Service work is broken

Here’s my hot take: Service on library committees should be required for all library employees.

Relying on committees to accomplish work that is operationally necessary to the library, while also expecting (read: allowing) those committee seats to be filled by “volunteers” is a recipe for failure.

“But, if it’s required then it’s not service!” Don’t worry, I’ll get to that.

Here’s the problem: Some employees volunteer for too many committees and often do so repeatedly. On the flip side, some employees never volunteer for any committees. As a result, the same group of people tend to run the committee culture of the library year after year. To say nothing of the limited bandwidth of those employees who over-extend their service work. This becomes especially problematic when committees that are essential for library operations cannot be adequately staffed because of staff turnover, burnout, or overwork.

A case study

Recently, I ran the numbers on the committee rosters at my library. At MPOW, people serve on anywhere from 0 to 6 committees. A handful of folks serve on 5-6 committees. A handful more serve on 0-1 committee. Surprisingly, there are much fewer who serve on 2-4 committees. It’s an inverse bell curve.

Obviously, this is not an equitable distribution of labor. Setting aside for a moment the complicating factor of ex officio appointments, one would hope to see a more even distribution of committee appointments. When committee membership, however, is based entirely on volunteers, this is what you get: a handful of people carrying the bulk of the labor. Not surprisingly, the people serving on 5-6 committees tend to be the ones who also serve continually year to year. (How they manage to get any of their day-to-day work done is beyond me… speaking as someone who used to fall into that 5-6 group).

A proposal

Let’s say an organization has 50 library staff. Let’s also say there are 20 committees (working groups, task forces, etc.) with 5 seats on each. Ideally, each employee would serve on 2 committees. That would be enough to cover the labor needed to staff all of those groups.

“But, if it’s required then it’s not service!” Ok, let’s address this part.

With the exception of ex officio appointments, no one would be required to serve on a specific committee. In fact, there would be no guarantee you would serve on the committee of your preference. So in this regard, there is still the potential to do work above and beyond your job description. Secondly, each committee would have designated roles: chair, vice chair, secretary, archivist, etc. Thus, there would still be opportunities for leadership and work beyond simply showing up to the meetings and contributing to the conversation.

Mix it up

We could make this even more interesting. Here are a few ideas:

Term limits: No one could serve on the same committee for more than three years or two terms, whichever comes first. Three years is enough time to get up to speed and get into a groove. Not only does this have the added benefit of keeping certain folks from running the show, it bakes diversity into the whole system, ensuring that new ideas can arise through new combinations of people. Moreover, it allows more people the ability to experience a wider range of library operations, thus deepening institutional knowledge.

Directors/managers can’t be chair: Academic libraries outside the R1s suffer from a lack of opportunities for leadership. What if department heads, deans, and/or directors were not allowed to be committee chairs? Chairing committees could be a leadership opportunity that is exclusively set aside for non-management staff, allowing them the opportunity to hone those skills.

Opt-outs and overages require approval: Because our main goal is an equitable distribution of labor, serving on fewer than or more than 2 committees (or whatever the expectation is) would require justification and approval.

Rotating seats for ad-hoc committees: Throughout the year, new task forces or new working groups may need to be formed. Instead of once again asking for volunteers and seeing the same folks as always step forward, appoint seats based on a rotating roster. So if a search committee needs to be formed, you can appoint 5 people above their 2-committee limits, but the next time a search committee needs to be formed, you cannot go back to those 5 people until you’ve cycled through the whole employee roster. This way, you avoid the same people always working overage each year.

Ex officio

There is still the problem of ex officio appointments: people who serve on committees because of their role in the organization. For example, as the Head of Outreach, I sit ex officio on my library’s Outreach and Engagement Coordinating Committee. Similarly, the Head of Collections sits ex officio on the Collection Development Committee. What exactly is the rationale for those ex officio seats?

If the rationale is so that the lead of that operational unit is a part of those conversations, that could easily be replaced by clearer committee charges and reporting structures. For example, the vice chair of the outreach committee could be tasked with regularly reporting a summary of any meeting to the Head of Outreach; and anything requiring the department head’s approval could be sought at that time. The same would apply to any ex officio appointments that exist for the purpose of liaising.

Final thought

Notedly, this only works in a library where there are more committee seats than employees. This post is a hot take, so I don’t feel obligated to work out all the details or arguments. It’s just been rattling around in my brain for some time. I admit that committees do help to break up the monotony of my work, but when so many are operationally necessary, and yet we can’t fill those seats, then the problem is not in the people, but in the system.

I’m tired of knowing I have too much on my plate only because I’ve gotten to the state of having too much on my plate. 

