The Limits of Neutrality

Donald Trump’s executive order banning the entry of immigrants and refugees from seven majority Muslim nations came at the very end of January, hitting at the exact moment when I typically plan the monthly picture book display I exhibit at one of the libraries at which I work. It wasn’t until I had completed the display of picture books about immigrant and refugee experiences—reading many great and not-so-great books in the process—that I stopped to think about how this explicitly political display related to the tenet of librarianship that is “neutrality.”

Discussed as a component of upholding intellectual freedom, the American Library Association includes in its Bill of Rights the dictate that “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” This principle is, on its face, easy to agree with. Indeed, it would protect the very books on immigrants and refugees which I used in my display from being removed from the library should a biased patron find them distasteful. That being said, I found myself wondering: did this aspect of the Library Bill of Rights suggest that, next month, I should put together a book display on European or European-American identity? Of course, I wouldn’t do such a thing even if the ALA explicitly commanded it, but my own conviction didn’t stop me from questioning the extent to which the ALA’s Bill of Rights implicitly commands such a balancing of point and counterpoint in the interest of “presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” As with the conversations currently occurring around the difference between free speech and hate speech, there is similarly a fine line between defending intellectual freedom and entrenching the bigotry and biases of those who are already disproportionately empowered by the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks).

Just as I was getting myself really worked up about the fallout—intentional or not—of the ALA’s Bill of Rights, the Association’s journal arrived in my mailbox and I had the pleasure of reading Meredith Farkas’ succinct and articulate considerations on the matter. She writes: “… neutrality is not only unachievable, it is harmful to oppressed groups in our society. In a world that is fundamentally unequal, neutrality upholds inequality and represents indifference to the marginalization of members of our community” (2017). Not only was I grateful for Farkas’ clearly-written advocacy, I was heartened to read this in the ALA’s magazine, and to find it posted on the American Libraries website, reassuring me that the publicly championed values of librarianship have not (yet) fallen prey to the creeping shift towards conservatism noted by Noam Chomsky (2015).

It is in our hands, as future librarians and current exhibit-makers, reference-providers, and humans, to make sure the advent of this haunting “yet,” indicating a more conservative understanding of librarianship’s central values, never comes to pass. Want to read some good picture books while we do the hard work that needs to be done? Check out these!

All The Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka

Through rich oil paintings and lyrical language All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka shows the diverse children of the world in harmony.


One World, One Day by Barbara Kelly

One World, One Day by Barbara Kelly shows everyday scenes taking place around the world—sharing similarities, vibrant in differences—through vivid photographs.


Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester

Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester not only shares the author’s own story of growing up black in the USA, but also helps guide the reader in ways to see beyond the superficial traits of the people around us.


My Librarian is a Camel by Margriet Ruurs

You came here to check out library books today. But around the world, different communities have different ways of getting access to books: My Librarian Is A Camel by Margriet Ruurs shows some of them, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and everywhere in between!


How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz

After his home was destroyed by war, the young boy in How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz finds joy in traveling all around the world by way of his imagination.


Hello World by Manya Stojic

Hello World! by Manya Stojic celebrates the amazing multitude of languages spoken around our planet.


I Hate English! by Ellen Levine

Mei Mei is reluctant to learn English when she moves to the USA, because she’s afraid she will have to let go of her first language, Chinese, which she loves.


The Lotus Seed by Sherry Garland

Forced to leave Vietnam during the Vietnam War, a woman carries with her one precious lotus seed. Planted many years later, this seed blossoms into a lotus flower, reminding the woman of her home.


I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien

Jin, Maria, and Fatimah all have not only a new school, but a new country! Though it is hard to feel comfortable at first in such an unfamiliar place, they come to learn that there is a place for each of them in their new home.


My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood

When Cartwheel moves to the USA as a refugee from Sudan, everything is strange and lonely. For awhile, Cartwheel seeks comfort in the words, memories, and traditions of her home–her old blanket–until she begins to weave a new blanket rich with new words, memories, and traditions.


How My Family Lives in America by Susan Kuklin

Sanu, Eric, and April are all Americans, but they came from different countries originally. How do Sanu’s Senegalese-American family, Eric’s Puerto Rican-American family, and April’s Chinese-American family live in America?


