Librarians need bigger egos

Obviously, not all of them.  Some of us have big enough egos and need to tone things down a notch.  I’m not talking about the big egos and so-called “rock star librarians,” but the egos of regular working librarians.

In a 2008 article in Library Journal, Casey and Stephens argue that egos are bad for libraries:

The ego, we concluded, can be a very damaging thing. Inflated. Overbearing. Egos create rules for rules’ sake. Egos complicate procedures and keep good people down. Egos squash good ideas and can take the best of an organization and turn it on itself.

But they really refer to over-inflated egos.  I argue that a healthy, reasonable ego is a good thing. For all of us. Perhaps this is semantics: since the word ego has some pretty negative connotations, maybe I really mean to suggest that librarians need more professional self-confidence or self-esteem.

Because librarians are smart. Damned smart. They are talented, knowledgable, hardworking and willing to go out their way to help others out. If you want to find something out or get something done you should definitely ask a librarian.

But I’ve seen colleagues acquiesce without any discussion to poorly thought out faculty demands regarding library instruction. I’ve seen librarians sit quietly through meetings with bosses or administrators and then provide intelligent, thoughtful criticism after the meeting when the boss isn’t listening.  I’ve heard colleagues at conferences complain about faculty not including them in learning management systems and I find out that they never asked.

What contributes to this quietness, this passivity, this inability to assert ourselves even in the areas of our expertise?

Is it gender? Over 80% of librarians are female, and workplace gender dynamics might come into play.  I’m certainly no expert on this topic, but books like Nice Girls Never Get the Corner Office and Lean In seem to suggest that women need to be more assertive at work and stop confusing “being nice” with asking questions and stating opinions. NPR has an interesting new series called the Changing Lives of Women. As a part of that series, they have created a tumblr project called She Works: Notes to Self encouraging women to share their slogans, affirmations and advice. Many of submitted slogans encourage women to speak up, “Sit at the table and speak up,” and “Don’t be shy. Promote your accomplishments.”  But there are also of slogans encouraging women to be nice or be quiet, “Smile on the outside, tell them off on the inside” or “Work hard and be nice to people,” advice that I’d bet wouldn’t be posted a similar site geared to men.

Sit at the table and speak up

Is it education?  Although librarians often have faculty status, we most often do not have PhDs like most of the rest of the faculty. I routinely call professors by their first name since we are colleagues and that’s what colleagues do these days.  But other librarians routinely call professors “Professor Smith” even when the professor uses the librarian’s first name.  Are librarians intimidated by the title or the degree? Are some folks less likely to state opposing opinions or ask challenging questions?

Is it the library’s place within the institution?  Although we are often faculty, we are different than classroom faculty. No matter how robust our library instruction programs, we sit outside of the classroom and teacher model that serves as the core of most high education institutions. And in a digital world, some faculty start to question the ongoing relevance of the brick-and-mortar library.  Are we stymied by our kind-of-outsider status?

I don’t know what the answer is.  But I’ve met and spoken with lots of librarians, and I know what they are capable of.  They are amazing, articulate professionals with a deep understanding of how folks search for information and the knowledge of what kinds of information is out there. We know about scholarly publishing, instructional design, data resources, pedagogy and a gazillion other things.

Let’s dust off those egos. Let’s make sure other folks know our strengths. Let’s stand up for our accomplishments.

It’s all about context

For the third year in a row, I was lucky enough to attend the ScienceOnline “unconference” in North Carolina.  This gathering of scientists, professors, journalists, editors, librarians and other interested folks is one of the most dense intellectual three days of the year.  With a wide variety of sessions and an extraordinary group of conference goers, it is easily my favorite conference.  Details of each of the sessions can be found on the conference wiki.

