Joanna Gadsby works as the Instruction Coordinator/Reference & Instruction Librarian at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her research interests include constructivist pedagogy, librarian and teacher identity, and gendered labor in librarianship.
“…when I think about the people in this field who put in the work and try to move us closer to social responsibility, I think about the importance of starting small. Focusing on what we can do and finding the people we want to stand beside.”
This was a really difficult post for me to write, not because it was painful, but because it’s hard for me to believe that I have advice from which people might benefit. How could I offer something new when there are so many brilliant people in this field? When every situation is unique? When my experience has been about more than hard work and luck, but also the privileges afforded me as a cis hetero, able-bodied, white woman? It is also difficult to write about finding connections for work and research when news of atrocities run rampant through my feeds. But, sadly, much of that may always be true and when I think about the people in this field who put in the work and try to move us closer to social responsibility, I think about the importance of starting small. Focusing on what we can do and finding the people we want to stand beside. With that in mind, I hope this comes through as more than just another networking post, and rather as a reflection on how I figured out that connections and partnerships are the heart of it all.
When I first started as a new librarian, I’d worked previously as a K-5 teacher. I didn’t have a clear idea of what it even meant for someone like me to do research in this field. I didn’t connect the work that I read about in research articles with the work that I’d be doing as a librarian.
There were two separate things happening at that time: navigating the requirements of a successful promotion and tenure process, and learning what work I was interested in doing. On my campus, these two issues can be connected, but the promotion process is fairly vague about how it defines success. You can do research, but folks here are equally or more likely to do committee work, which counts about the same as publications or presentations. In many ways, this is a beneficial policy for those figuring things out. However, if you are interested in research, there aren’t a lot of examples for going about it. At that point in my career as a librarian, I wasn’t sure what I would be interested in, except coming to work and not getting fired.
Learning about my interests on a budget meant finding free or low-cost local events, listening to ideas presented there, and trying to ascertain where my ideas fit amongst them. I went to events put on by regional associations, including some that catered to other types of librarianship, as well as discussions and workshops put on by other departments on campus. Nine years later, I’ve learned more about the types of events and programs that are likely to interest me more.
Early on, my colleague and I started a roving reference project. We proposed different types of sessions to talk about this process, at both local events and a few national conferences. During one of these sessions, someone approached us to write an article about it. We were interested in talking about this project as it evolved, so we submitted proposals for a lot of different events. This allowed us to make connections, without setting out to do so.
“…forging these connections starts with putting yourself in the space and learning that you belong there.”
The same was true for my next project, a fairly simple collaboration with a faculty member. Talking about this project in different venues allowed me into a space where I could meet people and hear their ideas. But, presenting isn’t the only way to make this happen. Signing up for “smaller stuff” was helpful for me, too, because I made unexpected connections. I served on a committee that organized an event at a major conference, and at the end, my greatest contribution was showing up to help rearrange the furniture. The payoffs are often small and unexpected. After all, I only got to rearrange the furniture AFTER I’d been to many planning meetings. But it was the connections I made at that event that meant so much, and that isn’t necessarily describable for my tenure file. There are a thousand small jobs that need to be done to pull off the big event, and the people you meet doing so might lead to a richer partnership. It also might not, and that’s ok, too, but forging these connections starts with putting yourself in the space and learning that you belong there.
“These phases come and go, and learning to leave projects behind is part of that.”
It was at a regional event that I started a conversation with my most frequent collaborator. We exchanged information and met up later to talk about issues we were interested in exploring further. It was by attending an article discussion in Baltimore that I met new, like-minded people in the area, which led to other partnerships and research interests. At some point, I left behind earlier work that focused on one idea and one project, and became more interested in research that spoke to the bigger picture of the profession, and now I knew others who shared those interests. These phases come and go, and learning to leave projects behind is part of that.
So, if I can call it advice, I’d say that it helps to get out more. Go to events when time, energy, and budgets allow. Make an effort to talk to someone whose work interests you, but don’t necessarily go in with an agenda. It sounds deceptively simple, but we can acknowledge that it isn’t. There is real effort in putting yourself out there. It can seem risky and awkward, even more so when these events feel homogeneous. With this in mind, don’t be afraid to leave early if it doesn’t speak to you or you don’t feel comfortable.
There is also value in listening to people talk about work that isn’t directly related to what you do. Find out about what people are doing because you are curious. It doesn’t have to be the big costly conference. What are people in your regional association doing? What are people on your campus doing? Staff, faculty, departments, centers on campus feel supported by your attendance, and those relationships are important to cultivate as well. Submit something. Maybe it will be accepted. I’ve been rejected a lot, too. It’s okay.
If you don’t necessarily find what you need, don’t be afraid to start it yourself. Reach out to a few people about article discussion groups or writing circles. Ask everybody and then be surprised by who shows up. Send an email to someone whose work you admire. Ask a question. Once you do these things, celebrate them as accomplishments. Again, it isn’t easy to take these risks or to find the people who you are comfortable working with, and it helps to acknowledge when something feels right or in many cases, the opposite.
All of this requires time, energy, and showing up. Sometimes, I regretted it. But, mostly I didn’t.
Go at your own pace, and know that sometimes it’s okay to do the bare minimum. It can be extremely hard to say no, to know your limits, and to leave things behind even when you are done with them. There may be guidelines you need to meet or goals you want to achieve, but try not to hurt yourself on the way there. There is so much work to do, and it will be there when you are ready.
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