By Meredith Farkas | February 17, 2008
Since our Coordinator of Public Services left, I’ve been the liaison to the social sciences along with being the liaison to the School of Graduate Studies (whose programs are all online). That means that I’m basically the liaison to over 2/3 of the Norwich population, but it made good sense because of my strong background in the social sciences. Naturally, when you add significant responsibilities onto an already full workload, something has to give.
I’d actually written a few weeks ago about a service I was thinking about discontinuing because it wasn’t having the results we’d hoped for. That program was our embedded librarian service where I was embedded (with a discussion board) in 14 classrooms for 4 academic programs. I used the opportunity to provide instruction in addition to answering the questions I got from students. I though it would be good for students to get their questions answered in a public forum because then the answers would benefit the entire class.
Unfortunately, I got very few questions from students and about half of them ended up asking me for help through WebCT email, defeating the purpose of being in their classroom. There were some classrooms I didn’t get any questions in at all throughout the semester. And it didn’t seem to make a difference whether the professor pushed the library services or not (confounding my hypothesis). In some classrooms where instructors frequently suggested that their students discuss their topics with the librarian, I only had one or two questions. In others where it wasn’t pushed I’d get more questions. Given the time it took me to check 14 separate classrooms each day, it didn’t seem to warrant the effort. So after talking to my supervisor, I decided to discontinue the program, though the instructional content I created for the discussion boards will now be placed within all the classrooms for those programs.
While time constraints were a factor in my decision to discontinue the program, I would have continued no matter what had it been a really useful service for students. The very small number of questions I was getting just didn’t merit the effort I was putting in. I thought that making myself “more available” would lead to more questions from students, but it didn’t. The same number people just now asked the questions in WebCT instead of via email meaning that I had to visit 14 classrooms to answer them instead of doing it from a central reference account. In some ways, it actually served students worse since if they posted to the discussion board and I was out for a few days, no one would get back to them until I returned (versus emailing the reference email account that is checked by multiple librarians 7 days a week).
If I’ve learned one thing from the experience and from student surveys, it is that what our online learners here want most is for access to resources to be as simple and streamlined as possible. They don’t care much about having a librarian available to them; they just want things to work. No matter how available I make myself, there will be people who ask for help and there will be people who won’t. Some students who took classes I was embedded in admitted to me that they didn’t bother to read what I was writing. I realize that I’m far better off focusing my energies on making our services easier to use and having good (brief, easy to find) documentation for when people have problems.
I’ve been feeling in a bit of a rut at work over the past few months. I do enjoy working with the distance learners and doing tech stuff, but there are certain things I’ve been wanting to do more of that really aren’t something a distance learning librarian usually does. One of them is instruction. I love teaching. It’s really been my favorite part of being a librarian, to my great surprise since I dreaded it all through library school. Our distance programs don’t have any synchronous components, so all of the instruction I do for them is in the form of screencasts and HTML tutorials. I have gotten to do a fair bit of instruction with the undergrads over the past few years, but it’s more as a backup for when liaisons are overwhelmed than as the main person focusing on that area. I’ve really been chomping at the bit to do more of it.
The other thing I really have been missing is working with the print collection. I love doing collection development and weeding. As the liaison to online programs, “my collection” was all online and isn’t something you can really purchase on your own or weed at the individual title-level. I’ve gone up into the stacks with colleagues while they weeded because I really love that part of the work we do as librarians. By doing that, you get to know the collection in your area so much better and it’s kind of cathartic to get rid of things that only serve to make the collection look dated.
So I have absolutely loved being the liaison to the social sciences. I like being able to manage our collection and to look for holes in our collection that need to be filled. But most of all, I love teaching. Our Historical Methods course was redesigned for the Spring semester by two of our most enthusiastic faculty members. They really wanted students to get excited about doing research and to really be immersed in the process. As the new liaison, I’ve had the chance to work closely with the faculty and students in the class. In fact, library instruction is really integrated into the course, with four instruction sessions with the library and one with the Norwich history museum.
So far, I’ve gotten to teach students about tertiary sources and Web research (including all the great historical primary source material that can be found there). It’s been fun helping students find reference sources on their topic, seeing their surprise at the existence of Google Books, and marveling at how sharp they were in the activity where I had them determine whether online historical resources were trustworthy and/or cite-able. It’s made me much more aware of what we have in our reference collection in the 900s and 355s and which parts could probably use some beefing up. On Tuesday, I get to teach each of the three Historical Methods sections about the catalog and our databases, and I’m having fun going up into the stacks and picking out popular and peer-reviewed history journals for them to actually leaf through. I’m loving creating course guides and subject guides. It’s sick how much I’m enjoying all this.
These new responsibilities have made me feel recharged. Of course my work day is way more exhausting and I feel like I’m barely keeping my head above water, but I’m loving the fact that I have new challenges and that they’re in areas I really want to be focusing on in my career. I feel like a brand-new librarian again; full of energy, new ideas, and probably a moderate amount of naiveté. I come home from work and want to tell poor Adam all about my day. It’s just nice to feel this excited about my work. I am concerned about what my job responsibilities will look like when we hire a new Coordinator of Public Services, but we have a history at my library of responsibilities getting shuffled around and my Director is really supportive of my getting involved in the social sciences. And if it doesn’t work out, at least I’ll know what sort of work I want to be doing.
I think a lot of people who hit that rut in their career feel like they need to look for another place to work. In some cases, that rut is more about what they do every day at work than their general work environment. I know it’s not possible everywhere to redefine your responsibilities, but it never hurts to ask. A friend of mine was able to get staff training added to her position, which was something she was really keen on doing. Brian Matthews became a User Experience Librarian and shifted his focus towards the things he was really passionate about. Considering the cost of hiring and training a new employee, it would seem easier to shuffle job responsibilities around a bit than to let an employee leave. It isn’t always possible to shift towards things that would get you out of that rut, but if the worst answer you’ll get is “no,” the price of asking about it doesn’t seem so high. And considering that boredom has the same effects as stress on the body, the price of not trying to get out of that rut may be much higher.