Monthly Archives: October 2012

Phone a Friend

I learn a lot from my students. Like, really a lot. For instance, I heard about tardigrades from a student who’s doing her capstone project on them, and they are seriously cool. So cool, in fact, that I can’t stop talking about them. If you ask me what’s new, you’re likely to get an extensive lecture on tardigrades, complete with slightly crazed eyes. Fair warning. (More info here: video :: photo.)

I think that it’s a mark of a good librarian to be excited to learn new things, and I think that the students really appreciate a mindset from a librarian that says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about but I’m going to find out because it sounds really neat.” On the other hand, there are certain things about which we need to project an aura of authority. Things like the process of conducting research. But the reality is that sometimes we have absolutely no idea how to go about doing research on certain topics.

Last week, I got a question about finding zoning laws and easements for a piece of property. The student was conducting usage studies for an environmental studies class. While I do know what zoning laws and easements are, and I have some idea of why he would need to know about them, I had absolutely no idea where to even start looking. It was about 9pm, I was the only librarian around, and the student needed the information by class the next day. Of course. A couple of factors were working against me on this:

  1. I’m new not only to the area but also to the state. In Michigan, I would have had a better idea where to start.
  2. We live in the Adirondack State Park, which means that there are some unique stakeholders and regulations at play.
  3. New York has a county-town-village system that I find confounding.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to save face on this one. I had to tell the student to come back the next morning and talk with the local historian (also known as my boss). No help available from this newly minted librarian.

And yet on other occasions, through a number of slightly panicked emails, frenzied database testing, and only a tiny bit of face-palming I manage to put on a convincingly authoritative presentation on topics about which I knew nothing 48 hours before. Such was the case last week when faced with Intro to Entrepreneurship and a project on market analysis and competition research. I pulled the classic Who Wants to be a Millionaire cop out of phoning a friend. Or emailing, actually. Thanks to some well-timed advice from my friend Ilana Barnes, I managed to pretend that I knew how to conduct business research. In the process, I learned a ton about business research, the resources available through the library, and also some free resources that I can use to supplement our databases. One favorite is this cool project though the NY Times that can help visualize demographic data.

It was a long couple of days, but I’m really glad that I was able to get all the help I needed and more. Working the network, that’s me.  I know loads more than I did last week, although business research does not top tardigrades in cool-factor.

Secrets, revealed

I once heard a quote attributed to Nora Roberts that has stuck with me. I can only paraphrase, because the interwebz does not agree on the wording or even where it came from originally, but it goes something like this: “I can fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank page.”

Truth, that. Nearly every time I sit down to write something, I have drag myself to the keyboard and repeat this quote to myself. I bribe myself with promises that no matter how bad the word-vomit is, I can’t fix what I haven’t written. And, more than likely, after I’ve finished word-vomiting and get a good night’s sleep, the word-vomit isn’t quite as bad as I’ve imagined. I mean, it’s still pretty bad, usually, just not entirely as bad as I feared. I feel the same about instructional design.

It continually surprises me how long it takes to plan one 50 minute lesson for the first time. This is due in part to the size of the staff here. Because my position is both the instructional designer and the instructor of 80% of the classes, and my predecessor isn’t around to advise, there isn’t much help available on what’s been done in the past in similar situations. Plus, as a brand new librarian, I don’t have a personal instructional repository of activities and approaches that I can tear apart, put back together, and fill in the gaps. I’m starting with a blank page. Is there anything that stares like a blank page? That mocks more heartlessly?

My process looks something like this:

  • Procrastinate, procrastinate, procrastinate. Writing blog posts is very effective for this.
  • Become overwhelmed as the class date approaches. Check the library’s Facebook page every 5 minutes, hoping that someone new liked it. (Unlikely.)
  • Decide that if I’m going to be on the internet anyway, I might as well do some Google searching to see if anyone else has ideas for how to approach this particular instructional problem.
  • Google search returns loads of LibGuides or lesson plans for elementary school children and not much else.
  • Fret. Take a walk.
  • Thumb through the stack of professional books on my shelf. There’s a bit of help, but nothing really suits.
  • Stare into the middle distance for a solid 45 minutes.
  • Spin around in my chair a few times.
  • Get up and go next door to run some ideas past a colleague.
  • Finally sit down and open Evernote where I cut and paste intros and conclusions from previous classes. There. Now my page isn’t blank anymore.
  • Start to fill in the gaps. Finally start working in that mental place where someone could walk up behind you and scare you to death without even trying.
  • Work, work, work.
  • End of the day. Go home.
  • Come back the next day. Hey! My page is not only filled, but it’s not entirely crap!
  • Fix, fix, fix.
  • Teach.
  • Revise.

