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This article explores academic librarians’ experiences with compensation negotiation, using a combination of survey and interview data. Specifically, we focus on where librarians learned how to negotiate, where they sought or found advice, where they wished they had received information, and what factors would help them negotiate and improve their outcomes in the future. We also discuss the impact of representation or membership in a labor union on negotiation behavior. We share this information to help facilitate a larger cultural shift in libraries: to normalize negotiation through more and better training, increased self-advocacy in the hiring and promotion process, and more transparency in the sharing of experiences and compensation information.
There is a widespread belief – communicated1 and in whispers, in professional venues and behind closed doors – that librarians do not need or want good wages and do not negotiate. We know otherwise. Salary negotiation in libraries has been a topic of interest of ours for close to a decade. As members and subsequent chairs of the American Library Association-Allied Professional Association (ALA-APA) Standing Committee on the Salaries and Status of Library Workers, we organized educational and informational resources on library compensation topics and individual and collective negotiation trainings (Dorning et. al, 2014). Through this work, we identified an absence of Library and Information Science (LIS)-specific literature on negotiation and compensation, and spoke with hundreds of library workers about negotiating salary in libraries. In response, we designed a study in 2014 that would capture librarians’ perception of and experience with compensation negotiation in the library workplace, distributing a survey in 2015 and conducting interviews from 2016-2017. During this time, we also continued our ALA and ALA-APA work, and in 2019, were certified as American Association of University Women (AAUW) salary negotiation training facilitators2 .
As our expertise and involvement grew, we spoke to more library workers at all levels of experience, authority, and across all library types about negotiating. We fielded questions and requests for help that touched upon a range of emotions related to negotiating in a library context: fear, frustration, resentment, and unsureness. In organizing and leading negotiation training sessions at ALA Annual conferences and in sponsored webinars, we observed high attendance and enthusiasm, coupled with participants’ urgent requests for privacy, based in their fear of being recorded and/or observed by supervisors. We also witnessed discouraging behavior from more experienced librarians and managers, telling interested participants to reduce expectations or not bother trying to negotiate.
Luckily, we are in a moment of broader cultural change, led by workers and workers’ movements, that is carrying libraries and library workers along with it. After decades of trade union decline in the U.S., we are now experiencing a resurgence of strike action overall (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019), and in organizing and strikes in K-12 and higher education (French, 2019; Tolley, 2018; Herbert, van der Naald, & Cadambi Daniel, 2019). Coinciding with #metoo and a resurgence in interest and activity around the gender wage gap, private sector initiatives, mostly in tech, have been created by workers to disclose salaries, share experiences, and provide support and information to women in companies and industries (MacLellan, 2018). Similar efforts in LIS have emerged in social media discussions and through collaborative documentation of shared salary data (Kayt Emily, 2018; “Library Salaries Inequity- Resources,” 2018; Tewell, 2019). These concurrent and sometimes intersecting movements to improve wages and working conditions across industries, occupations, and worksites engage individual and collective negotiation as vehicles and strategies to improve wages and working conditions.
Our overall goal in conducting this research and sharing this information is to normalize negotiation in librarianship, as one pathway to improving library worker compensation. We are interested in how people acquire the skill sets that produce and enhance successful negotiation, how negotiation impacts salary and compensation outcomes, and how industries and occupations can facilitate training in this area. Academic libraries are a rich site of inquiry, as they span public and private sectors, states, institutional sizes, and staff statuses within universities.
We are heartened by the recent growth in interest in individual and collective negotiation in libraries, and seek to fill the gap in research about how librarians learn and acquire training to negotiate. It is not enough to encourage the act of negotiation; we must also understand what is at stake, what works best, and what can be won through strategic action, individually and collectively.
Bruce Patton (co-author of the seminal negotiation text Getting to Yes) defined negotiation as “back-and-forth communication designed to reach an agreement between two or more parties with some interests that are shared and others that may conflict or simply be different” (2005).
Extensive research across disciplines has generated much insight into negotiation in the workplace. We know that negotiation generally results in better outcomes (Gerhart and Rynes, 1991; O’Shea and Bush, 2002; Marks and Harold, 2011), that employer offers and behavior during the negotiation process can alter the job’s perceived attractiveness (Porter et. al, 2004), and that gender differentials exist in negotiation behavior (Bowles et al., 2007; Dittrich et al., 2014) and role-associated outcomes (Dittrich et al., 2014). Much research assessing negotiation frequency, practices, or outcomes is simulation-based (Porter et. al, 2004; Stevens et. al, 1993; Bowles et. al, 2007, Dittrich et al, 2014), inhibiting direct comparison with survey-based studies3 .
While pay secrecy/transparency is closely associated with salary negotiation, the research encompasses a broader organizational scope beyond the hiring or negotiation process. Bamberger and Belagolovsky (2010) captured pay secrecy’s negative impact on employee performance. Workers tend to assume salary inequities in the face of secrecy, underestimating management compensation and overestimating peer compensation (Collela et al., 2007), and worker perceptions of fair pay are closely associated with pay transparency (Day, 2012). In the absence of pay transparency, workers prefer that the mechanisms for determining compensation be clearly articulated (Hartmann & Slapnicar, 2012).
Researchers have also identified best practices for teaching and learning negotiation. Nadler et. al’s (2003) review of negotiation training literature identified four main learning methods: didactic (learning about the theories), learning via “information revelation” (receiving additional information), analogical learning (reading case studies and comparing), and observational learning. In testing the methods in combination with experience, and comparing to a baseline of only experience, they found that analogic and observational learning methods resulted in better performance, as well as outcomes for both parties. However, the observational group were less able to articulate the methods or strategies they had applied to the process. Participants within the information revelation group demonstrated a very strong understanding of the bargaining interests and positions of the other party, but this did not result in significant improvement in their performance. Researchers concluded that experience alone was ineffective in helping a negotiator conceptualize the task or derive meaning from the experience, and that analogic training helps participants to better develop awareness of the process and improve outcomes. The adding of observational and information revelation methods enhanced negotiation performance and understanding, respectively. The nuanced value of analogic training methods in improving knowledge transfer and negotiation practices had been captured by Loewenstein et. al (1999), who observed that analogic training resulted in better strategic proposals, and that those drawing an analogy from two negotiation scenarios were three times more likely to apply the strategy than those receiving cases separately.
Movius (2008) concluded that negotiation training impacts real-world outcomes, that the learning process environment can impact comprehension and performance, that using multiple case studies during training is superior than a single case, that using case studies and observation produce better negotiation practices than just lecture and information revelation, and that negotiators who perceive greater agency or control over outcomes (self-efficacy) might benefit more with training4 . After observing gender disparities in negotiation outcomes following a training program, Stevens et. al (1993) successfully mitigated the difference by augmenting content training with goal-setting training.
There has been minimal research conducted about salary negotiation and the field of librarianship. However, in recent years, there have been some studies conducted around academic librarians’ experiences with salary negotiation (Reed et al., 2015; Lo and Reed, 2016; Reed and Lo, 2016; Silva and Galbraith, 2018). Reed et al. (2015) interviewed and surveyed entry-level academic librarians on their job search experiences, while Lo and Reed (2016) surveyed a broader swath of academic librarians and discovered that almost half of their respondents were not comfortable negotiating, and that younger people were more likely to negotiate their first professional job offer. Reed and Lo (2016) investigated how library hiring managers perceived and acted in negotiations, finding that employers expect job seekers to negotiate. Silva and Galbraith (2018) reported on gender-based salary negotiation patterns among academic librarians employed by Association of Research Libraries member libraries, and discovered that women negotiated less frequently and were less successful when they did negotiate. However, higher frequencies of negotiation were discovered in managers/administrators and those with longer tenure in a position.
In 2017, we published the results of a survey about general librarians’ experience with compensation negotiation in the library workplace (Farrell and Geraci, 2017). Over 1500 librarians participated in the survey, across numerous library types. This study illustrated that almost half of respondents (46%) negotiated in their most recent position. The majority of those who did negotiate (N=656) received positive outcomes, including salary increases (62%) or better compensation packages (36%). Negative outcomes were minimally reported (2%). This study also examined information that informed negotiation strategy, with the majority of respondents indicating prior work experience or education (58%) and previous salary (54%) as being important. Fewer respondents noted salary data (41%), advice from mentors/colleagues/supervisors (32%), or negotiation literature (30%). Only 7% stated that they drew upon prior negotiation training.
Beyond these studies, the majority of negotiation articles in the library literature focus on providing advice about strategies to use to negotiate salary (Adelman, 2004; Baron, 2013; Dalby, 2006; Havens, 2013; Holcomb, 2007; Kessler, 2015; Kolb and Schaffner, 2001; Martin, 2004; Niemeier and Junghahn, 2011; Topper, 2004; Wilson, 2013), or what to expect during the negotiation process (Franks et al., 2017). Bell (2014) discusses how to avoid having an offer rescinded, while Zumalt (2007) focuses on finding salary data to build the best case. Most articles are written for general library workers, but some are geared toward managers or administrators (Cottrell, 2011; White, 1991).
Many of these articles discuss librarianship as a predominantly female occupation, and urge women to negotiate to combat low salaries (Adelman, 2004; Galloway and Archuleta, 1978; Kolb and Schaffner, 2001), and decrease the gap between women and men who negotiate (Kessler, 2015). However, some articles discuss the need to keep expectations in check, noting small towns (Martin, 2004) or markets flooded with recent graduates (Adelman, 2004) may yield lower salaries. The common trope of librarians “not being in it for the money” appears in the literature with Dalby (2006) declaring “in the library world, salaries are generally low. Most of us are here for the job, not the salary,” and Kolb and Schaffner (2001) ascribing low salaries in librarianship to the fact it is a “service profession” and librarians do not prioritize “monetary compensation.”
Research on the impact of collective negotiation on library worker compensation is limited, but potential frameworks for analyzing individual and collective outcomes could be drawn from Feld’s (2000) exploration of union representation’s impact on library pay and Mudge’s (1987) analysis of Canadian library collective bargaining agreements by outcomes that encompass compensation structures, benefits, and other work arrangements.
This article reports on part of a multiphase study investigating librarians’ experience with and perspective on compensation and benefits negotiation in the library workplace5 . We employed interviews with academic library participants to augment baseline survey findings with more detail, greater nuance and complexity, and to explore individual experiences and extended responses, than what could be derived from a survey instrument alone.
In phase one of the study, we deployed a survey of 50 questions. We solicited participants with an invitation that sought to capture the experiences and perspectives of librarians on negotiating for compensation and benefits in the library hiring process. The terms “librarian” and “negotiation” were intentionally undefined, allowing participants to self-identify for participation. Respondents who did not indicate current or past employment in a library were routed out of the survey.
Questions were a mix of open, closed, and multiple-choice, and focused on generating educational and employment information from participants: education level; years of experience working in libraries; current employment status; position type; type, status, and geographic location of library where they work; size of library community that they serve; representation by a labor union; negotiation experience (i.e. if they negotiated and with whom they negotiated); negotiation outcome; information used to negotiate; and demographics. We administered the survey via Qualtrics Survey Software, and distributed it across a range of library-themed listservs and social media channels in November 2015 – December 2015 (see Farrell and Geraci, 2017). The survey gathered over 1500 respondents and also solicited contact information from participants who would be willing to participate in subsequent interviews. We generated survey reports and cross-tabulations within Qualtrics, with select additional analysis completed within Excel.
In phase two, we invited academic librarians to participate in interviews by randomly selecting phase one survey respondents with “.edu” email addresses. 29 people responded to the invite. We conducted interviews between December 2016 – March 2017. The interviews were semi-structured, including questions that encompassed broad themes regarding negotiation experience, training, perceived responses by negotiating employers, desired support, and factors that would facilitate or inhibit future negotiation. Audio recordings of the interviews were transcribed and imported into Atlas.ti. We individually read the transcripts to identify and agree on broad themes. Once themes were identified separately, we applied the codes collaboratively, discussing areas of disagreement and reaching consensus before applying final codes in Atlas.ti. We generated co-occurrence tables to capture top code frequencies within question responses, and ran code co-occurrence reports to identify coded text.
Utilizing both the survey and interview data, this article focuses on academic librarians’ experiences with compensation negotiation, and where they learned how to negotiate, where they sought or found advice, where they wished they had received information, and what factors would help them negotiate and improve their outcomes in the future. We also explore the impact of representation or membership in a labor union on negotiation. Appendices include related questions from the survey (Appendix A), interviews (Appendix B), and codes generated by analyzing interviews (Appendix C).
As reported in Farrell and Geraci (2017), 46% of 1,466 respondents reported negotiating salary or other compensation for their most recent library position6 . Academic library workers reported negotiating for their most recent position at a higher rate (53%) than those working in public or K-12 libraries (31% and 24%, respectively), and roughly equal to those working in special libraries (56%).
25% of survey respondents indicated membership or representation (see Figure 1) in a labor union7 , aligning with MacPherson and Hirsch’s (2018) most recent analysis of Current Population Survey data that estimates a 26.2% union membership rate amongst librarians.
Figure 1. Number of survey respondents who indicated they were a member of or represented by a labor union (N = 1466).
We have observed and engaged in extensive conversations within formal and informal LIS circles regarding potential differences in negotiation strategies across union/non-union contexts, regardless of library type. Further analysis of study data demonstrated that union member respondents reported significantly lower negotiation rates overall, with 35% of 354 negotiating salary or compensation for current positions, compared to half of non-union respondents negotiating for most recent positions (see Table 1).
Table 1. Survey respondent union status and reported negotiation for most recent position (N = 1466)
Are you a member of, or represented by, a labor union?
I don’t know or I’m not sure
Did you negotiate salary or compensation for your most recent position?
However, in reviewing union member respondents by library type, those working in academic libraries once again reported negotiating for their most recent position at a significantly higher rate than the overall group, as well as greater rates than those working in public or K-12 libraries (see Table 2).
Table 2. Survey respondent union representation, reported negotiation for most recent position, and library type (N = 354)
What type of library do you work for?
Did you negotiate salary or compensation for your most recent position?
An initial analysis of survey data in Farrell and Geraci (2017) reported that the elements negotiated by all respondents revealed the top six (descending) as salary, professional development support, housing/relocation assistance, position step/rank, time off/leave, and scheduling. Respondents had the option of selecting all. Analyzing survey responses by respondents’ library type and union status revealed differences in what elements are most frequent in negotiation. All demonstrated greatest negotiation for salary. Union..
Prompted by recent discussions of diversity and representation in children’s literature, this study evaluates resources recommended to students for author study assignments in children’s/young adult literature courses at one university. Striving to provide research materials that reflect the communities and experiences of students at The University of New Mexico—a Hispanic serving research university in a majority minority state—we were curious to see if information about children’s book authors from diverse backgrounds was available in free and subscription sources typically taught during one-shot instruction sessions. To identify strengths and gaps in the content provided by several resources, we examined coverage of authors who have recently received awards that recognize Indigenous authors and authors of color and/or authors who portray characters from a variety of backgrounds. While this study reviews only a sample of available author information, it can provide some knowledge regarding the depth and breadth (or lack thereof) of content available from these resources, which may help librarians responsible for children’s literature when sharing resource recommendations with their communities.
As librarians, we strive to meet the information needs of our communities and provide materials that are relevant to our users. However, this can be a challenge when users are searching for children’s literature, considering the documented lack of diversity and representation within children’s materials. Librarians responsible for children’s literature collections (at both public and academic libraries) must take the time to seek out materials written and illustrated by people who reflect the diversity of backgrounds and experiences of the communities they serve.
At The University of New Mexico (UNM), providing access to a variety of children’s books is a priority. UNM is one of a dozen universities that are both Carnegie Classified Research One and Hispanic-serving institutions (The University of New Mexico, n.d.-a) and is located in Albuquerque, the biggest city in the majority-minority state (New Mexico Department of Health, 2019; US Census Bureau Public Information Office, 2012). After Hispanic/Latino students, who comprise 42% of the student population, Native American students are the 2nd largest ethnic group on campus at 5% (The University of New Mexico Office of Institutional Analytics, 2019, p.14)—unsurprising as the state is home to 23 tribal nations. The College of Education is one of the largest colleges on campus (The University of New Mexico Office of Institutional Analytics, 2019) and multiple sections of the Children’s Literature course required for the Bachelor of Science in Education in Elementary Education are offered each semester (The University of New Mexico, n.d.-b).
Children’s literature collection development and use
As a result of the number of students studying children’s literature, Kostelecky, the Education Librarian, spends a great deal of time managing the collection and providing instruction in its use. To include a variety of materials in the collection, one strategy employed is the use of an approval plan to purchase award-winning and honor books. Those winning well-known awards (Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King) and less publicized awards (American Indian Youth Literature Award, Schneider Family Book Award) are purchased. Additional titles are added to the collection via patron requests and through traditional collection development activities by the Education librarian (e.g., reading book reviews, best of lists).
Instruction in use of the collection for UNM’s Children’s Literature course involves one session in the library where students are working on assignments to 1) locate books based on a theme and 2) find information about books and authors. Working from the UNM LibGuide for children’s literature, students follow along on their own computers and search the library catalog and subject specific databases including Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database (CLCD), EBSCO’s Education Research Complete, and Something About the Author Online [SATA]). The different types of content available (book reviews, literary criticism, classroom studies) and uses of these resources are discussed. The session ends with hands-on searching time using databases and a visit to the children’s section.
One specific assignment students receive in the UNM course is an author study. This involves researching a student’s chosen author, including the individual’s inspiration for writing, their background, and similar information. Author studies can be part of the curriculum for students studying children’s literature in K-12 and higher education settings (Elliott & Dupuis, 2002; Fox, 2006; Jenkins, 2006; Jenkins & White, 2007, 2007; Kennedy, 2012; Meacham, Meacham, Kirkland-Holmes, & Han, 2017; Moses, Ogden, & Kelly, 2015). To assist students searching for information about authors, instructors and librarians try to direct students to useful and high quality resources with this type of content. But which sources currently available will contain this information?
Based on Kostelecky’s experience, when students select more well-known authors, the library’s databases are sufficient for discovering author information. Yet these same resources were inconsistent in coverage of authors from non-dominant identities and Indigenous authors and authors of color. When looking for authors to highlight as examples during one-shot library sessions, Kostelecky had difficulty finding information across all sources about some authors she wanted to highlight (e.g. Nicola Yoon, Francisco X. Stork). Because the library included little to no information about these authors , what other sources could be recommended? If UNM Libraries purchase materials that are not useful to support students in these courses, should their subscriptions be continued?
These questions and experiences led us to conduct an initial exploration of the availability of author information found in both subscription and free resources. The author search list was built from recent award-winning authors from a variety of children’s and young adult literature awards and honor books. We hoped to gain an understanding of the strengths and gaps of different resources which include content about children’s book authors, paying particular attention to coverage of Indigenous authors and authors of color. While this study is only a sample, we believe it can provide useful information and highlight the strengths and gaps in commonly-used sources for researching children’s literature.
While the focus of this literature review is not centered on issues of diversity and representation in children’s literature, we recognize these issues as part of the context within which libraries function and support their users. The annually updated data on published children’s books about or written by Indigenous people and people of color from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center presents a good snapshot of the current publishing landscape. Of the 3,703 titles the organization reviewed in 2018, 778 or 21% were authored by Indigenous people and people of color and 1014 or 27% were about Latinx, African/African-American, Asian Pacific American and American Indian/First Nations people total (Cooperative Children’s Book Center, n.d.). This organization also recognized the contributions small and independent publishers made in 2018 towards increasing the numbers of diverse books available. Though the numbers of books by and about Indigenous people and people of color have generally increased since 2012, these numbers still could be improved upon as they do not currently reflect the diversity found in the U.S. overall (Maya & Matthew, 2019).
Supporting diversity in children’s literature
This continued lack of diversity in published materials has resulted in concerted efforts by individuals and organizations to highlight and make visible quality literature for children and young adults which represent the experiences of people across a range of ethnicities, backgrounds and cultures. For example, We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) is a nonprofit organization started in 2014 (Charles, 2017) that works to award and publish books by and about people of color. In addition to their book award, WNDB provides mentorships for authors, offers an app to help readers find books and edited a published anthology in partnership with a major publisher (We Need Diverse Books, 2017). There is also the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature by Nambé Pueblo scholar Debbie Reese which is a useful source to find recommended books by and about Native American/First Nations/Indigenous peoples. Reese thoroughly reviews and evaluates titles considering stereotypical imagery, misinformation and missed opportunities to share information about the history and culture of Indigenous people. These examples are just two of many resources that bring visibility to diverse literature for young people.