On arm twisting and outreach work

One of the more difficult aspects of my job as an outreach librarian is the need to wrangle people together for a common cause. This need is constant, recurring, never-ending. There is very little that I do which doesn’t require asking someone else to set aside their time, resources, and/or attention to support a project that I’m working on for the library. My work consists of finding connections between and among others in relation to the library. Though this type of work could be required of any librarian from time to time, it is my daily work.

This frequently puts me at odds with my colleagues. It’s like that meme about everyone’s reaction when the social media person shows up to your office: Shit. Shit. Shit. When I come a calling’, you can be assured that something is about to be added to your plate. For some, this may be invigorating! The novelty of a new project or a new partner. For others, it may be a frustration, especially if there is a sense that one cannot say no.I try to be considerate. When possible, I do some of the groundwork in advance. I provide concrete deadlines, estimates of time needed, and suggestions for how this work could be mutually beneficial.

Ultimately, the job of the outreach librarian is to make connections and promote the library, and like any job, the part that involves people is the hardest part.

Like Doodle, but not Doodle

I hate having to use Doodle, but I love *the idea* of Doodle. Mainly, I like that it puts the power of scheduling in the hands of all parties, not just the meeting organizer.

My place of work uses Outlook calendaring, so with the exception of meetings with external folks, I rarely use Doodle. But why doesn’t a Doodle-like function exist in Office 365!? No, Scheduling Assistant is not the same. How do you know that “free” time on someone’s calendar is really “free”? Just because they don’t have a meeting on their calendar doesn’t mean they’re “available.” Conversely, just because you have something on your calendar, doesn’t mean you’re NOT available: e.g. some folks use their calendars for reminders. So unless everyone is using their calendars in the exact same way, Scheduling Assistant is a crap shoot.

If someone sends me a meeting request, I want to be able to select from a variety of options. If I’m the one scheduling the meeting, I want the attendees to select their preferences as well and have the option to move things around before responding. The problem with Outlook Scheduling Assistant is that it doesn’t give the recipients an active say in the meeting time the organizer selects. Yes, you have the option to propose a new time, but only one proposed time slot can be discussed at a time. And that can quickly get out of hand as the number of meeting attendees increases!

Instead, wouldn’t it be better if I could simply send the recipients a more general “request for meeting.” In the request, I select the range of dates and times (e.g., next week, 20 minutes between hours of 10-4). They could then all respond Doodle-like with their preferences (which would already be populated based on the current calendar, but with the ability to make overrides). As organizer, I would get a list of the best possible options in ranked-order, organized not by something as crude as “free” or “not free”, but by each recipient’s preference. Everyone has buy-in. Similar to ranked-choice voting.

This adds work to the recipients, but it gives everyone more control. It slows things down, but maybe that extra time for reflection (“do I really need this meeting?”) would benefit us all. For people who prefer to be more hands-off, an option to “accept any meetings scheduled in my free time by default” could be an option.

If functionality like I’ve described above exists natively in Outlook and I’m just missing it, please tell me! But don’t give me third-party app/plugin recommendations: it’s no good unless the whole org uses it and I’m NOT at that pay grade.

2021 Héroe Viognier (Paso Robles)

Bottle of wine, glass of wine, and potatoes.

Fresh linen and thick honey on the nose. Light straw colored. Hints of grapefruit, citrus, and freshly rinsed gravel on the tongue. Full-bodied and chewy. A long finish of apple-flavored hard candy. This wine feels vibrant and alive.

Far from the maddening feed

In Cal Newport’s latest article for the New Yorker, he contemplates the future of social media companies in the wake of TikTok’s recent growth. The kernel of the argument is that TikTok’s method for capturing attention (which it does remarkably well) is not rooted in the social graph, something which gives it an advantage over older platforms; and that this essential difference could lead to an arms race that results in a more diffuse social media landscape.

“This all points to a possible future in which social-media giants like Facebook may soon be past their long stretch of dominance. They’ll continue to chase new engagement models, leaving behind the protection of their social graphs, and in doing so eventually succumb to the new competitive pressures this introduces. “

I can imagine a third path: one in which Twitter and Facebook push back toward the local. Part of the original appeal of these platforms was that “all my friends are there.” For libraries, it was a chance to connect directly with local communities.

That experience changed with the emergence of retweets and the news feed. It was no longer just you and your connections: it was all their friends and follows as well. The community got too big. For me, I lost the sight of my closest connections. For libraries, we had to compete with content creators outside our community.

