Small(er) Academic Libraries: Highlights from the Field

This week I visited the local MLIS program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Information Studies. The instructor of the Academic Libraries course invited me to present about working in smaller academic libraries–a career I have thoroughly enjoyed! Below are my slides and notes.

It was a pleasure talking with the students and their instructor!

Slide1

Small(er) Academic Libraries: Highlights from the Field

  • I’ll tell you a little bit about myself and Carroll University’s library.
  • We’ll do a quick comparison between a small academic library and large academic library.
  • Then the bulk of the presentation will discuss highlights of working in a smaller academic library.

Slide2

A Little Bit About Me

  • BA in history from Ball State University.
    • Changed my major a few times.
    • Starting my freshman year of college, I began as a library student worker.
    • I saw the work that the librarians were doing. They enjoyed their jobs and by senior year I knew this was what I wanted to do.
  • After my bachelor’s degree I got my MLS from Indiana University.
  • Been working as an academic librarian for 16 years now.
  • During most of this time, I’ve been an information literacy and reference librarian.
  • Also spent time working as an instructional technologist – helping faculty integrate e-learning tools into their courses.
  • Worked at 5 different universities and have been at Carroll University now for 5+ years. 
  • While at Carroll, I decided to go back to school and completed my master’s degree in education.
    • It wasn’t a job requirement. Did it for professional development.
    • For me, my MLS was all about library content (books, journals, databases).
    • But to me, libraries are all about people!
    • The master’s in education was a good connection between people and content.
    • Did my research on makerspaces in academic libraries.
  • I hate the question: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” because I’m not a person who plots out a career trajectory–it’s just not me. I’ve always been more interested in making sure I like what I do and feel supported and valued at work instead of wanting to hold a particular job.
  • Being library director is still new (less than 2 years) and something I never intended or thought of.
    • Especially when you work in a smaller library, you have to be prepared to step up.
    • When our previous director left, none of the other librarians wanted to serve as interim director, so I agreed to.
    • Eventually I interviewed and became permanent library director.

Slide3

A Little Bit About Carroll University

  • We are Wisconsin’s oldest university. Founded in 1846. 
  • Still primarily a residential campus. Around 3,400 students.
  • Focus is on undergraduate education, but growing graduate programs: Doctor of Physical Therapy, MBA, masters in education, masters in occupational therapy, masters in nursing, masters in exercise science, masters in physician assistant studies, masters in athletic training.
  • About 60% of our students major in the health sciences or life sciences. Popular majors are: Exercise Science, Business, Nursing, Biology, and Psychology.

Slide4

Library by the Numbers

  • Above are some statistics about Carroll University’s library.

Slide5

Small Academic Library vs. Big Academic Library: A Comparison

  • A comparison between Carroll University’s library and UW-Milwaukee’s library.

Slide6

What is a Small Academic Library?

  • No straightforward definition.
  • Generally less than 5,000 students.
  • Overall, I would say a total staff of less than 15 to 20.
  • Comparing resources (like number of books, databases) is harder because it depends if the university is part of a system or consortium.
  • So I primarily look at the number of students and number of library staff members. But your mileage may vary.

Slide7

Flat Organizational Structure

  • Smaller academic libraries generally have a flat organizational structure.
  • Not a lot of hierarchy–simply because there’s less staff.
  • As a smaller library, communication is fairly informal as we see everybody almost every day.
    • The library staff meets formally as a group every other week to share what’s going on.
    • The librarians meet formally as a group when needed. 
    • I meet formally with each of my direct reports once a month. It’s a chance to get updated on projects and to share things one-on-one.
    • We generally don’t handle library business by committee unless it’s for a job search.
    • We currently only have one committee: marketing and outreach.

