In my last post, I put the ultimate responsibility for professional development on librarians themselves, though without taking any responsibility from library administrations. My advice was more of a warning; the person most likely to look after your interests is yourself, so be prepared. In response to my response to her post, the Library Loon suggested that while I was a “talented autodidact” who could direct my learning in appropriate or useful ways, not everyone could. They need guidance so they don’t flounder amongst the many things there are to learn. Point well taken. Here I’m offering a little guidance, but also pointing out the places I get guidance. No librarian is an island. Also, while I’m no librarian “rock star” (whatever that might mean), I don’t think I’m being immodest in believing I’m a reasonably successful librarian, and I think the practices I discuss below contribute to that success. So, here goes. My professional advice, or how to be an autodidact while really trying.
If I could reduce my professional advice to one sentence it would be: Always act as if you’re on the market. An additional sentence might be: Graduation from library school is the beginning of your library education, not the end.
Below, I have thirteen suggestions for finding time and using that time wisely to keep up and keep learning. They aren’t especially profound or new, just the way I manage my time to do what I do. I’m not including health tips like get a good night’s sleep every night and using caffeine as a pick-me-up rather than life support, though I know there are librarians that need those tips. I would also suggest listening to Radio Swiss Classic while you work; it’ll relax you, but I didn’t think it deserved a paragraph of its own.
When you’re working, work. A lot of librarians claim they just don’t have time to read or learn new things. They’re too busy with meetings and other work. For some librarians, that’s true. All their “keeping up” would have to be done on their own time. To protect themselves from future obsolescence, it might still be worthwhile, but it’s tough. However, there are ways to gain more time. How much time at work do you spend on Facebook or Twitter that have nothing to do with work (so, not reading a Facebook update that gets you to good professional reading, but just messing about)? How long do you stand around with colleagues gossiping? Online shopping? Taking coffee breaks? IMing or texting with friends? All that time could be better spent.
Manage your email. Don’t spend a lot of time reading emails you were copied on but didn’t need to be. If you’ve read the subject line and the first sentence or two and don’t know why you were copied, you can probably just delete it. Don’t generate a lot of emails that copy people unnecessarily; you’ll end up getting replies you don’t need to read. Also, don’t reply to emails that don’t need replies; say your “thank yous” in advance when making requests. Keep your emails concise and focused, and hope everyone else does, too. Don’t subscribe to listservs with a low signal:noise ratio. If you must subscribe to some, get the digest. Set up filters to automatically file stuff you don’t need but might need. If you’re a slow typist, take one of the many free online courses and speed yourself up. I type about 75 words per minute, according to this test. That’s not even very fast, but it’s saved me a lot of time compared to some of the slow non-touch typists I see. Find the most efficient email management strategy for you. I strive for the zero-inbox approach, but the reality is often more like the 20-inbox approach (5 at the time of writing, none urgent, but each requiring action by me or someone I’m waiting for; anything not awaiting action is filed or deleted asap). Sometimes this all goes to hell, and I end up with a bloated inbox. Then if I spend a couple of hours whittling it down to nearly zero, I feel much happier.
Avoid unnecessary meetings. The biggest timewaster for a lot of librarians. Some librarians love meetings. They like to meet just to meet, even if there’s nothing to discuss. Meetings are social events for them. While there are some exceptions, in general if there’s nothing to discuss or deliberate about, a meeting is a waste of time. Announcements can be handled in an email. If there’s no agenda and topic of discussion, the chances are good that it’s an unnecessary meeting. If you have a culture of useless meetings, fight back. The over scheduled masses will be on your side.
Avoid “multitasking.” I put multitasking in quotations because there’s really no such thing. From what I’ve read, the scientific consensus at the moment seems to be that we never multitask, we merely monotask in tandem, and every time we switch from one task to another we reduce our concentration and efficiency. So stop checking email and Facebook every five minutes and focus on that project until you make some serious progress. And then focus on email. And then Facebook.
USING THAT TIME WISELY
Read relevant news. I probably average an hour a day at least skimming dozens of headlines and reading a handful of interesting or relevant articles or blog posts, after which I generally ignore the feed until the next day. Academic librarians should keep up with what’s going on in higher education, scholarly publishing, information technology, their own college or university, libraries, and librarianship in addition to job-specific developments at the very least. That’s a tall order, one that I mostly fulfill through various online publications using Google Reader. I subscribe to the RSS feeds of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Insider Higher Education as well as our campus newspaper. IHE is fully available online in full text, and has good articles and often great discussions in the comments. CHE is subscription only for the most part, but they do have some open access articles, plus the headlines and first sentence of each article is available in the RSS feed. That’s usually enough to get an idea of what’s going on in higher education. I also subscribe to the feeds of about 35 online publications related to libraries (I’m not going to add links because I’m lazy, but these should be easy to find). My favorite newsy publications include Library Journal, INFOdocket, LIS News, Library Stuff, the Kept-up Academic Librarian, and Resource Shelf. I also keep up with the technology news through Google News. Build professional reading time into your day. Once it becomes a habit, you’ll wonder how you could have tolerated being so uninformed before.