Selection and knowledge of diverse children’s books
While there are many resources to utilize to discover multicultural children’s books and quality children’s books overall, some studies have identified pitfalls that still limit teachers and librarians in choosing books to share with young readers.
One recent study (Fullerton et al., 2018) analyzed picture book recommendations made by professors and librarians knowledgeable about children’s literature for use in a new public library storytime space. The researchers analyzed the books chosen by the “expert groups” (as they term them), identifying characteristics of the recommended books and searching for patterns among the rationales for their selections. They found the award-winning status was a prominent factor in book selection for both expert groups (Fullerton et al., 2018, p. 88). Looking at ethnicity of the book authors among the title selections, 86% of the books librarians and 67% of the books professors chose were by white authors. Respectively, 20% and 39% of their chosen books featured main characters representing children or adults of color. (Fullerton et al., 2018, pp. 85-86). Interestingly, no books featuring LGBT characters or representing characters with disabilities were chosen. Both groups, librarians and professors, acknowledged the positive influence of awards, reviews and multicultural representation had on their book choices. This article emphasizes the important role librarians can play in recommending books to users. The study also illustrates why it is necessary for both librarians and professors to actively select and recommend books by and about underrepresented groups because people may not necessarily choose those materials without the conscious effort.
In a 2012 survey of preservice and inservice early childhood educators in Tennessee, Brinson found most participants were unable to identify children’s books with non-white characters (2012, p. 30). The author asked respondents to name two book titles featuring characters representing African-American, Latino-American, Asian-American and Native American ethnicities respectively, and they were unable to do so. While Brinson attributes the educators’ inability to identify diverse books to lack of preparation and exposure to multicultural literature as part of their coursework, it is not clear from the survey if this was the reasoning given by the respondents. However, it is still disheartening to be presented with the study results—that some educators working directly with young children are lacking basic awareness of diverse children’s literature.
Librarians and educators supporting patrons in any setting regularly evaluate a variety of resources to connect people with the most useful information. There are many options available to users researching children’s and young adult literature broadly. In the book Children’s Literature in Action: A Librarian’s Guide, Vardell (2014) identifies sources such as Something about the Author, Google, YouTube, Contemporary Literary Criticism, Contemporary Authors, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), TeachingBooks.net, and JustOneMoreBook.com. Kruger (2012) conducted a content analysis to identify which subscription databases were accessible by school libraries across the country, categorizing databases by subjects including language arts. The resources available in the most number of states for this subject were NoveList in 12 states and Gale Books and Authors in seven states, with EBSCO Literary Reference Center in six states surveyed (2012, p. 13).
In a more general comparison of author biography reference sources, Soules (2012) compared coverage among two established library resources, Biography Reference Bank and Contemporary Authors Online, with Wikipedia and other web resources. Her findings show Wikipedia as the most current resource among the databases studied; it deals better with variant forms of names than the commercial databases, and the core content was found to be similar among resources, even though, as one would expect, each resource provided something unique. Wikipedia and the other web resources had a distinct advantage in being easily findable and free, whereas library databases may be less visible and available to users.
This study compares availability of information about recent award-winning children’s book authors within commonly used or recommended children’s literature reference sources.
The selection of award-winning authors to create our search list is based on multiple factors. First, UNM Library’s approval plan only includes award-winning (and some honor) book purchases; therefore, our library owns all the award-winning titles used for this study. Because award book lists are often recommended to students as a strategy to find quality titles, our approval plans support students by providing local access. Additionally, we thought there might be a higher likelihood of finding Indigenous authors and authors of color within the database sources if they had won an award; we hypothesized that more press and visibility from the recognition potentially would mean more content about them. Also, we chose to focus on award winners, assuming content providers would prioritize developing information about them as well.
The 11 awards we included in this study are the:
American Indian Youth Literature Award – American Library Association (ALA) affiliate American Indian Library Association (AILA). Honors writing and illustrations by and about Native Americans and Indigenous peoples of North America. Biennial.
Américas Award for Children’s & YA Literature – Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs. Awards authors, illustrators and publishers who produce quality children’s and young adult books that portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States. Annual.
Asian Pacific American Award for Literature – ALA affiliate Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA). Awards work about Asian/Pacific Americans and their heritage based on literary and artistic merit. Annual.
Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards – Horn Book Editor selected panel. Honors children’s/young adult literature published in the United States. Annual.
Coretta Scott King Book Awards – ALA’s Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table (EMIERT). Honors books demonstrating an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values. Annual.
Mildred L. Batchelder Award – ALA’s Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). Honors books originating in a country other than the U.S. and in a language other than English and translated into English for publication in the U.S. during the preceding year. Annual.
Newbery Medal – ALSC. Awarded to author of the most distinguished children’s literature published in the United States. Annual.
Pura Belpré Award – ALA affiliate REFORMA (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking) and ALSC. Awards a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth. Annual.
Schneider Family Book Award – ALA. Honors author or illustrator for book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. Annual.
Tomás Rivera Book Award – Texas State University’s College of Education. Honors authors and illustrators who create literature that depicts the Mexican American experience. Annual.
For each award, names of authors, editors, and illustrators of award-winning books were collected from the awards website for the years 2013-2018. From this resulting list, six authors were identified as having won multiple awards and five the same award in more than one year (one author had received both multiple awards and the same awards more than once). Results associated with these authors have been deduplicated in the overall and award-specific counts.
We identified the sources to search based on our ability to access subscription resources as well as prior studies which searched for content using these same databases. We conducted author and illustrator name searches in late December 2018 using these reference sources:
Something About the Author Online (SATA) is a Gale subscription database which presents biographical and autobiographical information about authors and illustrators for children and young adults. Beginning as a print resource in 1971, SATA now totals more than 300 volumes and is available both online and in print (“Something About the Author Online,” n.d.). SATA is an established reference source for libraries and was specifically recommended in Booklist for academic libraries that serve education and literature programs. (Bunch, 2009).
NoveList is a subscription database with the primary purpose of supporting librarians with reader’s advisory service. It is a division of the EBSCO company and counts 25 librarians among its staff (EBSCO website). This study used NoveList K-8 Plus which offers reading lists and book reviews specifically for kindergarten to 8th-grade children (EBSCO website). This resource was accessed via the Albuquerque Public Library as UNM Libraries do not have a subscription, but the database is available to the community at large using a current public library card.
GoodReads is a website which describes itself as “the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations” (GoodReads website). Created in 2007 by husband and wife Otis and Elizabeth Khuri Chandler (website), the site was eventually acquired by Amazon. GoodReads is a well-known social media platform where users keep track of books they have read, discuss books and find book recommendations. A useful feature of the site relevant to users looking for author information are the author-created blogs and Q&A with site readers, though not every author utilizes these tools.
Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia, with crowd-sourced content that has grown to over 5.8 million articles in English Wikipedia alone. Since its inception in 2001, it has grown to become one of the most accessed sites on the internet (“Wikipedia,” 2019). There are nearly 15,000 articles associated with WikiProject Children’s Literature, which is an effort to improve coverage of children’s and young-adult literature on Wikipedia.
To evaluate the presence of authors in SATA, author names were referenced against the most recent index at time of data collection (volume 334) and searched in the online interface. For NoveList, author names were searched using the “author” dropdown search box option. To search GoodReads we used the default keyword search box using the author’s name, which results in a list of books associated with that name. If the author’s name was listed, we clicked on their name, which led to an author page with some information. GoodReads authors were considered present if their profile contained more than their name, a title list, and metadata related to GoodReads membership. While some authors use blog and Q&A features, these were not considered as part of the profile.
The first pass of Wikipedia searching was conducted using links from the articles pertaining to these children’s book awards. Authors not found were then searched using the standard English Wikipedia search. All authors were also searched in Wikidata, a related free, crowd-sourced knowledge base, which provided verification of the English Wikipedia search results and helped to identify the presence of Wikipedia articles in languages other than English.
In addition, each author was searched in Google using the insert link feature in GoogleSheets. The nature of the top result was noted, and if the top result was not applicable to the author in question or duplicated by a source already considered in our study, a standard Google search was performed to identify the next available hit from the first page of results.
Overall, most award winners were found to have some biographical information available in the selected sources, though coverage varied by author. Of the 142 winners of the selected 2013-2018 awards, 126 (89%) were found to have coverage in at least one source, with 53 (37%) having coverage in all of the selected sources. See Fig. 1.
Figure 1: Reference source frequency combinations. The dark blue box represents authors found in all four of the sources, while the lightest blue represents authors found in none of the resources. Resources are represented by S= Something about the Author, N=NoveList, G=GoodReads, W=English Wikipedia. Frequency counts for each combination follows resource abbreviations.
Coverage varied both by award and resource. See Fig. 2. Authors were overall most likely to be present in GoodReads, with 140 (99%) of authors having a GoodReads profile and 107 (75%) of these profiles having more..
This article explores the opportunities and challenges that early career librarians face when advancing their careers, desired qualities for leaders or managers of all career stages, and how early career librarians can develop those qualities. Our survey asked librarians at all career stages to share their sentiments, experiences, and perceptions of leadership and management. Through our feminist critique, we explore the relationships to power that support imbalances in the profession and discuss best practices such as mentoring, individualized support, and self-advocacy. These practices will be of use to early career librarians, as well as supervisors and mentors looking to support other librarians.
As early career academic librarians, we have had many conversations about what leadership and management look like in our lives and found that our experiences were not well-represented in LIS literature. Much of the research on leadership and management focuses on current experiences of those who already moved into leadership roles after decades of experience, not the process for moving into such positions.
We are a research team comprised of early career librarians who are cisgender women, including a woman of color and a queer white woman. Holly (H.B. Kouns) and Camille (Thomas) have experience with leadership, management and mentoring. Elia (Trucks) wants to lead from within her position and ensure equity in development opportunities. Our research questions were: What are opportunities and challenges for early career librarians interested in management as libraries evolve? Have we seen any progress on the calls to action regarding diversity, training, mentoring, and opportunities?
We started this study by looking for existing research specifically focused on how early career librarians navigated their experiences with leadership and management. We interpreted early career to include librarians with fewer than 10 years of experience, including pre-MLIS and paraprofessional experience. Leadership “is concerned with direction setting, with novelty and is essentially linked to change, movement and persuasion” (Grint, Jones, & Holt, 2017).
Training and Demographics
The initial source of formal training for most library managers comes from management classes in MLIS programs (Rooney, 2010). Outside of the MLIS, leadership and management institutes, trainings, and workshops are meant to help librarians develop leadership skills. The American Library Association (ALA) alone highlights over 20 different programs which offer self-assessment of participants’ skills and expose participants to leadership theories (Herold, 2014; “Library Leadership Training Resources,” 2008). Hines (2019) examined 17 library leadership institutes that reinforce the existing power structures of traditional leadership training and did not incorporate the values championed by ALA such as access, democracy, and social responsibility. Moreover, the requirements to attend retain exclusive barriers for marginalized professionals who may not be gainfully employed, able to take time off, or considered worthy of support, leaving middle managers of color and interim directors of color with even fewer opportunities to gain relevant experience before moving into senior leadership roles (Irwin & deVries, 2019; Bugg, 2016).
As the profession ages, librarians move up through the ranks of leadership and management by filling positions vacated by retirees. However, the delayed retirement of late career librarians especially affects women and people of color (POC) in the profession. Representation in academic librarianship has become more equitable for white women, from the male-dominated leadership landscape of the 1970s to greater advances between the 1980s and the 2000s (DeLong, 2013). Despite these advances in the number of women in leadership positions, there are still many areas where women have more experience yet make less pay (Morris, 2019). However, administrative job prospects look even bleaker for librarians of color than for white women since it is typical for librarians to learn leadership and management practices on the job only after moving into the role (Ly, 2015; Rooney, 2010). While there are efforts in the profession (particularly within the Association of Research Libraries (ARL)) to recruit diverse students and employees into librarianship, there is not as much emphasis on retention and advancement. Some librarians of color also see the amount and type of experience required for entry level positions as a barrier, as it reinforces homogeneity in libraries (Chou & Pho, 2017). This is evident in the demographics of university libraries which are 85% white and 15% minority. According to the annual salary statistics published by ARL (Morris, 2019), the overall makeup of people working in ARL libraries is 63% female and 36% male, and statistics for leadership in those libraries (directors, associate directors, heads of branches, etc.) is relatively proportionate. Out of those, 109 are directors of ARL libraries, of which 10 identify as people of color. (Morris, 2019).
Qualities & Skills
Historically, Masculine-coded, agency-based leadership qualities such as “assertion, self-confidence and ambition” have been associated with successful leaders in North America (Richmond, 2017). However, as more women and millennials or Gen Xers are in positions of power (Phillips, 2014), valued leadership qualities have begun to include communal, feminine-coded traits like “empathy, interpersonal relationships, openness, and cooperation” (Martin, 2018). They continue, “[Baby] Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials all [want] a leader who [is] competent, forward-looking, inspiring, caring, loyal, determined, and honest” (Martin, 2018). Feminist scholars address the implicit associations of certain skills such as shared power, recognizing privilege, building partnerships, and self-advocacy, combining attributes of communal and agency-based skills (Higgins, 2017; Askey & Askey, 2017; Fleming & McBride, 2017) with specific identity performance, rather than effectiveness or value (Richmond, 2017).
Hierarchical power structures have traditionally consolidated both leadership and management roles and thus, librarians needed to gain recognition through years of experience with both to advance. Leaders focus on high-level initiatives and managers focus on granular initiatives, therefore the skills that are needed to be effective in each role are different. The most valued leadership qualities include creativity, vision, and commitment, while the most valued management qualities include dedication, communication, and caring for colleagues and subordinates (Phillips, 2014; Young, Powell, & Hernon, 2003; Aslam, 2018; “Leadership and Management Competencies,” 2016; Martin, 2018; Stewart, 2017). As a result, many mid-career and late-career librarians “drift” into leadership positions because they are believed to have gained the necessary skills through years of experience with a variety of projects, personnel, and institutional developments (Ly, 2015; Bugg, 2016). Those who experience “leadership by drift” are appointed, usually without much self-reflection or choice (Ly, 2015). For example, library leaders are most often appointed as an interim leader, and 80% of those interim leaders are then hired without any outside recruitment (Irwin & deVries, 2019). This led us to believe that “drifting” was the primary path librarians could take into leadership positions.
In contrast, there are few accounts of librarians who actively sought leadership and management positions. Pearl Ly’s (2015) trajectory from interim to permanent dean included earning a PhD, participating in leadership training programs, and peer-mentoring from other administrators. Ly always intended to move into a leadership or management position, an intention of ambition which stands out from many other librarians, and serves as evidence of how ambition can accelerate the process of acquiring skills and training. Ambitious librarians forgo the long timeline of traditional “drift” (usually predicated on being appointed into positions after decades of demonstrating skills).
The topic of ambition has many nuances and challenges, especially in light of the hegemonic representation of who traditionally becomes a leader in librarianship. A respondent in Chou and Pho’s 2017 study shared an experience in which a Latina woman’s ambition to be a branch manager within five years was scoffed at by a hiring committee and she was not hired in the end. The respondent believed the candidate was seen as aggressive, but did not believe the committee would have had the same impression of a white male. Unlike Ly’s case, responses in Bugg’s 2016 survey of people of color in middle management positions show alternative paths to leadership. Respondents reported having the skills and desire for the work described in a position that had leadership and management responsibilities, but not necessarily the ambition to move up. Many respondents participated in preparatory activities (such as leadership training, doctoral degrees, career coaching, etc.) but only one expressed desire to move from middle management to senior leadership. They cited reasons for not wanting to advance such as the elimination of tenure, dissonance with personal values, and lack of motivation. This led us to wonder if there is a discrepancy between the skills needed and the skills valued.
Once in positions with leadership and management responsibilities, librarians with ambition face different challenges. 32% of interim library leaders had fewer than five years of leadership and residency at their institutions when they were appointed to interim positions (Irwin & deVries, 2019). Several noted colleagues having difficulty accepting them as leaders, especially when length of service was not a criterion for appointment. Chou and Pho (2017) note common experiences in which female librarians of color were more likely to have their intelligence, qualifications, and authority questioned. Early career librarians in the study attributed perceived incompetence to looking young in addition to being a person of color and a woman. Women of color managers often experienced patrons who did not believe they were the person in charge. Similarly, Bugg (2016) found that many librarians of color felt apprehension about moving into senior leadership positions due to lack of exposure to senior leadership networks and incompatible organizational values. Before advancement, librarians were trained in both leadership and management externally. Afterwards, they discovered less access to and support for opportunities, such as lobbying for department needs, not feeling supported by senior leadership during difficult decisions, and lack of exposure to or not receiving opportunities.
Additionally, alternative types of leadership are not valued by traditional career advancement. Phillips (2014) highlights the “transformational leadership” type, which focuses on progressing organizational change, as the type of leadership commonly discussed in librarianship. In this style, collaboration among librarians is championed by the profession, as it is seen as necessary for progress. However, there is dissonance between valuing collaboration and recognizing demonstrations of leadership skills in collaborative work. This can be seen in the servant leadership style, currently popular in libraries (Richmond, 2017). Douglas and Gadsby’s 2017 study of instruction coordinators shows this imbalance. Instruction coordinators do a great deal of feminized “relational” work—supporting, helping, collaborating—and yet they are not given authority or power to make substantial change. Additionally, librarians of color often find themselves taking on undervalued “diversity work” in collaborations, piling explaining concepts and lived experiences to white colleagues on top of the work itself (Chou & Pho, 2017). There is very little recognition for those who are not in positions of authority or do not formally supervise others, but make substantial contributions to the collaborative work. Likewise, someone may lead within their position, but never manage others. The work is valued as work, but not in terms of leadership.
We chose a mixed method approach to cross examine the multiple complex factors that are involved in varied experiences with leadership and management over time. For our primary method, we used Constructivist Grounded Theory (CGT), which supports the open-ended collection and analysis of data. Unlike Grounded Theory, we co-constructed theory by taking multiple perspectives and the positioning of researchers and participants into account. We applied an existing theory based on reoccuring themes from the data. CGT does not assume theories are discovered and uses existing theories where they apply (Strauss & Corbin, 1997; Charmaz, 2006). Within CGT, we used a constant comparison to direct our analysis. Constant comparison is a method of Grounded Theory in which data is compared against existing findings throughout the data analysis period.
As we constructed theory from the results, we applied Feminist Theory, which is a method of analysis that examines the relationships between gender and power, and how structures reinforce the oppression of women (Tyson, 2006). We also looked closely at the historical factors that inform current practices. Our feminist critique is informed by intersectionality, as defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1990), which explores how people with multiple intersecting identities beyond gender, such as race and ethnicity, queerness, and disability, experience overlapping oppressive power structures.
We created a survey to explore the perceptions and lived experiences of library professionals related to leadership and management. This includes librarians with MLIS degrees, paraprofessionals, and students in order to capture the perspectives of newly minted librarians, managers of new librarians, and those interested in mentoring or supporting new librarians. We sent the survey to multiple ALA email listservs (groups for new members of ALA, new members of leadership groups, general leadership, reference, assessment, college and university libraries, diversity and inclusion, technology and scholarly communication) to gather responses. The survey included questions on skills, attributes, and participants’ experiences. We provided a list of skills based on the literature and asked participants to rate their importance. We deliberately designed the survey so that participants would share their own thoughts and values first, without being primed by our list of skills.
We analyzed the data based on the career experience of the respondents. We categorized librarians with 0-6 years of experience as “early career.” Those with 7-15 years we categorized as “mid-career,” and those with 16+ years as “late career.” These determinations are based on the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) criteria for travel scholarships to the biennial conference (one of the few career level distinctions we found from a professional organization). We included pre- and post-MLIS work in determining experience. This differs from the ACRL definition, where they measure based on post-MLIS experience. We wanted to capture all experiences that contribute to how professionals acquire skills during the early stages of their careers. We also asked participants to report degrees earned. Our survey did not involve questions about tenure, but we did note any mention of the influence of tenure.
