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.



Do I Really Want To Be A Librarian?

Career Advice (via quinn.anya on Flickr)

The start of the school year is a good time to refocus – on initiatives, priorities, and most importantly, on your direction and career. With students back, the start of a new year can be really energizing, but it can also be draining and overwhelming especially if your energies are focused in unproductive directions.

There was a great thread in the ALA Think Tank (join this amazing group!) several weeks ago in which someone asked others about having mixed feelings and angst about librarianship. I loved the post and all the answers because they were so authentic and sincere. These are very real, genuine questions that I know I have dealt with and that we all have to deal with as librarians and as professionals. Does my work satisfy me? Is my work fulfilling? Do I really want to be a librarian?

Sometimes librarianship can seem like a cult. There are a lot of passionate, excited people talking about how great the profession is. This can make the profession really fun, but not everyone has completely drunk the kool-aid. While it’s nice to have colleagues who love their work, it can also make it hard to do this questioning. You can feel out of place or crazy asking “do I actually want to be a librarian?”

But these are important questions and part of being a professional is taking time to reflect on them, refocus, and sometimes even find a different job or career.  This reflection isn’t just limited to librarians though. I know people in other careers from college age to people in their 50s that ask these same questions. These are questions that you need to spend time on, but they are also not just one time questions. They’re important at different points in our careers and lives and should be asked multiple times. You need to find your own answers, not simply what everyone around you is saying.

Like everyone, there have been times when I have been less than satisfied in the work I was doing. I have been in funks or have been frustrated with the way things were going. I have found these situations to be enlightening though. These are opportunities to learn about yourself and what you value.

One line of questioning I’ve found helpful is asking “what do I love doing?” “When am I most excited and engaged at work?” Do you love working one on one with users? Collaborating with others? Designing events, or projects, or lessons? This can help give you insight into what your strengths are and what gives life for you. You can then focus on and leverage those strengths which will often help you become more fulfilled and effective. If you love collaborating, can you create a project-based team? Or based on your strengths are there different areas in your position that you could direct your energy? Are there other positions where you can capitalize on those strengths?

Sometimes though, there may be bigger issues or things outside your control (organization, management, culture, etc.) that refocusing just can’t fix. In situations like this it’s important to recognize that there are things you can’t control and fighting them will only frustrate you. You may also find that librarianship is simply not for you. Like anything else it has it’s own challenges and not everyone gets excited or passionate about it. Ultimately you have to find a place where your strengths can flourish and be directed towards something important to you.

I don’t feel like I have to be a librarian. I could be a million other things. Through reflection and asking these difficult questions though I’ve recognized that I am passionate about curiosity, personal growth and understanding, lifelong learning, and serving others. I could pursue these passions a number of different ways, but for right now librarianship is a pretty damn good fit.

Do you struggle with these questions? Does your work satisfy you? What’s helpful for you when you reflect on these issues?



4 Reasons Librarians Should Join A MOOC

Notes from an Online Class

Me learning math and whatnot

I am now in my fourth week of a Coursera course called Introduction to Finance. It’s a massively open online course (MOOC) that I am taking with thousands of other people from places like Ukraine, Malaysia, Indore, and Bogota. The class involves video lectures, working through problems, discussion forums with other classmates, quizzes, and even math. And even though I’m not quantitatively inclined, I am loving taking this course despite the work and number crunching. It was something outside of my training and education, and it gave me the opportunity to open myself up to a different perspective. There are a lot of good reasons though for librarians to sign up for a MOOC themselves. Here are a few:

Explore Innovations in Higher Education

There is no shortage of talk about new experiments and especially disruption in higher education. There are a lot of amazing startups, projects, and ideas that are gaining traction in the realm of education. Higher education, due to the high costs and new available methods of delivery will continue to change and evolve rapidly, and it’s important to be aware of those changes. Instead of waiting on the sidelines to see what happens, by enrolling in a MOOC or exploring other higher ed innovations, librarians can be an active participant and contributor to the future of higher education.

Update Your Skills

We can’t learn everything in library school and there are other things I wish I had learned there. But luckily librarianship is the ultimate extensible profession. We are good at learning and, MOOCs are one way that we can gain skills and competencies that would enhance our work. There’s a wealth of classes available that could be extremely useful in librarianship. We could understand how to make decisions based on data, learn how to code, study applying game elements to non-game problems, or even design our own class and learn from one another.

Learn From Great Teachers

The professor for my finance class, Gautam Kaul, is a professor at Michigan and has won various awards for teaching and research. More importantly he is a great teacher. He is authentic and brings passion for his subject into the class. He says things like “my role is to show you the beauty of finance,” and “learning happens when you’re happy.” He talks about finance, but also life and love and even pokes a little fun at accounting. I have learned finance concepts under his coaching, but I have learned from him as a teacher. As educators, librarians can learn a great deal in observing other teachers and how they structure classes, deliver content, and relate with their students. When taking a MOOC the learning is important, but observing the teaching can be equally rewarding.

Do Something For Yourself

It’s important to take care of yourself, develop yourself, and recharge. Similar to choosing to do yoga, enrolling in a pottery class, or taking up photography, finding a class you are interested in online is a way for you to challenge yourself and try something new. It’s not necessary to take anything even remotely related to your career. There are classes on mythology, philosophy, or even a beginner’s guide to irrational behavior (which might help in some of those faculty senate meetings). MOOCs are another way to explore yourself and your interests in a new and low investment way.

Taking a MOOC, like other learning, can be genuinely rewarding. Last week I was studying in a Barnes and Noble and got excited (probably causing-a-minor-scene-excited) when I worked through a really difficult example that the professor put up and was able to actually go through it step by step, understand it, and get the correct answer without looking. Learning can, and should be, fun and exciting especially now that the options for learning are increasing. If you’re interested in learning more about the future of higher education, you’re in luck. There’s MOOC starting up in October from some of the pioneers in large open online classes including George Siemens. The class is called Current/Future State of Higher Education, and I’m already signed up. Hopefully I see you online.