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Contributing Editor Reflection

The elusive evidence of public library research

LibParlor contributor Margaret A.E. Alexander shares their experiences as both a public and academic librarian and the way research plays out in both spaces.

Written by Margaret A.E. Alexander

I was an accidental library technologist, unafraid to try things. Also: I sing, never solo, last in Eugene Symphony Chorus and Eugene Opera Chorus; I garden, hosting a local gardening group on Facebook; I cook, enjoying flavors from many cultures; I play in the SCA, trying out historical hobbies.  I live with 4 humans, 1 canine, 1 feline, 5 chickens. Our youngest wants a gecko. I acknowledge living on the ancestral land of the Kalapuya.

Content Warning: This post references domestic violence and suicide.

I’ve worked in public libraries for something like 25 years, the last 17 or so at one library, where my one hat was eventually augmented by the wearing of up to 4 different hats at any given time. My main role was as the technology manager, originally labelled Automation and Support Services Principal Librarian. 

Over the years I also managed technical services, circulation, and facilities for the library system, with stints also filling in for the library director and the user experience manager, and served on the library administration team. I managed projects small and large, ranging up to multi-million dollar investments. 

Did I do research? Well, I could hardly take on a multi-million dollar project without doing research. I even presented reasonably often at local and national conferences, including one state conference in Texas (I live in Oregon). 

But did I publish? I wrote reports in the course of my work. I participated in work-related online conversations and answered questions there. I helped publish websites and ran technology user groups and started and ran the only email list for RFID in libraries. I ran a webinar or two. I may have written a brief article some years ago. I can’t remember where it was published or the topic. It wasn’t important at the time. 

I wasn’t actively discouraged from publishing or doing research;  in fact I was encouraged to present and to be involved in committee work for state and national professional organizations. But none of it could impinge on my ever increasing daily duties and assignments, and I was focused on raising a son, so it never rose to the level of urgency to prompt me to invest my time in that way. I always felt that I wore too many hats, had too many daily work and personal commitments, to be able to take time out to publish, which felt like it would be of personal benefit, rather than part of my professional work. 

My story at home also did not support such activity. With a child, an abusive marriage that devolved into divorce and then, 5 years ago, a murder-suicide by my ex-husband of my then-boyfriend and himself, I struggled to keep everything together and to fulfill my work and personal obligations, rebuild self-confidence, and to look outward again. I felt guilty relief and a new focus after that traumatic event, but I still wasn’t looking to publish anything.I joined this profession to help other people to help themselves. My daily work felt worthwhile and important. 

I was a member of LITA for many years, and often wished that academic librarians would use their familiarity with statistical analysis and rigorous academic examination of a topic to collaborate with public librarians to do research we didn’t have the time to do. I ultimately didn’t feel I had the time to follow up on my research questions. Then, three years ago, my long-time director retired, and things changed at the library where I worked. 

After a year of unemployment, I took an adjunct faculty job with the University of Washington, teaching Systems Librarianship, a Winter term online graduate class for the iSchool. It was a crash-course in teaching myself how to teach an academic class, use online course management software and tools to migrate a class to an online format, and learning academic aspects of Systems Librarianship I hadn’t yet experienced. I wrote a lot for that class, and did a lot of research, and learned a lot from my students, as one does. 

I was appointed Core Systems Librarian for the University of Oregon Libraries this past January. I cleverly negotiated a four year credit on my six year promotion review process (we aren’t tenured faculty, but go through regular review periods to renew our contracts and earn promotions.) On my first day of work I was informed that this meant not that I had the two years I’d expected to get a portfolio together for that promotion, but a matter of months! By September of this year I needed to have my portfolio ready to submit. I was assured that with my history, I should not have any trouble making a successful application for promotion.

And then the pandemic hit. I’ve been an academic librarian at UO now for 8 months, and all but 6 weeks of that has been at home because of the Oregon shelter-in-place rules. I’ve been learning the culture and a massive software product mostly on my own for most of that time, and doing my best to help the library morph into a remote-learning support organization.

Ultimately, I decided to put off my bid for promotion until next year. I’ve got tons of service experience, and the job itself is service-heavy, as I am the main liaison to our consortium of Alma/Primo libraries in the Northwest, but I need to publish, and be able to show my impact on the profession. It was good to have the opportunity to go up for promotion right away, in some ways, as it helped me focus on what was needed for promotion, and to get what I already had in order. It’s an individual decision, but I’d advise taking a look at what promotion requires, before bargaining for credit towards the promotion process. 

Additionally, the pandemic has triggered some PTSD reactions for me, so I don’t feel that I’ve been as productive as I should. On the other hand, I’ve been dealing with trauma now for a matter of years, not the matter of months that many folks have, and I probably have more tools than most to help me recognize and deal with my reactions to the pandemic. I am not immune to doom-scrolling, but I also am pretty good at recognizing when I need to reach out to others for support, and at not retreating into my own fears. I indulge in escapist fiction and movies, to remind me to reset my brain. Cooking and gardening have always been soothing, and sources of wonder and, literally, growth, and I have increased both. I grew plants from seed this Spring, for the first time in many years, and that nurturing of new life has been therapeutic.

However, the fact remains that I need to also be thinking about and figuring out how to start publishing. Something. Anything. My background has not particularly prepared me to have the hubris to think that I have anything to say that others don’t already know or want to hear, despite my undergraduate English degree from Kenyon College. And I haven’t yet done enough in my academic position to really have a lot to say that anyone not in my specific situation will want to hear. Who is my audience?

I started journaling a few months ago. I haven’t kept a journal since grade school, maybe college. I didn’t journal during the previous terrible things that happened in my life, unless you count too many personally revealing posts on Facebook. I was a little afraid that I would start writing in my journal and wouldn’t be able to stop. But that’s all inward facing. 

I now need to find my outside voice. I need to find a way to rebuild my professional presence in new ways, in a new kind of library. I want to get back to honoring that value in my life, and to helping us all as we start exploring what will be a new way of providing service post-pandemic. I look forward to nurturing those soft, green leaves of new growth and exploration. 

Growth lessons:

  • Academic librarians may be in a position to work with public libraries to do collaborative research – consider reaching out!
  • It’s ok to take more time to prepare for promotion than you originally thought 
  • It’s also good to learn more before you are hired! And if you’re a supervisor – bear in mind your hiree may need a lot more information about the promotion and/or tenure process.
  • A strong service ethic will lead to topics on which to publish
  • Stress reactions remind us to slow down, be kind to ourselves, and to find ways to focus on positives for a while. Take care of yourself.

Featured image by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of the writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

1 comment on “The elusive evidence of public library research

  1. Great post. I work as an adult services librarian and I have no experience in publishing. I think it would be great to collaborate with someone in academics due to their experience in publishing and research.

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