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The Many Paths to Librarianship

June 16, 2019

Musician. Teacher. Rocket Scientist. Bowling Alley Manager. Black Jack Dealer. Circus Sideshow Performer. Political Organizer. One of the biggest surprises for me at this summer’s Pennsylvania Library Association’s Academy of Leadership Studies (PALS) was learning about the wide variety of job experiences that my colleagues had before becoming librarians.

Sometimes I feel the full force of imposter syndrome because I didn’t come to the library field until my mid-thirties, after training for a different career, working a variety of day jobs to pay the bills, and slogging through my fair share of existential angst. I compare myself to others who knew they wanted to be librarians as young children, went to undergrad and grad school (with no gap years like me), and then moved right into a library career. They are so focused, driven, put-together! My resume sometimes feels like a busted piñata in comparison–I’m the one wearing the blindfold.

Listening to the stories of my PALS cohort helps assuage some of my insecurities. My colleagues were open and generous, sharing stories of sometimes feeling lost, feeling overwhelmed, feeling like an outsider, feeling like a failure. In particular, Tina Hertel talked about what we can learn from these kinds of detours, whether in travel or in life, in her presentation, ”Taking the Lead with Your Career.” So much of this rang true for me. Some of us might not have set out to become librarians, and yet we’re all here now, doing our best for our communities, and our daily work is not an erasure of those stories but in so many ways a continuation of them.

One of our PALS ice-breaker activities asked us to finish the sentence, “Once upon a time…” Well, once upon a time, I worked as a cashier, which taught me to keep my cool when faced with long lines of stressed customers. I worked as a baker, which taught me to pay attention to detailed inventories and recipes. I worked as a home goods salesperson, which taught me how to use planograms to set up end cap displays.

Working as a server taught me how to improv with strangers and quickly build rapport. Working as a writing tutor taught me how to ask open-ended questions and how to teach rather than edit. Working at a tax office taught me about privacy and record-keeping.

At first glance, these jobs might not seem as relevant to being a librarian as some of the other library staff jobs on my resume (yes, there are more!). Still, I use all of these skills in the library when I do reference, instruction, collection development, promotion and marketing, and more.

The deep personal reflection sparked by PALS helped me see more of these connections and think about my career detours and how they might lead, even circuitously, to my future destinations. For those of you interested in this kind of reflection and development, please consider applying for the PALS program next year.

Jessica Showalter is the Student Engagement & Outreach Librarian at Penn State Altoona’s Eiche Library. Say hello on Twitter @libraryjms


Organizational Fit, Banned or Expand?

June 7, 2019

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) are hot topics right now in our profession, but perhaps it’s not just about hiring practices. To be sure, that is a good starting point, and for more than a half-century the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has monitored this. “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex and also made it illegal to retaliate against those who sought relief or assisted others in their exercise of rights secured by the law” (

Since the Civil Rights Act there have been other laws enacted such as Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). But even if we say we are an equal opportunity employer in hiring advertising, a commitment to DEI obligates us to look at even our everyday activities with a critical eye.

Librarians should examine even grunt tasks to ensure DEI. An obvious example is selection and deselection of materials. Another is signage and marketing materials. But even just basic human interactions, like the reference interview and giving directions to the restroom. Of course, “customer service” has long been on the radar of librarians, but DEI goes beyond simply being courteous. It’s about awareness. One dimension which was thought-provokingly addressed at ACRL 2019 is “organizational fit.” A great conversation starter is “Challenging the ‘Good Fit’ Narrative: Creating Inclusive Recruitment Practices in Academic Libraries” by Sojourna Cunningham, Samantha Guss, and Jennifer Stout.

We shouldn’t however just talk about axing the concept of fitness, because it’s too easy to simply say we’re against discrimination and wash our hands of it. Plus, today libraries are looking for ways to promote their value and distinctiveness and so we cannot abandon what makes them unique. Therefore, maybe we can simply grow our understanding of organizational fit with an attentiveness to DEI. One way to do this would be to establish DEI alongside other core values, so that questions of fitness are not just discussed as something to be drummed out of hiring.

