Recently, I was thinking about the idea of craftsmanship in library work when I came across the Japanese concept of shokunin. While the term historically applied to many types of handicraft, in its current usage it implies a certain level of artistry, wisdom, and skill in working with objects: a level that can only be gained through a lifetime of introspection and practice and through repeating the same task thousands of times over until it is done in just the right way.
Since shokunin specifically applies to working with physical objects, it’s difficult to apply it to library work. Except in rare cases (perhaps cataloging and restoration/preservation work), librarians don’t repeat the same tasks over and over again. At least, not in the same way each time.
In the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the story of Jiro Ono, chef-owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro and a recognized shokunin, the food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto tries to outline Jiro’s work ethic:
Take your work seriously
Aspire to improve
Be a better leader than a collaborator (aka, never be satisfied)
Be passionate about your work
Now here is something that I can apply to my work as a librarian. While I don’t know that I could ever attain a level of perfection equivalent to the idea of shokunin, through force of habit I can in the least put these same practices to work. (Admittedly, #3 doesn’t exactly apply but perhaps we could take it metaphorically to mean “orderliness of mind”).
Habit has been on my mind much of late. With a newborn now in my care, time is more precious than ever and yet the ability to schedule any type of professional development outside of work has proved… difficult. But I believe (and experience has taught me) that through small habits we can do great things. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, says:
We tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period, and underestimate what we can do over a long period, provided we work slowly and consistently. Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth-century writer who managed to be a prolific novelist while also revolutionizing the British postal system, observed, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity. (via Brian Pickings).
And so I’m trying to develop a game plan. Nothing drastic. I simply want to try to set aside a few minutes at various points of the day to do simple tasks: reading, writing, meditating, reflecting, having a conversation with a colleague about an important issue. Little things that taken en masse could make a world of difference. In a few decades (long term planning!). Perhaps in this way I can aspire and reach toward some level of artistry when it comes to the work that I so love to do.
Last week, Nina McHale told us why she’s breaking up with libraries. Nina is currently the Assistant Systems Administrator for the Arapahoe Library District but will soon be moving into non-library work with Aten Design Group. While my interactions with Nina have been predominantly through online professional groups, I’ve come to know her as a highly talented, creative web designer. The loss to our community is significant and one we shouldn’t be too quick to write off.
Nina notes two major reasons for her decision to leave LibraryLand: finances and a general frustration with technology.
Like Nina, I live in a two-income family. We just had our first child. While we could probably live on my wife’s income alone (though not without sacrifice), we certainly could not live off what I make as a paraprofessional at a private university. Well, perhaps if we sold the house and moved into a 2-bedroom apartment in the Valley. Maybe.
As Nina points out, salaries for librarians often go for much less than the median pay for positions in other fields that require similar skills.
I knew going into my MSLS that I wasn’t going to get rich working in libraries, but accepting less than I’m worth puts undue strain on our family finances. I’m not willing to be a martyr for my profession if it means compromising what I want out of life for myself, my husband, and our kids.
If we want to keep talented, creative people on staff, we don’t have to pay them exorbitantly, but we have to pay them enough so that they don’t have to worry about it.
Nina also points out the lack of technological innovation. We spend millions of dollars on products that fail to provide decent user experiences and rather than demanding changes or working together to collectively build a better product, we acquiesce and continue to pay for substandard ones. As one commenter on Nina’s post put it, why didn’t librarians invent Yahoo in the 90s? We could have. We should have.
We sacrifice instead of create. We compromise instead of improvise. We undersell our worth and consequently are underpaid for it.
It’s been a year since I finished my MLIS degree. I am still working in the same position for the same pay (adjusted for inflation). As I see it, until I’m able to move into a position that makes full use of my degree, every day worked is a loss of potential earnings.
Don’t misunderstand me, I love the work I do, but as Nina points out, “we are so eager to please that we kill ourselves helping people for compensation that’s all too often below the country’s median salary.” Eventually, the need to provide for our own will catch up with us and at that time if there is a shiny job in a different market, can you blame us for leaving?
On Sunday during ALA Midwinter this past month, the ACRL New Members Discussion Group hosted a moderated panel entitled, “Back in the Stacks: Bringing professional organizations into professional life.” If you missed the session, I’ve posted the session notes to our ALA Connect space. Special thanks to Elizabeth DeBold from UNC-Chapel Hill for recording the conversation. Without her, we wouldn’t be able to make these notes available. =)
If you’re attending ALA Midwinter next week, I hope you’ll join the ACRL New Members Discussion Group for a moderated panel on the role of professional organizations in the professional life of academic librarians. The panel will be Sunday, January 27 at 10:30 in the Westin Hotel, Elliot Bay. Tyler Dzuba of the University of Rochester, River Campus libraries will be moderating a panel that will include:
Suzy Palmer, Dean of the Greenwood Library at Longwood University
Coral Sheldon-Hess, Web Services Librarian at the University of Alaska Anchorage
Nan Schichtel, Information Literacy & Outreach Librarian at Grand Rapids (MI) Community College
Gene Springs, Business Information Services Librarian at Rutgers University Libraries.