Lailah’s Lunchbox by Reem Faruqi

Lailah is finally old enough to observe Ramadan for the first time. She’s excited to fast in honor of this important month, but finds it’s difficult to explain now that she lives in the USA instead of Abu Dhabi. With the advice of her school librarian and some personal bravery, Lailah finds a way to share her traditions with her new friends.
-Avery Smith

Works Cited

American Library Association (2017). “Library Bill of Rights.” Retrieved 20 February 2017 from

Chomsky, Noam. [Natasha Hakimi Zapata]. (2015, February 21). Noam Chomsky-The Republican Party. [Video File]. Retrieved 20 February 2017 from

hooks, bell. [leocine]. (2006, December 10). bell hooks pt. 2 cultural criticism and transformation. [Video File]. Retrieved 20 February 2017 from

Farkas, Meredith. (2017, January 3). Never Neutral. Retrieved 20 February 2017 from

On Sustainable Libraries

Environmental sustainability has always been a topic that’s very close to my heart. When I was in 6th grade, my social studies class completed a major project on rainforest destruction, and I vividly remember having a revelatory moment after school one day while working on this project, realizing just how fragile our planet is and how unbelievably important it is to protect it, not abuse it. And while I’ve done my very utmost to block all memories of middle school (the horror), this one has stuck with me. Protecting the environment has become a subject that I am extremely passionate about, and one that has influenced everything from the lifestyle choices that I make to the values that I try to live by on a daily basis. While I was excited about entering the field of librarianship when I first applied for the MLS program here, there was always a part of me that regretted not pursuing a career that was more environmentally-minded.  But recently, I discovered groups like the American Library Association’s Sustainability Round Table, and Special Library Association committees like Environment and Resource Management Division, and it hit me that being a librarian and pursuing a career that protects the environment are not mutually exclusive goals. With the relative freedom I had to pick my courses for my final semester here at IU, I decided to complete an independent study to learn more about sustainability initiatives within the library field, and how I could become more involved in these efforts as a new professional.

Sustainability is one of those terms that’s seemingly ubiquitous in modern discourse, but becomes somewhat tricky to define when you look at it closely. Perhaps one of the most foundational definitions comes from the 1987 Brundtland Report by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Ch. 2, p. 1). While this definition certainly speaks to issues surrounding environmental conservation, it also ties into issues of economic equality and social equity.  In fact, some sustainability activists often refer to the “Three E’s” of sustainability – economy, ecology, and equity – to emphasize that creating a truly sustainable community involves more than simply protecting the environment, but also ensuring economic stability and social justice for all members of that community (Social Responsibilities Round Table, n.d.). While the “ecology” aspect is the specific area that I am most heavily interested in, I’ve learned that it’s important to remember that environmental health is closely connected with economic and social justice issues, especially when making decisions that will affect a community. Environmental decisions often have some kind of economic implication, and it’s important to find solutions that address both environmental and economic concerns, instead of pitting one against the other. Likewise, issues like environmental racism have not received nearly enough attention and need be emphasized much more in sustainability discourse if we are truly committed to building communities that meet the needs of both present and future generations.

Within the context of librarianship, it turns out that sustainability can be incorporated into a library’s mission in several ways. The American Library Association (2015), in its Resolution on the Importance of Sustainable Libraries, recognized the “unique role libraries play in wider community conversations about resiliency, climate change, and a sustainable future” (p. 2). As Henk (2014) explains in her work Ecology, Economy, Equity: A Path to a Carbon-Neutral Library, sustainability fits in well with core library values of supporting education and literacy, access to information, and democratic values like equality and intellectual freedom. But how exactly can libraries make their own spaces and surrounding communities more sustainable, and promote economic equality, social equity, and environmental protection? That’s mainly what I’m learning about this semester, and I am so excited by all of the different ways that libraries can get involved. On a general scale, ensuring access to a wide variety of information on sustainability and sustainability-related issues is key. Actions like tailoring collection development strategies to build a stronger collection of sustainability resources and supporting open access journals that provide sustainability research are two ways that libraries can ensure access. But there’s so much more! Libraries across the country have been doing some amazing work, from creating library community gardens that provide educational classes while protecting valuable plant life, to providing cooking courses that teach basic culinary skills while also supporting math and literacy development, to creating open-access repositories for sustainability research, to designing library buildings that are more energy-efficient … the list goes on and on. Creating sustainable libraries and sustainable communities is a monumental task, but there are a seemingly endless number of ways that libraries can begin to take action and help make this goal a reality.