When we analyzed the data, instead of creating categories before coding responses, we created categories based on prominent themes in the data. Additionally, we used Voyant, an open-source text analysis tool, to track frequently used words, examine phrases, and measure sentiment. With Voyant, we determined the most popular qualities in leaders and managers. We also used it to determine the most common themes from qualitative responses.
We sent our survey to ALA-affiliated listservs, which excluded librarians who do not subscribe to those services. We did not ask for a lot of demographic information, including age, race or ethnicity, or type of library in which participants work. According to the literature available at the time we designed the survey, professionals had varying positive, neutral and negative perspectives on how identity affected their paths to leadership. We wanted to give participants an opportunity to address these issues and included a question specifically about whether they encountered challenges related to their identities. As we designed our instrument, we did not design them with feminist critique or intersectionality specifically in mind.
We realized after completion of the survey that “Cis or Trans Woman” and “Cis or Trans Man” may be more accurate labels than the options we provided, such as “Woman or Trans Woman.” We also did not ask for participants’ age or list age as a challenge related to identity. When we presented preliminary data at the ALA Annual Conference in June 2018, we consolidated mid- and late career responses. We realized it was important to separate these responses in the results of this paper, as they are distinctly different career levels.
We recorded 373 responses to the survey. After eliminating responses with less than a 22% completion rate, we had 270 complete responses.
Background and Demographics
The results of the survey included a high percentage of respondents with greater than six years of experience. We wanted a wide range of perspectives, including those who were able to reflect on how their early experiences shaped the rest of their career. This skew prompted us to filter responses (particularly qualitative ones) based on early career (0-6 years), mid-career (7-15 years), and late career (16+ years) to analyze specific perspectives.
Participants gave information about their years of experience (n = 270). The majority of respondents had 16 years of experience or more (36%). The second largest experience range was 7-10 years (20%). 26% of respondents were early career professionals, with an experience range of 0-6 years. Educational backgrounds among early and mid- to late-career professionals had no difference in proportion, although two early career respondents noted they were currently completing a bachelors or masters degree in library science.
Figure 1. Respondents’ years of experience in libraries, including pre-MLIS experience.
Representation and Challenges Related to Identities
Respondents (n = 270) were 80% cisgender women or trans women and 15% cisgender men or trans men; 1% identified as non binary, 1% preferred not to answer and 0.37% identified as other. Some qualitative responses included mentions of harassment, microaggressions, or bias related to gender:
“One time I was treated particularly unfairly during an internal interviewing situation in which [I] accepted the position but was offered considerably less money that a male counterpart. I had to prepare for negotiation and [speak] out about this inequity. I expressed my concern to my male supervisor / department head and, great as he was, he was not helpful for me because he was particularly conflict averse (although awesome in a lot of other ways).”
“The concerns I’ve faced with regard to these issues haven’t come from fellow employees, but from library patrons, who have occasionally been sexually explicit or harassing towards me and other female employees (non-white employees have faced similar problems, but being white I have not directly faced that problem myself)…”
Identities by Career Stage
While we did not ask for demographic information regarding race, sexual identity, or ability, we did want to gather information about whether respondents faced challenges related to these identities.
Early Career [0-6 yrs] (n=42)
Mid Career [7-15 yrs] (n=52)
Late Career [16+ yrs] (n=39 )
Response Rate (n=182)
Race or Ethnicity
Other experiences intersecting with any of the above or additional issues
Figure 2. Percentage of respondents at different career stages who reported experiencing challenges related to identity.
The most common challenges participants faced in relation to their identities included gender, race or ethnicity, and accessibility or disability concerns. Respondents often faced challenges related to their ability:
“I have a hearing disability. I often need technical support for meeting in ensuring that I can hear everyone. It doesn’t always work out.”
“I had health issues come up, that included significant exhaustion, brain fog, and executive function issues (along with other symptoms). My boss at the time handled it very badly – he kept pushing me to take on more tasks (in my first year in a new position), did not communicate options to me for leave/additional support (or refer me to the person in the campus structure who managed that for staff), and shamed me for making a necessary specialists appointment. I ended up having my contract not reviewed and was out of work for a year.”
“Mental illness, stigma”
Others faced challenges due to their age, race, or social class:
“When I was younger, people under my leadership would sometimes become angry about a perceived lack of experience in comparison to them…. I believe that I have often had to overcome quite a bit of disrespect as a woman of color in our field. Underneath others’ leadership, I have found less support from managers as I grow older and more experienced. Aging leadership clearly see me as a threat to their positions, and have cut me off from professional opportunities. Administrators sometimes shut down committees when the team selects me as a leader. This has happened to me 4 times in my current organization.”
“[H]onest conversations about race and social class. I was told to tone down my pride about coming from a working class background and being from the south. Learning to hide this identity has helped me connect with academic librarians, who are mostly from upper social classes.”
Some face challenges that are intersectional, including homophobic remarks, crossing personal boundaries (or as the respondent says, “lines I can draw”), and sexist behaviors:
“[My coworker] tells on people and I’m uncomfortable working with her. She is very conservative and the other day she asked me what I thought of gay couples raising children… I would like to work out with someone the lines I can draw. Having an older tentured male professors ask me to make coffee for them for an IRB meeting. They didn’t realize I was a professor (junior), and was there for the meeting. I was shocked and while thinking of a response, they realized their error.”
Libraries are haunted houses. As our patrons move through scenes and illusions that took years of labor to build and maintain, we workers are hidden, erasing ourselves in the hopes of providing a seamless user experience, in the hopes that these patrons will help defend Libraries against claims of death or obsolescence. However, ‘death of libraries’ arguments that equate death with irrelevance are fundamentally mistaken. If we imagine that a collective fear has come true and libraries are dead, it stands to reason that library workers are ghosts. Ghosts have considerable power and ubiquity in the popular imagination, making death a site of creative possibility. Using the scholarly lens of haunting, I argue that we can experience time creatively, better positioning ourselves to resist the demands of neoliberalism by imagining and enacting positive futurities.
Thinkpieces on the death of libraries are abundant and have been for quite some time. In 2005, the MIT Technology Review identified Google Books’ mass digitization effort as the driving force that “could reduce today’s libraries to musty archives.” Despite some sensational language, the article is just saying that digitization will change the scope of library collections and services. A controversial Forbes article offered a less benign take, suggesting that Amazon should replace public libraries. The piece was taken down shortly after its publication in summer 2018, in part because the author was writing outside the scope of their expertise.
While the authors of death of libraries articles are usually not affiliated with libraries, library workers are quick to debunk and challenge death of libraries content. As a profession constantly asked to justify the existence of our institutions and quantify the value of our labor, defensive impulses are a normal response. In this article, however, I ask library workers to engage with a rather different stance: that being dead might not actually be a bad thing after all.
Mortician and educator, Caitlin Doughty, explains the sentiment well:
Do not be afraid to delight in death. Of course I do not mean you are happy when someone dies, or happy to see someone in pain or mourning. But the vast majority of your life isn’t spent in mourning. It’s spent living. And while you’re living, it will not hurt you to have a fun, positive relationship with Death. Death is fascinating. Chaotic and ordered at the same time. There are strange rituals and art to be explored. The never-ending cultural entertainment of what death does to people, to relationships, to society. I don’t just pretend to love death. I really do love death. I bet you would too if you got to know him (2011).
In her advocacy for the death positive movement, Doughty helps expose and unpack the extent to which fear — specifically the fear of death — informs the choices we make, including the way we care for (or delegate caring for) our dead. Her advice to break a general sense of fear into specific concerns that can be addressed is a good approach for tackling any “nebula of unknown fear” (2017). What are we really afraid of when we talk about the alleged death of libraries?
Claiming that libraries are dying as a matter of course overlooks the choices and structures that led to those circumstances in the first place. Library workers must assert not only the value of our labor, but the very existence of it. I suggest that part of the underlying concern is not being seen, or being seen only to be replaced or forgotten.1 However, ‘death of libraries’ arguments that equate death with irrelevance are fundamentally mistaken.
Death is relevant as ever in 2019, occupying a prominent place in the popular imagination. The past decade has seen the proliferation of surrealist and nihilist memes that humorously embrace mortality and more recently, a resurgence of affection for cryptozoology and the occult. Faced with a world that at best doesn’t make sense and at worst is violently oppressive, the desire to seek connection beyond ourselves and our circumstances is understandable. There is comfort to be found in aligning with creatures who thrive despite being misunderstood, dismissed as outsiders, or having their existence constantly called into question, and this is especially true for people who hold marginalized identities. For those who move through the world as outsiders, or who struggle to feel hope in a crushing capitalist ecosystem, it can be meaningful and positive to envision a world beyond the present, to think of future lives or afterlives.
What could it look like to approach death and haunting from a place of openness and creativity; to demystify death by exploring the mystical? What if instead of nothingness, we imagine an afterlife where anything is possible? Let’s embrace this moment and see where supernatural connections might take us.
If we imagine that a collective fear has come true and libraries are dead, it stands to reason that library workers are ghosts. Since ghosts have considerable power and ubiquity, this frees us to rethink our position in and beyond the neoliberal library and linear time. Ghosts demand attention when there is “something-to-be-done;” which means “we will have to learn to talk to and listen to ghosts, rather than banish them, as the precondition for establishing our scientific and humanistic knowledge” (Gordon 2008, 22). What insights might emerge from “ongoing conversation with ghosts, real or imagined, dead or very much alive,” whether we are haunted, haunting, or both? (Ballif 2013, 139).
The landscape of the academic library is shaped by and reproduces the conditions that persist in the academy and in society more broadly. Thinking about the ways in which capitalism necessitates that bodies and labor be rendered invisible reveals additional layers of haunting, of which we are simultaneously subjects and objects. As Avery Gordon reminds us, “It is essential to see the things and the people who are primarily unseen and banished to the periphery of our social graciousness. At a minimum, it is essential because they see you and address you” (Gordon 2008, 196). Gordon’s provocative use of the second person assuages fears of not being seen while demanding accountability from readers. The ghost sees you, and it addresses you. You are here, so how will you remedy the “something-to-be-done?”
In libraries, there is much to be done. Library and Information Science (LIS) scholarship has been invested in identifying and challenging stereotypes of living librarians in popular culture, but an exploration of death and libraries would be remiss not to include library ghosts. Perhaps our concerns with the death of libraries are exacerbated by the rather limiting extant representations of library ghosts and haunted libraries in popular culture and professional literature. Even trade publications like American Libraries and School Library Journal have profiled real libraries with haunted reputations. While there are certainly exceptions, many library ghosts seem to be women.
The Willard Library, a public library in Evansville, Indiana, has a reputation as one of the more famous haunted libraries in the United States. Their hallmark specter is “the Grey Lady,” an apparition of a woman first spotted in 1937 and last seen in 2010. The Willard has a website of live camera feeds dedicated to recording her presence, which links out to local ghost-hunting resources. Enthusiastic community members engage in ghost tours of the library each Halloween, hoping to encounter the Grey Lady. While the Grey Lady’s identity is not entirely agreed upon, she manifests in specific, recognizable ways: “moving books, adjusting lights, and turning faucets on and off” in order to “let the world know she is here.” (“Willard Library Ghost Cams,” n.d.) Her presence seems to have reignited interest in local history, and in the library as a space full of possibilities and stories.
Not all library ghosts are so positive, however. The apparition in the 1984 film Ghostbusters also exemplifies the trope of the library ghost, but in a more fearsome manner (Reitman, 1984). Before morphing into a ghoulish entity who attacks the Ghostbusters, she appears as an elderly woman in turn-of-the-century dress and is reading a book, reflecting a cultural stereotype of library workers that is stuck in the age of Dewey. Like the Lady in Grey, this ghost can levitate and move books: the disturbance of physical collections signals that a spirit is at work. Images of female ghosts who haunt the stacks in order to safeguard or speak through their collections visually reinforce the connection between library workers, collections, and gendered (here, feminized) labor.
In such examples, books are a necessary component of the aesthetic of librarianship, juxtaposing the material (books and physical space) with the immaterial (ghosts). Juxtaposition is central to Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopias, places he describes as “capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (1984, 6). Foucault identifies cemeteries, libraries, and museums among his examples of heterotopias, as they are linked by unique relationships to time and memory. Cemeteries juxtapose life and death, loss (of life) and creation (of monuments), history and modernity as their grounds become increasingly populated. Similarly, libraries and museums embody “a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place,” organizing and enclosing representations of memory and knowledge (Foucault 1984, 7).
Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride is a particularly illustrative heterotopia, accumulating time and juxtaposing seemingly opposing concepts. Visitors to the attraction explore the home of “999 happy haunts” from varied time periods and regions of the world. The dead are lively as they dance, sing, and joke. One of the first destinations within the Haunted Mansion ride is the library.2 There (as in the stacks at the Willard Library or in Ghostbusters), books spontaneously fly from the shelves (Surrell et al. 2015, 88). In a dissertation on modern Gothic narratives (of which Disney’s Haunted Mansion is one), Katherine Bailey notes that “books are portals into other worlds themselves,” further describing the library’s significance in the context of the ride’s narration where a mention of ghost writers “serves as an obvious reference to unseen hands at work” (2012, 92).
While the “unseen hands” in the Haunted Mansion’s library are ostensibly those of a ghost, there is another layer of unseen hands: the hands of Disney’s Imagineers, the workers who crafted the Mansion’s story, infrastructure, and illusions. Reference to their existence are hidden in ‘Easter eggs’ throughout the attraction: an inscription on a tombstone, a character’s likeness, etc. Visitors’ attention is directed toward the Mansion as an experience or singular magical entity rather than the creative work of many laborers. This directly parallels libraries, where doing one’s job successfully often requires the deliberate erasure of one’s existence.
In popular culture, the haunted library is a space with books: it is an aesthetic constructed to represent a fantasy. As such, it is noteworthy that death of libraries discourse centers specifically on libraries as spaces and institutions. Libraries become the haunted mansion, the singular magical entity inhabited by ghosts (library workers) who may or may not be visible. This privileging of the institution overlooks the reality of library workers, actual people whose material and emotional needs are denied or compromised in the service of neoliberal capitalism (Cronk, 2019).
Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch presents a feminist historical analysis of how women–and in particular their bodies–have been subjugated and subject to violence within capitalist relations in Europe. Her analysis of witch hunts and efforts to “make visible hidden structures of domination and exploitation” are especially relevant to conversations about hidden, haunted labor within the feminized profession of libraries (2009, 13). Gordon’s take on haunting in Argentina also refers to “state-sponsored systems of disappearance” where ghosts help to reveal the structures and interests behind oppressive systems (2008, 67-70). There is a difference, however, between bringing to light the infrastructure of institutions and valuing the institution more than the workers who sustain it.
Persistent references to libraries instead of library workers are a manifestation of vocational awe, which Fobazi Ettarh describes as the notion that libraries are inherently good and therefore exempt from critique (2018). Vocational awe is a foil to death of libraries discourse, vehemently asserting the permanence of libraries. Rather than assuming inevitable death or irrelevance, this perspective insists that libraries will continue to exist simply because they are good and important and therefore must exist. Such a mindset suggests that it is acceptable for administrators to make decisions that harm workers as long as those decisions will aid the presumed greater good of libraries and keep the institution ‘alive.’ Lauren Berlant might call this a relation of cruel optimism, “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object” even when the attachment has damaging consequences” (2011, 24).
The concept of haunted futurity can help us to better understand the troubling relationship between libraries and labor under neoliberalism. For Debra Ferreday and Adi Kuntsman, “The future may be both haunted and haunting: whether through the ways in which the past casts a shadow over (im)possible futures; or through horrors that are imagined as ‘inevitable’; or through our hopes and dreams for difference, for change” (2011, 6). Haunted futurity invites us to think of haunting as potential; a collective experience and call to action in response to ghosts.
Listening to ghosts requires effort, just as haunting requires effort. As Kevin Seeber writes, “It’s not the heavens smiling on you when you browse the stacks and find a relevant item, it’s the labor of a bibliographer, a cataloger, and a shelver. This stuff ends up where it does because people are doing the work of putting it there” (2018). By that logic, books fly from the shelves of the haunted library because ghosts are doing the work of moving them. When these ghostly occurrences happen, living people have been conditioned to reshelve the books as quickly as possible: there is an organization scheme to follow, a workflow that has been interrupted, and an image of the library that must be restored. Work under neoliberal capitalism has specific time-bound demands and prioritizes results (especially the accumulation of capital) above all else.
By disrupting space and time, ghosts simultaneously reveal their presence and the presence of structures that are supposed to remain hidden. In an interview for Jacobin, Marxist scholar and anthropologist David Harvey describes neoliberalism as a “political project” taken up by “the corporate capitalist class” lashing out against labor (2016). One way in which this manifests is the obfuscation of labor, as seen in the narratives of serendipity Seeber critiques so well. The experience of finding the perfect book in the stacks becomes decidedly less magical when one considers the labor (and the material circumstances of laborers) behind the encounter. These slippages into visibility, however, can be an opportunity to learn. What might happen if we paused to ask the ghost what harm brought it to this place rather than immediately assessing whether the library’s materials were harmed during flight? Avery Gordon offers one suggestion: “If you let it, the ghost can lead you toward what has been missing, which is sometimes everything” (2008, 58).
In this case, part of what has been missing is concern for humanity. Considering human beings in particular rather than libraries generally will reveal structures and truths that may be hard to reckon with, but this work is necessary. Neoliberalism emerged as a movement because of collective fear felt by the ruling class, and requires a single understanding and experience of time. Privileging a white, Western, cis-hetero-patriarchal viewpoint further marginalizes anyone who moves through the world differently. Haunting offers meaningful opportunity to critique this dehumanizing rigidity by interrogating and experimenting with structures of time: “haunting raises specters, and it alters the experience of being in time, the way we separate the past, the present, and the future” (Gordon 2008, xvi). The idea that haunting changes how we experience and understand time is critical when brought into conversation with scholars whose creative theoretical interventions also challenge dominant constructs of time and labor.
In academia (and by extension academic libraries), time is weaponized to extract as much labor as possible. Adjunct, contract, and term-limited positions based on temporary funding force workers to perform at unsustainable levels while minimizing the financial expenditure required of the institution. Even in an alleged best case scenario where one obtains a tenure-track position, the imposing tenure clock and the prospect of losing permanent, stable employment necessitate stress that is comparable to that of contingent work.
As a result, commodification of time and valorization of overwork are particularly acute problems. Given a future that is uncertain at best and threatening at worst, workers are simply trying to get by. Riyad Shahjahan compellingly argues that “time is a key coercive force in the neoliberal academy,” because colonial logics privilege frequent intellectual output over embodied knowledge which can look different or take more time (2015, 491). “Amid deadlines and reviews,” he observes, “these non-productive parts of our bodies are rendered invisible” (2015, 494). Federici also points to the changing role of the body under capitalism, where primitive accumulation “required the transformation of the body into a work-machine, and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force” (2009, 63). Thus, productivity is integral to job performance, workers are only of value if they produce specific, visible outputs in designated time-frames, and bodies are only of value in relation to their ability to maintain productivity.
However, it does not have to be this way. David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder also take up the questions of embodiment and productivity, examining through a disability studies lens the ways in which disabled people have historically been positioned as outside the laboring masses due to their “non-productive bodies” (2010, 186). They posit that this distinction transforms as the landscape of labor shifts toward digital and immaterial outputs from work in virtual or remote contexts, establishing the disabled body as a site of radical possibility. Alison Kafer’s crip time is similarly engaged in radical re-imagining, challenging the ways in which “‘the future’ has been deployed in the service of compulsory able-bodiedness and able-mindedness” (2013, 26-27). That is, one’s ability to exist in the future, or live in a positive version of the future is informed by the precarity of their social position. The work of theorists like Mitchell, Snyder, and Kafer is significant because it insists on a future in which disabled people not only exist, but also thrive despite the pressures of capitalism. Death of libraries rhetoric instills fear because it threatens a future without libraries, which vocational awe would have us believe is no future at all.