An illustrative macro-level question is to ask how can we have an affirmative and a colorblind society? To celebrate pluralism and multiculturalism the metaphor was shifted from that of a melting pot to a salad. Whatever your stance, join or start a conversation in your library on whether organizational fit should expand, or be banned.

“Mapping Your Journey: Steps for Beginning a Library Diversity Residency or Fellowship” Summary

May 30, 2019

“Mapping Your Journey: Steps for Beginning a Library Diversity Residency or Fellowship” was presented by Amanda Leftwich on March 18, 2019, for the PaLA Connect and Communicate Series. Leftwich is the Online Learning Librarian and Diversity Fellow at Montgomery County Community College (often referred to as “Montco” or “MC3”) in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. She started her position in August 2018. Her presentation begins by discussing the confusion with the terms “resident” or “fellow,” and how this can be misinterpreted as meaning that the person is serving as an intern. Quite the contrary, a resident or fellow is a professional who has recently obtained his or her MLS/MSLS, MLIS/MSLIS, or MIS, and who generally has less than three to five years of post-graduate professional experience. It is this desire to accrue more experience and to try different avenues which often encourages recent library graduates to apply for diversity and fellowship positions. These positions are temporary in status, typically ranging from one to three years, and can be tenure track. (At Montco, the positions usually last a year, although Leftwich’s particular fellowship has a two academic year duration.)

In 2008, Montco started its own  Faculty Diversity Fellowship program to promote diversity, providing mentoring to minority scholars in the early stages of their careers to allow them to develop their teaching skills as they continue to work on or complete their terminal-level degrees. Faculty fellows receive mentoring from colleagues, and in return, these fellows participate as mentors in Montco’s Minority Student Mentoring Initiative (MSMI).   Leftwich’s two-year fellowship is the only one of its nature in the cohort due to the ACRL Alliance agreement. She hopes that when the fellowship ends, she will be hired back as a permanent, full-time, non-teaching faculty. Her responsibilities include focusing on diversifying the collections, instruction and reference rotations (which include serving as an embedded librarian), committee work, and displays.

As with any new professional experience, Leftwich walked into her fellowship position with expectations, including knowing her coordinators’ meetings, scheduling rotations, having a designated set of responsibilities for the position, securing a mentor from within the department, creating goals and frameworks for the fellowship, and having no committee work. With a good chuckle, Leftwich explains that she did not know what this fellowship position would entail; she just signed her contract, departed from her previous employer, and entered the experience at Montco with an open mind and high hopes. As it turns out, the reality of her fellowship differed greatly from her expectations. There are no coordinators and the staff is too small for rotations. As for what is expected of Leftwich in her fellowship, she has been instructed to do what interests her, and responsibilities are not set in this particular environment. Similarly, there are no set goals or frameworks for her duration at Montco. Her mentor is from the Geography department instead of from within the library. And she has found that per her contract, she is required to serve on a committee.

Leftwich encourages those in a fellowship to ask the following questions about their journeys: What do you hope to gain from a residency? Are you looking for more reference or instructional experience? How will this position help you in the future? Is it worth the commitment? Have a clear definition of what your life will be like after this residency concludes because it will not be a permanent situation. Are you willing to be a mentor? Are you willing to be a part of a diversity initiative set by the institution? Are you willing to follow the goals and mission of the institution?

Be prepared to make your goals. Reflect and track your own work, including all work activities and accomplishments. Find a mentor or two, preferably someone outside of your department. Be a mentor. Get involved, both within your department and outside of it as well. Be flexible, but not to the point where you are a pushover. Ask questions at all stages of your residency.

