing was always interesting, thought provoking, and challenging. Their questions were the kinds of things I envisioned answering when I was sitting in my “how to do reference” class in graduate school. I have been lucky to work with some wonderful faculty and I will miss hearing stories about their research, their classes, and their families. My faculty were delightful people, who treated me like a colleague, and I will be sad to leave them, even in good hands.

    This is not to suggest that all faculty interactions are easy. Sometimes they are frustrating, especially when you are trying to convince a faulty member that the assignment they gave their classes can not be completed because research has not been conducted that way for at least 15 years. Semester after semester of dealing with the same stubborn faculty member, giving the same assignment that does nothing but set students up to fail and be frustrated by research can be deflating. These interactions only count for a small portion of what you encounter, hopefully, and all the good interactions more than make up for that one curmudgeon.

    Even if you have pseudo-faculty status, you have a great amount of flexibility with your time. I call this status Pretend Tenure. At MPOW, we are not faculty, we are not staff, we are somewhere in between with our own tenure process (much less rigorous than what faculty go through) and governance documents. With faculty or pretend faculty status, you have more flexible hours than librarians who are simply staff at their institutions. We were eligible for time off to write or sabbaticals to do research. This status also means that there was no clock punching. If you needed to come in late one day, you did or if you needed to stay late, you did that too. This flexibility is nice when family obligations suddenly spring up, you need a mental day at home, or you just need to stay at home to get work done. (by work here, I mean work related to your job) I am twice as productive at home then I am in the office. It is one of the reasons I am such an advocate of virtual or blended teams (teams with both virtual and f2f components) in the workplace. I think it is the combination of home comforts and the flexibility that I like when I am at home on my laptop.

    In addition to having flexibility with your time, pretend faculty status usually means a requirement for participation in professional organizations. MPOW pays about 45-48% for us to go to 3 conferences a year. While we always groused about wanting more money, that is far and above what most librarians receive to travel every year. This money has allowed me to attend many conferences and meet fabulous people, both for which I am very grateful. This is also a by product of having money in the budget.

    Teaching students. Students, like faculty, have their *headdesk* moments, but teaching students is incredible. I have been lucky and have been able to teach classes in many subjects and on many different levels. It has been fun and challenging to keep the students engaged, active, and learning the things that will help them complete the research before them. I loved their questions, especially when they asked me to demonstrate something I had not planned on showing that day. This most frequently occurred in drop in workshops and only occasionally in course related classes. I had no formal teaching experience before I started this job and yet teaching has become one of my favorite things about my job. In fact, there were days and weeks, that it was the only thing I liked about my job. I love to teach and this job, crediting mostly talented colleagues and an amazing former boss, taught me how to be a great instructor. I owe them so much.

    Being on a campus can be invigorating. I loved college and not just because the beer was cheap and we drank it often. I love the atmosphere of higher learning. Sometimes the intellectual conversations I overhear at MPOW make me long for the classes and professors I adored. There is plenty of inanity, but you can almost hear people learning and pondering Big Thoughts. It makes my geeky heart swell.

    These are the things I will miss the most about being an academic librarian. I think I have learned a lot of positive things from my time in this aspect of librarianship. I am curious to see how these lessons will play out in other library related endeavors. I have my whole life ahead of me to find out.

    –Jane, packs up her knowledge learned to use later

    “The Last March of the Ents”

    Leaving Letter

    (picture inclusion with a nod towards Helene Blowers)

    This post has been a long time coming. If all works out accordingly, this post will be published directly after or right before I hand the interested parties my letter of resignation from the University of Houston Libraries where I have worked for three and a half years. I am sad to be leaving my friends and colleagues behind, even though I will see most of them often enough. Those who know me or have been paying attention will not be surprised at my departure. I have needed, searched for, even longed for a change in work scenery for quite awhile.

