I always laugh at productivity articles that advise against checking email first thing in the morning. That is the perfect time for me to check my inbox. Because I work for the international relations department of a large, well-known North American country, many of emails that I receive come in before I even begin work in the morning. So I usually start my day by flagging the emails that need immediate action, then sorting the rest by priority. Regardless of what other tasks I have on my plate, my main duty at work is answering emails, and I need to be comfortable with that.
Now, I’ve always identified myself as a technical services librarian. I worked in cataloging for most of my career, and that background helped me get my current job. But I only just realized that I’m now more of a reference librarian. Yes, I manage data collection and yes, I manage electronic resources, but really, what I do for a living is answer questions. If I don’t know the answer, I know where to find it, and if I don’t know where to find it, I know who will.
That may seem like a matter of semantics, but in fact, this realization may help me reframe how I work. I had begun to think that all of those questions were distracting from my main duties at work. Instead, I should think of my data and resource management efforts as the prep work I do so that I can answer all of those questions. So if I can structure my workflow to focus on that, then I should be in good shape from here on out.
I am fascinated with the term “creative destruction.” Joseph Schumpeter, the economist associated the concept, described it as the way industrial progress destroys the processes that preceded it. But to me, it sums up my approach to project management, for better or worse.
On the worse end of things, I have a tendency to start projects (such as blogs or websites) with a lot of enthusiasm, then tear them down as soon as I am dissatisfied with the direction they are going. But on the better end of things, pulling something apart is the only way I can fully understand how it works. And sometimes, by breaking up the old systems, I can build something more efficient and thoughtful in its place.
When I began to manage my office’s data collection a few years ago, I took a hard look at the software we were using in the collection process. It became very clear that there were a few problems with not only the software as we had set it up, but the process itself. I decided the best way to move forward was to stop using the software and restart the process from scratch.
Obviously, I had to work hard to convince my office’s leadership that this was the right approach, especially because I was creating a massive workload for myself. But I thought that by ditching the old process, we could get a better sense of how our posts collect and manage their data, and we could rebuild from there.
My first step was to ask posts to email me their data in the format that they used themselves. This turned out to be a really interesting endeavor. While we were dictating what we wanted to collect, most posts either already had their own processes in place or had taken their cues from our original requests.
Using all of these reports, I built a stop-gap process involving Google Sheets. It was built around each fiscal year and organized by country-specific tabs, divided by space, and broken down by month. For various reasons, this stop-gap turned out to be our long-term method of data collection. It’s not ideal, because a series of spreadsheets doesn’t really equal a database, but through creative use of Google Sheets formulas like IMPORTRANGE, I built something that was a lot more useful than the elaborate software system that it replaced.
Yes, I am bragging. Just a little bit.
The other aspect to our data collection process that I changed was a bit more simple. We used to grumble in our office that our data was frequently incomplete. When we did training sessions or meetings with staff, we would stress the importance of submitting their reports. I remember one session in which a library director asked if we could set up reminders to input their data. Our response was to remind staff to set up their own reminders. This seemed wholly unsatisfactory, even at the time.
It occurred to me that we should be requesting the data we want from everyone instead of expecting everyone to just send it to us. So after that initial data call, I just started to email everyone reminders on a regular basis. And pretty soon we ended up with as complete a dataset as we could expect. Sometimes if you just ask nicely, you can get what you want.
Yes, I am bragging again. I am proud that I was able to take my destructive nature and turn it into something constructive and ultimately pretty useful. That said, it is time to move into something a bit more sophisticated, because I manage a lot of spreadsheets now. But I may still send out those reminders personally. I kind of like having that connection with everyone from around the world.
It may seem odd to write an introduction to a two-year-old blog, but here’s why I’m doing it: I’ve been working in a non-traditional library environment for a decade and at some point in the past 10 years, I convinced myself that it is too hard to write about my work because only my colleagues would understand.
Then it dawned on me that this was a failure of imagination on my part. While writing “Libraries Gave Us Power,” I realized that if I am looking to find connections with librarians and other professionals that would be mutually beneficial, then it is up to me to write clearly and concisely about what I do.
So, what do I do for a living? I manage data about and electronic resources for the U.S. Department of State’s American Spaces program.
What are American Spaces? They are a network of more than 600 cultural centers supported by the State Department. Modeled after modern American libraries, they provide free access to information about the United States and give local audiences the opportunity to engage with Americans on issues that are important to them. This description may raise more questions than it answers, but I will explain it all in more detail in due course. I need blog content, after all.