As I got back to work over the past week and a half, the sessions and hallway conversations from the conference kept rolling around in my head.  The consistent thing among everything at the conference seems to be the importance of context. A few examples from the conference and beyond:

  • Data – Without context, data is useless.  From something as simple as a unit or a label, to information about the procedure used to get the data.  One reason that scientists cite for their reluctance to share data is the concern that the data will be misused.  Without providing proper context, it is more likely to be misused, and scientists don’t want to spend their time adding metadata to their datasets, they want to spend their time doing science.  In addition, although I was excited about some of the new data sharing services that are springing up, some of them require very little metadata.  This is great if you don’t have a lot of time to upload the data, but slightly pointless if the data can’t be used because of the lack of context.
  • Popular science – I read a lot of science blogs and science news.  I read (ok, skim) a lot of scientific journal articles. In all these cases, the information needs a bit of context.  A classic example from after the conference is a press release about a new article discussing the origins of the Little Ice Age.  Most of the initial news reports failed to provide a good background to the story, largely because they were based on the press release.  Later posts and more in depth stories (from those who had read the journal article) were able to help us better understand where this information comes from.
  • Undergraduates and blogging – Along the same lines, I sat down with an undergraduate today to help her understand how to read a scientific article.  We talked a bit about what each section of the paper was likely to contain, and one of the most important things was context in the Introduction and Discussion.  Likewise, students need to understand the context of a blog post.  What is likely to be discussed?  Where can you find more information? What are the social norms of the blogging world?
  • The semantic web – This is all about context.  Nothing but context.  Just make it machine readable.  Ontologies can help make connections between data points and establish relationships between concepts.  Without context, it’s just a bunch of unrelated zeros and ones.
  • Altmetrics – Just like you need context with research data, measuring research output requires context.  Right now, many researchers have a vague idea of what a good impact factor in their field is.  Through hard work and effort, they have a sense of context.  For the new metrics, most researchers don’t yet have enough experience to be able to put them in context.  What does it mean that 4 folks mentioned your article on twitter or that 18 folks bookmarked your article on Mendeley.  Is that good?  Bad? Mediocre?
  • Managing Digital Information* – One big challenge here is to put this all in context.  That’s why we love email programs that put email messages into threads – we like seeing what came before and after.  How can we see what needs to be seen, ignore the things that can be ignored, and know how it all relates to one another?

I have heard my boss argue that one of the things that libraries are really good at is providing context, although we rarely put it in those terms.  Looking over the list I created above, I think it’s impossible to argue otherwise.

Folks in libraries and information centers create metadata, provide books and reference materials to help folks understand the context of the world around them, teach folks about online environments and explore new technologies.  We make lists and compare things, and provide tools to help manage digital information.

Yes, we are in the information business, but perhaps it is a bit more descriptive to say that we are in the business of providing context.


*I still can’t get over the irony of this session.  In front of a standing room only crowd, the moderators tried to engage us in a discussion of how to manage and deal with the information deluge, while at the same time we had laptop computers and smart phones open to catch every tweet and blog post about what was being said.

Keeping track of it all

Along with every other department on campus, libraries are under increasing pressure to evaluate their services – everything from student learning outcomes to expenditures.

Tally marks
Are your reference statistics a comedy or a tragedy? Image courtesy of Flickr user aepoc

Assessing the value of libraries in these areas requires the collection of lots of information.  Data of all kinds needs to be collected, analyzed and shared.  So what data do we collect, and where do we store it?

We have lots of silos for relevant information here in my library, and none of us are convinced that we are doing things in the best way possible.  Our collection of statistics related to reference and research help services provides one example.

The most obvious place where this happens is the reference desk.  To keep statistics about what happens here we use LibStats to record:

  • the question itself,
  • the format (phone, walk-up, IM)
  • the patron (student, community member, faculty member)
  • how long it took to answer

But our research help doesn’t end at the reference desk.  One of the big services we provide is research consultations by appointment.  Students (and faculty or community members) can request an appointment and their request will be routed to the most appropriate librarian.  (No one wants me answering in-depth research questions about primary sources in 17th century European history, for example.)

These requests come via an online form that dumps information into a home-grown MS Access database.  For this kind of appointment-based research help we collect the same information recorded for reference desk questions, but also information about the student and the course the project is related to.

But our research help comes in other forms, too.  We have an email-based ask a librarian service, and we all get email questions directly from students and faculty.  At this point we aren’t very good at recording this type of information.  What system should we use?

