When a colleague leaves

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This past Friday a colleague I work closely with left for another job. It’s a good move for her, and will allow her to stretch out her very-pink-post-it-note wings, but we will miss her all the same.

The colleague who left was the Strategic Communications Specialist for our department, and as I am the former head of the Social Media Workgroup, the current co-convener of Marketing and Outreach, and the person who created the library’s social media accounts, I worked closely with her. I learned a lot about working with different types of personalities, how to stay extra-organized, and the importance of pink post-its from this colleague, but most importantly, I learned more about communications.

She and I worked together to create a style guide for social media within our department. Sometimes we sigh or grimace at the idea of “documentation,” but it’s genuinely important to have. The documentation allows anyone, whether a new staff member or just a new member of the Marketing and Outreach team, to quickly understand the mission, goals, and voice of our communications. The signage guide that we began together, and which I will soon complete, accomplishes a similar goal: continuity. With new staff coming in, or old staff heading out, continuity matters. The students and faculty don’t know when someone in the library moves to another job, and they don’t particularly care, but they do expect that things won’t change.

So yes, I am very, very sad that when I walk into our office suite every morning now, I don’t see a hint of pink off to my right, and I don’t get a bubbly “good morning,” or an update on what other departments are working on, but she’s got a better job, and we’ve got the documentation to keep going smoothly. Here’s to our outgoing colleague! May she have amazing benefits and many snow days!

Research Help (aka Reference) Training

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Welcome to Fall semester 2015! Today is the first day of classes here at Brandeis, and we are all very busy. We are in the process of bumping up our reference staff!

Right now we’re short-staffed, with 7 liaisons and 1 library assistant staffing the “research help” desk from 11-5 and chat from 9-5 Monday – Friday, so we have asked our technical services/access services staff with MLS degrees or lots of reference experience if anyone would be willing to help out. Many of the librarians with MLS degrees in those departments actually have done reference in the past, and really only need a refresher, but so that we have consistent training I volunteered to put together a document that could be used for the future as well as for this specific instance.

We have a fairly…interesting…statistics system, and we have been using Tiers 1-4 to describe all kinds of reference/help questions, but none of us have been consistent as we have all had different experiences with different scales at different former institutions and there has never been a formal training on what each consist of other than the 1 word/phrase descriptions in Service Desk itself (Non-resource/directional; skill-based/library services; strategy-based/consultation; subject specialization). The phrases are pretty good until you actually compare what each librarian uses; one librarian was using tier 3 (consultation) for in-depth appointments even if they went over 40 minutes due to the fact that they weren’t subject specific.

What I would like to implement is the READ scale (readscale.org) which is based on the ARL requirements and is very, very specific in what falls into which section. It is a better system than what we are currently using, and I would feel more comfortable teaching it, but that may not be a battle I have the time for this fall. Hopefully we can figure out a good way to describe our current tier system so that it works better for everyone!

On a brighter note, I am very, very excited for The Martian movie to come out in about a month. VERY EXCITED.

The Unsuccessful Class

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I don’t teach as much here at Brandeis as I did at University of Illinois, but I still love every minute of being in front of a classroom…even if things go terribly wrong and I end up utterly stressed.

I recently co-taught a class for Chinese high school students visiting the United States. We were asked to teach the students about research: the process, how it’s done in American college classes, the basics of searching. We did so. But the students had other ideas.

Wrangling 11-16 year olds can be very difficult. I know. I did it fore multiple years as a camp counselor, and I dealt with the hormones, the tears, the anger, and the excitement. The older ones are jaded and won’t pay attention because everything is beneath them. The younger ones are too excited to pay attention.

That’s what this class was, but with students who had a much more limited grasp of English than we were originally told. I have taught many classes of international students (at University of Illinois we taught library instruction for the ESL program, and most of their students are East Asian). I am familiar with working with international students. But I am not familiar with working with international teenagers. These students were not here to learn; they were here to be on vacation. They had the chance to come to America and experience American things; they didn’t want to sit in a library and talk about schoolwork. For some of them, it showed in the fact that they talked over us, didn’t follow directions, were on their phones the entire time, or even flat out watched videos on their computer, complete with headphones.