When I went to the annual “Eco Fest” in DC several years ago, I remember seeing a slogan that read “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” I try to remember that saying, especially when the world’s problems seem overwhelming and insurmountable. None of those libraries mentioned above can take on every sustainable action possible, just as no library can make their communities sustainable single-handedly. But each of those libraries has taken a step forward, finding ways to make their spaces and communities a little more sustainable and forging new relationships with their surrounding communities and institutions in support of that goal. All together, those small actions taken by libraries (and the librarians working in them) across the country can make a big impact. After these first couple weeks of my independent study, I’m already so inspired by the work being done by libraries across the country and hopeful that libraries will continue to do more to make our communities more sustainable and resilient. I’m excited to keep learning, and eventually, to contribute what I can as a professional librarian. 

– Sarah Klimek

American Library Association. (2015). “Resolution on the importance of sustainable libraries.”

Henk, M. (2014). Ecology, economy, equity: The path to a carbon-neutral library. Chicago: ALA Editions. 12-14.

Social Responsibilities Round Table, American Library Association. (n.d.). “Three dynamics of sustainable communities: Economy, ecology, and equity.”

U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our common future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Retrieved from

On Resistance and Support

Last semester, I wrote a blog post about the uncertainty of the prospect of life under a Trump administration and how it might affect libraries and the communities they serve. I was determined to find ways to resist and to support vulnerable communities through library work. I thought we could all come together, write down our ideas and strategies for how to do this, and create a better world. Together, we could fight authoritarianism.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know how to do this. I’ve looked for information on activism and librarianship, trying to find a movement to join or a concrete strategy that loudly proclaims: “RESIST!” Or something that I could do or take part in that would allow me to wear my “This is what a librarian for social justice looks like” shirt. But I’m not a librarian yet and I’ve realized how little I know about politics or fighting authoritarianism. In all the YA I’ve read where a young woman leads a rebellion against oppressive forces, I’ve never come across guidelines or tips.

In December, I felt a sense of urgency, reading articles and books to prepare myself before Trump took office, wanting to be ready to help others and to fight. But, as is often the case when you start researching subjects you have little experience with, I just kept coming up with more questions instead of answers. Then the semester started and I got busy and Trump took office and I put off writing this blog post. I told myself that when I sat down to write it, I’d figure out a concrete strategy for resisting authoritarianism. A month into the semester and three drafts of this post later, I’m admitting that I don’t have a big plan of action. Nothing that I can think of to do feels like enough, especially when it feels like so many different aspects of our democracy and so many communities are being attacked. So far, I’ve just realized how little I was doing to help before and how little I’m helping now. Everything feels too small. I feel too small. But even small actions can make an impact.

So here’s what I’m going to do: Keep reading and learning and encourage others to do the same. Engage in conversations. Find ways to care for and support my colleagues. Boost the voices of marginalized people. Create spaces where people from marginalized communities feel welcome and included. Help people connect to tools and resources allowing them to achieve a greater sense of agency. Encourage empathy. Promote social justice. I’m going to incorporate these into everything I do, both personally and as someone working in a library. It still feels small, but it’s what I have to work with right now and I’ll give what I can.

I can’t fix everything right now. I will never be able to fix everything. Terrible things are happening and will continue to happen. But there are also so many ways to help support people in the communities around us and to make the future a little better. So this semester I’m asking my peers to think about ways we can do this so we don’t lose sight of why we’re here and how we can lend support: to each other, to libraries resisting, and to our communities.

-Kristin McWilliams

On Changes and Looking Forward

Over the course of the semester, as we’ve explored and reflected on Information and Library Science education, we’ve voiced criticisms, questions, anxieties, lessons learned, and ideas for the future. Preparing for any profession comes with uncertainty: am I learning what I need to know? Am I going to actually want to work in this profession? Am I as qualified to work in the profession as my peers? Am I going to be able to find a job? Have I made the right choice? Sometimes the ILS educational experience brings answers to these questions and sometimes it brings doubt and more questions.