Perhaps there is reassurance to be found in the connection between haunting and queer time. Gordon’s claim that haunting “mediates between institution and person, creating the possibility of making a life, of becoming something else, in the present and for the future,” is reminiscent of the way Jack Halberstam theorizes queer time (Gordon 2008, 142). There are many reasons why queer people do not or cannot conform to heteronormative temporal and familial expectations, thus queer time is a way of creating positive futurity where one is not expected, and resisting a sense of inevitability (2005). In essence, queer time is about utilizing time differently to open oneself to new possible experiences whether or not those experiences conform to boundaries of linear time.
While queerness and disability are states of being that necessitate different experiences of time, haunting and slowing down are useful frameworks because they offer ways to think about time that apply to all modes of embodiment. Arguments for slow scholarship contend that “to enable slow motion is to open for a state of intense awareness: an intake of ‘more’– not of ‘the same’ at a slower pace” (Juelskjær and Rogowska-Stangret 2017, 6). Haunting asks for the same kind of embodied response, for increased connection to one’s senses in receiving ghostly messages: “to be haunted is to be in a heightened state of awareness; the hairs on our neck stand up: being affected by haunting, our bodies become alert, sensitive” (Ferreday and Kuntsman 2011, 9). If we rethink what it means for someone to ‘look like they have seen a ghost,’ these physical responses do not have to result in fear; rather we can interpret them as reminders to pause, reflect, observe what we are feeling, and listen to what the ghost has to say. Like slowing down, haunting is a way to experience time irrespective of normative productivity. Becoming attuned to one’s senses and listening to ghosts can be transformative, enabling the creation and sharing of more, unique information.
In this article, the author explores the necessity of articulating an ethics of care in the design, governance, and future evolution of digital library software applications. Long held as the primary technological platforms to advance the most radical values of librarianship, the digital library landscape has become a re-enactment of local power dynamics that privilege wealth, whiteness, and masculinity at the expense of meaningful inclusive practice and care work. This, in turn, has the net result of self-perpetuating open access digital repositories as tools which only a handful of research institutions can fully engage with, and artificially narrows the digital cultural heritage landscape. By linking local narratives to organizational norms and underlining the importance of considering who does the work, and where they can do it, the author explores manifestations of care in practice and intentional design, and proposes a reframing of digital library management and governance to encourage greater participation and inclusion, along with “user-first” principles of governance.
Digital programs in research libraries, such as institutional repositories and digital collections of unique special collections materials, are deep in their second or even third decade. The broad swath of products, technologies, projects, and professional practices that undergird individual efforts are mature, even as individual libraries are subject to economic stratification that impedes full engagement with those technologies and practices (Dohe 2018). A variety of specializations within the digital library practitioner community continue to emerge each year–digital scholarship, digital curation, digital publishing, or digital strategies to name a few–and it is rare to find an academic library in the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) that does not include digital initiatives in its strategic plan or mission. Clearly, the profession places a great deal of value on such efforts, and the most idealistic and ambitious mission statements emphasize the power of digital libraries to bridge cultural and geopolitical divides (“ICDL Mission” n.d.), share “the record of human knowledge” (“HathiTrust Mission and Goals” n.d.), or facilitate global access to scholarly product (“Mission and Vision, Texas Digital Library” n.d.). Digital projects have long been hailed as the ethical or even radical solution to our crises of the hour, whether those crises are journal pricing, original publishing, scientific reproducibility, research data management, or textbook affordability.
Yet here we are, twenty years later, and none of those crises have been solved. We built our digital repositories, invested our time and infrastructure, and struggle to reach users (Salo 2008). The contemporary digital library product landscape is currently reduced to commercial options owned by the same content owners and vendors (Schonfeld 2017b) that exuberantly pillage our collections budgets every year (MIT Libraries n.d.), and a handful of open source options with similar governance structures and substantial community dominance by a smattering of wealthy, historically white (Hathcock 2015) ARL member institutions. Digital library initiatives across the U.S. are reckoning with very real questions of financial or legal sustainability, while the doors to participation remain firmly closed to broad swaths of the higher education landscape. Even as a significant amount of the profession emphasizes the importance of digital projects work, the cloistered technical community that contributed to this state of affairs is poorly understood by many librarians outside “Digital Etc.” specialists. The end result is elite institutions making products for other elite institutions, and every year the technical and economic barriers to entry grow higher.
How did we get so far from the truly radical roots of digital libraries, when the Budapest Open Access Initiative urged libraries, governments, and scholars to “unit[e] humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge” (Chan et al. 2002)? Why are our technical products failing our users? How is so much talent and investment (Arlitsch and Grant 2018) producing such mediocre results ? More importantly, how do we re-invigorate our own open source projects and fulfill the ultimate missions of digital libraries? How can we create truly participatory digital library project communities? Familiar wolves are at the door, slyly promising vertical product integration and improved discovery as they buy commercial digital projects platforms left and right (Schonfeld 2017a). This isn’t ground we can afford to cede back to the same commercial interests that have put libraries on the ropes financially for decades.
After an illuminating discussion over breakfast with a male colleague in my library’s technology division, I began to interrogate the ways this problem is a byproduct of social reproduction at our local institutions. He and I shared responsibility for digital library initiatives as peer department heads in our ARL library’s IT division. My librarians1 managed our digital collections, stakeholders, and users, while his developers were responsible for technical implementation of our portfolio of digital library applications, including code contributions to international projects. We had developed a mutually trusting work partnership and collegial friendship by the time we sat down at a diner on the second day of the Code4Lib national conference. Our seemingly innocuous conversation over coffee prompted me to reflect upon the full weight of gendered assumptions regarding the divide between our positions and the value of our respective labor, and underscored the ways these assumptions between individuals ripple through communities. While this conversation occurred between two colleagues at one research library, we also occupy roles and operate within social systems reproduced throughout the profession that dictate and shape the nature of our work relationship. Open source digital library communities are largely driven by the priorities of technical staff like us at elite research libraries like ours, who frequently exist in a siloed, overwhelmingly white, predominantly cis-male micro-culture within their home libraries (Askey and Askey 2017), creating a masculinized environment that outsiders often negotiate through participation, emulation, or willful ignorance (Brandon, Ladenson, and Sattler 2018). The inherently gendered tensions between predominantly male IT groups and a feminized library workforce inevitably permeate the communities and applications imbued with our professional values. Radical change to community projects requires a codified framework for equitable, just, and caring interpersonal communication that begins at the local level.
Whose Community Projects?
Any given library’s digital collections, institutional repository, and digital scholarship projects are typically powered by a variety of software applications, components, and services, rather than a single monolithic “digital library” application capable of serving up all types of content and data effectively. Some of these services come packaged from commercial vendors, like Worldcat’s ContentDM or Elsevier’s recently acquired Digital Commons, and the relationship between the software provider and customer library is similar to that of any other software or content package. Many more digital library technologies (including some of those implemented in commercial products) are community-supported open-source projects. Some of the most prominent examples include digital repository applications Fedora and DSpace, digital collections interface tools Samvera and Islandora, content viewer frameworks like the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), content creation tools like Omeka and Open Journal Systems, and discovery services based on Blacklight. This is far from a complete picture of the digital library project landscape, but serves to highlight the complex nature of implementing and maintaining an open source digital library program.
It is fitting that collections and content intended to reach the global citizenry should be available with open source software applications. Moreover, many of these applications are created, customized, and maintained by staff at the research and cultural heritage institutions that also steward the content. These are among the few products that we make, that are most directly for us, our content, and our users. This should represent a shift in power dynamics from vended solutions that is nearly as significant as the shift to open access to information. To borrow an analogy from Safiya Noble’s dissertation “Searching for Black Girls: Old Traditions in New Media” (Noble 2012), open source digital library technologies are comparable to solar panels that “facilitate independent, democratic participation by citizens, and [show] that design impacts social relations at economic and political levels” in opposition to controlled and closed systems peddled as a “galaxy of knowledge” (Appleton 2019) even as they proclaim their openness and transparency.
Community–and consequently, community membership–is critical to understanding these open source digital library projects. As open-source applications, anyone may download, install, and run digital library applications, though the technical skills to effectively customize and maintain these applications are non-trivial and often out of reach for anyone but professional software developers. This technical overhead can be an exceptionally high barrier to clear for participation in the community. As an example, the Samvera community and toolkit requires adopters to make a staggering amount of critical and frequently binding technical decisions before even getting started; production-level adoption of the latest version of Fedora is constrained to fewer than two dozen institutions worldwide at the time of this writing (“‘Fedora 4 Deployments – Fedora Repository,’ 2018); DSpace has a robust adoption base but until the still-forthcoming release of DSpace 7, two mutually exclusive user interfaces. Upgrading applications over time–a necessity for a professional digital library program that promises permanence and preservation as a core service–also proves to be a fraught, labor-intensive effort, as seen in the slow adoption of Fedora 4 (“Designing a Migration Path – Fedora Repository – DuraSpace Wiki” n.d.), or widely reported problems upgrading to OJS 3.
Governance structures of many of these projects tend to overlap in both structure, reward systems, and membership. Institutions often have two avenues for participation in the governance and decision-making of these products—pay membership fees to secure a seat in leadership, and/or employ software developers who are talented enough to contribute code back to the application’s core source code. Skilled developers with a high degree of institutional support may become official “committers,” which is often a meritorious individual achievement on par with elected professional national service, and the committers themselves have a strong say in product development and roadmaps. Because this labor is extremely technical, administrative representation in steering committees or product leadership are often themselves technical department heads, division managers, or ADs/AULs. Institutions with the resources to participate in these application communities at this level are often further privileged with grant funding opportunities to develop new tools or applications within this digital content ecosystem, and thus reify their status as community leaders. Avenues for participation outside the programmer/management dyad within these open source product communities can be largely limited to programmer support roles like documentation, request management and release testing (as is the case with the DSpace Community Advisory Team), or specialist interest groups with no codified governance power, as is the case with the proliferation of groups in the Samvera (“Samvera IG/WG Framework – Samvera.,” n.d.) community.
Largely absent in these communities are liaisons, curators, or actual end users, and consequently there is a fundamental disconnect between developers of these applications and the front line users who must navigate, curate, and use the contents of such systems. Many of the design discussions I have been privy to in local and organizational settings privilege the discussion of objects and data over people—the pursuit of a more perfect object model without centering and clearly articulating the user’s needs. Hand-waving at “more discoverable” is often unexamined without clearly arriving at discoverable by who, for what purposes, and how we know that. The net result of this insular community development is that programmers and the people who supervise them at wealthy and historically white American institutions are making considerable product and implementation decisions about the most potent tools in our arsenal to resist neoliberalism. Excluding those who possess insight into the social, political, and experiential impacts of technology from the messy discursive process of making it undermines the value of a collaborative professional tradition, and protects institutional white supremacy and all its trappings of valorized productivity. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde 1984).
The economic and racial stratification resulting from this community insularity is counter to the self-proclaimed social justice spirit of early digital initiatives that emphasized their commitment to the public good of global open access to information, and open source technology to serve it. Access barriers for users cannot be lowered when the technological barriers for a diverse member community are simultaneously raised. No HBCUs are listed as Fedora adopters of any version outside consortial support. Only four community colleges have deployed and registered their own DSpace repositories (and two of the listed, registered repositories are defunct at the time of this writing) even as the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (“Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources.” n.d.) and similar initiatives emphasize the vital importance of access to locally-developed open educational resources for the (frequently non-white, non-traditional, poorer) student populations at community colleges. Accessibility, particularly compliance with WCAG 2.1 AA standards required at a growing number of institutions in response to lawsuits (Carlson n.d.), continues to be elided with responses that individual members of “the community” need to identify and resolve such fundamental issues on their own (“DSpace 6 and WCAG Website Accessibility.” n.d.).
While repository registries are voluntary and therefore inherently incomplete, they do paint a picture of self-identified organizations more likely to engage actively in governance and community initiatives for those products. The explanations for this delta between applications that serve clear needs and a potential user base are often presented as self-evident—these institutions “lack the resources,” which is typically a euphemism for “can’t afford a full time developer and systems team inside a library” (Hamill 2015). Often in the same breath, applications like DSpace or the aging ePrints application are presented as “turnkey” solutions in literature (Maynard et al. 2013) and documentation (“What Is DSpace? – DSpace KnowledgeBase” 2011). Professional hosting for open source repository software is a comparably new phenomenon when one considers the lengthy history of such projects, many of which are designed as “single tenant” applications that can be difficult to scale for multiple institutions, or even multiple projects. Furthermore, while the software is open source, there are obvious risks regarding public service sustainability any time a vendor comes into the picture. Extensible repository systems like Fedora are of abstract utility outside a very limited community, and the talent to configure and manage those applications comes dear. Positions go unfilled, and issues can only be solved by a handful of developers at a few institutions.
Organizations without resources to participate in the open source communities may select vendor solutions for digital projects, which often prove to be less costly than the required FTE and skill set for supporting a major open source digital library initiative. It is no coincidence that major companies like Wiley and Elsevier are buying products like Atypon and Digital Commons respectively (Schonfeld 2017b), to integrate with the scholarly enterprise software suites each company is building and marketing to provosts, directors of research, and university presidents. In this landscape, open access and cultural heritage content ceases to be an ethical imperative and instead becomes a lucrative revenue stream for organizations that have nakedly demonstrated their opposition to the free and open exchange of information over decades of doing business with libraries.
The disadvantages of this state of affairs in the open source digital projects community are several-fold. Open source tools aren’t designed to be adopted by the communities they could theoretically best serve, as users and content creators. This in turn artificially narrows the cultural heritage landscape as digital content is never shared or has no long-term stewardship. The communities that do adopt these applications are frequently so small that only a few people are equipped to share expertise with each other (which mitigates the advantages of having a community of practitioners). Ultimately, the products become worse over time and present market opportunities for the same commercial interests that are hollowing out the mission of academia (Seale 2013, Bourg 2014, Mountz et al. 2015), and put the entire open access and digital scholarship enterprise at risk.
Examining “…the people building these systems and the environments in which the software is produced, as part of the software’s ecology” (Sadler and Bourg 2015) is essential to understanding how digital library applications evolved in the manner they have. Open source digital library architecture is not built by Silicon Valley techbros gleefully commodifying the labor of women and people of color (Hoffmann and Bloom 2016). It is built by our colleagues and friends; people we interact with every day on listservs, on calls, in Slack channels, and in the halls. Many developers and technical staff chose comparably lower-paying positions in higher education, and libraries in particular, because they value the library’s mission and workplace, and care about work-life balance–a far cry from “brogrammer” culture (Crum et al. 2015). We are on the same side, and value the same things. Yet library IT culture is still a place apart within libraries, often very literally (Askey and Askey 2017)–a place with its own language, norms, rhythms, and priorities.
Libraries have long been understood as feminized workplaces, with (largely white) female librarians and non-technical support staff, and a higher proportion of (largely white) male managers (Schlesselman-Tarango 2016). Library IT, particularly in academic libraries, is often the opposite. Women occupy a minority of positions and are less likely to take supervisory positions, and are less likely to be compensated comparably with male supervisors with equivalent experience and expertise (Lamont 2009). The work environments are rarely as openly hostile or sexist in the vein of Silicon Valley, but entire books (Brandon, Ladenson, and Sattler 2018) are dedicated to women who must navigate alienation, imposter syndrome, overt sexism, and unconscious bias throughout their careers in library IT. Gender is a vital dimension to understanding technological influence within libraries; as Roma Harris’s influential article on the topic states: “Given the strong cultural and ideological associations between masculinity and technology in Western society, it is impossible to consider the social shaping of technology in librarianship without taking into account the gendered nature of library work, particularly since studies of technological change in other sectors of the labor force reveal that the work of women and men is generally segregated, in part along lines structured by their association with or their use of particular technologies” (Harris 1999).
Institutions with the resources to hire “Digital Etc. Librarians” often rely on these positions to “bridge the gap” between librarians and library IT, or “collaborate” through internal marketing and external proselytizing about the merits of a system designed largely by technical staff. These librarians often end up in service provision roles to ameliorate systemic usability flaws (mediated institutional repository submission workflows are a prime example of this). This in turn limits the opportunities for these librarians to collect and advance user needs or participate in the creation of better systems and projects. The work of a Digital Etc. Librarian bears all the signifiers of carework typified by the broader profession of librarianship and explored at length in “on capacity and care” (Nowviskie 2015), “Library Technologies and the Ethics of Care” (Henry 2016), and others. It is also frequently composed of bullshit task completion (Schmidt 2018) generated by questionable user interface decisions in software applications. Furthermore, occupants of this role often feel most immediately the tensions between the patriarchal and technocratic “future of the library” and feminized care work explored in Mirza & Seale’s “Dudes Code, Ladies Coordinate” presentation at DLF 2017 (Mirza and Seale 2017b) as well as their “Who Killed The World?” chapter (Mirza and Seale 2017a) in Gina Schlesselman-Tarango’s Topographies of Whiteness. In both works, the..
Library research on transfer students tends to focus on the idea of the “struggling” transfer student and creating solutions to “fix” them. While we might assume transfer students will falter because they missed our institutions’ first-year offerings, this oversimplifies their vast and heterogeneous experiences.
Our study complicates the narrative of the lagging transfer student. We surveyed and interviewed students to gain a holistic understanding of their lives in the workplace, the classroom, and the library. We encouraged them to explore their identities as students, researchers, caretakers, employees, and more. We found that most had previously received information literacy instruction, some had 4-year degrees, and the majority had extramural experiences that gave them confidence and knowledge to navigate higher education.
This paper explores the harm of deficit thinking, identifies how a strengths-based approach can inform librarianship, and shares data on transfer student experiences, challenges, and barriers. It offers readers an opportunity to consider how they might leverage transfer students’ strengths, rather than fixating on perceived shortcomings.
Librarians have recently conducted a significant amount of research on transfer students (Ivins, 2017a & 2017b). Unfortunately, much of the early research and resulting programs have focused solely on the challenges they face and creating solutions to “fix” them. This perspective is called the deficit mindset or deficit thinking, which labels any student that does not fit into a traditional norm as “at-risk” or working at a deficit. The deficit mindset often occurs with the good intention of supporting these students; however, it can lead to problematic assumptions. While we might surmise transfer students will falter because they missed our institutions’ first-year offerings, this oversimplifies the vast and heterogeneous transfer student experience.
Our research attempts to counter this deficit mindset by intentionally focusing on previous experiences that might contribute to success at our institution. Transfer students are not a monolith, and we recognized the complexities of their experiences through some of the literature, our work with them at multiple institutions, and as former transfer students ourselves. We aimed to learn holistically about our transfer students’ lives, what their previous experiences were, and how that might influence their time in and out of the library at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). We sought to gain a nuanced understanding in order to better support this student population in the library and advocate for them across campus. We purposefully did not attempt to compare transfer students to those who began their academic career at UNLV. We did not want to treat first-time, first-year students as the norm that transfer students deviate from or as the barometer with which to measure other students against. Instead, we focused exclusively on transfer students.
Deficit Thinking and Strengths-Based Approaches
Deficit thinking is pervasive in higher education literature and practice. It is often discussed in relation to the success gap between minority and white students. Valencia’s 1997 work discusses the long history of this problematic viewpoint in education:
“Of the several theories that have been advanced to explicate school failure among economically disadvantaged minority students, the deficit model has held the longest currency- spanning well over a century, with roots going back even further as evidenced by the early racist discourses from the early 1600s to the late 1800s…the deficit thinking model, at its core, is an endogenous theory – positing that the student who fails in school does so because of internal deficits or deficiencies” (Valencia, 1997, p. 2).
This thinking manifests in practice by believing that students who in any way do not conform to a “traditional” or privileged financial situation, home life, or route to education are not likely to succeed. This leads to lower expectations as well as an ignorance of their strengths (Portelli, 2010). This mindset can be difficult to recognize because it is pervasive and often manifests in an attempt to help students, but deficit thinking, coupled with the influence of neoliberalism on education, can cause even well-intentioned teachers to harm marginalized students (Sharma, 2016). In a study of pre-service teachers, Picower (2009) found that white educators believe that their students of color are deficient and “place the blame of educational failure on communities of color rather than on the institutions that are inequitably serving them” (p. 210). Educators operating through a deficit-oriented lens do not acknowledge the varied life experiences of marginalized students. Rather than encouraging students to inform the nature of the learning environment, educators attempt to fix them to fit a mold defined by a society rife with inequities such as sexism, racism, ableism, and classism.
