Feeling Busy? Stay Close To Your Roots


image via khowaga1 on Flickr

It’s that time of the academic year when everyone is busy. At Champlain we’ve been having a lot of conversations about faculty workload and about how course load, advising, service, professional development keep growing as we try to do more and more. Librarians here also wear a lot of hats. Almost all of us teach, we all do reference, we serve on committees and are involved with campus initiatives, all in addition to our regular job duties. And students might be some of the busiest among us. They have various classes, jobs, internships, clubs, organizations, and important socializing to do.

In all of these cases, it can lead to a very transactional view of the work we’re doing. Instead of seeing the big picture of a class assignment, stepping back to understand why we’re doing something, or thinking strategically, we accomplish task after task, simply trying to put out fires without asking where it is leading us. There are several reasons for this. First, we continually take on new projects and tasks because we want to serve students, or add something to our resume, or because it sounds fun. Second, we don’t reexamine things that we are currently doing because they have “always been done that way” or they simply become routine and easy to miss.

“As with a tree, the more of it there is, the farther it is from it’s roots. The less of it there is, the closer it is to it’s roots.” – Wang Pi

Librarians are very service oriented and want to help, but constantly taking things on can lead to over-extension, loss of effectiveness, and ultimately burnout. We need to balance our desire to serve others with our need to take care of ourselves and maintain our effectiveness. There are several strategies that can help with this:

Say yes…strategically

At Champlain we had a presentation the other night from a group of interim deans and consultants giving us their perspective from the outside. They said that we have a “culture of yes” at our institution. A culture of saying yes is a much better environment to work in than a culture of saying no. It makes work more fun and can be a big strength in serving our students. But when we overuse strengths they can become weaknesses. While it’s important to have a culture of yes, say yes strategically. When you say no you can say, “this sounds like a great opportunity, but with what I have currently I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to give it the attention it deserves.”

Ask “does this add value?”

I’ve almost finished The Lean Startup and the really important question that Eric Ries asks is “which of our efforts are value creating and which are wasteful?” Are we solving library problems or the problems of our students and faculty? We have limited resources in terms of time and budget. Are they being used in ways that are benefiting our users? Could they be used more effectively elsewhere? We need to focus on services and initiatives that people need and want. As the economist Thomas Sowell succinctly put it, “Producing things people don’t want is a road that ultimately leads to the bankruptcy court.” In the case of libraries it means becoming irrelevant.

What can you drop, automate, delegate or reorganize?

I’ve talked here before about reducing clutter and asked the question what can we drop? Dropping things can sometimes be difficult because it may involve tradition or someone’s territory. But there are other ways to drop things. Are there different workflows or organizational structures that will do the same things more efficiently? Can tasks be delegated or automated? Perfection is the enemy of good enough. If someone else (or an automated process) can do something 80% as effective as you can, delegate.

Focus on what’s important but not urgent

“If you were to do one thing in your professional work that you know would have enormously positive effects on the results, what would it be?” The effectiveness guru Stephen Covey says that our time is best spent on things that are important but not-urgent. These are the things that we believe will be really beneficial but we never seem to get to. Instead they get shifted to the backburner while we attend to what is urgent and get in the habit of putting out fires. By carving out time to focus on things that are high impact as opposed to urgent, we can use our time more effectively and we won’t have as many crises.

To maintain sustainability in our work lives, not feel overwhelmed, combat burnout, and avoid the busy trap, it’s crucial that we don’t simply put our professional work on autopilot. We need to regularly step back and see the bigger picture of our work. What do I really want to accomplish? Why am I doing this? Is this adding value to students, faculty, or other community members? Do I have to do this or do it this way? We need to slow down sometimes and we need to take care of ourselves, or else we’ll do a poor job at serving others.



The One Cover Letter Trick That Will Get You Noticed

Image via scottkellum on Flickr - CC
Image via scottkellum on Flickr – CC

It’s that time of year when upcoming library school grads will be applying for jobs. And while gaining real world experience is extremely important, it is just as important to be able to sell yourself in your application materials. I’ve chaired and been a member of a number of search committees for both librarians and faculty and have read hundreds of resumes. Through this process I’ve learned one simple trick  to make your application stand out among others who might even be more qualified than you. It’s not really a secret, but so few people do it that it might as well be. The trick is similar to advice for a first date. In writing your cover letter:

Don’t talk about you, talk about them.