Now, we have the added uncertainty of life under the upcoming Trump administration, an administration which the American Library Association may or may not be willing to work with (depending on the day and who you ask), an administration which seems to be against the Core Values of Librarianship stated and adopted by the American Library Association, an administration that will be comprised of people who have made threats to many of the communities libraries serve and seek to empower by providing them with access to information and resources. For example: Jeff Sessions, the Trump nominee for Attorney General, who “has made tougher immigration policies a central priority” (Lichtblau par.12) and who has said he is open to a ban on Muslim immigration (Lichtblau par.13). Then there’s the perceived threat to public education. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, has, over the past 30 years “pushed to give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, pressed to expand publicly funded but privately run charter schools, and tried to strip teacher unions of their influence” (Zernike par.2). With the strong tie between public education and libraries, what could this mean for libraries and librarians, especially those involved directly with public schools?

We’re still in the early stages of the upcoming administration, so there’s no way to know for sure what will happen in the next few months or in the next four to eight years. But all the policy proposals, talking points, and views of nominees seem to make one message very clear: if the wealthiest Americans can’t make money off of you, you are expendable. And if you get in the way of the wealthiest Americans and their money, they will try to remove you and whatever law allowed you to get in the way in the first place. I find this concerning and alarming for a number of reasons, not least of which being that libraries, as they currently exist, do not produce the sort of profit that the wealthiest Americans seem so invested in. Perhaps the services libraries provide as well as the people who depend on those services will be seen as expendable.

Libraries, however, as a whole, have managed to survive difficult times. During the last recession, for example, libraries experienced increased use and provided important and meaningful services to their communities (Beck 2009). And in the climate of the upcoming administration, I think libraries will be just as important, if not more so.

I’ve experienced a lot of emotions since Trump’s election: disbelief, betrayal, despair, fear, horror, but also: determination. I don’t know what will happen to me or to libraries, which is terrifying, but I know that libraries are needed and that libraries are the place where I can do the most good and a space from which I can try to effect change, which I am determined to do. If there’s a course offered to teach the sort of skills I’ll need to do this, that will help me as a future librarian to survive the coming changes, I don’t know what that course looks like. I think we’re going to have to rely on each other and teach each other, which is an area where I think librarians excel.

-Kristin McWilliams


American Library Association. “Core Values of Librarianship.” Accessed online at

Beck, S. J. (2009). This is Our Time to Shine: Opportunities in a Recession. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 49(1), 8-17.

Lichtblau, E. (11/18/16). Jeff Sessions, As Attorney General, Could Overhaul Department He’s Skewered. The New York Times. Accessed online at

Smith, D. (12/2/2016). Trump’s Billionaire Cabinet Could Be the Wealthiest Administration Ever. The Guardian. Accessed online at

Zernike, K. (11/23/16). Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education Pick, Has Steered Money from Public Schools. The New York Times. Accessed online at

A nice technique to implement in reference services

It is quite interesting for me to read these posts about librarian careers and reflections on ILS experience written by everyone from multiple perspectives. As an international student who received my bachelor’s degree in library and information science in Taiwan, I would like to share some knowledge and techniques that I don’t see many discussions about in the ILS department but that I gained and was really interested in when I was an undergraduate student. I have been interested in information seeking behavior and information psychology for a few years. In ILS, many courses mention accessibility and usability of resources for library patrons, but I haven’t noticed any of them that provides particular knowledge or discussions on user’s information seeking behavior and their mental models. Although it sounds somewhat boring because there’re too many theories in this field, I still think it’s crucially important for us, especially as a PSA or reference librarian, to have a further understanding on why patrons need information, what they really need, and why they try to gain information through specific ways and not others.

I am sharing an old technique, but it still works nicely and effectively in a reference interview. I benefit a lot from the “Neutral Questioning” technique when providing reference services. Neutral Questioning is a reference interview technique based on Brenda Dervin’s sense-making theory. This technique enables library patrons to freely express their information needs, but at the same time it also allows reference librarians to remain in control of the conversation by focusing on three important elements in seeking information and information use: “situation”, “gap”, and “use”.