K-12 teacher education literature has been at the forefront of discussing strengths-based approaches to teaching. This includes the closely related concepts of asset-based pedagogy, funds of knowledge, culturally relevant pedagogy, and critical pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Tate, 1997; Moll, Amanti, Neff & Gonzalez, 1992). Meanwhile, higher education and academic libraries have made some positive movement away from the deficit model as well. For example, at the 2018 Library Orientation Exchange (LOEX), Tewell called on librarians to seek better teaching methods because “deficit thinking is a major aspect of information literacy and library instruction, whether we realize it or not; …this approach to education runs counter to meaningful educational practices; and we should adopt alternative pedagogies to resist this pervasive and counterproductive way of teaching” (2018). A 2017 study at GSM London created strengths-based initiatives for first-year students and found focusing on strengths during the transition to higher education improved student experiences and generally “allows people to better manage their weaknesses and become independent learners. Recognising talents and strengths helps…develop appropriate approaches – from classroom design, assessment tools, learning resources and teaching delivery” (Krutkowski, 2017, p. 228). A librarian who intentionally created a classroom environment grounded in asset-based teaching for students of color found that attending to the students’ cultural context, using auto-ethnographic approaches, creating opportunities for counter-stories, and avoiding the deficit mindset made information literacy education more “valuable, relevant, and useful” (Morrison, 2017, p. 212). A recent study using the funds of knowledge concept to investigate the research skills of first-generation students states, “[they]…have strengths that they bring to college by virtue of their identities, lived experiences, and interests” (Folk, 2018, p. 53). We hope to contribute to this growing body of strengths-based approaches in libraries.
Transfer Students and Libraries
As the number of transfer students has increased, academic libraries have made efforts to address this population. Some examples include librarian contributions and partnerships on campus-wide transfer student initiatives (Ivins & Mulhivill, 2017; Jacobson, Delano, Krzykowski, Garafola, Nyman, & Barker-Flynn, 2017; Tipton & Bender, 2006) and personal librarian programs, where transfer students have an assigned point of contact in the library (Coats & Pemberton, 2017; Lafrance & Kealey, 2017; MacDonald & Mohanty, 2017). Others have investigated cross-institutional collaborations in order to see what local librarians are doing for this population (Phillips & Atwood, 2009; Roberts, Welsh, & Dudek, 2017) while some have taken steps to create connections across several institutions in order to foster transfer student success (McBride, Gregor, & McCallister, 2017; McCallister, Gregor, & Joyner, 2015). Many of these studies express concern that students are underprepared for the expectations of a four-year institution and started initiatives to support transfer students in response (Ivins, 2017).
Librarians studying student populations have often replicated the perspectives present in the deficit model of education. We as a profession have been quick to adopt language such as “at-risk”, “gaps”, and “lagging” to describe entire groups of students. These terms are a manifestation of deficit thinking and, in the context of transfer students, ignore the experiences these students had in their K-12 and previous college education. It dismisses the work of the school, public, community college, and university librarians who have taught them information literacy or helped them navigate a library in the past, and insinuates that the way “we” do it is superior. Deficit thinking encourages institutions to “view students as deficient” rather than consider how “we librarians – as part of such educational systems – might ask ourselves to what extent we are part of the problem” (Ilett, 2019, p. 180).
Meanwhile, other librarians and higher education researchers have made an active effort to view transfer students holistically and acknowledge how unique this population is in their work. For example, Richter-Erikum and Seeber’s study (2018) echoed Jacobson et al. (2017) by explaining that there is no single transfer experience and discussing the ways transfer students bring research skills with them from their previous institutions. They acknowledge that transfer students are not blank slates when they arrive on our campuses. Lester, Leonard, & Mathias (2013) investigated the ways transfer students engage with campus and found that they view their social and academic lives as separate endeavors. Sandelli (2017) asked readers to consider whether “transfer students [should] be treated as a single group or as subgroups based on characteristics such as age or previous educational attainment” (p. 407) and acknowledged that each institution’s answer will be different.
We aim to build upon this work by using a strengths-based approach to learn holistically about the previous experiences of our transfer students, how those experiences influenced their lives both in and out of UNLV classrooms, and subsequently, discover how we can best support them. Our research considers how our profession currently discusses transfer students as coping with a myriad of deficits and argues that we should not continue to operate under this assumption, as it is damaging and oppressive. This is particularly true for our students of color, who have likely faced this mentality throughout their entire education.
Who We Are
UNLV is a public, doctoral-granting research university of about 30,000 students. Over 8,700 students are identified as non-traditional because they are over 23 years old, have dependents, have jobs, have had an interruption or delay in education, or serve or have served in the military (University of Nevada, Las Vegas, n.d.-a). UNLV has been designated by the US Department of Education as a Minority Serving Institution; an Asian-American and Native-American, Pacific Islander-Serving Institution; and a Hispanic Serving Institution. UNLV is one of the most diverse college campuses in the US, and in Fall 2018, 40% of our undergraduate students self-identified as first-generation. In the Fall of 2017, there were 7,097 incoming undergraduate students with 32% or 2,287 transferring from another institution. Of those incoming transfer students, 44% transferred from the College of Southern Nevada (CSN), a local community college system.
For the past eight years, UNLV has earned the gold rating designation as a Military Friendly university from G.I. Jobs Magazine (McCabe, 2018). There are more than 1,800 active-duty, reserve, veteran or military family members on campus. Many military service members start or continue their college education while enlisted which means a large percentage of transfer students are also veterans. Only 6% of our student population lives on campus, making UNLV primarily a commuter school. UNLV struggles to build community because of this, and at the beginning of this project, there were limited initiatives aimed towards transfer students.
What We Did
This was a mixed-methods study that included a survey and interviews. There were four researchers, with three acting as primary researchers and one serving as the transcriber and auditor. In January 2017, with data provided by the UNLV Retention, Progression, Completion Initiatives & Analytics Coordinator, we sent a survey to 5,116 students and offered an entry into a drawing for a $50 Amazon gift card. 568 students completed the survey (see Appendix B), though many did not answer every question, as we did not require any individual questions. As part of the survey, we asked students if they were interested in a follow-up interview which offered entry into a drawing for an additional $50 Amazon gift card. 155 students expressed interest in the interview. We then emailed all 155 students and scheduled 24 interviews assuming we would have some cancellations.
Before we began interviewing students, we practiced with student employees in our Mason Undergraduate Peer Research Coach program (Rinto, Watts, & Mitola, 2017). While not transfer students themselves, the Peer Research Coaches helped us refine our questions. We then conducted semi-structured interviews with 21 transfer students (see Appendix C). Two of the primary researchers were present at each interview. One acted as the main interviewer while the other took notes and asked additional questions. We recorded the interviews in two places: on an app on a tablet and on a smartphone for backup. We then de-identified the recordings and uploaded them to a shared Google Drive folder. At the end of the interview, we asked students to complete an optional demographic survey for the purposes of ensuring a representative sample.
After completing the interviews, the auditor transcribed them, and the primary researchers built a coding frame in order to do content analysis (see Appendix A). Our coding process was influenced by the Qualitative Content Analysis work of Hsieh and Shannon (2005). We began by brainstorming codes and then collectively reviewed a sample transcript to expand upon them. We then reviewed three transcripts individually to norm the existing codes and add additional codes as necessary. Once the coding frame and definitions were finalized, we began coding the interview data.
Each of the three principal investigators used ATLAS.ti to code eight interviews. One of each researcher’s transcripts overlapped with another researcher as a method to check for consistency in code application. We then merged our reports together in ATLAS.ti. As an additional norming measure, we sent our codes and their contents to the auditor, who performed random checks against the definitions to ensure they were used properly across the transcripts. The auditor also wrote her overall impressions and takeaways for each code. Finally, we collectively wrote our perceptions from each code and looked for overarching themes to describe the transfer student experience as a whole.
We acknowledge that there are many voices that aren’t represented in our research because our interviews were conducted on campus during regular business hours. We likely excluded students who are working a traditional 9-5 schedule, who are taking classes online because of their location or accessibility, or who don’t have access to flexible childcare. The transfer students we talked to that had robust responsibilities outside of school tended to have supportive family members such as spouses to help out with childcare or finances during this period of their lives. Additionally, the UNLV student population is unique because of our high numbers of non-traditional students, commuter students, first-generation students, and minority students. We encourage librarians to get to know the transfer students at their own institutions.
Out of the 21 interview participants, 20 completed the optional demographic information survey. Participants had an average age of 27.5 and ranged from 19 to 43 years old; 13 identified as women and seven identified as men. Six participants identified as a veteran or retired military service member. Fifty-five percent of our participants reported their race in an open-ended text box as white, with the remainder reporting their race as non-white Hispanic or Latino (15%), Pacific Islander (10%), multiracial (10%), and Asian (5%). One participant who filled out the demographic information did not report their race.
The self-reported demographics of our interviewees does not quite match the demographics of our diverse institution. For example, we did not speak to any Black or African-American students, who represent 8% of the UNLV student population. We also did not speak to any Native American students, which comprise 0.2% of our students. Asian and Hispanic or Latino students were also significantly underrepresented. Meanwhile, white and Pacific Islander students were largely overrepresented (University of Nevada, Las Vegas, n.d.-b). Additionally, UNLV’s data reports both race and ethnicity under the term ethnicity, making it difficult to compare the datasets. In retrospect, it may have been useful to collect demographic information in the main survey or intentionally reach out to diverse student organizations in order to ensure a representative sample in our interviews.
The survey questions revealed how students spend their time on and off campus and in and out of libraries. As mentioned above, not all of the 568 students answered every question. To account for this, our percentages have been calculated based on the number of participants (n) that answered that particular question.
Some of the most striking findings were regarding the research experiences of transfer students. When given a list of common library instruction topics, only 13% reported not receiving information literacy instruction (n = 529) (see Appendix B question 11). In addition, 82% had completed a college research paper where they found sources, used them to support their topic, and cited them in a bibliography (n = 539).
Other major findings include that 58% of our transfer students work in addition to going to school, and 60% of those employed students work over 20 hours per week (n = 559). Students reported that they used their time on campus for the following activities (see Table 1). The results indicate that students do not spend a significant amount of time utilizing on-campus resources or participating in special events, but 93% say they spend at least a few hours on campus studying and completing classwork (n = 547). We also asked students which campus resources they use (n = 539) and discovered the top three include University Libraries (81%), academic advising (73%), and financial aid (67%).
Table 1 How much time per week do you spend doing the following activities on campus outside of class?
More than 20 hours
Studying and completing classwork (n = 547)
Socializing and hanging out with friends (n = 543)
Participating in on-campus special events (n = 542)
Utilizing on campus resources like Student Rec Center or Academic Success Center (n = 543)
We also wanted to know whether transfer students are using libraries, what they are using them for, and which libraries they are using. Three quarters (75%) of students are using a library at least once a week (n = 538). While 88% report using our main campus library, 26% of students have used a public library in the past 6 months (n = 539). The majority of students are using libraries for study space (84%) or access to technology (52%), some are borrowing items (40%) and socializing (27%), and 16% reported taking advantage of research help (n = 527).
The surveys offered an opportunity to gather a broad view of transfer student lives. We interviewed 21 of these students to get a deeper, more nuanced understanding of their experiences. Many of the survey themes and questions were mirrored and expanded upon in our interviews.
Varied lived experiences
It is remarkably difficult to make generalizations about transfer students. They varied from students who had recently graduated from high school and started their education at a Las Vegas area two-year institution, to students returning to school after decades away, to students who had already completed advanced degrees and were working on an additional undergraduate degree program. Of the 21 students we interviewed, 33% were veterans, 38% have been caretakers, and 100% had work experience. Over half of the students had previously completed a degree, with ten having an associate’s degree, one having a bachelor’s degree, and one having a master’s degree. Participant K served a religious mission. Participant U works at a public library. Participants T and J are majoring in education and nursing which require unpaid practicum hours. Participant C has two children under five and is the legal guardian of two teenagers, and Participant Q drives 2,400 miles every other weekend to visit their child. Participant D is a more traditional student that took no time off from education, but their mother is a PhD student and their father is a pilot, so they have a lot of caretaking obligations for their younger siblings.
The interviews demonstrated that transfer students have an immense amount of self-sufficiency, self-awareness, and confidence. Many specifically discussed the ways their previous experiences as workers, students, and caretakers contributed to their independent approach to schoolwork. For example, Participant E reflected on how their previous experience as a soldier influenced their drive to seek information out for themselves: “I go straight online. For everything, I just, we’re just taught to. I mean being in the military, we’re just taught to look for it, because if you go ask somebody they’re gonna say, ‘did you look here first?’” Participant P, another veteran transfer student, echoed similar sentiments: “I think my entire time in the Navy influenced that…I personally feel like I’ve just been more tenacious like when I want something, I need to know something, I’m gonna go figure it out.”
Others noted how their time exploring other areas of life changed the way they see the opportunity to attend university. When explicitly asked what strengths they thought their previous experiences had afforded them as a student, Participant G stated, “Time management. Um and what is really important in life. You know, I came back to school for me, but I’m sticking with it because of my kids.” This suggests a motivation for working through the difficulties of university life that many first-time, first-year students might not have quite yet. In addition, past academic experience gave transfer students confidence that they could complete their schoolwork. For example, Participant J noted that the difficulty of previous..
This article explores questions regarding the development and support of Indigenous priorities and self-determination in Australian libraries and archives. It calls for greater use of Indigenous research methodologies within library and archival science in order to seek ways to decolonize and simultaneously indiginze libraries and archives. As a written reflection, the article shares the perspectives of the author, who has worked in the sector for the past two decades as an Indigenous Australian archivist. The article argues that more difficult dialogue needs to to take place around contested views of history, and around the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives in library and archival praxis. It suggests that transformation can only start to be imagined when we acknowledge the ongoing effects of colonization on the lives of Indigenous peoples, and examine the ways that the colonial process continues to marginalize Indigenous people. The author explores questions of Indigenous cultural safety, opportunities for increasing Indigenous voice and representation and the implementation of Indigenous Protocols to enable truth-telling and activism around Indigenous community priorities.
Indigenous peoples in Australia have a complex relationship with libraries and archives. They are both places of distrust (McKemmish, Faulkhead & Russell, 2011) and places which hold significant cultural heritage materials that can be drawn upon for language and cultural revitalization (Thorpe & Galassi, 2014). Our major cultural and collecting institutions also hold evidence of Australia’s history of colonization – genocide, dispossession, and forced control over the lives of Indigenous Australian people, families, and children. There is recognition nationally and internationally that libraries and archives need to be decolonized (Luker, 2017; O’Neal, 2015) – yet, there remains a huge amount of work to be done to reshape and reassert Indigenous perspectives in libraries and archives. This includes, for example, the need for us to reframe our national histories which are dominated by colonial narratives that other Indigenous Australian peoples and communities (Behrendt, 2016). This article argues for the decolonization and simultaneous Indigenization of library and archive practice and research. It calls for a transformation of practice and theory through dialogue and reflection – to build transformative praxis – so that librarians and archivists can work more effectively with their respective communities in culturally safe ways.
Indigenous self-determination in libraries and archives is an emerging area in Australia, yet most calls for action and transformation are channeled through institutional contexts which often lack an understanding of Indigenous histories, cultures, and ways of knowing, being and doing. With so many issues to tackle in terms of transformation, institutions often work to Indigenize libraries, without necessarily thinking through the structural issues that need dismantling through decolonization. Some of the key questions which are not adequately addressed are: How can libraries and archives engage with Indigenous peoples and communities to build mutual partnerships within current frameworks? Can libraries, archives, and other cultural institutions seek to indigenize – that is, build spaces for Indigenous self-determination and voice – without first considering what roles they play in perpetuating colonial systems and structures?
One of the ways in which Indigenous self-determination has been enacted in institutional contexts has been through the adoption of Indigenous protocols, as well as through efforts to employ Indigenous peoples as librarians, archivists, curators, and liaison officers. However, the representation of Indigenous people in the Australian library and archive sector is at crisis level.1 The adoption of protocols and guidelines in public libraries, archives, and cultural institutions has been ad-hoc and their development not aligned with appropriate plans for action. The articulation and progression of priorities is also at the hands of non-Indigenous leadership and whilst there is general support for protocols – which have been used for over twenty years in the Australian context – there remain major power and structural issues in play for them to be successfully implemented and supported by the appropriate cultural authority of Indigenous peoples and communities. This article argues for a transformation of theory and practice in order to realize Indigenous self-determination in libraries and archives. Without this transformation Indigenous people will continue to be silenced and marginalized and made to feel culturally unsafe.
I draw on Nakata’s concepts of Indigenous Standpoint Theory (Nakata, 2007a, 2007b, 2007c) and the Cultural Interface (Nakata 2002, 2007a, 2007b). I utilize autoethnography as a method to share information on projects that I have been involved within research and practice across the cultural sector, which sought to enable spaces for Indigenous people to have greater autonomy and voice (Houston, 2007, p.45). Autoethnography has been an important tool for me to engage in reflexivity and to draw out issues that have emerged over my professional career on both an ‘experiential and intellectual level’ (Bainbridge, 2007, p.8).
I also draw on critical theory from an Indigenous perspective (Moreton-Robinson, 2015). I am inspired by Kaupapa Maori Theory which is both critical and anticolonial, and which challenges dominant systems of power (Pihama, 2015, p.11). Within this framework, the concept of ‘Decolonization’ is at the core of concerns for transformation (Smith, 2012) and ‘Praxis’ is envisaged as a dialectic relation between theory and practice and a place for ‘conscientisation, resistance and transformative action’ (Smith, 2015, p.18). I consider Praxis in this article in the way that Pihami draws on Freire’s (1985) notion of dialectical unity, where: “Dialectical unity acknowledges the interdependence of theory to practice and vice versa. One cannot act fully without the other but rather there is a process of constant reflection and reshaping as each part of the unity informs the other” (Pihama, 2015, p.9). For me, the complex questions that come into play in library and archive practice need to be considered in relation to theory, and vice versa, a transformation will not come without this dialogue in play.
A note on the use of the term Indigenous
I use the term Indigenous Australian peoples within this article to broadly refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia, the First Peoples of this country Australia. The use of this terminology is used whilst acknowledging the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities across Australia. This includes recognizing the diversity of experiences that communities have had with libraries and archives in urban, regional and remote contexts. I also acknowledge that my experiences have a specific focus on my being based on the east coast of Australia – the first communities to be impacted by British invasion in 1788. I would like to also acknowledge the similarities and differences with other First Peoples who have been impacted by settler-colonial experiences.
Indigenous Standpoint: Placing myself in context
Working as an Indigenous Archivist in Australia
I describe myself as an Indigenous archivist, and a person who has worked across a number of library and archive contexts in Australia. My family – on my mother’s side – are Worimi people from Port Stephens New South Wales (NSW), a coastal area a little over two hours from Sydney, the capital city of NSW. I came to the profession through an equity program where I undertook a cadetship to train as an Indigenous archivist. I have worked across government archives, public libraries, data archives, academic libraries, and a major research library/collecting institution. I have also been active within professional associations in Australia across libraries and archives progressing Indigenous policy, protocols and employment. I have been an advocate, a community facilitator, and an accidental leader having come into the profession at a time when only a small number of Indigenous people were employed in libraries and archives. I was the first Indigenous person in Australia to be eligible for professional membership with the Australian Society of Archivists (ASA) after completing post-graduate archival studies in the late 1990s to be an archivist. I have undertaken Post-Graduate studies in Archives & Records and a Masters of Information Management and Systems (Professional) where I completed a minor thesis titled ‘Creating an Aboriginal Community Archive in NSW’ (Thorpe, 2017). When I reflect on two decades of professional experiences I am aware that many of the challenges I faced were so complex that they could not be solved merely with a consideration of changing practice. They required me to develop critical skills and reflection on theory (and the failure of library and archive curriculum) as well as skills to build community partnerships and engagement to address Indigenous priorities and perspectives through reflexive praxis.
