The past few years, I’ve made a concerted effort to do less, but to do better, in my work as a librarian. Fewer projects, but more impactful work. Attending fewer conferences, but spending more time writing for publication. Accepting fewer committee appointments, but taking on more substantial roles in committees. I am not doing less in terms of my attention or impact, but only as measured by the number of distinct projects on my plate.
You can see the results of this effort reflected in my annual reviews. At my place of work, librarians are not tenured, but we do have a promotion plan that mimics the tenure review process. In order to progress in rank, we have to show evidence of development and impact in three areas: performance, professional development or research, and service. For each of these areas, we are expected to set annual goals at the beginning of the academic year.
The goals we set each June determine what we’ll be spend our time and attention on in the next twelve months. In June 2016, I set 25 goals for myself. Some of these included things like:
Create a checklist for exhibition partners that outlines specific tasks for which exhibitors are expected to take responsibility when partnering with the library.
Review and update the collection development policy for Music.
These goals did not require much of me and were fairly easy to accomplish. Not all of my goals were similar in scale. For example: “Work with the Office of International Students and Scholars to develop a library outreach plan for international students” required a substantial amount of collaboration and work. However, most of my 2016 goals were similar in scope and impact to the examples above. Here’s how my goals break down in the following years:
In June 2017, I set 15 performance goals (plus 3 research goals and 4 service goals).
In June 2018, I set 18 performance goals (plus 5 research goals and 5 service goals).*
In June 2019, I set 14 performance goals (plus 4 research goals and 3 service goals).
In June 2020, I set 9 performance goals (plus 3 research goals and 2 service goals).
*I was going up for promotion that year, hence the bump in ambition.
In June 2021, I only set 11 total goals (6 performance, 3 research, and 2 service): far less than I’ve done in the past. Goals in this year included things such as:
Complete the development of a 2-3 year library outreach plan that outlines objectives, messaging, and assessment measures for four distinct campus communities: students, faculty, senior leadership, and the LIS community.
Finish the assessment of the data collected from the programming feedback forms and write an article for publication about the process and results.
Moreover, I strategically crafted goals that could be mapped out to specific trimesters, so I was not trying to work on more than 3 goals at the same time. With the exception of one goal that I needed to drop because of an unexpected project than came onto my plate, I am on track to accomplish all my goals by the end of the academic year.
Next year, I am hoping to once again limit myself to no more than 6 performance goals, 3 research goals, and 2 service goals. Ideally, I’ll only be working on 2 high-impact performance projects each semester, plus 1-2 research projects, and 1 service project. Onward and upward.
In a recent article for portal, Megan Hodge, assistant professor and head of Teaching and Learning in the James Branch Cabell Library at Virginia Commonwealth University, discusses creating an online portal for providing “the library experience” from home through streaming audio/video content and resources on mental wellbeing and productivity.
At VCU, Hodge and her team created a LibGuide that brings together a wealth of internal and external materials that connect students to the library as place and encourage “an academic mindset.”
This phrase caught my attention. What is an academic mindset? What conditions and behaviors does this include, especially within the context of the library? Hodge doesn’t go into detail, but I would suggest that it requires the ability to work in isolation without interruption, to get lost in one’s subject matter, to experience deep focus, and to shift into a state of flow. Traditional library spaces, with their ambient noise, innumerable pathways for intellectual and creative discovery, and ability to offer a sense of belonging (as one student scholar among many), provide a context in which one can really get into one’s own head.
Of course, against that suggested ideal we have to ask: for whom is this possible? Hodge points to the challenges posed by COVID-19, especially to commuters, first-generation students, and other campus communities significantly impacted but the transition to remote learning. Access to library spaces is about more than access to collections: it’s about access to a mindset, one which every student should have the ability to enjoy. For many, college is the first time in one’s life where they have the ability to go deep without any interference. Libraries can be the space that enables that growth, provided we build environments that are inclusive of and responsive to students’ needs.
Lastly, there is one finding from Hodge’s article that I have to highlight: the students’ love of the PA system.
“Extant audio files includes announcement from Cabell Library’s public address system. […] These short recordings were turned into a 20-minute audio loop.”
“A 20-minute video loop of images of the library was accompanies by recordings of the library’s evening closing announcements […] This video loop became one of the most popular resources on the guide.”
Who knew that the dystopian electric vocals of recorded librarians would be the balm that soothed our students’ wounded souls?
At some point, the cost of dealing with trolls and misinformation on social media, combined with diminishing returns on engagement, will outweigh the benefits of spending library time and resources in those spaces. What then? In some ways, it feels like we’re already there.
Wines from this DOP in Spain (Ribera del duero) must be aged at least two years, 12 months of which must be in oak. The influence of the oak definitely comes through here. Hot on the nose with lots of spice and vanilla. This vintage is juicy, with intense blueberry and cigar. The tannin structure is good: I should buy a few more bottles to store for 2-3 years.