In short, “Neutral Questioning” encourages interviewers (reference librarians) to ask as many neutral questions as possible, not just closed questions (YES/NO questions) nor open questions that can be freely answered. In many cases, patrons come to the desk without a clear understanding of their questions and need, and might not be able to give certain answers to questions asked by reference librarians. Therefore, at this point, we should ask neutral questions that allow patrons to freely express detailed clues to the questions rather than closed questions that might block patrons from explaining their need in another way.

For example, instead of asking a closed question like “Are you looking for books or journal articles?”, a neutral question like “What types of resources are you interested in?” might be a better choice to let patrons express more detailed information about their need. For my personal experience, it was a little bit difficult to implement Neutral Questioning technique at the beginning, because I normally wanted to get exact answers from patrons for judging what’s the next step I need to do. Should I search OPAC or article-based databases? Should I search a multi-discipline full-text platform like OneSearch@IU or A&I databases in a certain discipline like ERIC or PubMed? A closed question might help me make the judgement but at the same time keep patrons from saying what they would like to say, because they were answering the questions among the choices I gave them based on my personal assumption, not their real need. However, after I had consciously reminded myself to ask more neutral questions when doing a reference interview for a few months, I found it actually helped me a lot in understanding patron’s questions effectively and efficiently. It not only significantly decreased the misunderstanding between patrons and me, but also saved time for me to precisely locate resources that can really benefit patrons in their research.

This was my personal experience to implement what I had learned in class into a practical work environment, and it succeeded in enhancing the performance of reference services. I remembered that when I was taught this technique in Taiwan, our instructor had several interactive cases in class for students like me to practice it practically, and then we implemented this knowledge and experience in our field internship. I believe that it might be interesting if we have this kind of courses in ILS in the future.

I listed several useful articles below for anyone who would like to learn more about this technique and information seeking behavior. The references in blue can link to full-text articles directly. The first reference in bold was the main article that I referred to when writing this post. Since this is a casual post, the references are ordered by the importance and interest I think rather than formal APA style.

Here are some examples that Dervin and Dewdney (1986) created in their articles.

To assess the situation:

  1. Tell me how this problem arose.
  2. What are you trying to do in this situation?
  3. What happened that got you stopped?

To assess the gaps:

  1. What would you like to know about X?
  2. What seems to be missing in your understanding of X?
  3. What are you trying to understand?

To assess the uses:

  1. How are you planning to use this information?
  2. If you could have exactly the help you wanted, what would it be?
  3. How will this help you? What will it help you do?


Dervin, B., & Dewdney, P. (1986). Neutral questioning: A new approach to the reference interview. RQ, 25(4), 506-513

Ross, C. S. (1987). How to find out what people really want to know. Reference Librarian, 6(16), 19-30

Dervin, B., & Nilan, M. S. (1986). Information needs and uses. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 21, 3-33.

De Souza, Y. (1996). Reference work with international students: Making the most use of the neutral question. Reference Services Review, 24(4), 41-48.

Dewdney, P. (1988). The effective reference interview. Canadian Library Journal, 45(3), 183-184.

– Yu-Chen Huang

On Choices

Upon entering library school last year, I had few goals. I wanted a degree that would allow me to work as a librarian within a certain geographic region. My first semester was broad coursework, that was labelled as largely applicable to most library settings. It was around mid-semester, when it was time to choose spring classes, that I began to question my goals for the program.

The current program requires 36 credit hours. Most classes provide 3 credit hours. This meant roughly 12 classes. 3 are predetermined. 3 provide some choice. 6 – providing no specializations – are free to choice. The impact of my potential choices was paralyzing. I started planning out when I would take what for the rest of my time at IU. I was frustrated I couldn’t fit everything I wanted to do in. I was beyond terrified that I’d miss something essential and it would cost me down the line.

It was also around this time that I began contemplating a dual degree (something I’m still contemplating), which would pair my library science degree with an information science degree. I felt it would give me more time and allow me a broader skillset.

I chose my spring semester classes. By near miracle, I landed a fantastic internship over the summer that allowed me to expand my work experience to a public library setting. It allowed me to work at a variety of service desks and with a variety of librarians who were beyond helpful with my questions and concerns about the profession. By the end of the summer I knew that if I was given a choice, I’d work in a public library.