For the students who did pay attention, I think that they got something out of the experience. At least I hope they did. It had every hallmark of an utter failure, complete with class teacher leaving the room, but at the end we all got thanked really enthusiastically and they demanded a group picture with us. Perhaps the biggest take-away here is that who cares if they learned anything specific? We’re here to teach them anything we can, and if they learned that we have 1.3 million books at Brandeis and that’s it, or if they learned that you can do an image search in Google and that’s it, then that is a success in my book.

The Lonely Liaison

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I am new to the liaison librarian business. I worked as, basically, a reference and instruction librarian at University of Illinois (I do miss all that instruction!), so collection development and course instruction for higher level classes was not on my radar.

Here at Brandeis I am learning more every day. I am finally fairly comfortable with print collection development (we’ll see about weeding, which is a…whole ‘nother issue) and I’m getting more and more comfortable with online collection development. I am teaching 5 FLIPs (first year instruction for a required freshman seminar style class) this semester, which everyone warned me would be a ton of work. I brushed this off–after all, I made it through four library instruction monster weeks at U of I, teaching like crazy and also doing all of my other work, my second job, and classes. I can do five highly course integrated classes!

(And I can–I have taught two so far and they’ve been great. They do take much more time to prep for, since they are much more course integrated, but they still follow the basics–here’s the library, here’s how to get help, here’s a search strategy, this is a keyword, here’s a database, here’s an article record, here’s a subject specific database, here’s a subject specific article record, any questions? )

But what I haven’t gotten a chance to do yet is do higher level classes–or even department classes. Thus far, even though professors recognize me and say hello, email me purchase requests or quick questions, they don’t yet feel that they need me. I’m the lonely liaison.

To be fair, my departments (Romance Languages, a historically quiet department, Philosophy, also quiet, and English, usually more needy) are all very stable. There’s no major anger directed at how the library does things, and no deep desire for change, so my job is fairly quiet. I am enjoying taking my time to become more and more comfortable with my departments’ needs and collections, but it would be nice if they needed me a bit more.

On a side note, as the social media subgroup convener I have been populating our Hootsuite feed (a twitter tweet scheduling web based software). I spend about an hour a day combing through various news sites and blogs to find some interesting tidbits to schedule into our feed to mix things up. The most useful tool so far? JSTOR Daily, a neat little site that comments on historical and current topics with well-informed articles ranging from just a few paragraphs to a couple of pages. The work is stellar, the graphics are easy on the eyes, and the sources are ready and waiting to be clicked on. I do love JSTOR.

Elementary; Better Than Sherlock

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This will be a non-library related post, except in the fact that most librarians I know fall into the Sherlock fandom and those that do not have strong opinions anyway.

The back story: I didn’t get into Elementary (the CBS-set-in-New-York-modern-Sherlock-adaptation-cum-procedural) until it had just started its second season. I watched all of Sherlock right when it aired. I am a fan of the modern portrayal of Sherlock and John in the BBC version; I think that the two actors, especially in the first two episodes and season 2, really got a handle on who Sherlock and John really were in the Conan-Doyle world.

I am a big fan of Sherlock. But the thing is…Elementary is better. And I did not discover this until far too late. But Elementary, as a 22 episode procedural with side characters and running gags (I’m looking at you, Clyde), gives more weight to both the actions and reactions that make up most of what is fun about Sherlock and John. Elementary allows more exploration of the characters, it gives Watson (in this series, a woman) agency beyond being wowed by Sherlock’s mind, and it pulls together just the right amount from the cannon combined with great storytelling.

The first season’s arc is incredibly powerful with a wonderful reveal, the second season is a bit rocky but with some out-of-this-world episodes, especially concerning Moriarty. The show is now halfway through season three and is stronger than ever. Joan has her own story lines and agency beyond being Sherlock’s number one fan and Sherlock, in turn, relies on Joan more than Sherlock ever relied on John.

But you want to know what? Last night’s episode wrapped up what might be the best arc since the first. That’s right. I said it. This arc is almost as powerful as Joan and Sherlock’s partnership evolving. The characterization in this half-season set of episodes was beautiful (and naturally occurring), the emotional beats were strong, and it touched on issues that other shows struggle to deal with. More than anything, it made me want to watch more Elementary—and that is what good television is all about.

Don’t believe me? Willing to see spoilers? The AV Club’s Myles McNutt wrote a great review that touches on the points above.