Read relevant opinion. I also read a number of what could be called opinion blogs (a category I would include myself in). These include, but are not limited to: ACRLog, Information Wants to be Free, The Ubiquitous Librarian, Gavia Libraria, Library Babelfish, Scholarly Communications @ Duke, Sense and Reference, Peer to Peer Review, From the Bell Tower, and Hack Library School. For obvious reasons, most of these are by academic librarians. I follow many other library-related blogs, but most other blogs have short, easily skimmed posts. When I’m short on time, I read only the academic librarian blogs and mark the others as read. I save In the Library with the Lead Pipe for those afternoons when the entire library has shut down and I have nothing to do.
Read job ads. I also subscribe to job ad feeds from ALA and LIS Jobs, glance at every one of them, and read through many of them that resemble jobs I’m qualified for, even though I’m not on the market and have no plans to leave my excellent job anytime soon. But stuff happens. Reading job ads tells you what libraries are looking for in new hires, which allows me to know whether I’m still a marketable librarian and whether there are things libraries are now asking for that it might be good for me to cultivate to benefit myself and my library. You don’t have to be ambitious to be marketable; you just need to be cautious.
Read conference programs. Learn at conferences by attending, or not attending. Lots of people go to conferences to watch presentations and participate in workshops. Great if you can afford it. However, even if you can’t afford to go to a conference, you can learn from it. A conference program is like a course syllabus. Reading through the entire program (usually free online) gives you a good idea of the things librarians are talking about and doing at the moment. For most presentations, if you have the title and description, you can learn on your own from there. Take the topic, search it in Library Lit and Google, and read a few articles. After that, you could probably give the presentation yourself. It’s autodidacticism, yes, but it’s directed autodidacticism.
Follow up on new things. Through the reading I find out about new stuff. That could be a new piece of software or service, a library trend, a better way to organize something, a new approach to outreach, whatever. If it’s anything that looks like it will add something promising to my work, I follow up on it, by reading more, using the tool, integrating a new approach, etc. Often enough, some new thing doesn’t work for me, but at least I know why it doesn’t. And once in a while something great comes along. I’m as selective or expansive about following up as my time allows, but I always make at least some time if I find something interesting.
Force yourself to learn if necessary. For a few years I gave tech presentations around New Jersey as continuing education classes for librarians. One frequent presentation came about because the program coordinator said, “I saw that someone elsewhere was doing a presentation on X topic. Could you do that?” I agreed to do them to force myself to keep up with emerging information technology. Someone at one of the presentations asked me how I knew about all the stuff I was presenting on. Simple. Research. CNet, TechCrunch, Wikipedia, and ten hours of work will do wonders for your knowledge of any given information technology subject. I’m planning a couple of presentations this semester for a department I work with. Learning what I need to learn and organizing them will take some time and effort, and to motivate myself I announced in a meeting of students that I was planning them. That way they don’t just float to the bottom of my to-do list.
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER
Participate in ways that exploit your strengths and avoid your weaknesses. This could be at work, in professional associations, at conferences, or wherever. It also requires knowing your strengths and weaknesses, which we might easily misperceive. I know that I write well, that I’m very efficient and organized, that I work well under pressure, and that I can give a decent presentation about whatever with a little prep time, and sometimes even without it. I also know that I’m not as good with detail work as I am with other stuff (thus, no cataloging for me) and I’m shy around strangers and in large groups where I’m not the center of attention. (That is, public speaking doesn’t bother me much anymore, but mingling with strangers is sometimes literally painful to me). For example, every year we have an orientation for new students. I give tours because I’m good at giving tours. I avoid the unstructured meet and greet because I’m not good at it. This is better for me and better for the library. It’s the law of comparative advantage applied to work skills.
Think about your web presence. I write a blog (obviously), and a minor motivating factor in starting this blog was my web presence. Google me, and this blog comes up in the first few links. Read this blog, and you’ll know what I think about libraries and librarianship and a few other things and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what sort of librarian I am. Some people think that’s a bad idea. I had a discussion with an LIS student who said she would never blog or write much online, because she might say something that would offend a potential employer. That’s true, it might. Then again, if a potential employer won’t hire you because of a professional opinion you have, then that employer isn’t worth working for. On the other hand, I didn’t start this blog until I had our version of tenure, so I’m not exactly a maverick on this one. Also, deliberately, I almost never write about my library or specific work issues, at least directly. If you’re acting as if you’re on the market, then this is something to think about, and there are many options. If you’re applying for jobs, you will be Googled.
Remember what you do and want to do. I’m really bad at remembering things I’ve done when it comes time to update by C.V. or put in my materials for my annual performance appraisal, so I keep a file (actually an Evernote note) where I list every professional thing I’ve done in a given year that wasn’t directly required by my job, along with a separate list of any good ideas I might have for things to do. If I accomplish one, I move it to the done list. They don’t have to be big things, just anything that I do that isn’t required as part of my daily routine, the kind of stuff I could get away with not doing. At the end of the year I decide what is important enough to get noted on my C.V. or elsewhere. I’ve found that keeping this list (and this is only my third year of doing it) helps keep me focused on doing more than just showing up and doing the minimum work.
So there it is. Live long and prosper.