Slowly, I’m building a list of classes and approaches. I’m filling pages. I’m getting to the place where I can evaluate what’s working and what needs to be changed. I’m approaching editability. Slowly.

Incidentally, I can’t recommend Char Booth’s book Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning more highly for new teacher-librarians. It’s an invaluable resource and help guide with loads of suggestions for other reading, too. It’s extremely readable, and there are many, many suggestions that are immediately helpful. Go get it.


Last night, I was lucky to have dinner with a professor of mine from grad school. I’ve been feeling a bit homesick lately, in a way that has nothing to do with wanting to be somewhere else and everything to do with craving familiarity. It was just what I needed to see a face I know and trust, and we had a wonderful evening.

Among other things, she asked if I felt that the program at University of Michigan prepared me for my job. I told her that I was very well prepared for my job, but with the stipulation that I was an extremely proactive student. I am often frustrated by people who think that education is a passive process. There is no program anywhere that is exactly perfect in its entirety for every student. I read and hear a lot of complaining by library school students about how their program is falling short or even failing them. Criticism is necessary for programs to change and continue to be relevant, but students are ultimately responsible for their own education, especially at a graduate level. Ask for what you want from your program, but be prepared to get it another way. Sometimes going off-road requires sacrifice, but it will pay off in the end. You cannot simply show up to class and expect a good result.

Here are some pro-tips from my experience for getting the best out of grad school:

  1. I knew what I wanted. I went into graduate study with intent. Before I even accepted at position at the University of Michigan, I had done my research not only into the different options for getting an ALA accredited degree but also into the field of libraries. I did job shadowing at 3 different places before the ink on my application was dry. I wanted to fully understand what it meant to be a librarian and in what kind of library I would be happiest. One of these job shadowing experiences led to an unpaid summer internship before I even started school. I got no school credit, no money, and I commuted 1.5 hours one way twice a week, but the experience was completely invaluable. In contrast to other students who didn’t really know why they were in graduate school but were hoping to find out, I walked through the doors on the first day of class with a direction.
  2. I read job ads religiously. I cannot overstate how important this was to my education. At the beginning of graduate school, all of the requirements in job ads looked completely overwhelming. I felt like I would never be qualified. As the semesters went by, I was able to understand how classes that looked less relevant on the surface could contribute to the knowledge and skills required by the ads, and I was able to direct my class choices and internships to address the gaps I noticed in my skill set.
  3. I said yes. I talked briefly before about saying yes when talking about starting a new job. The “yes” is metaphorical, mostly, but it can also be reality. Be interested. Be excited. Don’t let others bring you down. Say yes to office hours, to study groups, to being an officer in a student organization. Say yes to that intriguing project that you know nothing about but that makes you think. Saying yes isn’t a blanket to pull over legitimate questions or a push off the high dive but rather an attitude of positivity and making the best of it. Say yes.
  4. I went the extra mile. Have a paper or project that you spent a lot of time on for class? Turn it into a workshop, presentation, or poster and find an avenue to show it off. There are plenty of opportunities at local and national conferences, webinars, or even student-run conferences. Often, there is support available from your program to help with costs, but you have to get accepted first. You may even find the opportunity to present as professional development to faculty and staff within your school or university. Need to design a poster for a class presentation? Take the opportunity to move beyond a tri-fold, scissors, and construction paper. Design and print a  poster in a program like InDesign. Not only will your poster look super professional, but you will have learned the basics of designing a conference level poster and you’ll be able to put “graphic design” and “InDesign” on your resume and a jpeg of the final design on your portfolio website. And that in-class poster presentation? Treat it as professionally as if it was at a conference. Consider it free practice.
  5. I kept an open mind, even when it was hard. Neither life nor grad school is all puppies and rainbows. Plans will fall through. You might not get that incredible internship that would be absolutely perfect. Be prepared for plan B, and be prepared to make the most of it. Those classes you hate? Those classes that really aren’t your thing but you’re stuck with it? There is still something to be learned, even if it’s just the ability to talk somewhat intelligently with the people whose thing it is. The world of information is vast and deep and it is no longer ok to ignore the parts you wish would disappear. You need to know a little bit about everything, even those things you dislike.

The most important piece of advice I can pass on is something we tell our students all the time. Ask. Just ask. Ask for what you need. Ask often and ask repeatedly. Ask administrators and professors. Ask other students. Ask the blogosphere. Ask local libraries and organizations. Go out and get what you need. It’s your education, after all, and you’re in charge of it.