Recently, a colleague asked me about my daily time management practices. Having had this same conversation a few times already with others, I finally set myself to drafting a “readme” file for my communication and calendaring habits. This doesn’t include all the minutiae of my weekly productivity workflows, but it’s a top-level summary that (I hope) gives just enough detail to help my team understand why (1) my calendar is so booked and (2) why I don’t always respond to email or DMs right away.
My practices are built on the ideas of Cal Newport, Celeste Headlee, and David Allen, all of whom recommend intentional, process- and outcomes-focused modes of work.
Caveat: The following habits won’t work for everyone. It works for me, in my current position, with my current team and projects, etc. I offer it as an example of what one possible readme statement looks like.
How I communicate
Rationale: As much as possible, I try to reduce the need for unstructured, asynchronous communication in my work (what Newport calls the hyperactive hive-mind) and limit the amount of time I spend context-switching between tasks. Studies consistently show that long periods of focused, uninterrupted work produce higher-quality output and reduce the danger of creative fatigue and burnout.
Practice: I set aside 30 minutes each day to process my email inbox. Additionally, I set aside 1 hour each day for drop-in conversations (in-person or online): this time functions like office hours and are first-come first served. I do not keep my email or chat clients open when I am working on a project and my device notifications (except from the Library Administration team, my partner, and my parents) are muted, so don’t use email if you need an immediate response.
What you can do: If your request is not time-sensitive, email me and I will respond to it usually within 2-3 business days. If you would prefer, but don’t necessarily need, a quicker response, send me a message on Teams and I will likely respond within 1-2 business days. If you need a response day-of, stop by or DM me during my office hours (usually MWF 2-3p and TR 1-2p). My Outlook calendar is up-to-date and openly readable.
But what if you’re not available? Then you wait. Unless of course you have a way to create more time in the day. =)
How I schedule my week
Rationale: After working as an academic librarian professionally for almost a decade, I have developed a fairly accurate sense of exactly how much time I need to do various tasks that my job requires of me. For example, I know I can stay on top of my collection development work by dedicating 1.5 hours a week to the task. With this knowledge, I schedule my work week in advance using a “time-blocking” method, thus making sure I have adequate time to accomplish as much as possible within the time allotted to me (i.e., time that isn’t set aside for a meeting) each week.
Practice: At the end of each week, I review my tasks, projects, and annual goals and use them to map out the following week. Every hour of the day is given an assignment, with preference for longer periods of concentrated work (e.g., usually 1.5 hr blocks). In order to make time for focused work, I limit the amount of time I spend in-meetings each day to 3 hours. The first 30 min of each day is dedicated to checking in with my team and reviewing our essential tasks for that day. Additionally, because I often work 9-10 hour days, I schedule longer lunch breaks (1.5 hours max). I do not schedule meetings during that time and use that time to step away and recharge.
What you can do: As noted above, I try to leave 1 hour every day unscheduled as an office hour. Feel free to drop in in-person or virtually during that time. If you want to request a time on my calendar, you can schedule a time with me using Microsoft Bookings (external colleagues) or Outlook (internal colleagues).
But what if you don’t have any free time? It is true that I keep a lot of plates in the air at all times. This often means my calendar is booked for weeks at a time. However, if you send me an email requesting a time to meet (please send me 2-3 available times), I will try to move things around.
The criticism I usually receive about this style of working is that it is “closed door” (as opposed to “open door,” whatever that means*). Yes, it is true that I do more than most people to make myself unavailable to others. My current job requires sustained periods of concentrated work: to write long-form narratives, design graphics, plan out project timelines, run data analyses in spreadsheets, and proof materials. So much proofing. If I am frequently interrupted during these activities, I risk making critical mistakes that are costly to reverse.
All of us have alternating periods of “available” and “not-available” throughout the day. When I am in a meeting with my dean, it’s simple: I’m not available to answer a phone call. If I’m attending a speaker event on campus, I’m not responding to email. If I’m recording a video tutorial, I need to make sure no one knocks on my door! The question we sometimes fail to ask is: are there other moments when I should consider myself to be unavailable? Ones which, though the surrounding external friction/barriers are weaker, still merit an intentional “attention block” from outside influences? How would the quality of my work and, more importantly, the quality of my experience improve with less context-switching and fewer interruptions?
Just because you don’t have a meeting on your Outlook calendar does not mean you are “available.”
Nonetheless, I make a point to always set aside some time each day for drop-in conversations. During those office hour blocks, I don’t schedule any essential work: my only goal is to be open and available to others. If no one needs to chat, I will often use that time to follow up on requests sent via email. My office hours could alternatively be called my “synchronous communication hours.”
Is this convenient to everyone? No, but it provides an intentional space for things that need day-of input (and, in my experience, most things in academia don’t need day-of input… it’s just nice). I can’t offer you all of my time, but what I can offer, I can offer consistently.
*A note about “open door” practices: For me, having an open door management style is not synonymous with literally having your office door open or (in the case of not having a physical door) being always amenable to interruptions. Instead, my open door management style focuses more on whether I am providing consistent and frequent opportunities for team input, whether I am actively listening to that input, and whether I am able to take what I learn from that input and translate it into meaningful ways to support my team. And sometimes, the best way I can support my team is by closing my door and getting shit done.