Moving from Practice to Research
In 2018, I made a leap of faith and left a leadership role at a major Cultural Institution in Australia, the State Library of NSW, to undertake doctoral studies at Monash University and take up an academic research role within an Indigenous Research Institute, the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Technology Sydney. After two decades of being involved in professional practice, I felt an overwhelming sense of frustration about the lack of critical dialogue in the profession around Indigenous self-determination and cultural safety. I witnessed the constant need to come up with practical solutions or projects which aimed to engage Indigenous peoples, which were (although with good intention) fraught in design and delivery because of the way in which they were conceptualized and framed. Many of these projects also lacked acknowledgment of the deep structural issues and power dynamics that were at play. The problem was that many projects and services were not being designed with Indigenous community input or perspectives which often left the community in a position that they were asked to give approval for projects that were not reflective of community priorities or desires. I often found myself sitting in rooms having the same decadal long conversations, going nowhere, but around and around the same wicked problems (Evans, McKemmish & Rolan, 2017, p.2). My move from practice to research is a political act in order for me to redirect my labour to work directly with communities to tackle the ‘wicked problems’ through activism, and informed through Indigenous methodologies and frameworks. My interests are in developing critical participatory research projects that provide an evidence base for advancing Indigenous self-determined priorities across LIS and Archival Science.
Reflecting on Feeling Culturally Unsafe
For me, 2018 was a year to start to unlearn ‘institutional thinking’ and an opportunity to begin writing and speaking with academic freedom. I want to discuss what I see are deep issues in our profession and use my experiences to shine some light on issues such as the cultural safety of Indigenous people who both work in, and engage with libraries and archives. I personally feel that I have put myself on the line (body, soul, spirit, mind) for many years navigating these issues and sometimes the work has made me feel incredibly unsafe. I felt unsafe around the weight of our colonial history and working in places where people have not understood the ongoing effects of this history in the day to day lives of Indigenous Australian people. I’ve also experienced stress as I have had to politely explain Indigenous perspectives to people who were not aware of their own positionality – their unconscious bias, stereotypes and prejudice – and their blinded support for systems that supported the continued colonization of Indigenous Australian people. This often means having to support people with their own white fragility (DiAngelo, 2011), while using your own emotional labour to make sure that other non-Indigenous people feel ‘ok’ as they engage in difficult conversations.
On the other side of the coin, working in institutional contexts has also placed me in complex spaces when working to support access for Indigenous peoples and communities. When people access traumatic and biased records or information you need to take a role of supporter, contextualizing and explaining what the content and context of materials is likely to be, whilst at the same time being very aware of the ability of these materials to retraumatize people. I have witnessed sadness, anger, frustration as part of this process, working as an intermediary between the institution and the community. A vulnerable feeling of not really being fully in the institution, nor fully in the community. Being in a leadership role also required me to continue the day to day work, whilst at the same time having a view of how to make structural changes which attempt to dismantle ongoing colonial processes and narratives. Some of these changes may indeed never take place because they are impossible to achieve within these institutional contexts.
In my former role at the State Library, I helped reshape priorities around key areas such as Indigenous collecting, services across public libraries in NSW, and support for Indigenous Digital Keeping places. The Indigenous Services team at the Library continue the significant work of finding pathways to support communities with local Indigenous Digital Keeping Places. Whilst I am enormously proud of the work I have achieved over the past two decades, I know that much of the objectives achieved have required difficult dialogue: I have spent a long time working to convince people of why we needed to shift practice to respect Indigenous perspectives, histories and cultures, and to keep Indigenous people safe when engaging with library and archive spaces. I often felt like I was hitting my head on a door – suggesting pathways for change that were not within the ‘normal’ frame – or trying to morph Indigenous concepts, protocols and processes into systems that were unable to bend or reshape in an expansive way. The time taken for these discussions has also been extensive: sometimes it took years to simply build visibility about particular issues and to have them placed on the agenda to be discussed and resourced. In addition, the fact that many archives and libraries are public sector agencies, limits what you can and cannot achieve, as well as what you can and cannot say in these contexts. I am constantly surprised and humbled by the patience of Indigenous communities who sit alongside this work, people who recognise the deep issues that are at play and who recognise the long struggle that is ahead to both decolonize and indigenize libraries and archives.
Libraries and archives at the Cultural Interface
There is no doubt that one of the major challenges of progressing Indigenous priorities in the library and archive sector is the collision that exists between Indigenous and Western methods of managing information, archives, and knowledge (Nakata, 2002). There is a clash of ways of knowing, being, and doing which intersect constantly around issues of information management. For example, institutions making materials open to public access when they may need to be managed through cultural protocols, providing open public access to offensive, racist and derogatory content that puts people at risk of intergenerational trauma, and providing access to materials which are historically biased and filled with untruths that need to be contextualized in such a manner through a right of reply. We are also challenged by the need to acknowledge the impact of colonization in the work of the sector, and to find ways to engage in new transformative agendas that stop the cycle of dispossessing Indigenous peoples. Native American Scholar Roy draws on Nakata’s concept of the Cultural Interface to discuss this place of tension, arguing that “Indigenous peoples live in this interface, the place where their Indigenous life-ways and western viewpoints come together”, and “a place of tension that requires constant negotiation” (Nakata 2002, p.286). Within this space, Roy suggests that “Indigenous living may either flourish or be repressed, and it is here that cultural heritage institutions reside.” (Roy, 2015, p.197).
During my career, recognizing I was sitting in the Cultural Interface really helped me. I realized I was in a space where people had different notions of knowing and that, often, non-Indigenous people were not aware of what they didn’t know – that they were not knowers in terms of understanding concepts such as communal decision making, kinship systems’ and elders’ roles, and protocols for managing information – such as who has the right to speak on certain topics. To further exacerbate this problem Indigenous Australian people are often challenged by working with professional colleagues or members of general public who have no awareness or understanding of Indigenous histories and experiences, nor the ongoing impact of government policies over the lives of Indigenous peoples and communities.
Other areas – such as the western constructions of classification and categorization and continued ‘othering’ of Indigenous people as subjects (Doyle & Metoyer, 2015) – continue to be areas of tension, as well as the constant failure of projects and services being designed for rather than with Indigenous communities. It is very easy to sit inside sandstone buildings, major collecting institutions, and archives, and not engage in robust embedded conversation with communities or stakeholder groups. A number of Indigenous staff who work in the sector work tirelessly to build relationships between communities and institutions, but it often comes at a personal cost – navigating roles that extend beyond the nine to five working time – and playing multiple roles within the institution and within communities. There is often no recognition of these multiple roles in employment, either on a practical level of developing job or role descriptions that actually represent the work that you are doing, nor with the monetary value that is placed on the level of expertise. This is an area in itself that requires further discussion and research.
We can draw on the concept of the Cultural Interface as a tool to consider what Nakata describes as “intersecting trajectories” with “competing and contesting discourses within and between different knowledge traditions” and where there exist “ambiguities, conflict, and contestation of meanings” (Nakata, 2007b, p. 199):
It is a multi-layered and multi-dimensional space of dynamic relations constituted by the intersections of time, place, distance, different systems of thought, competing and contesting discourses within and between different knowledge traditions, and different systems of social, economic and political organisation. It is a space of many shifting and complex intersections between different people with different histories, experiences, languages, agendas, aspirations and responses” (Nakata, 2007b, p. 199).
One area of precaution, however, is that we need to engage in the Cultural Interface with community engagement and participation in full view, this work cannot rest on the labour and advice of Indigenous librarians and archivists who are already underrepresented in the sector. Indigenous staff have a major role to play, however, they are often placed in unsafe positions of being asked to be the expert on ‘all things Indigenous’ and to make decisions about issues that are not theirs to answer. Libraries and archives must engage with communities and representatives who have cultural authority to progress locally based priorities.
In order to disentangle the issues we need to draw on Indigenous and critical methodologies to engage and commit to ongoing difficult dialogue. An investment in contemplating issues within praxis as envisioned through Kaupapa Maori Theory, that is, through a conscious decision to reflect on theory and practice, would enable a reflexive loop for Indigenous community members, practitioners and researchers to work together to expose areas of complexity and to develop pathways for transformation. Praxis will require a negotiation of power and a letting go of traditional practice in order to shape dialogue, or as Krebs (2012) suggests a ‘search for win/win solutions located potentially outside the comfort zones of existing practice’ (p.189).
Key areas for transformation and support of Indigenous self-determination in libraries and archives
In the next section of the article, I will suggest key areas of transformation and support for Indigenous self-determination in the library and archive sector and suggest resources for further reading and action to decolonize and indigenize libraries and archives. Centering focus on Indigenous self-determination in research and practice can be achieved in the following ways:
Utilise Indigenous research methodologies, including the Cultural Interface and Kaupapa Maori Theory to consciously build reflexive praxis dialogue to support Indigenous priorities. Be critically aware of the different ways of knowing that may come into play in these cross cultural exchanges and contexts. (See Nakata (2007a) for the Cultural Interface and Pihama, Tiakiwai, & Southey (2015)’s readings on Kaupapa Maori Theory).
Draw on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to commit support for Indigenous self-determination and use it as a mechanism to examine the power structures that either support or silence Indigenous voice. (See Gooda (2012) for discussion on how the Declaration can be used as a ‘roadmap’ for change across policy, services, and projects and a way to include Indigenous participation in decision-making, whilst resisting the expectation that Indigenous people ‘conform to mainstream practices’).
Engage in the use of Indigenous research methods to decolonize and indigenize projects, research, and curricula. Resist the temptation to develop research, services, or projects because ‘you think it’s a good idea’ and instead seek advice and input on priorities from key stakeholders to make the work meaningful and relevant. (See for example Duarte & Belarde-Lewis’s (2015) method of ‘Imagining’ and ‘Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies’ and Smith’s (2012) ‘25 Indigenous Projects’).
Adopt Protocols for Libraries and Archives that are relevant to your local stakeholder groups and communities and develop action plans to bring the protocols to life. If Protocols that exist are not relevant, work with your local community to create principles and guidelines for action that are relevant. (See ATSILIRN (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library, Information and Resource Network) Protocols for Libraries, Archives and Information Services and the Society of American Archivists (SAA) information and resource page for the history and development of the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials).
Examine the governance structures that are in place to support Indigenous input and perspectives by increasing Indigenous representation across decision making structures such as Boards, Director, and Executive Leadership..
Academic libraries hire and train student employees to answer reference questions which can result in high-impact employment experiences for these students. By employing students in this role, opportunities are created for peer-to-peer learning and for a learning community to develop among the student employees. However, not everyone supports this practice. Some believe undergraduates lack the expertise to handle reference questions; others express a fear of “missing out” on consultations, assuming student employees will not make a referral. This article expands on Brett B. Bodemer’s 2014 article, “They CAN and They SHOULD: Undergraduates Providing Peer Reference and Instruction.” The author discusses why undergraduates can and should provide reference assistance and how in these situations, it’s both and. Undergraduates can receive help from both their peers and librarians; it’s not a dichotomy or either-or situation. This article reflects on the practice of peer-to-peer reference services, offers counters to critiques against this type of student employment, and provides insight on the opportunities available when librarians believe in both and.
We call them consultants. Navigators. Mentors. Assistants. Coaches. Educators. Leaders. These are some of the titles we give the students we employ in academic libraries; these titles convey a sense of expertise and leadership that our students bring to their positions. The way we name our student employees signal the ways we believe undergraduate students contribute to the library and the university’s mission through their work.
It is common for academic libraries to employ students and for some, the library may employ the highest number of students across campus. Our student employees help run, maintain, and support the library. Regardless of their role, student employees are a crucial cog in academic libraries. As student engagement experiences and high-impact practices continue to gain popularity as the “gem” of an undergraduate’s college journey, student employment in the library has great potential to provide students with the skills they need to succeed, academically and professionally. Librarianship has discussed how to set up meaningful student employee programs (see Guerrero & Corey, 2004; O’Kelly, Garrison, Merry, & Torreano, 2015; Becker-Redd, Lee, & Skelton, 2018). More recently, a group of librarians (Mitola, Rinto, & Pattni, 2018) looked at this literature to see how student employment in the library matched up with the characteristics of high-impact practices, as defined by the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) and George Kuh (2008). If libraries can build student employment programs that use characteristics of high-impact practices, we have a chance to become leaders in this area of student engagement. As we think about how to build student employment opportunities, creating a peer-to-peer service becomes one option.
In reconsidering what student employment can look like in the libraries, we also are reconsidering what reference can look like in an academic library. We know that reference continues to change as we strive to find new and innovative ways to reach our users. Librarianship has devoted a fair amount of time and space in our scholarship to discuss the evolution of reference services. In the early 2000s, articles were written on the decline of reference questions asked in academic libraries, and there was a move towards shifting librarians off the reference desk, to allow librarians to focus on instruction, outreach, and liaison duties (Faix, 2014). The discussion around the future of reference went as far as author Scott Carlson (2007) saying reference desks will no longer exist by 2012. In 2018, reference desks still exist, and academic libraries have tried all sorts of ways to handle reference — one desk, no desk, many desks, desks with paraprofessional staff, desks with students, consultations models, and roving reference just to name a few. Based on the institution, size of staff, and funding, reference services can look different and often will evolve over time as the institution and staff change. Today, we still conduct reference conversations1 with our users, but we are also thinking about how to staff these desks from different angles, including using undergraduates to provide foundational help during the research process.
In this article, I expand on Brett B. Bodemer’s 2014 article where he stated that, done correctly, undergraduates can and should provide reference services to their peers. Not only can and should undergraduates provide reference service in academic libraries, but in thinking about this opportunity, we have to understand how employing undergraduate students creates a both and situation in assisting users with research. In the reference landscape, undergraduates seeking reference help can receive this help from both their peers and librarians. Reference does not have to be a dichotomy or either-or situation with our students. Instead, we can view this as an opportunity to leverage peer-to-peer services, contribute to meaningful student employment experiences, extend our reach, and strengthen our reference services.
Overview and history of peer-to-peer services in academic libraries
Over time, we have asked our student employees to be the “face” of the library. This might mean they are the first employee users see when entering the building and help create first impressions for what the library can do (Brenza, Kowalsky, & Brush, 2015). Or, student employees might be involved with outreach initiatives and assist with marketing the library (Barnes, 2017). We ask students for their insight on advisory boards and help us steer the library in new directions. In asking our student employees to take on more responsibilities and help advocate and promote the library, we must ensure their experiences working in the library extend beyond directional and clerical duties. Peer-to-peer services have emerged as one way to empower our student employees in becoming stronger researchers, library users, and peer teachers.
A common way to view peer-to-peer services is through the peer-assisted learning (PAL) framework. PAL is a space in “which students can manage their own learning experiences by exploring, practicing, and questioning their understanding of issues and topics with a well-trained peer, untethered from the hierarchy inherent in formal instruction environments or in working with professional librarians and staff” (O’Kelly, Garrison, Merry, & Torreano, 2015). In thinking about this learning space, it is important to know that PAL is grounded in Lev Vygotsky’s concept of “zone of proximal development.” When a novice student researcher is working with a more experienced peer-mentor, both students “stretch” to meet each other in the middle. Both the peer-mentor and the learner benefit from the interaction because both are asked to learn something new in order to create new knowledge, together.
More broadly, scholars Topping and Ehly (2001) believe that PAL is a group of strategies that all carry these key values:
Those students that are helping their peers, also learn something in the interaction
This interaction always compliments, never supplements, professional teaching
Both the mentor and learner gain new knowledge through the interaction
All learners should have access to PAL
Peer mentors should be trained and assessed by professional teachers, who work with mentors throughout their time assisting learners
Academia has embraced PAL in a variety of ways, as seen through the various type of peer-mentor groups that exist on campuses. Some of these groups include writing tutors/consultants and tutors/mentors for a discipline or a class. Over time, libraries began building programs around the PAL framework. As Erin Rinto, John Watts, and Rosan Mitola say in their introduction to Peer-Assisted Learning in Academic Libraries, PAL gives “librarians…the chance to intentionally design and implement experiences that meet the criteria of these highly effective educational practices and create meaningful opportunities for students to learn from and with one another” (2017, p. 14). Many libraries have already embraced PAL, from the 14 case studies featured in Peer-Assisted Learning in Academic Libraries to other recently published case studies (Faix et. al, 2010; Wallis, 2017; Meyer & Torreano, 2017; Bianco & O’Hatnick, 2017). These case studies provide valuable insight into how to set up these programs, as well as the potential obstacles and benefits to consider.
Some colleagues worry about employing students in this peer-to-peer reference role. In this section, I expand on some of the common critiques given by librarians and library employees when considering or deploying a peer-to-peer model of reference support. In drawing out these critiques, I offer a counter to them, which could be used when advocating for our student employees in this model. The critiques I will explore are: the fear of “missing” out, quality assurance issues, and loss of professionalism when transferring some reference responsibilities to undergraduate students. These three critiques are interconnected and I will do my best to tease them out, while also including commentary on how peer-to-peer reference models can be setup to support the both and.
Fear of “missing” out
A top critique from librarians is concern over “missing out” on referrals and an opportunity to connect with an undergraduate student. This critique seems to come from a lack of trust or confidence in our student’s ability to answer research related questions and efficiently use library resources, but also some anxiety about being replaced with undergraduate students. Peer-to-peer services should never be created to be in lieu of, or to replace subject librarians. The role of peer-to-peer services is to complement subject librarians and also fill out the reference services landscape. By supporting and growing peer-to-peer services, we give our patrons another option for research support — a student employee who might have taken the class the student is seeking help in, a student employee who better understands the experience of being a student at the institution, or a student employee that can vouch for and recommend library services and support, like subject librarians. Sometimes that peer-to-peer recommendation goes farther than a faculty member or librarian suggesting to their students to set up an appointment or “use the library.”
We also know that librarians are “missing out” on reference conversations on a regular basis. In work done by Project Information Literacy, students who encounter obstacles throughout the research process are more likely to seek help from their peers, instead of a librarian (Head & Eisenberg, 2010). In this situation, having well-trained peer leaders can be instrumental in bridging this gap and helping students find and understand the information they need. In addition, undergraduate students do not always run on a “traditional” 9-5, Monday-Friday schedule. Student learning happens when they are situated to put what they have learned into practice — the “right” time to be situated happens at all hours of the day (Bell, 2000). Libraries, in employing students to provide reference at various times throughout the day, help these situated learners by meeting students when they are ready to learn.
Previous experience as an evening reference & instruction librarian confirmed that students need help finding information at a variety of times, and usually not during “daylight” hours (Fargo, 2017). Librarians are not always available when students need help finding information. Instead of these students fending for themselves, having peer-to-peer reference support, outside of the 9-5 schedule, allows for our students to still receive high-quality help. Again, the both and situation arises — perhaps a student will receive after-hours help from their peer and due to a positive interaction from this situation, they might be more likely to seek out a subject librarian for help on their next research project. Or, even if this satisfied student seeks out their peer again, the well-trained peer mentor will know when it is appropriate to pass this student along to the subject librarian for more extensive research help. In order to make these situations happen, we have to spend time training our student employees and helping them locate that sweet spot for a referral. Without this intentionality, we fall into the second critique — a decline in quality.
Decline in quality
Related to fear of missing out, some suggest that there is a decline in the quality of service provided by peers during a reference conversation. One way to ease this fear is to provide extensive, in-depth, and continual training for our student employees in peer-to-peer roles. In almost every article written about building a PAL program or training students to provide reference help, the authors discuss the importance of good training. Rinto, Watts, and Mitola (2017) mention this in their introduction saying “…it is essential that students are well-prepared for the demands of their position and are able to deliver high-quality learning experiences to their peers” (p. 10). Without well-planned and continual training for student employees, quality of interactions will undoubtedly suffer. From personal experience in building a peer-to-peer reference program, along with best practices mentioned in the literature, it takes about 15-20 hours of on-boarding, paired with regular staff meetings to share ideas, talk through previous reference conversations, and bring in library colleagues from various departments to provide additional training. As we train our students, we should do our best to use real-life reference examples, attempting to get as close as we can to an actual peer-to-peer interaction. When we fabricate examples, including fictional database names or articles, we signal to students that we do not take their role in the reference landscape seriously and this can lead to a decrease in quality of service. If we believe that our student employees are collaborators and part of our community, then we should use examples that we have seen previously.