Fall semester appeared for a second time, and I’m currently taking classes that I would have never chosen for myself last fall – some information science classes and a materials for youth class. These classes have reminded me that I’ll never get as much experience as I want before graduating. That there are computer programs I’ll walk away from while only barely understanding them. That there are books I will never, ever have the time to read.

It’s been a process. I’ve had to step away many times to remind myself to look at how much I am learning within the program, not how much I’m missing out on. I can create a survey and implement it. I can design and complete code for websites. I can find information within the congressional record or extract information from US Census data.

I chose spring classes a few weeks ago, and while the classes aren’t as technology or information science-based as this semester, they’re still on topics I have little experience with. I’m excited to start them.

-Malissa Renno

No Such Trickery

Being in library school has been a whirlwind of so many different learning experiences. Once in a while life in graduate school leads to moments of burnout, as Tessa described in her post. I believe imposter syndrome as a student also relates to this fatigue.

Placing too much pressure on myself, I often feel dissatisfied with my performance in courses and at work. It is exceptionally easy to compare myself to other library science students who seem to have it all together, while I feel incapable with my abilities. One overwhelmingly dismal week this semester, I had a poor experience struggling during my part of co-teaching an instruction session and also becoming totally lost when learning JavaScript in one of my MLS courses. When the student next to me had already finished all five exercises, I still was stumbling through the first one, of course. And to top that off, I went to edit my resume at the end of the week and found myself completely frustrated with my perceived lack of experience. I became discouraged when looking at my resume and seeing that I needed more accomplishments, like another volunteer experience or more technology skills. Last year, I learned Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator through IT Tutorial workshops and Lynda, but I wished I knew more. Although I probably am not the only one who has periods of major self-doubt, that’s how it felt.

This article from Hack Library School first introduced me to the concept of imposter syndrome, a phrase that describes what I was feeling as a student. I wanted to have more skills and experience with all things relating to libraries. I thought maybe I should help with more projects to feel more satisfied. I continually criticized my answers in an online discussion post because there were so many responses that seemed superior to mine. Working with the SLA Student Group was going well, but maybe I needed to be involved with other student groups. I kept seeing what other students were working on at different libraries and their thoughtful answers during class time and wishing I could be as talented as them. Everything I had accomplished seemed like a deception, and I questioned whether or not I deserved the scholarship or travel award that was offered to me.

I’m a sucker for quotes and my dad always enjoys using the phrase, “Everyone has their own map,” which is something I remind myself of recently. Our individual journeys are valuable and growth is a necessary process. I continue to learn that each individual path is important, including my own. Instead of wishing I was as intelligent or successful as my peers, I’m learning to embrace my achievements and focus on my interests. I’ve learned information from different courses about creating surveys, collection development, and information literacy and applied them to work experience. It’s especially exciting to select a new material and see it added to the collection at one of my library jobs. The library science program certainly has provided many educational opportunities for students, and I’m grateful for these courses and work experiences!

While I have had my fair share of what feels like tremendous failure and mistakes these past semesters, I keep reminding myself to take these moments of discomfort and learn from them. Celebrate progress and not perfection. Although I’ll never be an “all-knowing librarian,” I can accept the skills I have to offer and bring my strengths to the library profession.


Creating My Own Experience

When I graduated from Indiana University in 2012 with a Bachelor’s degree in Communication and Culture and Telecommunications from the College of Arts and Science, I thought my education was done. I was excited to enter the workforce and put my degree to use. I was shocked to learn that it turned out to be a lot harder to find a job in the field I wanted to go into, television and film production, and I quickly learned that it was an extremely competitive market in Bloomington, Indiana and unless I was willing to uproot my life to either New York City or Los Angeles, it was going to be hard to find a job that put my degree to use. I did what a lot of people coming out college have to do, find a job outside of my field so that I could support myself. Long story short, I was unhappy in the work force, doing a job that I never saw myself in. It was time to go back to school.