Where is the common ground between our roles in organizations like ACRL and our day-to-day work as academic librarians? How can we translate our professional service into practical skills from 9 to 5? Join ACRL’s New Members Discussion Group in a moderated conversation about the relationship between our professional careers and our day jobs. A panel of four academic librarians will share their experiences, offer advice, and answer questions. We hope you’ll join us!
This year, as you think about your resolutions (or “projects”), consider enrolling in a MOOC or taking a self-directed course of study online. Why? Especially as academic librarians, I believe we ought to be familiar with these emerging landscapes of instruction. We may find ourselves there one day or, in the least, we will certainly encounter students who have been there.
Here is a list of course catalogs to get you started:
Panel Title: “Back in the Stacks: Bringing Professional Organizations into Professional Life”
ALA Midwinter Conference
Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 10:30am-11:30am
Room Location TBA
Where is the common ground between our roles in organizations like ACRL and our day-to-day work as academic librarians? How can we translate our professional service into practical skills during the 9 to 5?
ACRL’s New Members Discussion Group is seeking panelists for our upcoming moderated conversation at ALA Midwinter 2013, which will discuss the relationship between our professional careers and our day jobs.
Topics may include leveraging organizational experience at work (or vice versa), balancing one’s job and one’s professional involvement, getting involved on a small budget, publishing or presenting about the workplace at conferences, maintaining a professional network to improve one’s work performance, and more. Be creative! The dynamics of the discussion will be driven by the unique experiences of the panelists.
If you are interested in speaking on this panel, please complete the submission form available at:
I have a pile of ACRL and ALA publications on my desk at work that I’ve been neglecting for months. Today, I decided to pick up the latest College & Research Libraries News to browse through during an unusually quiet lunch break. After reading an article on leadership by Steven Bell and another on gaming by Bohyun Kim, I realized (read: rediscovered) how much I love reading good work. Concise, well-written, inspiring work. I also realized something more dire: I’ve been letting myself go. I’ve neglected my reading diet these last few months.
This past summer was the season of convergence. Everything came to head, a number of opportunities presented themselves, life took some unexpected turns, and I was forced to do something that I rarely do: say no.
You see, one of the pleasant aspects of my job as a library supervisor at USC is its flexibility. When I hire the right people, train them well, and give them the autonomy they require to do good work, I have the option of turning my time and attention to the aspects of library work that interest me the most: reference and instruction, scholarly communication, the role of technology in IHEs, collaborating with colleagues, developing workshops, strategic planning, and the information needs of individual patrons (to name a few). I still spend the majority of my work day cataloging, but there is always a bit of time left over for more.* And when I run out of time, I rarely hesitate to work off-the-clock.
Scattering myself every which way requires many things: motivation, ambition, the support of friends and colleagues, etc., but at a more basic level it requires, quite simply, energy. And I’ve been seriously lacking that of late. I started a light chemotherapy regimen in July for a non-cancer-related issue and the medication leaves me completely exhausted (and often sick) at the end of the day. Who goes to bed at 8pm and sleeps for 10 hours? This guy.
The details are boring (other than the fact that one side effect is an aversion to coffee… which doesn’t help!) but suffice it to say that I haven’t been my usual busybody self.
But that is changing.
The side effects (as I was told) are supposed to subside after two months and I’m finding it easier to push myself again. Which leads me back to what I began with: reading well. When it comes to deciding what to read, I usually oscillate between what bubbles to the top of my social media streams and what I consciously set out to read/review on a regular schedule. Lately, I’ve been relying entirely on the former and have been finding it… lack-luster. Much of the work published in the latter category simply isn’t rising to the top. Granted, I probably need to update my filters, but to me this illustrates a greater need to actively curate my professional development, rather than letting the professional conversation curate me.
Reading well… reading better… inspires me to work harder, to do better, to make it happen, to level up, etc. etc. At some point, you have to put the book down and walk out into the world, but it’s not a bad place to start.
*It also helps that I have the blessing of my supervisor to expand my professional experiences and participate in non-cataloging work.
This weekend, the California Library Association’s Student Interest Group sponsored a collaborative, informal workshop on professional development. The event was headed up by Young Lee and I served as one of the panelists along with Cynthia, Mary, and Allison. We spent a good amount of time talking about networking and getting the most out of professional organizations so I thought I would share some of what we discussed. Here is a brief slideshow (with storm troopers).* Main points and bullets below.
1. Join digital communities. Great way to keep up with the latest discourse and trends. Also a way to introduce yourself to others in field and begin building relationship that can flourish IRL. Specific communities mentioned included: ALA ThinkTank, active listservs, and #libchat on Twitter.
2. Give away your time for free. We didn’t get into this profession for the money. Your best work will often be “off the clock” (cf. the invisible college). Develop your reputation as a willing leader and dependable colleague.
3. Build something. Eventually, you want to be know for what you can ship. Thankfully, we live in a startup-friendly culture that encourages fast prototyping and beta stages. Be willing to fail, but also be willing to put as much out there as you can until something sticks. You are what you make.