    I am trading my crazy, traffic filled commute for domesticity and working from home. Instead of a Social Sciences Librarian, I will be a stay at home wife, mother, and Geek Librarian At Large. In addition to changing diapers and walking around with a baby attached to my chest, I plan on engaging in the following professional activities:

  • Blogging in this space and over here
  • Writing for ALA Techsource Blog
  • Working on a book on Strategic Planning for ACRL
  • Writing a chapter for an upcoming book on Millennials
  • Serving on Jim Rettig’s Presidential Advisory Committee
  • Serving in LITA in various positions
  • Possibly working with SOLINET as an adjunct
  • Consulting
  • Rabble-rousing from afar
  • Friends and long time readers will surmise correctly that I am going to continue to do the things that I love the most about being a librarian, teaching and advocating for technology education in librarianship. Due to the impending arrival of Baby Rochester, I am placing a hiatus on most professional travel for almost a year and half. I expect my next conference to be ALA Annual 2009, though one never knows what life will bring you. Box of chocolates, anyone?

    I plan on writing at least one more post reflecting on working in an academic library, based on my experiences in the one that fostered me these last few years, and the kind of job I would love to have some day. Those should be coming along shortly.

    Until then, I am excited about this new phase of my life, happy for the change of pace, and pleased to be able to finally tell you, gentle readers and friends, my plan.

    –Jane, tickled baby boy blue

    Please Do Not Feed the Animals

    Sometimes we never know how things work, or do not, until a crisis rears its head. Oh, the fun, the joy, of technology that does not work at the reference desk. Today, our reference desk is about as much fun as a poo throwing monkey. Fun until the poo slaps you in the face.

    The short version: Our new print management system, which started today, is completely on the fritz for all 250 of our student computers and we have to release each print job individually at the Reference Desk.

    The long version: Our staff are wonderful and reacted well. I went out to the desk at 10 and it was chaos, but it was working well enough. Staff were helping students print their jobs as organized as possible and I even smiled because this was so crazy it was actually hilarious. This incident, though not what I would have chosen, reminded me why I like the people I work with everyday. Nobody seemed angry and we were all doing our best to make it work. The students, were, for the most part, understanding, which helped.

    I think so many things are influenced by attitude. I will not claim to be good at controlling my own attitudes (and you have all read enough rants to know that at least), but a quick stroll outside, some deep breaths, or remembering a blessing can make the difference between a crisis and a disaster. A crisis is not always bad. A crisis simply means you have the choice to do something and you can choose correctly or you can choose something that will make it worse.

    I know I am greatly simplifying matters, but I still think that is true.

    So today, on this day, if you choose to wallow in your bad mood, please do so elsewhere. The rest of use are thinking of things like whiskers on kittens, warm woolen mittens, and brown paper packages tied up with string.

    –Jane, please duck, flying poo in area

    Enrollment may be down, but Library numbers are up, up, up

    I work at the University of Houston and most of the staff this year were disappointed to learn that our enrollment numbers were way down for the current semester. Classes started Monday, along with all the usual hubbub. Other librarians know what I am talking about: ridiculous amounts of printing (“but I need every power point ever created for my class, today, now, in print”), lines everywhere, that frantic look on the face of the student who has no idea where their next class is located (and it started 10 minutes ago), and the smell of students who have been wandering around campus looking for classes in near 100 degree heat. Ah, the smell of Fall in Texas. Beautiful.

    Despite enrollment being down, I am pleased to say that out of roughly 32,000 students, over 11,500 of them came into th library on Monday and Tuesday. That is 11,500 on each day! Good for us. I think they are here for multiple reasons. Some of the reasons are good, some are not that great, but they are here in the building. Below are the reasons I think students are coming to our building:

  • It is hot outside and air conditioned in here. Did I mention the heat?
  • We have the largest number of computers in any one place on campus.
  • We have free printing, for a few more days anyway, and the students know it.
  • We let students eat in out library.
  • Our staff answer their questions. We often get students who have been sent to a couple different places to find the answer to a question that a phone call could have solved. We try to solve it or at least send them to the right person.
  • Students can manage their accounts with some IT staff who have set up house by our reference desk. I have only seen the line empty there one time, it was 7:40 at night, and it only stayed empty for about a minute.
  • If people have questions, we answer them. We do not send them elsewhere.
  • We have AC, remember.
  • There are a ton of study spaces, tables, nooks, and crannies where students can meet and relax.
  • We have stuff they want: computers and printers. OK, honestly, I did see students checking out a lot of books yesterday (even if they were the textbooks they should have been buying).
  • We try to help them. Did I mention that yet?
  • The moral is: I believe our students come to the library because we try our best to be helpful and we have stuff the students need. I think, biased though it may be, that our library gives better customer service then any other department or service office on campus and the students know that. Not that we are perfect, but it is nice to know that they like us enough to be here, in our building.