The first question I had to answer was, what did I want to go back for? What was my passion besides movies? What could put me in the best position to make sure I found a career right out of school? I originally thought I’d go back for computer science. I’ve always had a passion for computers and consider myself a pretty technology savvy person, but after looking into this, I quickly learned that my lack of code background would severely hinder my chances of success in this field. As cliche as it sounds, I love to read, so that is where I went next. How could I apply this passion to a career that I could love? Library school was the answer.

I am so excited to be back in school. I was skeptical at first about going back, but I am so happy that I finally am back. I was out of school for 4 years, and I can honestly say that I don’t miss working 40 hours in a job that had nothing to do with what I wanted to do at all. Best of all, I can take my passion for computers and technology and create my own experience with my degree. I think that was one of the major drawing factors of going back to school for library sciences. I get all the skills required to become a successful librarian but I can also acquire technology skills and get hands on experience with computers without having a heavy background in computer science.

The first thing after I decided to go back to school for library sciences was trying to decide how I was going to use my love for computers and technology and incorporate it into this degree. Luckily for me, someone had already had that idea and it was comforting and great to learn about the Digital Library specialization. As I looked through the courses in this specialization, I got more and more excited that this was exactly what I was looking for: a specialization that focuses solely on how computers and libraries interact. I am so excited after finding this specialization to take some of the courses. This semester I’m taking Database Design and it has fulfilled every expectation I could expect from it. In this course I get hands on experience learning SQL, a database language, and I get hands on experience with Access in order to create a database project of my group’s choosing. My group decided to create a database for a library. Already, in my first semester, I am getting hands on experience with computers coupled with library experience.

As I go forward with this program, I look forward to getting even more technical experience because as technology progresses, there is going to be a bigger demand for people with these skills, especially in the field of library sciences. The idea of libraries is changing and I am excited to be part of that change and hope by creating my own experience while I’m in school, I can find a career that is challenging, exciting, and combines both of my passions.

-Matt Malher

Embracing Visibility

Each time I begin a shift at the Learning Commons Library Services Desk, badge carefully affixed, staplers refilled, I can’t help but be reminded of how soul-baringly visible one is sitting at that desk. Every individual who passes by, whether with purpose or without, has a picture window view of whoever is seated behind that desk, however they are engaged, however they are presenting and, frankly, it can be unsettling to consider this visibility.

Do not misunderstand, this is far from my first foray into customer service. Years of lifeguarding and a whirlwind stint staffing the circulation desk at a public library have provided plenty of face to face interaction. What separates these experiences from the reference desk is that this is my first foray into customer service as an openly gender non-conforming individual.

Gone are the days when I could naively convince myself that my presence behind a library desk was sufficiently nondescript so as to avoid assumptions on the part of patrons. Inevitably patrons with whom we interact in the libraries are primed to make assumptions based on physical characteristics, perceived gender, dress, not to mention the position we occupy before we have an opportunity to so much as issue a greeting. The changes in gender presentation which I have undertaken in the past year are but one factor in the complex calculus informing the way in which patrons interact with me at the desk. Of course, it bears mentioning that we too are subject to these conscious and unconscious biases at the desk, which color our interactions with patrons.

Coming into this position I realized that it would be necessary to confront my discomfort with public scrutiny so as to present myself as an accessible guide to the library and its resources. From the start, the prospect of retreating to a job in which I could remain hidden from public view was tempting. A year of copy cataloging afforded me that luxury but, looking back, I have to question whether my personal growth during this period was as dramatic as the professional. Even though I firmly believed in cataloging with patrons’ needs in mind, I had no way of knowing whether I was succeeding in this endeavor without interacting with them firsthand. The lack of visibility came with a price, which proved to be an understanding of the patrons for whom the library operates.

For some planning on employment in libraries, myself included, mapping one’s professional path requires grappling with the question of how visible one wishes to be. It is important to keep in mind that positions within a library vary in the degree of visibility and public interaction they require and that various individuals’ tolerance for work of this nature will also vary. Working at the reference desk has proved a challenging exercise in pushing past my comfort levels and I still come away exhausted by a four hour shift, however; doing so has also proved an empowering experience cementing my belief in the value of the services libraries provide for their communities.