This might sound a bit backwards. The whole point of a cover letter is to talk about yourself, your experience, and let the search committee know who you are. But this is where just about everybody gets it wrong. The people doing the hiring don’t care about you (don’t take it personally). They care about themselves. How is this candidate going to benefit my organization? How are they going to help us become better? These are the real questions that search committees are asking. So when you focus on yourself and what you’ve done in the past it makes it that much more difficult for the search committee to picture you at your organization.

Of course they want to know about your experience, but put it in the context of them. Instead, just tell them what you working there would look like! Instead of saying “I’ve taught numerous information literacy sessions using active learning techniques,” say something like “My significant teaching experience using active learning in the classroom would be an asset as you’re trying to grow your information literacy curriculum.” Instead of saying, “As part of a class I created video tutorials for use in undergraduate instruction,” say “I’d love to bring my knowledge of creating engaging video tutorials to help enhance your instruction and web presence.” It’s only a slight shift but it makes all the difference.

Search committees are dense, lazy, and have dozens of applications to read through. Instead of making them work to imagine you at their institution, do the work for them. Instead of assuming they will make the mental leaps between your experience and their needs, make that connection for them. It will make their job easier and set you apart from everyone else. They’ll already be able to see how you fit because you’ll have told them.

If you focus your cover letter on them first and within that context discuss how your talents, experience, and attitude will enhance the work they’re trying to do, you’ll already be ahead of the game.

You can get other cover letter ideas at this awesome library cover letter project. Are there other tricks, tips or advice that you’d give to new grads and others preparing for the job search?


What’s Right With Libraries?

changing life bulbs

image via DyanaVphotos on Flickr

There are no shortage of problems in librarianship. Publisher’s and libraries are wrangling over ebooks. Higher education and the academy is under siege. There are regularly stories of funding cuts. And apparently libraries are in crisis. It’s easy to see only what’s wrong and what problems are facing us, especially if that is what we are looking for. But what if we flipped that around?

What if instead of only focusing on solving problems, we focused on creative initiatives happening right now? What if instead of putting out fires we looked at proactive ideas to the issues facing us? What if in the place of managing crises, we looked at the distinct strengths of and the vast human potential of libraries and started building there?

There are clearly challenges facing libraries, and they can’t be ignored, but we default to looking at the problems and become overwhelmed. Instead of focusing on deficits and what is wrong with libraries, we need to look at the myriad opportunities for innovation and build on what is going right in libraries. This is a shift in perspective that could make a significant change, but it also takes a shift in action.

What could we do to shift our organizations, workplaces, and selves from problem and deficit-based thinking to potential and strength-based thinking?

Ask Better Questions

The questions we repeatedly ask determine where we direct our energy. If we ask in meetings or in strategic planning, questions like “how can we better market our services” or “how can we improve our service” then we’ll likely get incremental improvement with more problems following closely on the heels of those questions. But if instead we are constantly asking “how can we inspire human curiosity,” or “how can we be radically relevant to our users lives,” or “how can we amaze people everyday,” we are more likely to get transformational change. In questioning, we need to start with what we genuinely want, not what we want less of. “Don’t think about better vacuum cleaners, think about cleaner floors.” Asking better questions, like in Brian Mathews’ recent whitepaper Think Like a Startup, is the first step to coming up with better, revolutionary answers.

Build on Strengths

The management guru Peter Drucker said “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths, making our weaknesses irrelevant.” Too often we spend time trying to improve our weaknesses, and correct what’s wrong. There are so many things that libraries don’t do well, and that’s fine. But if we spend our energy focusing on what we do poorly it will be wasted. Libraries and librarians have distinct strengths like nurturing curiosity and creating unrecognized connections. If we can identify and amplify those current strengths our work will be much more focused, and the resources and services we provide will be much more effective.

Create Potential Rich Work Environments

Daniel Pink in his book Drive talks about two different ways of looking at work and motivation. In the first type (Type X) motivation stems from external desires and rewards. In the second type (Type I) motivation arises intrinsically out of challenge and a sense of meaning. Librarianship is a career path obviously focused more on the intrinsic rewards and the moments that make it all worth it, but work is not always structured that way. Instead of focusing on purpose or challenge we get caught in the day to day of maintaining the systems, answering emails, and teaching classes. What if we could find strategies that regularly got us out of our routines and got us focused on why and challenging us to grow? What if we instituted a FedEx day for our next work retreat where the point was to create a new service or offering in the course of a day? Library leaders need to find ways to focus on not only maintaining and getting our daily tasks done but connecting our work to the powerful reasons we got into this profession in the first place.

There are plenty of voices asking what’s wrong, what’s broken in libraries. A much more generative question is what’s right with libraries, and how can we start building there?