Come back soon for a more library-related post, probably dealing with social media and accessibility with a healthy side dose of “How do I connect to students?”

New Job, New Institutional Culture

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One of the more exciting parts of getting a job is getting to work without needing a GPS. In Boston.

In all seriousness, I am very, very excited about my new position at Brandeis. My background as an English major is coming in handy! I am extremely happy to have the opportunity to work with researchers in my liaison departments.

A big part of having a new job is figuring out a new institutional culture. Everything from the dress code to the way that people decorate their desks (or don’t) to the way that people say hello changes institution to institution. As I settle in here at Brandeis, I am working on making sure that I learn everything I can about the way the institution feels and works. Reaching out to departments is a great way of doing this–especially if you’re a liaison!–and talking with people in the break room.

The most useful place I’ve found to figure out the institutional culture, though, is on a quiet reference desk shift. There’s not much to do, there’s time to talk, and time to shadow lots of different people. It’s a good time to ask questions, get the dirt on past projects and problems, and figure out where you fit in. Plus when a question pops up (electronically or in-person) you get a chance to flex your new research fingers and poke into all the different databases through a new system.

And that break room? Turns out it’s a great place to take a quiet break, because most people like to have a quiet lunch. On that note, I have just finished (over the past week during my lunches) a great book that I highly recommend: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. It’s an epistolary novel (sort of) written in memos and letters of recommendation, all from a surly middle-aged English professor in an ailing department at the (fictional) Payne University. The book was funny, sarcastic, relatable (who hasn’t had budget woes in higher ed?) and the ending was poignant without diving headlong into soppy. Go read this book. You’ll like it.

The End of An Era (and a short book review)

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So if you guessed from the last post that I’m job hunting, then you’re right! I am job hunting. Applying for jobs is a job in and of itself, but I have hope, work experience, and a constantly updated resume and cover letter, not to mention lots and lots of ideas for activities, new instruction designs, and potential ways to keep students awake during classes.

The end of an era comes next week when I leave Champaign to go back to Chicago while I look for jobs. I have had my diploma for a few months now, but as my time at the Undergrad Library comes to a close, I thought I’d put together some final thoughts.

Working with undergraduate students is difficult, but it is a ton of fun. I worked for a few summers at an arts day camp for 11-15 year olds, and I’ve discovered that undergrads…? Not that different from middle schoolers. They respond to the same things–making fun of myself and also being strict with them gets middle schoolers’ attention, as well as 18 year olds’. I remember from my college days that the drama was just as intense in undergrad as it was in middle school. And there is always that new technological toy distracting students–be it from a theater class or discussing the differences between Google and databases.

What I have learned most, though, is that undergraduate students have a capacity to learn rivaled by 5 year olds. They just don’t care, or don’t want to show that they care, as much as the 5 year olds. So the best way to get them interested? To get them to care? Challenge them while explaining the details. Also known as scaffolding up! Teach them what they need to know (preferably in a fun and authentic way) and then challenge them to make it better, find it faster. They’ll perk up. Unless it’s just after lunch; if it’s just after lunch…well…good luck.

 

Two side notes:

First:

The Martian, by Andy Weir, is one of the best books I have read in a very long time. The story revolves around Mark Watney, a 30-something astronaut who was left for dead on Mars when he was hit by debris during a sandstorm. Problem is, he survived, and now he’s going to starve to death. Or possibly freeze to death. Or perhaps not. Using his background as the odd-job man on the team (a botanist and mechanical engineer), Mark decides he’d like to survive, thank you very much, and soon finds himself faced with very new challenges. Although definitely science fiction in premise (this takes place in the “near” future during the third manned mission to Mars of a possible planned six) it reads like realistic fiction comedy. Weir brings together an optimistic protagonist with a penchant for swearing, a desolate landscape that tries to kill everything in sight, and hard science. All told, Weir drops Mark Watney in a story that in a spoiler-free summary sounds like a possible tragedy and yet made me laugh every step of the way.

Second:

I have removed all of my decorations from my walls in my apartment in preparation for moving and packing, and it’s astonishing how much more depressing my little home looks without frames on the walls. I will keep this in mind for any future jobs, and will show up on my first day with something to hang in my future office.