    –Jane, what does your library do that other groups do not for your users?

    A Ladder, A Rope, or the Stairs: Choose Your Own Career

    Last week at MPOW, we had two leadership training days with Maureen Sullivan (who is a great facilitator). Most librarians under a certain age or a certain level in the organization were included in the sessions. It was interesting, frustrating, and medicinal. It was frustrating because a lot of the organizational culture issues we were talking about last year and the year before that are still crippling issues. It was medicinal because there was some laundry airing that felt good. None of the things we discussed are unique to my library.

    Much of the discussion, however, was very interesting. The conversations that made me ponder most my place in this library and this profession was the generational discussion. We had everything from Boomers to Millenials in the room. Our ideas of what should be were so different that it was again brought home to me that I may not have the patience to wait for my library to change.

    One of the conversations was about “paying one’s dues.” I said that my weakness was maintaining a patience level that would pace me with my organization. I stated that I wanted things to start changing now, I wanted flexibility, and I wanted to be more effective in my efforts. One of my older colleagues replied that I had to wait 10 years until I am in management to effect my idea of The Library. I retorted that I did not want to wait 10 years! I am here now!

    At the time I was angry and frustrated, but the more I thought about his response, I knew this was the difference that holds many of us who want change now back. There is a strong divide between the “pay your dues crowd” and those of us that think we should have the opportunity and power to effect change RIGHT NOW. This small, but heated, conversation was the perfect example of generational differences.

    I do not want to wait. Gone are the days when the majority of us will stay at the same library for years on end, retiring after a long service to the same organization. The reality is that I will mostly likely only be at my current library for a small number of years before I move on. I want to make this library better NOW, not after I leave. I want MPOW to be fabulous, I want to think big and be able to do something with those dreams, and I want to do it now. There is only so much subterfuge and subversion that can go on before you must gain official permission for things and all that dealing is exhausting.

    A friend and co-worker pointed me to a new blog and this post in particular. Penelope Trunk is talking about the changing idea’s of paying one’s dues. There are some other good themes, like the amount of family time that must be sacrificed to achieve the pinnacle of most careers, but the majority of the post is about people who are succeeding well because they are hopping up and around the ladder of success. The climb no longer has to be drudgery and serfdom. The climb to success can vary immensely because there are so many more options available to us. Organizations that plan for this new model will be the one’s that succeed. Ones that do not will continue to drop by the wayside, waiting for a Good Samaritan to take pity and haul them out of their ditch.

    The question most administrators should be asking themselves is how can they provide a flexible working environment for staff, especially younger or driven staff, that can and will choose to move in a different direction to attain the flexibility they want and need?

    The question for librarians gazing at the top of the ladder from the bottom is thus: Do you want to go straight up, waiting your turn for others to vacate the upper rungs, or would you rather forgo the ladder and try the rope or the stairs?

    –Jane, looks around for a rope

    Good News!

    This is a belated announcement, but Five Weeks has eaten up every scrap of free time in my day these last few weeks. Soon, this space will be back to normal.

    Ok. Now.

    It is a small step, but forward regardless. MPOW has officially added technology training as part of my job responsibilities. I still have most of my regular duties to do, so training will only be a small part of what I accomplish. Mwahahaaaa, mine is an evil laugh.
    I have big plans, but we shall see what happens in the end. My job title may change but I am going to stay a peon in the food chain. *sigh* When will I be given the power I need to take over the world?

    –Jane, wants to build a course for staff

    A Question of Feeds

    I have not seen anyone write about this yet and my library has created quite an interesting conundrum that I am positive is not unique unto us.

    MPOW has some very nice subject blogs maintained by subject librarians. We put all kinds of useful and interesting things on them. Users can subscribe to their content using RSS. Everything is lovely and the birds are twittering.