Slide8

Carroll University Library Organizational Structure

  • Each of our librarians coordinates a specific area of the library.
    • Public/Technical Services Librarian & Archivist: technical services and archives.
    • Teaching & Learning Librarian: research assistance and information literacy.
    • Electronic Resources Librarian/Systems Librarian: back-end systems.
    • Life & Health Sciences Librarian: serves our life/health sciences students because we have so many. Needed a dedicated position.
    • And I coordinate access services (Circ, ILL, reserves) in addition to being library director.
  • I report to the Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs. I meet with him formally every other week and then all of the deans/directors in Academic Affairs meet together formally once a month.
  • Most smaller and a lot of larger academic library directors report to the Academic Affairs side of the university. The exceptions are some academic libraries, both large and small, that work under a merged Library/Information Technology structure and then the library reports to a person who often holds a title like Vice President and Chief Information Officer.  

Slide9

Public Facing

  • Regardless of your job title, every library staff person at a small institution is public facing. We have direct contact and interactions with students, faculty, and staff everyday.
  • No one sits in a “back room” — and that’s not a criticism of larger institutions. It’s just daily work life at a smaller institution.  
  • For example, our technical services librarian and our electronic resources librarian – job titles that are often considered “back of the house” – participate in teaching information literacy sessions, provide research assistance, and other library liaison duties.
  • At a smaller residential campus, face-to-face is key. That’s why students choose to go college there.

Small(er) Academic Libraries (1)

You Wear a Lot of Hats

  • For me, one of things I’ve loved about working in smaller academic libraries is that there is never a chance to get bored.
  • Because our staff is small, we do a lot of different things.
  • I’m the library director, but all of us do a lot of things.
    • I oversees access services. Each of our librarians coordinates a specific area of the library.
    • I’m also a liaison to several academic departments on campus. Each of our librarians is assigned to departments to liaise with.
    • I teach in the information literacy program and provide research assistance.
  • Generally, Library Directors at larger institutions wouldn’t do much information literacy or research assistance.
    • I do. I want to see the issues that our students and faculty are experiencing first-hand. And frankly, if I didn’t participate in research assistance and teaching information literacy sessions, it would be too burdensome for the rest of the staff.

Slide11

Other Duties as Assigned?

  • The next thing I pulled here is a job description so you can see the examples of wearing many hats.
  • Last summer, we hired for our Teaching & Learning Librarian position–what a lot of academic libraries refer to as a Reference & Instruction Librarian.
  • I’ve highlighted the different “hats” that this librarian wears.
  • Variety is key in smaller academic libraries.
  • Also wanted to share this because when you are job hunting, don’t be intimidated at what at first glance looks like a laundry list of job duties. It looks daunting, but remember we’re smaller, so you’re not devoting as much time to each individual bullet point as you might at a larger institution. Apply! We need you!

Slide12

Generalists vs. Specialists

  • Speaking of job titles. We can talk about the differences between generalists and specialists.
  • For the most part, in small academic libraries, we’re all generalists when it comes to subject matters and library expertise. We know a little bit about a lot of things.
  • At larger academic libraries, of course, you have generalists, but you also have specialists too.
  • On the left are librarian job titles from Carroll.
  • On the right are some examples of job titles I’ve pulled from large academic libraries like UW-Milwaukee, UW-Madison, and the University of Minnesota.

Slide13

Less Roadblocks, but Less Resources

  • One of the outcomes of a flat organizational structure is less red tape. This is one of things I enjoy about working in smaller academic libraries.
  • If I have an idea, or if another staff member has an idea–as long as it’s low cost, you can try it. If it’s a success–then great, but if it fails, that’s OK too since it’s a learning process. I like to promote the idea of always operating in beta mode.  
    • Example: I was meeting with the library’s marketing committee and somehow we got onto the topic of how we noticed that some of our student workers skip meals or were out of meal swipes.
    • The conversation then moved on to how many of our college students are food insecure.
    • So on a whim we decided to convert an unused book tower display into the campus’s first food pantry.
    • There was no red tape or approval process we had to go through. We’re a small campus, so we know what services are provided–so we just decided to do it.
    • Another example: I supervise our Circulation Manager and we were talking about library fines. Recent studies have shown that library fines aren’t necessarily a good way to get library materials returned. So we did away with library fines. Again, no committee. No having to go up the “food chain” to get things approved. We just did it.
  • The flip side? Less resources.
    • So it’s just Carroll. We’re not part of a system or consortium.
    • We need to have most of the services and resources of a larger academic library, but scaled down to our size.  
    • Example: For library databases, we rely a lot upon databases that are provided to us for free (though paid by taxpayers) by Badgerlink, though the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
    • Then we pay for specialized databases to support specific programs at Carroll.