This is why I’ve been hesitant to dive into TikTok. You’re not competing for the attention of your local community. They’re not even part of the equation. You’re just competing with everyone.

If the noise was removed from my feed– if I could find the signal to connect me with the people that matter most– would that pull me back? Would that pull others back? Would libraries find it easier to connect with their communities instead of competing with the content creators of the world?

Outreach competencies, assessing programs, and practical marketing for academic libraries

a room being added to a house

For the past two years, I have set myself to building my CV through publications. That work and intentionality paid off this month when three works of scholarship I co-authored were published all within the same two weeks!

Metzger, R., & Jackson, J. (2022). Developing Competencies for Outreach Work in Academic Libraries. College & Research Libraries, 83(4), 646. doi: https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.83.4.646

Abstract: This research study investigates the behaviors, knowledge, and skills necessary for academic library outreach work. Through a review of published literature, job advertisements, and a survey of library practitioners conducted in the fall of 2020, the authors define and prioritize 18 competencies for outreach. Hiring managers, LIS instructors, and practitioners can use the results of this study to structure and lay out the essential areas of outreach work in academic libraries. [peer-reviewed]

Jackson, J., Andrade, R., Raby, C., & Rosen, R. (2022). Apples and Oranges: An Indicator for Assessing the Relative Impact of Library Events. Journal of Library Outreach & Engagement, 2(1), 56. doi: https://doi.org/10.21900/j.jloe.v2i1.898

Abstract: This article details one library’s attempt to create a simple assessment method for evaluating the relative engagement of program attendees across a variety of events. The indicator–a combination of perceived level of engagement and calculated level of certainty–can be used alongside other metrics to give a fuller view of overall impact of library programming. By conducting this study, the authors created a method by which to quickly assess and prioritize the most and least impactful events within a particular set. [peer-reviewed]

Finally, it’s not a full article, but a brief case study I wrote on social media analytics was published in Practical Marketing for the Academic Library, by Stephanie Espinoza Villamor and Kimberly Shotick (ABC-CLIO, 2022). I look forward to reading the whole book!

Currently, I have no writing projects on my plate, though quite a few half-formed ideas. My goal this fall is to identify and begin at least two more opportunities for research and/or publication. If I can initiate one new writing/research project each semester, I should be well on my way to promotion to full librarian in four years.

Where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched

brown and yellow caterpillar on white hand

It never feels good

I rarely feel better after logging into Twitter. Anxious, small, overwhelmed, exhausted, hopeless… those are the feelings that more often follow me after punching the log out button. And yes, it’s usually a stern punch.

I recognize that vileness exist in the world (and the past few weeks have provided more than enough evidence of that), but when I am on Twitter, I feel like I’m swimming in evil’s concentrate. Using tools like Tweetdeck, I can filter out retweets and maximize the benefits of lists, but it’s still overwhelming to see everyone “expressing every single opinion that they have on every single thing that occurs all at the same time.” Perhaps things will get better as Twitter seeks to attract new audiences, but right now, as I’m watching the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s July rulings, I’m not confident it will. 

Internally at the New York Times, journalists have been encouraged to use Twitter less. In a leaked memo first reported at Insider, I found the following statement salient not just for journalists, but for academics as well:

“We can rely too much on Twitter as a reporting or feedback tool—which is especially harmful to our journalism when our feeds become echo chambers. We can be overly focused on how Twitter will react to our work, to the detriment of our mission and independence. We can make off-the-cuff responses that damage our journalistic reputations. And for too many of you, your experience of Twitter is shaped by harassment and attacks.”

We give far too much weight to Twitter’s impact on social and political life and “the public square.” [see also: Cal Newport]. Collectively, we overestimate its influence, obsessing to an unreasonable degree over how it will react to our content, knowing full well that any storm we create today will be subsumed by next week’s hurricane of rage. It screws with the way we write, the way we think about our mission, and our focus. It doesn’t have to be that way, and I’m glad to see organizations like NY Times begin to reckon that. Colleges and universities would do well to follow suit. 

Finding a new drug

So I have been looking around for other spaces to fill my desire for online community. Two spaces present some possibility: LibraryThing and Metafilter

I have been a member of LibraryThing since 2006, though I’ve never been much of a contributor. I catalog all my books there and occasionally use it to find recommendations, but I haven’t actively participated in the group forums. From the outside, the groups feel overwhelming. There are a variety of reading groups, many with vibrant and active users who seem to already have a close-knit community. I’m also a slow reader with limited time for reflection and writing about my reading, so I’m not sure where I would fit in.