Like many bibliophiles, I’ve accumulated more books than I actually have time to read. If you stacked all my books on top of each other, they would reach a height of 145 feet. That’s just shy of the Statue of Liberty (minus the pedestal). I acquired most of books in the decade between 2006 and 2017: the years when I was working on my M.A. and M.L.I.S degree and shortly after. Ironically, this was also when I was the most cash-strapped, and so I frequently sought out local used book sales in order to find copies on the cheap, which unexpectedly resulted in purchasing more books than was probably wise.
I’ve been trying to read more of what I already own instead of checking out or purchasing new titles. Within one LibraryThing community, this is called ROOTing: reading our own tomes. Last year, I was able to read about a dozen of my owned-but-not-read books, or ROOTs, and plan to continue the practice.
Reading one ROOT per month seems achievable. Here’s my list for 2022 (in no particular order):
I, Robot / Isaac Asimov
I Hope We Choose Love / Kai Cheng Thom
Steppenwolf / Herman Hesse
Unfinished Tales / J.R.R. Tolkien
The Book of the Courtier / Castiglione
Vineland / Thomas Pynchon
Wide Sargasso Sea / Jean Rhys
Five Dialogues / Plato
Subtle Acts of Exclusion / Tiffany Jana and Michael Baron
On Poetry and Poets / T.S. Eliot
Opera and Its Symbols / Robert Donington
A Short History of Philosophy / Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins
There wasn’t much of a science behind this list: mostly just titles I kept passing by while muttering to myself “yeah, I should read that.” Inevitably, I will pick up other books along the way (I’m already reading “Self-Compassion” by Kristen Neff while also reading “I Hope We Choose Love”), but having a realistic goal of one per month should allow me to balance somethings old with somethings new.
I did not imagine that I would leave almost half a year between posts. From the evidence of this blog, one might think that I did not succeed at my 2021 goal to write more. However…
Not only did I journal more in 2021 than in previous years, I also wrote three scholarly articles for publication (two of which have already been accepted and/or published) and one case study for a colleague’s monograph. Remarkably, I also read more books last year (25) than I have read in a single year since I was a graduate student more than a decade ago.
So I’m happy with the results from my 2021 future thinking and want to build on that success in 2022. I still plan to set aside time for writing projects– including journaling, blogging, and scholarly articles– and, more generally, working to increase my career capital through intentionally focusing on rare and valuable skills, notably: project management, workplace kindness, and draft-making. As time permits, I also plan to dive deeper into various systems for project management and Excel as a tool for maximizing PM success (I see Gantt charts in my future).
Ultimately, I want to position myself so that I can easily take on high-impact projects: program assessment, strategic planning, and relationship building (ie. with stakeholders), but doing more will at first require doing less, as well as continuing to be intentional about how I use my time (see also: time-blocking). Shutting down all but one of my social media profiles (and minimizing my use of the remaining one) helps, too.
Academia’s work hours are weird. So is our approach to work[ing]. So much of our identity is wrapped up in that work. The same could be said of libraries in general; and so I imagine this is doubly problematic for academic librarians. A 2018 study by Tamara Townsend and Kimberly Bugg found that 40% of academic librarian respondents would consider leaving their current position to achieve greater work-life balance, and 31% of respondents would consider leaving the profession as a whole to achieve a greater work-life balance. That is a staggering statistic!
I believe that many of us in academic libraries (for a time, myself included) feel that our work is unique: that it requires us to give up more of ourselves for some “common good” (see also: vocational awe). But the same could be said of a host of other occupations: what makes our work any different?
This thinking is probably why I was so attracted to this opinion piece in the New York Times by Bryce Covert, who writes on the economy, with an emphasis on policies that affect workers and families. As she points out:
Studies show workers’ output falls sharply after about 48 hours a week, and those who put in more than 55 hours a week perform worse than those who put in a typical 9 to 5.
Among the participants in the studies Covert cites we find munitions workers, IT professionals, and civil servants. Add to this the negative long-term effects on one’s health, what benefit is there to academic librarians to regularly push work (especially scholarship) into our leisure time? Covert concludes:
We have to demand time off that lasts longer than Saturday and Sunday. We have to reclaim our leisure time to spend as we wish.
For the past few months, I have been consistently limiting my work hours to be as close to a “normal” 40-hour week as possible. This covers not only my performance duties (ie. librarian work), but my scholarship and service as well. Surprisingly to me (though, not surprising to anyone who has studied this phenomenon), I not only feel more accomplished, but I am able to mentally close up shop each day with less of a struggle.
I continuously encourage my team to do the same, and try to set an example for my colleagues by, for example, not responding to emails or sending DMs outside 9-6 hours, or always trying to estimate how much time I am asking of someone before I request support on a project. Even though burnout is as much (if not more) an organizational problem and not entirely the result of individuals’ actions, I still feel I should make personal changes where I am able.