Slide14

Typical Day?

  • Well there is no “typical” day.
  • That’s not unique just to smaller academic libraries, I think larger academic libraries experience that too.
  • Some of it is just dictated by the cyclical nature of the academic calendar.
  • Here is my calendar for Wednesday of last week.
    • Walk through: We have mostly movable furniture now. I like to see how students have been using it and I like to return everything to its original location so we can start fresh each day.
    • Monthly meetings w/ my direct reports.
    • Taught an information literacy session for the required English composition/writing course that first-year students take.
    • The university is embarking on a new audience & degree program, so there was a campus meeting. Important units like the library, the learning commons, academic advising, the registrar’s office, and financial aid have been meeting regularly to plan an outline for student services.
    • Lunch is always blocked, whether it actually happens or not!
    • Library staff is testing a discovery layer. So our Electronic Resources Librarian hosted a session where we did sample searching and asked questions about search results, etc.
    • I have some open time in the afternoon where I can catch up on email, work on projects, etc…
    • Also when I’m at my desk, just like all of the other librarians, we are logged into the library chat program so we can take questions. About 1 in 6 research questions comes through library chat now. So it’s important that we have multiple people staffing it.
    • Then my day wrapped up with campus emergency planning meeting. I left work at 4pm.
  • As far as smaller academic libraries: Here’s an example:
    • Today when I opened up at 7:30am, I noticed that the door handle to one of the library front doors had fallen off. So the first thing I did was to do a Facilities work order to have it fixed.
    • Then when I did my walk through, I noticed tables in our group study rooms had not been cleaned. So I had to file a Janitorial work order.
    • At larger academic libraries, there’s often a staff member who might do this. At a smaller academic library, it’s you!

Slide15

Who Are We Here For: Students or Faculty?

  • This headline is misleading because it’s not really one or the other.
  • The difference though: Carroll University, and most smaller colleges/universities are teaching-focused–primarily at the undergraduate level. We’re not a large research university like UW-Madison or the University of Illinois or University of Michigan which supports faculty and graduate student research.
  • Our mission at a smaller institution is much more tied directly to the undergraduate curriculum.
  • Here is our mission: “The library services students by providing access to information, maintaining an environment that promotes a culture of academic excellence, offering instruction that fosters scholarship, integrity and independent intellectual growth, and the sophisticated information skills necessary for lifelong learning.”
  • The question we ask ourselves: How can we support students in a particular course?
  • We’re not as focused on supporting faculty research, though we do help when we can.

Slide16

Management Skillz

  • In a smaller academic library, you may find yourself managing student workers or library staff. Even as a first job out of your MLIS program.
  • Don’t expect much formal training.
  • Remember, if you’re at a smaller academic library, then other departments on campus will be small too. Like Human Resources, for example. They may not have a lot of time to conduct workshops on manager training. You are kind of left to fend for yourself.
  • Regardless of whether you are a manger or not, everyone in a smaller academic library has to be a leader. Each of us have a portfolio we are responsible for. 
  • Importance of being a team player: In a small academic library, if someone is not a team player it’s immediately noticeable. It can negatively impact public-facing library services.

Slide17

Why Smaller Academic Libraries?

  • To wrap up:
  • #1: You are here for the students. Without them, the university ceases to exist.
  • #2: You see the impact first-hand: I get to see those light-bulb moments when working with students. And that’s really memorable for me. At small place, everyone gets to know you.
  • #3: Variety of job duties – no chance to get bored!
  • #4: Less silo-ing: You really have the chance to collaborate with people from across campus.

Slide18