We also aren’t very good at recording questions that come directly to us from faculty, either via email, phone or in person.

And I haven’t even started to discuss the challenges of assessing the student learning outcomes associated with research and reference help services.

As a result of all this, it is difficult to get one complete picture of our involvement in research across campus.  It’s something we are currently working to resolve.

And the biggest question that will influence how we do this is

“What do we want to do with this information?”

Change our services?  Change our staffing levels? Merely collecting the data won’t be of use to anyone.  The answer to these questions will influence the type of data that we  collect and the tools we use to collect it.

And once we figure out all that, then we just need to remember to record everything.

On CV’s and Cover Letters

For no particular reason (no, really), I would like to point out the follow insightful, humorous, and incredibly spot on commentaries about cover letters, CV’s and the process of hiring librarians in general:

I have no commentary of my own to add at this time.

Library Day in the Life, Round 7

As part of the ongoing project illustrating the daily work lives of librarians, here’s a taste of what I did on Monday.  Is this typical?  Not really.  I rarely have as much time to devote to a single project (the grant).  Summer time is normally a chance to work on big projects, whereas the school year is largely devoted to library instruction and reference-type questions from students and faculty.

8:00am (OK, 8:10am).  Arrive at work, turn my computer on and make tea.  Because a day that doesn’t start with tea won’t go smoothly.  Tetley tea, milk and sweetener, in case you’re wondering.

8:15am to 9:00am: Read and write several emails related to a search committee I am chairing.  Come work with us!  We’re hiring a Library Business Manager and an Electronic Resources & Digital Scholarship Librarian.  Check the HR system to see if we have any applicants.  Yay!  We do!

9:00am to 11:00am:  Work on an outline for a grant.  It is a science education related grant, and I’m working with some folks from the biology department.  Naturally, I can provide the literature searching and citations.  When the faculty members want to say “35% of students do/know this” I find the citation that proves it (usually).  I am also assisting with their assessment plan.

Wiked Bugs Book Cover
Wicked Bugs: The louse that conquered Napoleon’s army and other diabolical insects by Amy Stewart

I get distracted several times following my stream on twitter, tweaking my circles on Google+ and chatting with a colleague about who should be responsible for updating the library floor plans. I find some cool things:

11:00am to 12:00pm: Search committee meeting.  Today we devised the rating form to use when we rank candidate applications.

12:00pm to 1:00pm:  Meet with several colleagues to discuss the status of a USGS document weeding project we’ve been working on.  A perusal of our storage room and stacks indicates that the project is farther along than we thought.  Next steps: set up a meeting with the Geological Sciences faculty to discuss where we go from here.

1:00pm to 1:30pm:  “Teaching with Technology” seminar series.  One of my colleagues from our IT department demonstrates how to customize Google Forms so that the data still goes into your Google Spreadsheet but you can use your own style sheets and additional HTML. Already thinking about how this will be useful in some information literacy classes this fall.

1:30pm: More email.  Send an email to the faculty in the departments I work with about the new app for ScienceDirect I found this morning.  Respond to emails from HR about our search, and read email from faculty regarding some library instruction sessions for the fall.  I don’t have time to read all of the attachments, so I’ll have to put that off until later.

2:15pm: I broke a shoe coming out of the staff lounge.  It’s really broken – the leather strap split in two.  Luckily I have sneakers in my desk, but I end up looking a bit dorky for the rest of the day.

2:20pm: Spend 5 minutes looking for new shoes on  I realize that I don’t really need a new pair when the pair I like best costs $200.

2:30 to 4:00pm: Meeting about the grant to finalize the outline that we need to send to the President and Provost.  Realize that our latest budget outline doesn’t match up with our latest program description and attempt to figure out which one is correct.

General daily notes:  Lunch is often a luxury between meetings and getting work done.  Like today, I often eat at my desk.  Since I’m nursing my 4 month old daughter, I also need to find 15 minutes twice a day to get her milk.  It’s nice to work in an environment where I have the flexibility to do this.