Wednesday, March 15, 2017

You're pretty good with words, but words won't save your life

Next week at ACRL, I'm going to be on a panel about gendered expectations for library leaders with a bunch of really wonderful and brilliant people. I wrote a bunch of words that I originally thought I might use on this panel, but which I am not going to use because I am going to use different words. I thought these words were still worth sharing, so here you go.

Stay positive,

An anecdote: in 2015, I attended my first ACRL conference in Portland as a recipient of a mid-career scholarship. While ALCTS, ALA’s technical services division, is my home within ALA, I wanted to attend ACRL to nurture those parts of my interests that are more centered in front-of-the-house academic librarianship. I attended a session and when the convener asked the audience to pair up to discuss a set of prompts, I talked to a very nice library administrator. When we had exhausted the prompts, our conversation turned to the kind of small talk that you make at conferences: where are you from? What do you do?  When my conversation partner learned that I am a cataloger, their response bordered on what I can only describe as incredulity. The conversation concluded quickly after the person said “The catalogers at my library would never attend an event like this.”

While my job duties throughout my career have been centered squarely in cataloging, I have an interest in instruction. In my first job out of library school, the instruction coordinator invited me to teach a library orientation class for a section of our first-year Composition students because she needed more librarians to help carry the load of teaching a lot of classes in a very short amount of time—a feeling that those of you who schedule these kind of classes can probably identify with. I had been a cataloger for several years and while I feel comfortable with my ability to teach people about the search process, I wasn’t sure how good I would be at teaching. While the initial classes I taught were….rough, to put it kindly, it turns out that teaching is something I enjoy. I am fortunate the instruction coordinator was willing to work with me, helping me design lesson plans and feeling confident in the classroom. Seven years later—give or take—and I feel like I’m finally hitting my stride. And I feel lucky that the instruction coordinator for the first-year Biology students at my current library felt comfortable allowing me into the classroom.

When I talk to librarians who work in public-facing roles about my interest in instruction, I hear some variation on the theme of my being an outlier within the cataloging community. Much like in the anecdote I told earlier, they tell me how the catalogers they know would never want to be in a classroom setting or working with students. And while I think they mean well, I’m not sure that these librarians in public-facing roles know how much it makes me feel like an other in the instruction spaces in which I find myself. In July 2014, I wrote a post for Jessica’s blog—Letters to a Young Librarian—in which I described the stereotype that exists about people who work in cataloging, people like me. I wrote that they are seen as being “socially inept, change averse, unfriendly, rigid, detail-oriented to a fault, bad communicators, uncompromising, rule-bound, and territorial.” What I imagine the librarians in public-facing roles who tell me what an anomaly I am are actually saying is, it’s okay that you’re a cataloging because you’re not that kind of cataloger.

Every time that someone points out that I am an other in the instruction spaces in which I find myself, I feel self-conscious. And my sense of being an other in those spaces definitely impacts how I exist in them. As I prepare to teach classes, I worry that my lessons aren’t pedagogically sound enough or that my activities won’t hold the attention of the students I’m working with. When I talk with the other librarians at my library doing orientation for first-year Biology students, I defer to them because they have far more classroom experience than I do.  I think it’s fair to say that more often than not, in instruction spaces, imposter syndrome gets the best of me.

Add to that the fact that I identify strongly with how Jessica and Michelle described themselves in the article they wrote for In the Library With a Lead Pipe: two women who do not fit the stereotype of overly warm or nice but both consider themselves to be empathic, kind, and effective. I know my strengths—I am empathetic and wonkish, caring deeply about process and about the places where processes and people intersect. And while I am sometimes not the best communicator, I am an engaged listener who loves hearing people’s ideas and finding ways to connect those threads. But when I enter these spaces in which I am an other, I worry about how my not being overly warm translates to those with whom I interact. I worry that I come off as aloof or standoffish, so I go out of my way to be kind.

I want to pause to acknowledge the places where my gender intersects with my more privileged identities. Being white, cisgender, able bodied, and middle class means that I don’t face systemic oppression in the same way as colleagues whose intersecting identities mean that they are members of marginalized communities. In fact, it’s my privileged identities that allow me entry into instruction spaces when those activities when they are not part of my job duties.  And while it’s hurtful to be reminded that I am an other in the instruction spaces in which I find myself, I cannot, and will not, compare the way I’m treated as a cataloger in instruction spaces to the microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations that our colleagues from marginalized communities face for simply existing in LIS spaces.

Honestly, my experience as a cataloger in instruction spaces has been filled as much sunshine as gloom—more, even. The librarians I have met in instruction spaces have been gracious with their time, their knowledge, and their resources. I can’t begin to count the number of times I have talked through a lesson plan with Michelle and incorporated her feedback to improve the class. So here’s what I would say: to the librarians in back-room roles (IT, collection development, technical services) with interests in traditionally public-facing tasks—you belong in those spaces. You have good ideas an work experiences that will be beneficial to your public-facing librarian colleagues, so share them. And to public-facing librarians—welcome your colleagues from back-room roles. Be gracious with your time and your knowledge and offer radical hospitality.  There is room in the conversation for everyone.


Alison Hitchens said...

thanks for this! The comment "The catalogers at my library would never attend an event like this.”" is interesting. Does the person mean the cataloguers wouldn't want to attend? that they don't have the opportunity to attend? that they don't know ACRL conference exists? that it hasn't occurred to them they would be allowed to attend? So many questions in my head from that one quote. As a library manager I don't always succeed but try to find out what other things people are interested in and how we can support those things, whether it is through different responsibilities, committee roles, conferences etc. I really wonder how much of it is that it hasn't occurred to them they would be allowed to attend.

DiLina said...

Time counter until summer will define how many days, hours, minutes and seconds are left until next summer.