May 04 2009
Two years ago I began working at a large academic library. Like so many new library school graduates lucky enough to secure a full-time position, I was extremely excited. I was also all of the things that turn a new grad into a neurotic librarian mess: grateful that someone had hired me; nervous about looking like an idiot on the job; anxious to start working on projects; scared of failing miserably. Overall, I was inexperienced and professionally unsure of myself. My colleagues were informative and encouraging, offering training and advice, but all of their well-intentioned efforts could only go so far. Ultimately I needed to become a stand-alone librarian. I did, eventually — but not without some serious on-the-job reeducation.
One of the biggest lessons I learned in my first year is that a large public university library is a big, bureaucratic place. This is not a criticism; it’s just the honest truth. There are countless state rules to obey, diverse constituencies to serve, and an amazingly large number of librarians and staff to manage. With so much going on at any given time, there’s no way that librarians can just wait for opportunities and projects to fall into their laps. The best way to spearhead new projects and gain leadership opportunities is simply to do something. One of my colleagues adopted the phrase “ask for forgiveness rather than permission” as her own personal mantra, and I quickly learned that this message was right on target. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to pilot a new idea on your own, or with help from a few enthusiastic, equally subversive colleagues. One of the worst things you can do is send your idea for a new project to…
Committees: Where good ideas go to die
I’m exaggerating (a little), of course, but committees are, by their very nature, not exactly the most action-oriented bodies in academia. They’re great for solidifying policy or making large institutional decisions, but committees are absolute murder on innovative projects. Last summer, I thought it might be a good idea for the library to give a quick 5-10 minute presentation to all new university employees at the mandatory New Hire Orientation that takes place every Monday on campus. It was an opportunity to introduce people new to the university to our library’s services and events, and to build a relationship with university staff, an often under-served group. I brought the idea to our library’s Marketing Committee, but ultimately ended up just doing the orientation.
Luckily, some of my fellow committee members were motivated to jump start the process with me. I sent out a few library-wide emails calling for volunteers, developed some talking points for the presentation, coordinated a time slot with the orientation coordinator, and just like that, we were in the New Hire Orientation business. Word of the orientation participation eventually spread to my library dean, who was not in the least concerned about it running its course through so-called “proper channels.” She was impressed by the idea and the effort. This innocuous little idea could have died in committee, but instead ended up being a great PR boost for our library.
I’m sure most librarians have a small idea for a project carving a hole in their brains similar to this one. In fact, I’ll one-up that and say most librarians have ideas much better than weaseling into staff orientations. Why not just try your idea out? If it works, it’s often adopted by the library at large and suddenly, you’re…
The “doing stuff” librarian
I have a friend who half-jokingly refers to me as the “doing stuff” librarian. While I won’t be changing my business cards any time soon, I do appreciate the proactive nickname. I consider myself a fairly busy librarian, primarily because I keep myself busy. If I see a need from faculty, students, or even the library at large, I’m eager to try implementing a new service. Although I’m a habitual rule-follower, I don’t ever feel the need to ask for permission to try new things on the job. The mission of our library is to support our university, and as long as what I’m doing furthers this mission, it shouldn’t be a question of “May I?” Luckily, my library’s administration is eager to support entrepreneurial endeavors and treats librarians as professionals. I realize that not every librarian is so lucky, but in those cases it is still important for professionals to do something. More often than not, actually carrying out an idea will give your coworkers and supervisors a better sense of what it involves and what it can accomplish. Showing is always better than telling.
I thought it might be a good idea to start up office hours at the social work computer lab to better serve my students. So I walked over to the lab with a laptop in hand to start the “Librarian in the Lab” service. I also thought it might be a good idea to create online research guides for individual classes; so I did, starting up our library’s first set of course pages. These weren’t necessarily revolutionary ideas, but they went a long way with students and faculty. More importantly, showing how easily these services could be implemented inspired other librarians to do the same. I realize this is librarianship at the micro-level, and some librarians may be more inclined to want to make bigger changes, but I’d urge forward-thinkers to start small. Giving people a sample of a new service usually makes the idea of change more manageable. Sometimes small ideas can go a long way, and yes, occasionally…
You fail — But is it really that bad?
I was part of a small group of librarians that implemented a chat reference service pilot over a year ago. Using Meebo as our chat tool, we tried to get our undergraduate students to “Chat Up A Librarian” for their online research needs.
Our chat reference statistics were so low that most librarians found their assigned chat reference hours to be a staring contest with their computer screen. What did that mean for the future of chat reference? It meant we needed to rethink our service. Our head of reference assigned the hours to our student research assistants who were already on duty at our reference desk. Should more complicated questions arise, they were instructed to forward them on to librarians. Ideas for improving chat reference continue to pop up. Most librarians have suggested adding a chat widget or chat link directly to the front page of our library’s website. I’ve also tried adding chat widgets to online course research guides professors were embedding in online courses in hopes that personalized delivery would be more popular, which has led to more chat reference questions.
Piloting our chat reference service took no money and only a bit of time from a few librarians. Although it hasn’t been a resounding success, it has helped us better understand our students and ways in which they are motivated (or unmotivated) to ask for help. Our failure was informative and yes, even productive. Central to any proactive effort is the ability to embrace failure as easily as you do success. With that in mind…
Let the subversion begin!
By virtue of their inexperience, new librarians of all ages and backgrounds often bring an outsider’s perspective to the library. I’d recommend that you use it. In my first few months on the job, I often questioned whether or not my ideas held merit. I was self-conscious about my lack of experience in libraries, and as a result, often kept quiet. What I failed to realize at first, and what I eventually learned, was that my ideas were meant to help me carve out my own professional path. No one was going to pave the way to leadership in my library for me. I had to demonstrate my creativity and willingness to tackle new and difficult projects. To every new librarian struggling to finding his or her place in the library: Don’t let your good ideas die. Do something this week. You might be surprised by the results.
Veronica Arellano is the Psychology, Social Work, and Women’s Studies Librarian at the University of Houston M.D. Anderson Library. Sometimes she wishes her “stuff to do” plate wasn’t so full, but new projects are just too exciting to turn down.