Another way to ensure quality of service is to create a set of learning outcomes for the peer-to-peer program, which helps inform training and assessment. The assessment piece can be a way to quell concerns about quality of service and also garner buy-in from colleagues. Having a clear, internal communication plan about what success looks like for this program can also help get colleagues excited. At Penn State, our Peer Research Consultants (PRCs) took a “final” test after their initial onboarding. This “test” asked them to answer a reference question with a supervisor sitting in on the conversation. The PRCs were graded on a rubric that used the program’s learning outcomes to guide evaluation. Beyond onboarding, staff meetings, and a “final” test, many programs also ask student employees to reflect on a regular basis, such as after a reference conversation in order to help the student better understand their role helping their peers (Courtney & Otto, 2017). These reflections also provide insight to the supervisors about the types of questions being asked and any challenges their student employees might be facing.
In creating the training program for peer-to-peer services, coordinators should think strategically about how to communicate with other librarians and staff. This communication could include learning outcomes, training outlines, and assessment. Providing clear documentation can help ease fear around quality of work while also inviting colleagues to participate in training the student employees. These colleagues could be guest speakers at staff meetings or could drop in to introduce themselves to the student employees. Having an open dialogue with librarians, staff, and student employees creates an environment where everyone’s voice is heard and ensures quality service can be provided by all parties.
Another important element of training is deciding what a referral process will look like. Referrals can be sticky to handle and each library makes decisions about how a peer mentor/leader will make a referral. At Michigan State University, their Peer Research Assistants do not have a formal referral mechanism but are encouraged to share subject librarian information with the students they are helping (Marcyk & Oberdick, 2017); Hope College spends a good chunk of their training defining what a referred question will look like, and positioned the reference desk near the office of librarians that would handle the referrals (Hronchek & Bishop, 2017). Regardless of the process, there should be clear communication over what a referral will look like so that all parties know the expectations. The procedure for referrals will inevitably change over time and future iterations will be able to accommodate what is learned through trial and error.
Finally, in thinking about quality of service, there is something to be said around expertise. Just like we value a librarian’s subject or functional expertise, we should also value our students’ expertise and the experiential knowledge they bring into their role as peer mentors/leaders. They know how to be a student at your institution and this expertise should be celebrated the same way we value subject and functional expertise. Just like we speak the language of library and information science, our students speak the language of their peers and this can be incredibly powerful. Lee Burdette Williams (2011) said it best,
There is no aspect of the collegiate experience…that cannot benefit from the involvement of a peer who explains, in language often more accessible, a difficult concept. A peer can talk with students…in ways even the knowledgeable professionals cannot. A peer will use communication tools, media, and language that may seem foreign to those of us even a decade older (p. 99).
As we create the training for our students, we need to make sure we are preparing them to succeed in their position. In this preparation, we also trust our students to rise to the occasion in providing the best service they can to their peers. Through professionalizing their role, we can show them their expertise is valued and this trust can help ensure quality of their service to all users. Often, our peer mentors will teach us as librarians about new ways we can discuss the research process to our students. As we think about ways to professionalize the students’ role in the library, the final critique we arrive at is the loss of professionalism for our jobs as librarians.
Loss of professionalism
When deciding to implement a peer-to-peer service in the libraries, some might discuss their anxieties or fears around a loss of professionalism if this service model shift occurs. If undergraduate students are able to handle reference questions, outsiders might assume that librarians are no longer needed, or you do not need as many librarians to staff a library. This is an incorrect assumption, as having a peer-to-peer service requires the dedication, time, and resources of one or more librarians to assist with hiring, training, supervision, and evaluation of the peer mentors. As Lee Burdette Williams states, “Peer educators should never be seen as a stopgap measure to save money. They cannot replace competently and committed professionals who have spent years learning and re-learning their craft, any more than teaching assistants can replace competent and committed faculty” (2011, p. 98). Competent and committed professionals are needed to help build and maintain this program and train students to do their best work. Not only does it take a large amount of time to build a program, but sustaining a peer-reference program requires a considerable amount of time from the coordinator(s) of the program. Our student employees should not be duplicating the efforts made by librarians; their role is to extend our reference landscape and set up our both and situation. By extending hours of available help and raising awareness about library resources through the student perspective, our users are in a better position to receive help from both their peers and librarians.
In some ways, being asked to create a peer-to-peer model of reference support is a way to utilize and leverage our expertise around providing reference services. Alison Faix (2014) says that “peer reference itself can be seen as another form of teaching, on where librarians first teach the reference student assistants, who then go on to help other students in their roles as peer information literacy tutors” (p. 307-8). Just like we know the benefits of undergraduates being asked to articulate a process and lead their peer to new knowledge (zone of proximal development), we ourselves are challenged to do something similar when building a new peer-to-peer service. In creating a peer-to-peer program, we are helping to build a community of practice for a wide range of library employees. This new community gives everyone involved the chance to talk about reference, the research process, and their practice of providing support in the library. In some cases, our student employees might challenge or push us to rethink how we answer reference questions and together, we will reach new knowledge and insight. For example, many of the ways I think about providing reference and supporting students in providing reference came from a community of practice between the student employees and myself working in my library. We need this community of practice and by collaborating and having dialogue with our student employees, we are strengthening our reference landscape. All of this work helps support a student-centered library and ensure our students are getting the help they need.
In thinking about professionalism and peer-to-peer reference programs, this reference landscape might be impacted by issues around labor and neoliberalism in higher education. For libraries that are a part of a union, there might be stipulations or requirements for what is allowed to be done by librarians versus student assistants. By asking students to perform reference responsibilities, some might see this as a way of deprofessionalizing the field and breaking the expected rules around who gets to do and be paid for what type of labor. In these situations, it can be helpful to return to the idea of both and, and be intentional about how labor is divided and valued. It is important to be critical and conscientious of these ideas when considering peer-to-peer reference programs; there are not a one-size fits all model for this. Luckily, much of the current literature on these programs are published as case studies, which can examine an institutional and library context, and show how they built a program within that context.
At the same time, academic libraries are faced with shrinking budgets and unfilled staff lines, fewer librarians for increasing enrollments, and new strategic positions that ask librarians to step outside of the traditional library setting to do their jobs. All of this contributes to less time to spend on a reference desk answering questions that may or may not fully utilize the skills librarians bring to that..
The makerspace at Abilene Christian University has been operational since 2015. It is unusual in that it is an academic space at a private university that offers equal service privileges to both the campus and the community. In an attempt to encourage a maker mindset within our broader region, we began offering a series of day camps for elementary and middle school students. To our surprise and delight, the homeschool community became our biggest group of participants. What started as serendipity is now a conscious awareness of this group of patrons. In this article, I outline how our camps are structured, what we discovered about the special needs and interests of homeschool families, and how we incorporate this knowledge into outreach and camp activities. I also share how we evaluate the camps for impact not only upon campers but also within the larger goals of the library and university.
Makerspaces, also known as Fablabs or hackerspaces, are a growing area of service for libraries. Makerspaces are places that combine tools, technology, and expertise to let people create physical and sometimes digital objects. Initially found mostly in engineering departments, makerspaces have grown internationally to encompass all disciplines and ages (Lou & Peek, 2016), placing them well within the mission scope of academic, school, and public libraries.
Central to the ethos of makerspaces is the idea of community. Makerspaces allow individuals from all ages, experience levels, and backgrounds to come together and collaborate in a shared space. In his formative essay, Dale Dougherty, founder of the maker movement, suggests that the ability of makerspaces to transform education is that they offer anyone a “chance to participate in communities of makers of all ages by sharing your work and expertise. Making can be a compelling social experience, built around relationships” (Dougherty, 2013, p. 9).
The library at Abilene Christian University (ACU) seeks to encourage this educational transformation through its own makerspace, which we call the Maker Lab. First opened in 2015, the ACU Library Maker Lab is an academic makerspace that is open to all areas of the campus as well as to the public. In an attempt to grow the maker mindset both in our community and among our campus families, we decided to host a series of children’s and youth day camps called Maker Academy. To our surprise and delight, the homeschool community became our biggest group of participants. What started as serendipity is now a conscious awareness of this group of patrons. This article will outline how our camps are structured, what we discovered about the special needs and interests of homeschool families, and how we incorporate this knowledge into outreach and camp activities. We will also share how we evaluate the camps for impact not only upon campers but also within the larger goals of the library and university.
College preparedness and overall learning is a concern that academic librarians share with their colleagues in public and school libraries, so involving the kindergarten to 12th grade (K-12) population at universities is not unheard of even though it may not be commonplace (Tvaruzka, 2009). The University of Nevada began holding workshops for teachers of K-12 students to familiarize them with college research assignments and to help them infuse age-appropriate library skills into their own assignments. They expanded the program to involve middle school students to introduce them to the support and services a college library can provide (Godbey, Fawley, Goodman, & Wainscott, 2015). At the University of South Alabama, librarians conduct summer enrichment programs to enhance the research literacy of high school students who are preparing for health careers (Rossini, Burnham, & Wright, 2013). Although they may not work extensively with children and teens, libraries of higher education do reach out to younger people.
Camps and summer experiences are a different environment from formal classes, and necessarily require different activities and teaching techniques suitable to the age of the campers. Academic libraries vary in the degree to which they are directly involved with K-12 summer activities. Many offer tours and scavenger hunts for children on campus as part of other events (North Carolina State University, n.d.; University of Michigan, 2017; Washington State University Libraries, 2018). Others interact with academic camps hosted by different departments to do a session on research skills, often with a more informal and problem-oriented approach. Ohio university librarians, for example, developed interactive ways of introducing high school engineering students to their discipline’s literature and the role it plays in developing new products (Huge, Houdek, & Saines, 2002), and a team of librarians at Carnegie Mellon expanded their roles to work with middle school girls pursuing engineering (Beck, Berard, Baker, & George, 2010). Each example offers a good description of adapting traditional library content, and teaching brief research workshops for youths.
The literature has fewer examples of extended camps that involve the library for the entirety of the camp experience. Temple University Library in Philadelphia involves high school students in a summer intensive initiative to do community mapping and thus build knowledge of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) coding (Masucci, Organ, & Wiig, 2016). In a collaborative model, the University of St. Thomas partners with St. Paul Public Library to host a five-session series for middle school students to implement laser cutting, circuitry, and basic engineering design skills (Haugh, Lang, Thomas, Monson, & Besser, 2016). Virginia Commonwealth University Library works with its School of Engineering to offer extensive research instruction appropriate for youths participating in a campus camp where they design and prototype their own inventions (Arendt, Hargraves, & Roseberry, 2017). In these examples, the library is more of a full partner and host of the camp experience, although they typically share the work with other units.
With respect to homeschool students, a surprisingly small body of literature addresses the educational needs of the audiences the library serves as opposed to the programs the library offers. By far, any information regarding library service to homeschoolers is from a public library perspective. This paucity of articles, especially of recent publication, suggests a gap in the literature, The majority of articles discuss the interests of families who homeschool and the implications upon library programming and collections (Blankenship, 2008; Johnson, 2012; Shinn, 2008). Paradise talks about the need to have child-friendly environments, especially with computer accessibility, that accommodate families and children working for extended sessions (2008). Others have observations about communication and outreach, noting that families who homeschool tend to connect with each other at the community level, making it imperative that the library utilize these dialog channels to reach out to members (Hilyard, 2008; Willingham, 2008). Particularly relevant to those planning educational activities is an article on creating successful programs for children in homeschools and the need to include hands-on learning (Mishler, 2013). Although these sources have a public library orientation, they provide useful suggestions for other librarians from libraries experienced in working with homeschooled youths, especially to those librarians in higher education, who may be less familiar with this age group.
Brief History of the ACU Library Maker Lab
Abilene Christian University is a private university located in Abilene, TX. With an enrollment of just under 5,000 students, ACU falls within the Carnegie classifications as a “Masters Colleges and Universities: Larger Programs” institution. There is one library on campus that serves all disciplines.
The Maker Lab is an 8,000 square foot space within the library. It was established in 2013 with funding from the university Provost’s Office and the library’s own budget. It has many of the tools typically found in makerspaces: 3D printers, a laser cutter, vinyl cutter, sewing machines and fiber arts supplies, power tools and hand tools for woodworking, and electronics workbenches. It is staffed by a full-time lab manager, a librarian who divides her time between the Maker Lab and the regular reference and instructional services within the library, and a cadre of student workers who supply a total of 132 student hours a week, Monday through Saturday.
Most of what the Maker Lab offers is free. There is no membership fee or charge for tool usage or machine time. We do charge for some materials, like 3D printer filament, sign vinyl, or large sheets of plywood. The full list of materials and their prices are available via the Maker Lab Store1. Makers are welcome to bring their own materials if they want something other than what is already on the premises. We maintain a fairly robust “scrap pile” of leftover and donated material, and these are free. We have found that having materials on hand, particularly free scrap, is a good way to encourage newcomers to try something and helps overcome initial barriers to getting started.
A significant distinction of the ACU Library Maker Lab is that it is completely open to all individuals regardless of whether they are affiliated with the university. This policy was a deliberate decision from the space’s inception. The ACU Library as a whole has a rich tradition of serving anyone who is in the building and of collaborating with other libraries of all types in the area. The Maker Lab continues that tradition. Even the computers in the Maker Lab do not require a special university login. The space is designed to be as convenient as possible for all makers to use.
Since its opening, the Maker Lab has enjoyed a healthy yet somewhat narrow use among our institution’s population. We wanted to build upon our user base and encourage a maker mindset among other groups. This desire was the inspiration for Maker Academy.
Maker Academy is a series of day camps for kids. We first offered it in the summer of 2014 and have continued every summer since then, refining the program each year. We presently have three camps: one for children in 4th and 5th grade, and two middle school camps for youths in 6th through 8th grades. Each camp lasts three days and goes from 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. We charge $100 per maker. This fee covers all making supplies, lunch and snacks for each day, and a camp T-shirt. We host the camps as outreach, not a profit-making activity. We do not make money from the camps. We cap registration at 20 makers per camp because that is the maximum our space and staff can accommodate.
Maker Academy introduces kids to tinkering and learning through making. From activities like building catapults, kites, and go-carts, they learn science principles as well as prototyping and fabrication skills. They might learn soldering and basic circuitry to wire a lamp or make an Arduino robot – a small microcontroller or simplified circuit board designed to operate mechanical devices. They experiment with various pieces of graphics software to create their own T-shirt designs or decorations for their projects. Each activity fosters curiosity, problem solving, and creativity. Activities change each summer to give makers a new experience each time.
We initially advertised the camps to those we thought would be our primary audience, namely children of faculty and youth in local schools. We made posters, sent email blasts, wrote campus newsletter articles, posted on blogs, and advertised on the library’s web page. We talked with many colleagues personally. We sent out fliers and emails to public elementary and middle schools in the area. Then we eagerly waited to see who would enroll.
For the first set of camps, only 12 kids registered. It was a very disappointing turnout for all the effort we expended. We distributed more emails and more reminders, but they made little difference.
The turnaround occurred when a parent who homeschooled heard about the camps through a source unknown to us, and volunteered to share the news on the local homeschool listserv. Within one day, all the camps filled up and overflowed to a waitlist. We were overwhelmed and amazed. We realized that we had unintentionally overlooked a significant portion of our community and sphere of influence. We needed to focus more on the homeschool community and how we could include them, not only in our marketing, but as a planned audience in our programming. But first, we needed to know more about this population.
Characteristics of Homeschoolers and Library Implications
We wanted to understand the needs of those who homeschool and how the library could speak to those needs. We found helpful published information that we mentioned earlier in this article, but most of what we learned came from speaking with parents, observing the kids, and getting feedback along the way. Over time, we noted several characteristics of local homeschool families that inform how we structure our outreach and services.
Homeschoolers are a tight community with a culture of sharing.
Those who homeschool often do so because they can choose their own curriculum and approach to education. There is no national group that oversees homeschool education. Because of homeschooling’s independent nature, there is no single association to which homeschool families will belong and from whom the library can get a convenient list of members in its area. While there are broad-based companies that offer customized curriculum guides, homeschooling tends to be organized around multiple state or regional groups and small co-ops for common interests. It is incumbent upon the library to identify these groups in order to reach members.
The local homeschool groups not only connect members but they also foster information sharing. Since there is no central governing agency, families share news among themselves about homeschooling. The regional groups provide a loose organization in which the sharing takes place. If the library can identify the local homeschool groups, it can become part of the resources that will be shared with others.
Homeschool groups have specialized but very effective communication channels.
Parents exchange information, curriculum ideas, and expertise via email lists. Local chapters will announce education activities that support independent learning. These listservs and announcements often constitute the main vehicle of support for homeschooling families, so they are very active and very efficient (Turner, 2016). More importantly, they also tend to lie outside a library’s traditional outreach channels.
When the parent who homeschooled posted the news about our Maker Academy, all it took was one initial email for most of the local homeschool community to know about the camps and to respond. It was a very effective means of communication. To use it, however, we had to get on the email list. We realized that our usual outreach channels were not as widespread as we thought, and we needed to expand our reach to draw in this special yet substantial portion of our community.
Homeschoolers are anxious for innovation and meaningful educational opportunities.
Surveys indicate that dissatisfaction with academic instruction at traditional schools is the second highest reason families decide to homeschool (McQuiggan & Megra, 2017). The same survey goes on to report that 39 percent of homeschool families rank a desire for nontraditional instruction as “important.” Real world, personalized learning is valued by many who practice homeschooling.
This is good news for libraries because innovative learning is very much what makerspaces are all about. Nearly every activity in our Maker Academy involves hands-on learning with a direct tie to real world skills. For example, students participate in making their camp T-shirts and learn about screen printing and vinyl cutting. They learn how a basic circuit works and put that knowledge into practice by wiring their own custom-made lamps. Especially effective are activities that build upon recently acquired skills and that naturally scaffold up to more advanced knowledge. We frequently will start beginners with a “learn to solder” project where they connect LEDs to a battery to make a wearable badge that lights up. Soldering, we explain, is the basis of many electronic projects. Then we introduce a switch where they can turn the light on and off. Next they solder multiple switches to connect a speaker to amplify music from a cell phone. Learning by doing lets young makers build their knowledge in ways that are effective, practical, and that both they and their parents can appreciate.
Homeschool families, like anyone else, appreciate free tools they can use at home and shared resources they can use at libraries.
When asked where they get educational material, over 70 percent of homeschool families cite free content on websites and material from the public library as their main sources of curriculum material (Redford, Battle, & Bielick, 2016). They are looking for tools that are easily accessible and affordable yet provide quality education.
This creates a rich opportunity for the library to teach with open source/open access tools. It is the nature of makerspaces, and increasingly of libraries, to embrace and even favor open source and open access. Although many of the high-tech machines in a makerspace are expensive, they run using open source software that anyone with a computer can download for free. We promote these tools in Maker Academy. We take the classes to our computer lab and introduce them to design programs like Inkscape for graphics and TinkerCad for 3D design. We tell them and their parents that this software is free and that they can use these tools at home and then come to the library to print their designs on a laser cutter or on a 3D printer. This opens enormous possibilities and leverages the library-community relationship. It creates opportunities to maintain contact as homeschool families come back after camp to use the library.
Many homeschool families look for opportunities for their children to engage socially and to work as part of a team.
Researchers define socialization differently, and the answer to the question of what it means to be properly socialized is a highly personal one. However, there is some general consensus that socialization involves a common set of abilities: (a) functional life skills that enable people to operate successfully in the “real” world; (b) social skills including the ability to listen, to interact, and to develop a strong sense of identity and values; and (c) a sense of civic engagement, or of being willing and able to give back to society (Kunzman, 2016; Neuman & Guterman, 2017). Homeschool parents are aware of the need to avoid isolationism, and they actively seek opportunities that provide socialization experiences in ways that conventional schools may not. They want their children to respect others, to develop a sense of teamwork, and to get along with people of diverse backgrounds. They use a variety of resources outside the family to provide these opportunities (Medlin, 2013).
To respond to the need for social enabling, we deliberately schedule Maker Academy activities that facilitate these softer skills. Makers may work on individual projects, helping each other as needed, but they also have group projects that they develop collaboratively. They may divide into groups to make gravity powered go-carts where they have to share design decisions, take turns using tools, and agree on a team name and logo. Sometimes they construct individual paper roller coasters, but then they combine their individual models into one big camp model. Simply having a camp experience lets participants take part in positive social interactions, while group activities encourage them to practice brainstorming, collaboration, and consensus-building skills.