    Some of our library departments also have internal blogs. These blogs live on our intranet and thus are not accessible to the public. If we need to read them from outside our offices, we have to enter the password for the intranet before gaining access. This sounds fine until one tries to subscribe to the RSS feed of the blog.

    It can not be done. The intranet is password protected and thus so is the feed. I have set up feeds for other password protected projects with RSS, Basecamp for example. It worked fine, but as far as I, and my other frustrated colleagues have found, there is no work around. This has resulted in many of us not reading the blogs at all. The only one I see regularly is the blog maintained by the reference staff because it is the active desktop on our reference desk computers. When I sat regularly, what I really mean is “ever.”

    I know why the blogs are not viewable to the public. If they were we could not write posts like, “Professor Q has yet again sent his students to find Item X which we do not own. Please inform the students that they really should be looking for B.” I get this. I do.

    However, if many of us are not reading the blogs because they are hidden away and we can not get RSS feeds in our readers, is there a point to maintaining them? I think they still have value; it is just diminished from its potential.

    If your library uses blogs for internal communication, have you solved this problem? Ignored it? Used it as a way to humiliate frequent offenders into behaving?

    –Jane, needs the feeds

    A Story in Numbers

    And a story about printing in the library

    Once upon a time there was a library that received a dedicated fee from its 35,000 student body in exchange for good service, computers, and free printing. After some years, it was obvious to all the librarians that worked on the reference desk that the amount of paper being used was astronomical. Unfortunately, they had no way to find out exactly how much was being printed and wasted, but the recycle bins always seemed to be full.

    The administration of the library was dedicated to offering free printing as a service, so the reference staff looked around for other ways to save paper. Eventually they installed a print management system that required the students to release each of their jobs (or their jobs as a group) at a print station, thus ensuring, they hoped, that all jobs printed would be wanted jobs.

    There were a few bugs along the way, but this new system was also able to count how many pages were actually being printed every day. In the first four days of school, 420,000 pages were printed on our 250 computers. That is 105,000 pages a day. The other labs on campus printed a total of 35,000 in those 4 days. The library is not the main computing facility on campus, but it was the only one with free printing.

    Librarians were happy to walk around and see less waste sitting around the printers, but 105,000 pages per day is a lot of paper. That is 3 pages for every student every day, which seems to be not unreasonable. But when you add money to the equation, the story becomes different.

    The money is the real moral of this story.

    If you suppose that a box of paper holds 5,000 pages and each box costs $20. You can assume that the library gets a price break and we will assume a cost of $15 for our purposes. At 105,000 pages, that is 21 boxes of paper per day, 5 times a week for a total of 105 boxes per week. Now I am leaving off the weekends, but less is printed then and that may make up for the page number resulting from the first few days of classes.

    There are roughly 4 weeks in a month, making the total for each month 420 boxes. A semester is 3.5 months long thus 420 x 3.5 equals 1,470 boxes. If each box costs $15 dollars, then the library spends $22,050 every three and a half months on paper for the students. If you calculate that b per year (very scientifically ignoring the fact that summer is slower), then 420 x 12 equals 5,040 boxes. At $15 a box, we are paying $75,600 a year on paper. These calculations do not even take into account printer maintenance and staff time needed to upkeep that level of printing.

    This is a library supposedly having money issues. I am concerned about both the waste of paper and the waste of money. If we could simply limit the total amount of paper students could use, then they would not be printing every Power Point Presentation in every class one slide to a sheet, every online textbook they have ever had to use, those flyers for their frats, and any other 100 page document their little heart desires.

    Give them a crazy limit, like 750 pages. This is a lot, but it would keep the people who abuse the free printing from doing so because they will have to choose between that 500 page online textbook and those flyers for their next frat party.

    And a note about that dedicated fee: The university also decided this year that all fees would be put in a pot and distributed through a complex system of begging. That dedicated fee no longer belongs to the library.

    I know this is not a unique situation. Are there any other librarians out there that have found a good solution to this problem?

    –Jane, frustrated with the system, anyone got a better?

    *Update: Obviously, this is all very scientific***sarcasm*** and should be taken as such.