Nothing is ever without its challenges and negatives, and a residency is not all “grins and giggles.” Leftwich also presents the challenges of her residency at Montco. For starters, she is the only fellow in her department. This means working alone on projects and initiatives without receiving feedback from someone on her professional level. She has no official coordinator and therefore must report to the dean. Again, she has no specified mentor, but she has found solace and support with her co-workers, in particular, the information literacy librarian. There is no communication about the fellowship position’s requirements or needs, so it does require discipline and structure to come up with your own framework of how you want this residency to play out and what you hope to gain from it. And while this may not seem like a challenge, Leftwich does find herself on some days with a lot of free time. She advises that you will need to structure your own day; you cannot wait to have it structured for you by your co-workers or deans. Leftwich also notes that there is no “publish or perish” culture on campus, although she does enjoy researching and writing. Since there is not a requirement among faculty to publish, there is no internal promotion of her writing when she does do it, and no one keeps track of it, except for Leftwich herself. This poses a challenge in that you want to be prepared should you go from a non-“publish or perish” culture to one that requires regular submissions for publication. Share your research externally, Leftwich advises.

Despite these challenges, Leftwich ends on a positive note, stating that you should take the opportunity to soak it in all and gain valuable experience from your residency. Remember to relax and enjoy the adventure!

You may view Leftwich’s presentation on YouTube.

Mapping Your Journey

Spring 2019 issue of PaLRaP available!

May 20, 2019

The latest issue of Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice is now available at!

Articles include:

  • In the PaLRaP Spotlight: Patrick Spero
  • Getting Your Collection Ready for the Centennial Anniversaries of the 19th Amendment
  • What Pennsylvania Public Libraries Want: An Analysis of PAMAILALL Job Advertisements
  • What Do High School Students Know About Information Literacy?
  • Just One More Thing: Getting the Most Out of One-Minute Papers
  • PaLA Virtual Journal Club: Providing Opportunities for Reflection, Improvement, and Connections
  • Building Capital at the Library: Financial Literacy Programming and Partnerships
  • News Briefs from PA Libraries

Tom Reinsfelder & Larissa Gordon, Co-Editors



Pennsylvania Libraries: Research & Practice (PaLRaP) is a peer-reviewed, open access journal, sponsored by the College and Research Division of the Pennsylvania Library AssociationPaLRaP provides an opportunity for librarians in Pennsylvania to share their knowledge and experience with practicing librarians across Pennsylvania and beyond. The journal includes articles from all areas of librarianship, and from all types of libraries within Pennsylvania.

A Technological Dream; or, If We Only Knew

May 15, 2019

I recently took the time to perform a once venerated rite of library research. When no one was looking, I browsed several books roughly adjacent to each other on a shelf in the stacks. Then, feeling emboldened, I pulled books from the row, turned to their indexes, skimmed them for relevant entries, and, in most cases, returned the book to the shelf and pushed onward as if a better title might actually be lurking down the range. Occasionally, perhaps with every 3rd or 4th volume, I found something in the index that led me to turn to the listed pages themselves. There—on page 37 or 377—I actually read.

I do not share this anecdote for purely nostalgic or romantic purposes. Nor do I want to sanctimoniously declare—see! we can still compare, analyze, evaluate, and otherwise think critically with actual books in our hands. Finally, I am not about to make the case for keeping books on the shelf when we are otherwise tempted, or ordered, to send them by the truckload to offsite storage.

My motive is actually technological in nature. It occurred to me after my recent foray into the stacks, as it has from time to time over the years, that librarians really have no idea how many times a book has been pulled from the shelf. We can measure its “circulation”—a term that suggest a broadness it does not really describe—with checkout numbers and even, if we have or take the time, by enumerating in the system when it is found on the “Please Do Not Reshelve Books” shelf. This last, the place we want students and faculty to place books they survey, but ultimately reject, is, I would argue, the most deceptive and treacherous location in the library. Perhaps one tenth of all books inspected in the stacks ever make it to the library limbo of a Do Not Reshelve shelf. We know this when we discover that yesterday’s row of flush spines are suddenly displaced like a bad set of teeth. We know it when we shelf read and utter curses under our breath that only Melvil Dewey can hear. If any of this rings true, if it is familiar and equally frustrating for you, I would like to propose a solution—the technological part of my now overlong windup to the point. I want to see “smart shelves” in every library.