As a further way to inject social skills, we incorporate a grand Show and Tell on the last day of camp. We invite friends and families to see the final results of what their children have been doing. Makers show what they have made, explain how they made it, and what they learned along the way. They often will take their parents on a tour of the Maker Lab, explaining in detail how the machines work and how they used them. We serve refreshments, and there is lots of interaction. The whole event serves to clinch the camp experience for everyone. A fun presentation time completes the creative cycle for makers by allowing them to share their results and practice answering questions publicly. Parents see evidence of the broader, holistic social skills beyond just the technical learning.
Evaluation is an important yet often challenging part of every library initiative. It is especially crucial for a nontraditional service like makerspaces and youth day camps since university administration may question the expenditure of time and effort on a population not directly affiliated with the institution. Gibson and Dixon (2011) offer a framework that libraries can use for assessing the impact of various programs. It is particularly relevant in that it stresses degree of engagement rather than only the metrics of attendance and popularity as indicators of success.
Effectiveness encompasses not only how many people a program reached but also the depth of outreach. Were we effective in reaching people in terms of numbers, and how wide a net did we cast? Were we inclusive?
Our original outreach to faculty families and public schools was not very effective. It garnered only 12 responses for our three maker camps. It was not until we serendipitously discovered the additional segment of the homeschool community that our outreach became more effective. We went from 12 campers that we had to go to great lengths to recruit to registration that now fills up within the first day, plus a waitlist.
The key for us was learning about the homeschool segment of our community, and how they communicate. Our typical outreach channels were too narrow; they excluded this significant community. We had to broaden our promotional methods to include more than we had been doing.
We learned an important lesson. At the start of any new marketing initiative, we now try to ask ourselves, “What groups are we missing because we are defining our user base too narrowly?”
Proof of Educational Benefit
Proof of educational benefit is especially important for academic libraries. Academic libraries are, at their heart, educational institutions. Their mission is tied to learning. While gate counts and program attendance can indicate popularity, the deeper question we have to answer is whether or not anyone learned anything worthwhile.
Fortunately, educational evidence is fairly easy for something like Maker Academy. The objects the campers make serve as proof of what they learned. Campers make T-shirts, build catapults, assemble speakers powered by a raspberry pi, create robotic drawing machines from a small motor, and make many other things. Parents see these objects displayed in the Show and Tell at the close of camp, the children can explain how their creations work, and they can take their projects home. These objects are physical evidence of learning.
Paper roller coaster activity and whiteboard showing lessons learned from the project. From ACU Maker Academy 2017.
We have also discovered that sometimes we have to make other types of learning a little more evident. A paper roller coaster might seem like a fun construction activity, but there are some important principles of speed and motion, not to mention principles of life, that kids learn from it...
In Brief: Two librarians who run a library commons space implemented a written reflection program with their undergraduate student employees to improve team communication, create a qualitative record of the space, and generate case studies for discussion in group meetings. In this article, they present and analyze examples of their student workers’ reflective writing about their library space, delve into the literature of written reflection, and share how they changed the program after an assessment.
Part I: Written Reflection in the Research Commons
I remember all the sounds of opening the library. The *shhnk* of swiping my card through the reader outside. The creaky turn and loud *click* of the door opening after turning the handle. The echoing *clack* of my boots resonating throughout the stairwell after stepping on the concrete floor….
These are the first few lines of a written reflection that an undergraduate student worker wrote in the library space we manage. A little over two years ago, we started a program in which we made written reflection a part of the jobs of the eight students we work with. These students staff a help desk, so periodically during their scheduled shifts, we cover the desk for them for a half hour. They have that time to reflect in writing about their work and their relationship to it, and the writing above shows a student describing what it’s like to open our library space. This student focuses on the sounds our space makes, playing with onomatopoeia, and they continue:
….The slight metal *hiss* of the stair gate’s springs being bent. The low, booming *gong* that echoes through the stairwell as the gate closes and hits the metal rail, syncopated with my boots descending down the steps. The quieter, smoother *sree* of the basement door handle. The lighter, higher pitched footsteps on the tiled hallway floor. The *chk* and *bmm* of the door closing as I round the hallway corner. The *sree* of another door handle and the muted *pmm* of my boots on carpeted floor. The echoing *bomm, bomm, bomm* of steps on concrete in another, more acousting stairwell. The vacuum cleaner’s *shvrooooooooom* getting louder and louder after each step up. The friendly *hello*, or *happy friday*. The almost unnoticeable *crinkle, crinkle, shvoop* of taking of jackets and setting down bags. The muted *click, click, click* of impatience as I wake the computer. The loud rattling and sometimes sudden *gleck, gleck, gleck, gleck* in rapid succession as I move a whiteboard without releasing the plastic brakes on the wheels. The whining *phwemp* of wiping down whiteboards. The *sveeeee*, *jingle, jangle*, and *svooooo* of opening and closing the drawers to retrieve the keys. The loud, mechanical *chk, chk*, *jingle*, *chk chk chk*, and *fwooomp* of unlocking and opening the doors. The *good morning* as patrons file in.
(Note: Throughout this article, we have chosen to preserve the spelling, punctuation, and syntax that students used in their writing and to forego any use of “SIC” in brackets.)
Reading this student’s reflection now, we are amazed anew by how creative and detailed it is. We had given this person a writing prompt for the reflection–a prompt we’ll discuss later–and it’s fascinating to see how they made sense of it and turned it into something wholly their own. It’s of note, too, that this student wrote this reflection by memory. They weren’t composing as they walked through the labyrinthine path they take to open the library in the morning. No, they were able to recall these specifics while sitting still, and such an act seems to show that the space in which they work isn’t just something to remember but a Memory Palace–that is, a place that helps one remember because it’s meaningful. And reading this reflection, taking in details we ourselves never considered, we are reminded again of why we began this program in the first place. We had three reasons for deciding to pay student workers to reflect in writing while on the job, and they are these:
to improve communication between them and us
to preserve a qualitative record of the space in which we work
to use these writings in group meetings, where we treat them as case studies and works of literature
But like anyone who limits themselves to threes, we’ve discovered additional, unexpected reasons for committing to written reflection. Some of these are easy to quantify or justify, while others are more intangible. At times, we’ve noticed that the value of written reflection isn’t just what information the reflections convey. It’s simply, elegantly, the open-ended but focused practice itself that’s worthwhile.
Written Reflections Are Not Just for Therapists and Professors; Student Workers Can Benefit, Too!
Early on, when we began to consider incorporating written reflection into the library work of undergraduate students, we scanned library literature to see if such practices already existed. We wanted to find guidance on how to set up a written-reflection practice–as well as how to assess it–but our initial searches yielded nothing. We have yet to find anything directly related to what we’ve done. In fact, the only combination of “written reflection” and “librar*” we’ve found is in an article about MA Librarianship students in Sheffield, UK, who wrote reflections in a library management class (Greenall and Sen, 2016).
We were shocked to find so little research about the value of written reflection in librarianship and student work in libraries, and we were surprised further that when we opened our search to undergraduate-student work in general, we still found next to nothing about written reflection. The closest thing we could find is by Sykes and Dean (2013), who write about the uses of written reflection in a Work-Integrated Learning curriculum–a program in which third-year students find placement in an internship (p.186). They found that framing reflection as a “practice” rather than an “activity” brought about a shift in students’ thinking that reflections can lead to real-world action (p. 190).
When we broadened our search terms to the workplace in general, we finally had some success in locating scholarship about written reflection and its uses in employment. We found articles about written reflection and corporate managers at a Fortune 500 company (Wood Daudelin, 1996), an engineer at a refinery (Rigano & Edwards, 1998), and workers at a software company (Cyboran, 2005). This research all came to the conclusion that written reflection not only improved critical thinking skills but also productivity and job satisfaction.
As we continued to review literature related to written reflection, some of its deepest pools proved to be in the fields of therapy, education, and writing composition. Written reflection, especially in the form of journaling, has been practiced in therapy and counseling for decades. Ira Progoff’s (1975) At a Journal Workshop is a prime example of a reflective writing process that has gone from being an anomaly to an accepted practice to an institution. Gillie Bolton’s, Victoria Field’s, and Kate Thompson’s (2006) Writing Works: A Resource Handbook for Therapeutic Writing Workshops and Activities is another text that has popularized reflective writing in therapeutic contexts.
Reflection, written and otherwise, has a long history in education. One early place to start is John Dewey (1910), who in How We Think argued for the value of what he called “reflective thought” and defined it as follows: “Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought” (p.6). What’s more, for over forty years in higher education, instructors have taught written reflection in writing composition classes, where it has undergone at least three generations of changes (Yancey, 2016, p. 9). Within these generations, Expressivist pedagogy, “which employs freewriting, journal keeping, reflective writing, and small-group dialogic collaborative response” has spoken to us and is the closest design and most obvious inspiration for the work we’ve done (Tate, Rupiper & Schick, 2001, p. 19). In particular, within Expressivist pedagogy, we’ve been most drawn to Peter Elbow and bell hooks, who are “paradigmatic examples of expressivist teachers” (Tate, Rupiper & Schick, 2001, p. 20). Their research about introspective writing practices as well as the practical, radical, and self-affirming ways of using such writing served as a crucial precedent for us.
This look at literature about written reflection helped us think about what it might look like in our own space, specifically, or in the world of library science, in general. In particular, we were curious about whether or not written reflection would be an annoying, disconnected add-on to what student workers were already doing or if it would actually affect their work, their attitudes about it, and the ways they imagine themselves.
Student Workers Reflect on Employment at the University of Washington Research Commons
We work in a library space–the University of Washington Research Commons–that is meant to help researchers through processes that are experimental, creative, and interdisciplinary, so in many ways it was a perfect setting for testing out a practice in written reflection that we believed was both novel and boundary spanning. As part of our work, we supervise eight undergraduate workers who staff a help desk, and in the Autumn Quarter of 2016, we began to fiddle with including written reflection in the training of new student workers. We did this by sharing a Google Doc with them, giving them time to periodically reflect in writing during their training, and reading their reflections and offering comments.
As mentioned earlier, we were aware of Peter Elbow’s work, especially his book Writing Without Teachers, and imagined that encouraging new library workers to reflect about the Research Commons might help them track not just what they were learning in their training but how they felt about it. Outlining a reflective-writing practice, Elbow (1998) writes, “Each week, take a fresh sheet of paper and write a brief account of what you think you got out of that week’s work: freewriting for class, any other writing, class reactions. These entries cannot profess to the truth. They are meant as a record of how you see things at the moment” (p. 145). In addition, we were attracted to the thinkings of theorists in Critical Pedagogy (like Paulo Freire and bell hooks), especially with regard to how they make sense of the concept of “praxis.” Dealing with the term and how it relates to reflection, Freire (2012) writes, “Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality, thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation… Education is thus constantly remade in the praxis. In order to be, it must become” (p. 84). For us, what all this means is that written reflection isn’t just a mode for thinking and remembering; the act of reflecting is an action that has the potential to bring about effects that can jump off a document. Whatever is written on a page can very much become real in a place like the Research Commons.
Below you’ll find a reflection that a student wrote in their first few weeks on the job. We believe it illustrates Peter Elbow’s point that reflection doesn’t necessarily capture capital “T” Truth but a record of perception from moments that could otherwise be forgotten:
Working at the Research Commons has been quite like what I expected, based on the description of the job, training, and talking to other student squad members. I enjoy the pace of the position, as it allows for the luxury of reading interesting articles as well as catching up on class readings. Most student jobs do not allow this, which makes me feel grateful for it. Aside from the magically moving furniture of the space at closing and occasional lack of human interaction, there aren’t many frustrations with this position (if those are frustrations at all). I’ve encountered some nice patrons here and there. Most are just students or faculty wishing to check out/return cords and markers, and they are usually in a rush. There were a couple people who stood out to me, however. One young man came up and decided to give me a gift certificate to the coffee shop he worked at (at the Henry) as a part of his mission of giving free cups of coffee to people who worked at libraries. Another older man came up and told me he was a new student here and wanted a small tour of the technology around here. Sometimes things like these happen, which is nice.
And though this reflection isn’t really written in the spirit of Paulo Freire’s problem-posing education, which jostles authors and readers into action (into praxis) via reflection, we do nevertheless think that the passage above shows someone who is in the process of becoming. This burgeoning reveals itself in the student’s turning over in their mind the pros and cons of different types of student work as well as the varied interactions they had had with patrons.
We were pleased with this simple practice of having new student workers reflect in writing during their training. Their writing was helping us understand some of the questions and concerns that new people might have about working in the Research Commons, and it led us to get to know them in ways that differed from in-person interactions. We probably would have stuck with this enlightening–though limited–practice and never thought about expanding it if we hadn’t attended a presentation about High-Impact Practices (or HIPs). In this presentation, some of our colleagues at the University of Washington Tacoma Library laid out a new initiative in which they were systematically incorporating High-Impact Practices into their work and strategic plan (“UW Tacoma Library and High-Impact Educational Practices,” n.d.). According to George Kuh (2008), who coined the term “High-Impact Practices,” HIPs are things that “have been widely tested and have been shown to be beneficial for college students from many backgrounds” (p. 9). They are practices like these:
First-year seminars and experiences
Common intellectual experiences
Collaborative assignments and projects
Service learning, community-based learning
Capstone courses and projects (p. 9-11)
Our colleagues’ work with HIPs captured our imagination and made us wonder if we should experiment with different HIPs or perhaps further develop the reflective-writing practice we had started. We began to think that all the student workers we supervise–not just the new ones in training–could benefit from the reflections and that perhaps the writing should be even more frequent and focused. With regard to the High-Impact Practice of “intensive writing courses,” Kuh (2008) writes, “Students are encouraged to produce and revise various forms of writing for different audiences in different disciplines” (p. 10), so we wondered if we could push our students’ reflections to be even more varied and intense. For example, we imagined that, in terms of audience, it might be beneficial for student workers to think about not only writing for us, their supervisors, but also for each other. Further, we began to think of written reflections as “Super HIPs” because we envisioned ways of connecting them to learning communities and collaborative projects.
First Rounds of Revamped Reflection: “Why are we doing this again?”
In the Winter Quarter of 2017, we introduced a revised and revamped written-reflection practice in the Research Commons–one that all student workers would do every quarter of the academic year. We explained this change to everyone (albeit hurriedly–more on that later…), and as we had already been doing, we shared a Google Doc with each of the eight workers, letting them know that this writing would be shared with us and no one else without their consent. We made it clear that they would get compensated for the time they put into their reflections, so we decided we would do this by covering the help desk for students for a half hour during times in which they were slated to work. That way, we wouldn’t have to schedule separate times for them or ask them to do their reflections outside of their regular hours.
In this new program, we experimented with using a writing prompt. With the training reflections, we had simply asked students to write about how they were feeling or what they were thinking about, but with a new prompt, we decided to use an activity that Dr. Phyllis Moore, Chair of the Liberal Arts Department at the Kansas City Art Institute, created. When Moore provides orientation to new adjunct writing-composition instructors in what she calls “Comp Camp,” she often shares a creative-writing activity that brings about unusually vivid and reflective results. It was inspired by the painter and poet Joe Brainard, who is known for having written a number of books in which every line starts with “I remember…” For example, Brainard (2012) writes lines like these:
“I remember the first drawing I remember doing. It was of a bride with a very long train” (p. 5).
“I remember corrugated ribbon that you ran across the blade of a pair of scissors and it curled up” (p. 30).
“I remember a dream of meeting a man made out of a very soft yellow cheese and when I went to shake his hand I just pulled his whole arm off” (p. 134).
The first part of Phyllis Moore’s prompt is to share some of Brainard’s work with students. Next, the students get some time to list quickly some “I remember…” lines of their own, and in doing this, it’s important that they be as specific, detailed, and sensory focused as possible. Once the students list their lines, they pick one of them and develop it into a few paragraphs that tell a story. Finally, they examine their stories and write a few lines about what they think they mean. We were grabbed by this activity because it reminded us of some of the Expressivist writing strategies that Peter Elbow argues for in Writing Without Teachers. For example, he says, “It’s at the beginning of things that you most need to get yourself to write a lot and fast. Beginnings are hardest: the beginning of a sentence, of a paragraph, of a section, of a stanza, of a whole piece” (1989, p. 26). With the “I remember…” activity, in its first part, it’s hard to get stuck because you know you’re starting every line with the same two words.
And writing about getting past beginnings and into selecting something to develop, Elbow says, “Sum up this main point, this incipient center of gravity in a sentence. Write it down. It’s got to stick its neck out, not just hedge or wonder” (p. 20). This advice from Elbow helped us to make sense of the second part of Phyllis Moore’s prompt, where students move from listing “I remember…” lines to picking one “center of gravity” to stick with and expand.
So we took this activity and covered the help desk for half-hour spells so that the student workers could do their reflections. We recommended that they focus on their work and memories in the Research Commons, but we also said that if they had trouble getting started they could write about any experiences they deemed appropriate. If they didn’t like the “I remember…” prompt, we gave them the option not to use it at all and to spend the time reflecting in writing however they wanted. The writing at the very beginning of this article is one example of how a student responded to the first part of the prompt. Here are some more “I remember…” examples from the Winter 2017 quarter, all of which are set in the Research Commons:
I remember craning my neck to see the slightest bit of snow through the windows in the corner.
I remember noticing my surroundings and how the RC [Research Commons] is kind of like a fish bowl. I wrote a poem about it.
I remember when I tried to replace a marker cartridge that was still full. Blue ink splattered everywhere, on the desk and on my hands. Luckily, it’s washable.
I remember the man who wears fake glasses and glitter on his face realizing he and I both had the same favorite Twilight Zone episode. He was so excited to recommend me more “monster” shows (and later campy shows) that he wrote down the names of 15 ones to watch, each on a different green scratch paper.
I remember the days when my best friend would stop by and bring me tea when I was working at the desk. The tea always had honey in it, and it would make me smile every time.
I remember when a girl asked me to close the door during a Black Lives Matter protest because it was distracting her from studying for her midterm. I said no.
When we first read these lines, we immediately felt happy that we opened up the reflective-writing practice to everyone and that we planned to do it every quarter. These “I remember…” moments, with their crisp specificity and poetics, communicated important details and emotions to us that we had been missing. We also enjoyed the experience of being surprised by student workers whom we thought we knew and surely took for granted. In their writing, they revealed funny, intimate, and surprising insights. Their gusto in responding to the writing prompt made us think of something bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress: “The first paradigm that shaped my pedagogy was the idea that the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring. And if boredom should prevail, then pedagogical strategies were needed that would intervene, alter, even disrupt the atmosphere” (1994, p. 7). Though we weren’t bored by our workplace, we still felt that this writing brought fresh excitement and frisson to it.
But the students didn’t stop with isolated lines. After completing the first part of the prompt, they continued by selecting one “I remember…” and developing it into a story. One student expanded one of the lines above into this true story:
During spring quarter of last year, there was a large Black Lives Matter protest that marched through the libraries. The protest exited the libraries through the Research Commons lobby, and they were armed with megaphones, signs and a lot of emotion. All of the students in the Research Commons stopped what they were doing, and quietly watched as the protestors marched by, except for this one girl. About five minutes into the protests exit, a girl came up to me, looked me dead in the face, and said, “Can you close the doors or something? This is too loud”. I calmly replied, “I’m sorry, but you have to understand why I can’t do that. It’s incredibly disrespectful, and the Research Commons is an open space, so closing the doors will make no difference”. The girl then looked disgusted, and promptly retorted back with, “Black lives matter? My midterm matters more”. That was the day that I realized that being in college doesn’t automatically make students immune to ignorance.
I remember this story because it was so appalling. This girl showed no remorse for her words, and had such a hatred in her heart for people who were trying to peacefully make a difference. I will never forget the look on her face, and I will never forget how her words made me feel. My encounter with her made me realize that college doesn’t purge a person of their ignorance and close mindedness. It made me realize that sometimes college can make a person more self-centered, whether it be the pressure of maintaining grades or making friends. This experience has made me more cautious in the way that I handle frustrated students.
When we first read the reflection above, we were excited and moved. We found it beautifully written and engaging..