There comes a time in every librarian’s life when your library decides to migrate the catalog. No matter what role you play in the organization, you’re gonna feel it. This past year, MPOW moved from Sierra to Alma, the first such migration in 30 years. As the head of outreach and engagement, I would be responsible for overseeing campus messaging. 

In September 2022, I drafted the initial communications plan. This included key messages and their explanation, a list of target audiences (both primary and secondary), communications channels, deliverables and assets to be created, a production and implementation timeline, and a matrix of responsibility that listed who was responsible for creating what and when. I presented this draft to our ILS Migration Steering Committee, the library’s leadership council, and various stakeholders. Six iterations later I had a completed plan. 

Along the way, I asked for buy-in from each and every stakeholder. I recorded the changes to the plan in a change log, and noted the date of each stakeholder approval. A created lists of every action item and recorded who was responsible for every asset and its deadline. I created a list of check-in dates—three for every stakeholder—by which I would touch base about various aspects of the plan.

It was a robust plan. The most robust plan I’ve ever created. And while I cannot prove that it was foolproof, the library successfully migrated its catalog with no campus outcry. Certainly, there were some complaints: many of the functions previously available are currently still in production as we slowly check off all our post-migration to-dos. But not a single person has said they were unaware of the change. In fact, many faculty and staff have made comments to the effect of “oh, I heard your have a big systems change happening…”

Now, one could read this as indifference, but as a the person who oversees communications, I read this as success. “So, you’ve heard of me, then.”

What I’m reading

In this essay I will: On distraction by David Schurman Wallace

“A common idea of distraction presupposes that you’re turning away from something more important that you ought to be paying attention to instead. And you ought to be working all the time.”

LeVar Burton Wants You to Read Banned Books by Heven Haile

“I think, in truth, the effect of book bans has been limited. What happens, though, is people who engage in this kind of censorship self-identify as folks you need to keep your eye on. And for me, that’s gold, because now I see you.”

Six Months Ago NPR Left Twitter. The Effects Have Been Negligible by Gabe Bullard

“Recognizing that social media is not a key to clicks seems like a correction to years of chasing traffic through outside platforms.”

Links to the past

  • 1 year ago: Service work is broken. 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.
  • 6 years ago: Subtle nudges in library programming. How we at MPOW try to subtly remind our guests about future events (other attempts are not so subtle).
  • 10 years ago: When parenting was easy. It’s been mostly downhill since then.

Overheard online

Correspondence disclaimers through history

1660: I have written you a long letter because I did not have time to write a short one.
1950: Dictated but not read
2010: Sent from my phone, please excuse typos
2030: Composed by AI

overholt on Mastodon

crowd of librarians sitting in conference hall at ALA annual 2018

“I am convinced that about one-half the money I spend for advertising is wasted, but I have never been able to decide which half.”

John Wanamaker, Quoted in Bible Conference, Winona Echos (1919)

It’s been 5 years since I attended an ALA Annual Conference. My interest in this yearly gathering of librarians from around the country has waned considerably in the last half-century as I’ve become more and more entrenched in the work of my own institution. That’s a story for another post. What I wanted to briefly talk about today was one aspect of ALA Annual that I miss: the PR Xchange Awards and the John Cotton Dana Awards. Both of these awards celebrate excellence in library communications efforts. The JCDs focus primarily on strategic communication and public relations, while the PRX celebrate singular promotional items. 

This year’s award winners highlight a few academic library projects. The University of Colorado Boulder Libraries’ “Culture Crawl” is a collaboration between eleven cultural and heritage organizations to highlight library spaces, services, exhibits, and local museums. It was the only college/university to win a JCD this year. The PRX awards had a much better showing from the academic side: Montana State University, Washington University, and James Madison to name just a few. 

While I love that these two awards bring attention to academic libraries producing remarkable content, I would love to see a separate award for excellent marketing, communications, and strategic outreach (and/or programming) for higher ed libraries. The needs of our communities and the best practices for reaching them differ just enough from our colleagues in public libraries to merit our own arena. Our audiences are captive and demographically narrower than the general population. Moreover, our ultimate ends lean more towards the specific (i.e., supporting graduation and retention) rather than the general (e.g., lifelong learning). Outreach to students, faculty, and staff is a different beast altogether than outreach to a local community. 

In developing a new award, the intent and structure of the ACRL Excellence in Academic Libraries Award (currently on hiatus) is a good place to start: how does communications and outreach connect with your library’s strategic mission and the mission of the college/university? Are you connecting the dots between (1) the skills, collections, and services that libraries provide; (2) our professional ethics; and (3) the goals of the housing institution? Outreach and communications success could be measured quantitatively or qualitatively, but would needs go beyond gate counts and feedback forms. 

All that said, perhaps a separate award isn’t necessary. I do enjoy seeing the wide variety of materials showcased by both the JCDs and the PRX. Either of those awards could create separate categories based on library types. I think what I want most of all is simply to see more academic library external commutations work. I know folks are out there creating remarkable content: let’s see it and celebrate it!

What I’m reading

Toward a Leisure Ethic by Stuart Whatley

“Every fleeting moment of our spare time is surrendered to the superficial offerings of the attention economy, all of it designed for addiction, the goal being to monetize people’s experiences rather than create meaningful ones. […] Many have extolled a leisure ethic, and none would say that time well spent lies in ambitious careerism or in drifting on a sea of addictive content. Most would agree that flourishing in time consists of free, active, thoughtful engagement with the world in accordance with one’s nature.”

The Ambitious Plan to Open Up a Treasure Trove of Black History by Erin Migdol

“The archive contains around 5,000 magazines, 200 boxes of business records, 10,000 audio and visual recordings, and 4.5 million prints and negatives that chronicle Black life from the 1940s until the present day.”

Writing for the Bad Faith Reader by Susie Dumond

“Not every book is for every reader.” Good advice for anyone creating art.

News from the garden

vegetable garden with squash vines, beans, and corn

The vegetable beds are [finally] in full swing. The vine in the foreground is butternut squash. And look! The corn made it knee-high before the Fourth of July! There are also tomatoes, peppers, and beans to be excited about. 

Links to the past

  • 1 year ago: Where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. “We give far too much weight to Twitter’s impact on social and political life and “the public square.” 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.”
  • 6 years ago: Life, uh, finds a way. Actually, now I would be OK with that.
  • 10 years ago: On ukulele calluses.

Overheard online

Rate limit exceeded. 

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 DND sign I sometimes use when I am engaged in “deep work.”

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.