As for Metafilter, I’ve used the site to find interesting content for years. The community there is respectful of others’ lived experiences and has recently created administrative structures to help ensure the community works toward inclusivity. From the outside, it feels like a community that respects each other. I don’t have any relationships with any other users (I would suffer from the same problem of being the new guy among old friends), so I would have to start somewhere.

I’ve looked at a couple Discord communities, but none really stick for me. This is a shame because Discord has the vibe of FriendFeed back in the day, but in a Slack-like environment. 

When I first joined Twitter in 2007, I made some wonderful professional connections. Now, most of us are scattered to the wind, and the space left by that absence has been filled with a hurricane. 


Three things I liked

First, Charlie Warzel, writing for The Atlantic and author of “Galaxy Brain”, has an interesting reflection on why Google search results have become so boring. Perhaps, in addition to the unnecessary amount of real estate given to ads, it is possible that search has just become that good at finding answers and filtering out misinformation. 

“Google Search might be worse now because, like much of the internet, it has matured and has been ruthlessly commercialized. In an attempt to avoid regulation and be corporate-friendly, parts of it might be less wild. But some of what feels dead or dying about Google might be our own nostalgia for a smaller, less mature internet.”

Second, I was this week years old when I learned that Merlin Mann has been collecting little bits of wisdom on Github. These are a few of my favorites:

“Every few months, take at least one panorama photo of your kid’s room. At least annually, secretly record your kid talking for at least ten minutes. I promise you’ll treasure both, and then you will curse yourself for not having done each way more often.”

“Organizing your email is like alphabetizing your recycling.”

“Most team culture comes out of a combination of what is tolerated and what is rewarded. If you legit want your culture to improve, change what you reward and rethink what you will tolerate.”

“If you want an honest opinion, ask for the second superlative. For example, if you want a thoughtful answer about someone’s job, ask them their second-least-favorite thing about it.”

“Never argue on the internet. No one will remember whether you won or lost the argument; they’ll just remember that you are the sort of person who argues on the internet.”

“Priorities are like arms. If you think you have more than a couple, you’re either lying or crazy.”

“If you really want to help someone, offer something extremely specific. “I’m here for you! 😬👍” is not nearly as cool as “Can I drop off a lasagna at 4?””

Third, I really enjoyed this conversation with Shannon Mattern, theorist and professor of media, design, urban architecture, and anthropology at The New School for Social Research. The conversation is wide-ranging, but if you jump to the 13-minute mark, Mattern discussed the value of libraries, as purveyors of critical information literacy, spaces for civic engagement, networks for bridging the digital divide, and as world-builders who do not simply disseminate information, but also validate the type of information that is most important to a community.

Say no, and carry on

When you’ve spent most of your professional life having “too much on your plate,” it can feel like failure once you find meaningful and reasonable balance.

It’s not.

So keep saying “no” or “not now”… and carry on.

Link roundup: May 16, 2022

bees on a pink poppy

In the halcyon days of blogging, the link roundup was a delight to both the writer and the reader. For the reader, it was a chance to discover something completely new. For the writer, it was easy content. So here’s something that I hope we both will enjoy, dear reader: a small selection of what has caught my attention lately.

Matt Labash on writing

“All writing is an act of vanity. Which is why so many writers are insufferable jackasses.  Because writing requires you to essentially say to the world, which is constantly in motion: “I have something to say, you need to sit still and listen.”

“Don’t take yourself too seriously, but take your work very seriously. Care about the things you write about, even if they’re trifles. Because if you don’t, nobody else will.”

Source: https://mattlabash.substack.com/p/on-writing

The Atlantic on intensive parenting

“We need to normalize saying yes to prioritizing adult friendships and an adequate amount of sleep. We need to reassure one another—explicitly, publicly—that being a whole person is being a good parent.”

Source: https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/05/intensive-helicopter-parent-anxiety/629813/

Kevin Kelly on life lessons

“Efficiency is highly overrated; Goofing off is highly underrated. Regularly scheduled sabbaths, sabbaticals, vacations, breaks, aimless walks and time off are essential for top performance of any kind. The best work ethic requires a good rest ethic.”

“Productivity is often a distraction. Don’t aim for better ways to get through your tasks as quickly as possible, rather aim for better tasks that you never want to stop doing.”

“Always read the plaque next to the monument.”

“To keep young kids behaving on a car road trip, have a bag of their favorite candy and throw a piece out the window each time they misbehave.”

“90% of everything is crap. If you think you don’t like opera, romance novels, TikTok, country music, vegan food, NFTs, keep trying to see if you can find the 10% that is not crap.”

Source: https://kk.org/thetechnium/103-bits-of-advice-i-wish-i-had-known/