Why couldn’t a sensor run the length of every shelf and detect the movement of any book on the shelf below it? Why couldn’t this be a fairly affordable system to build and install? Why couldn’t such a shelf easily integrate with an ILS to vastly improve our understanding of just how, and how often, books get used in the library?

I should say I have no idea how to actually design or manufacture a smart shelf; my technical skills will never reach such rarified air. But surely someone somewhere can do this. It is just one of many practical library tools that we could use to better understand how our users behave and how we might better serve them.

The next time my library debates what new ILS upgrade to make, or what CMS to transfer collections to, or wonders if we are subscribing to the best databases for the money, I think I will consider the smart shelf instead. Or, I will imagine an app, or device, or digital tool that might actually help us solve one of the old problems we never seem to overcome. Of course, none of these things may ever come to be. But isn’t there some solace in an elegant solution, even if it doesn’t actually exist.



Libraries, Finals, and Ramadan… Oh My!

May 14, 2019

‘Tis the week before finals and all through the library the students are stressing, some more quietly than others… On my campus, this was last week, where my entire work week centered on supporting students academically (and emotionally at times) to get through the biggest crunch of the semester. Data shows that for us, the week BEFORE finals, not finals week itself, is the busiest time of the year in the library.

As a shared and central space on campus we are also often hosts to year-end celebrations and stress-buster activities. Our Uno cards have been a mainstay at the circulation desk for students who just need a break, and this morning, half of our desk has been converted to a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee bar for the first day of exams. Yesterday was our reading day, and subsequently our graduating sophomores dining out celebration.

Last week, during a club’s end of year luncheon, I was approached by one of our Muslim students about the dinner, asking if he’d still be permitted to attend, and take a to-go box so that he might enjoy the meal when able to break his fast later that night. I immediately felt guilty for gorging myself on chicken nuggets in front of him, but assured him I’d find out and advocate for him and our other Muslim students to not be excluded. We were able to coordinate take-out meals!

Ironically enough, as one of the students entered the library this morning, thanking me for being their advocate, I got the email from Inside Higher Ed, with Jeremy Bauer-Wolf’s article. If libraries are to be seen as a safe and inclusive space for students, what else can we do?

So, during this finals week, as I seriously contemplate putting up an out of office reply on my email saying that I’m helping students, I’m doing what I can – lending an ear, a second set of eyes, reassurance. We’re almost there!   


Laughing in Libraries

May 10, 2019

Finals are wrapping up at many of our campuses, and we are packing up the coloring books, puzzles and other stress-relieving activities we provide for students during this intense time.

Meanwhile, year-end reviews are taking place, along with staff and faculty development events, budget decisions and planning for fall semester. And hopefully, among all of these tasks, we are finding time to laugh.

If you’re funny, if there’s something that makes you laugh, then every day’s going to be okay.

Tom Hanks

In a meta-analysis of studies related to workplace humor, researchers found that a positive sense of humor can be associated with good physical and mental health, acting as a buffer for workplace stress. Some studies reviewed also suggested a correlation between humor and effective functioning at work (Mesmer-Magnus, Glew & Viswesvaran, 2012). 

To each their own, but I prefer self-deprecating styles of humor, or jokes that are based on really aggravating situations that present a lighter view in an appropriate context. In other words, you laugh and see that it’s not so bad, or you laugh because it IS so bad, but someone else understands.

Here are a few of my go-tos for humor, mostly related to work. You probably already know about Fake Library Statistics on Twitter:

Then there are tweets from Librarian Problems:

Observations on work and life by Liz and Mollie (Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy) are often very true and very funny. Their new book is terrific as well. They’re on Twitter and Instagram:

If you’re interested in reading some research about this topic, the article I mentioned earlier is:

Mesmer-Magnus, J., Glew, D. J., & Viswesvaran, C. (2012). A meta-analysis of positive humor in the workplace. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 27(2), 155-190. doi:

Comedy in books, movies or TV can also bring more humor into your life, as can funny friends, family and pets. But in the midst of a hectic day, a good laugh with a colleague (away from quiet areas, of course!) can be wonderful stress relief. Puns optional.