With each shift the trepidation I felt at the prospect of being so visible has subsided only to be replaced by a sense of purpose, a strong belief in my ability to help chip away at patrons’ library anxiety. I also realize that my visibility at the desk has the potential to empower other gender non-conforming library users, subtly assuring them that this is a space in which they are welcome. With time visibility may become a personal nonissue but, until then, knowing that a willingness to be visible may translate to increased comfort of library users keeps me returning to the reference desk each week.

-Kayleigh Fischietto

The Business of Library Services

Last week, I became unexpectedly agitated while reading an article for a class on manuscripts and special collections.

The article described a historical researcher’s relationship with a special collections archivist as fundamentally an exchange of social capital. Therefore, the author claims, researchers who develop relationships with archivists benefit from that connection or are otherwise disadvantaged.

Near the end of the text the author offers an anecdote as an illustration of when this exchange presumably “fails” from the perspective of the patron: a young scholar, a Ph.D. student, comes to the archives with a fuzzy idea for a project, seeking materials related to this topic. The scholar explicitly requests specific materials related to this emerging project, and the archivist provides those materials. The scholar, however, leaves the exchange feeling disappointed that the archivist had not taken greater interest in his project or helped him to define his research question based on potentially useful materials in the collection(s). The scholar sees the archivist as the gatekeeper of privileged information, inaccessible to those users with whom the archivist does not have an established relationship.

But the real disappointment for the scholar, it seemed, was not that the archivist didn’t perform these particular tasks, but that the archivist didn’t perform the emotional labor that would make these tasks possible. “Emotional labor” is a term used to describe the unacknowledged, unpaid, and often-feminized labor that is required of service industry workers. While it may seem counter intuitive, in this sense, the archivist, like many people who work in service (myself included), spend a lot of time and energy in their workplace providing (unacknowledged, unpaid, untrained) emotional labor in their daily exchanges and interactions with patrons.

Reference librarianship is undoubtedly service work. Reference librarians and public service assistants (like me) are expected to maintain an approachable and personable disposition for good reason: patrons should feel welcome to ask questions without the fear that they’re a bother or that they will be judged. Within our circle of public service assistants and supervisors, I’m grateful for the frank discussions that we’ve had about the emotional labor that goes into the routine performance of public service; we’ve agreed that no one can be expected to hold a perky smile through every single shift. And, as I acknowledge the weight of service work, it’s also very important to me that patrons feel respected and heard.

Unlike food service or classroom teaching, I’m not working for generous tips or glowing student evaluations, but I am, in a sense, trying to “sell” the library’s resources and the skills required to navigate them. And it’s the sharing of skills and collaborating with patrons (also emotional labor) that makes most of my exchanges at the reference desk positive and enjoyable, some even leaving me energized, euphoric.

When I put myself in the position of the archivist in the author’s anecdote, I’m reminded of the numerous times in teaching, in serving, and at the reference desk that a student, customer, or patron has asked something of me that I do not owe them or, perhaps worse, they’ve expected something of me without explicitly asking for it. When the expectation in the business world (or the university classroom) is to satisfy the customer at any cost, I’ve had a tendency to allow my personal boundaries to fall away in service to another. At the first hint of dissatisfaction, I’m bending over backwards to anticipate and interpret the customer’s needs and desires. By force of habit, I’ve carried some of these tendencies from the other world into the library, and certainly, I’m not alone. This is where I start to wonder how and where to draw the line between public services at a library and customer service in a business.

What distinguishes one kind of service from the other? What can I do as a librarian-in-training to emphasize the interactional nature of reference service and to move away from the business-like transaction wherein the reference worker is positioned as the gatekeeper of resources (as the young scholar imagined) and also as the customer service worker who must sell their good service and their positive emotional state for the sake of the patron’s satisfaction?

I’m not sure that I have concrete answers to these questions, but at the very least, we can start by naming emotional labor for what it is and then providing space to account for it and setting limits on how we employ it, all as a form of self-care and burnout prevention.

Here are a few readings that I’ve recently come across that may be useful starting points in approaching these questions:

#critlib chat: Working from within the system to create change
The library as a stuck place: Critical pedagogy in the corporate university
Work for hire: Library publishing, scholarly communication, and academic freedom
Into the Caldron: Neoliberalism, Ideology, Education, and Life Itself

-Leah Cover