4. Build you own community. Determine what your own interests are and build communities around them (cloning yourself helps). Leverage the low cost of digital technologies to bring interested parties together to work on #3 above.
5. Limit yourself. It easy to spread yourself thin in our profession. Limit the number of professional organizations you work with so that you have the time and attention to dive into the nitty-gritty of each. Also, consider alternating the perspective from which you interact with the organization: top-down vs. bottom-up, e.g. get involved with the leadership of one organization and the ground work of another.
*Ok, so actually this was a presentation I prepared but didn’t have the chance to present. But these slides were too much fun to just cast aside so I hope you enjoy them.
Congratulations to all the graduates of San Jose State University’s SLIS program that walked across the stage (IRL or virtually) this past weekend. I look forward to working with many of you in the years to come and hope to hear no end to the great work you’ll do.
I’ve been reading Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. In one chapter, he describes the campus layout of Pixar Animation Studios up north of Oakland. At the center of the facility is a vast, open space that Lehrer calls “the atrium.” It’s a place where employees come together on their way to coffee/lunch/bar/bathroom. Having the atrium (and all the connecting facilities) centrally located within the Pixar campus, employees encounter each other unexpectedly and often. As a result, these serendipitous encounters more often than not lead to creative thought and innovative conversations (in other words, solutions).
The concept behind the atrium is related to the idea of “third space”: that place which is neither work nor home, but fluid, interactive, and energized (also, usually fueled by caffeine and alcohol; cf. the coffeehouses of France and the pubs of England in the eighteenth century). Lehrer cites the research of Tom Allen, professor of organization studies at MIT, who discovered that the highest-performing employees in an organization (i.e. “those with the most useful new ideas”) where those that had the most interactions with colleagues. Lehrer concludes:
This suggests that the most important place in every office is not the boardroom, or the lab, or the library. It’s the coffee machine.
As librarians, we know this. We’ve been talkingforyears about the importance of creating “third spaces,” especially in the form of Information Commons that inspire collaboration and help our users to seamlessly interact with information, technology, and each other.
But what about the librarians? Where are our third spaces?
I work for university library system that includes 14 distinct library buildings. Like many multi-branch university libraries, the division of our collections mirrors the academic structure of the university (e.g. the science library, the music library) and the needs of the collection (e.g. rare books, low-use materials, high-use materials). Accordingly, our staffing structure is predominantly based on these divisions, with some overlap for services like library IT and instruction.
Our collections (and the buildings that house them) are not going anywhere anytime soon. So where is our atrium? Where can we have the type of serendipitous run-ins that Pixar Studios has managed to facilitate? It takes me 15 minutes to walk to the closest branch from my library. I don’t exactly have the time to constantly be traveling across campus.
Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking about this for some time now. I’ve been wondering how it might be possible in a multi-branch system to get librarians to bump into each other on a daily basis with the intent that conversations will happen, ideas will get out into the open, and the organization can begin to transform itself into a more nimble, vibrant entity.
Here are a few suggestions:
1) Create a Virtual Water Cooler
Librarians spend much of their time in front of a computer. But despite how easy it is to have conversations online, most employees only communicate via email. Why not create an always-open virtual space for library employees similar to IRC chat, the online classroom, or a Facebook group? Furthermore, encourage employees to stay logged in as long as their “on the clock.” All conversation would be public and open to anyone who wanted to join in. Librarians could use the virtual space to ask for help, share news, invite colleagues to events, throw out ideas, or just shoot the breeze.
2) Schedule Weekly Mobile Coffee-Breaks
Every week, one library branch sponsors a coffee break and invites all librarians to attend. The cost of coffee is minimal and if there is a concern about desk coverage, well, then have the coffee set up at the reference desk. Who knows: you may even have some students join the conversation.
3) Start a Lunch-n-Learn Series
One a month, sponsor a 1-hour bring-your-own lunch event that allows librarians to share their experiences and ideas with their colleagues. This could be set up as a formal lecture or a round-table discussion. We recently started this at MPOW and it has been a huge success.
4) Break Down Those Cubicle/Office Walls
While I recognize the need for private meetings spaces, the structure of many offices makes it too easy for librarians to huddle in their offices/cubicles. Let’s take a cue from other creative industries (this and this and this and this) and open up our work spaces to light and conversation.
What you can do as individual librarians:
1) Take it outside
As a rule, I never eat lunch at my desk. If I have to work while I eat, I either take my laptop with me or print out what I need. Nine times out of ten, I’ll run into someone I work with and start having a conversation. This usually turns out to be more beneficial than working through my lunch. ;-)
2) Make house calls
Once a week, visit a different colleague. Maybe there is someone you haven’t seen in a few days (weeks?). Maybe you heard that a colleague won an award or published a paper. Stop by just to say congrats. At worst, you’ll just be “that really nice guy who always stops by.”
3) Attend university events
Go listen to a lecture. Watch the marching band perform. Check out the unveiling of the new statue on campus. You never know who you might run into!
I could go on, but I want to hear from you, dear reader…
What do you do as a librarian to create spaces for conversation within your institutions? What barriers have you encountered?