Anyway, my official title is Program Support Specialist, but the jargon-free title is contract librarian. I was hired to manage electronic resources, but as our program has developed and matured, I began to tackle my office’s data collection and management needs.
What I haven’t been able to do is analyze that data. I’ve left it to others to do, even though I have a good handle on what we have collected. Therefore, my next major task at work is to learn how to be a data analyst.
So when I talk about not getting what I need out of professional associations, that is what I was getting at. My professional journey is taking me in a different direction now, so I am reevaluating how I manage my career. And where this takes me will dictate what I write about here. Again: content!
I’ve been letting a lot of my professional association memberships lapse because I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with them. I’ve always felt that I needed to maintain my dues based on past opportunities these associations had provided. Now I have come to terms with the fact that I have been paying for something that I didn’t really use much any more.
In one specific case, that existential crisis has existed for as long as I had been a member and, like Kendra, I used to have strong opinions about it. But the repetition of the debate wore on me to the point where I asked myself, “Does this association exist only to debate its own purpose?”
Similarly, Kendra asks (and I can’t emphasize enough how much I echo this sentiment):
Do the associations exist so that they exist? (Then what’s the point?) Or do they exist for the members? And then what do members want? I want to connect with others doing similar work. I want to learn what they’re doing. I want to share what I’m doing. I want to advocate for a democratic information ecosystem. I want to support others in the profession.
To that point, I found it increasingly difficult to make the connections I needed through the electronic communications channels available. The general channels would be swamped with the aforementioned debates. The specific topical channels where I would likely have found those connections had gone fallow because the members stopped having active discussions.
I take responsibility for the fact that I stopped going to conferences and meet-ups. Personal circumstances partially dictated that, but it’s not like I couldn’t have worked around that if I really made the effort. That’s on me, not on any of the associations.
In either case, my network has become insular: I work with the people both in D.C. and in the field that understand the questions I need answer. That’s all well and good, and we often come up with creative solutions internally. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is value in working with people coming from different backgrounds, but facing similar issues.
When I first started my current job, I had a supervisor who was really good at identifying institutions and organizations that had similar scopes to ours. Not just other governmental foreign offices maintaining cultural centers, but non-profits with global reaches, universities with dispersed campuses, and corporations with multinational operations.
One of my next steps will be to re-identify those institutions and reach out to them to establish new connections that can be mutually beneficial. (Good thing my aforementioned supervisor is on another Washington tour.)
The other step is to re-engage in a professional organization that offers local meet-ups and conferences and work to make those connections in person. Instead of waiting for organizations to understand what its members need, I have to create the experience I need.
One of the things that has impressed me the most is the fact that we support each other so much through thick and thin, and that it doesn’t take long for new colleagues to get that support.
Normally, I publish stuff like that only to my connections, many of whom are obviously those colleagues I’m praising. But every now and then I get the urge to shout this from the mountains. I’m always grateful that I work where I do.
The past couple of months have been ridiculously intense. Part of the reason why is public knowledge, and you’ll know when the dust has settled from that when I update my LinkedIn profile.
I’ve also had to deal with some more personal issues, and I’m not so much waiting for dust to settle as slowly understanding that I am standing in fog and occasionally there will be a thunderstorm. But mostly things are just pleasantly misty.
I have to stay on top of a lot of things right now, and writing it all down makes it seem daunting. I started to adapt the project management techniques I use at work to manage it all, with little success yet. There are kinks to work out, because the tools and formats I use at work don’t necessarily mesh cleanly at home.
But I also accept that no matter how much honing I do, it’s a perpetual work in progress. There is no one perfect way to do anything, no one weird trick. Something works for awhile, but a small adjustment or even a major overhaul may be necessary. For now, if I can learn how to keep all the plates spinning, I will be doing okay.
It’s also nice to have a good little brewery walking distance from my house!
I have spent the last couple of years at my job wrangling data: visitor numbers, electronic resource fulltext downloads, activity reports, things like that. All of the numbers and reports and the like are stashed in Google Sheets and Google Docs, in SharePoint and in OneNote, and they are shared constantly through email and Slack. And we can put them all together to tell compelling stories about the work we do.
But I know that this isn’t quite enough to really capture the whole story. There are better data points and better ways to collect and manage those data points and better ways to evaluate them.
(I am giving some of my spreadsheets the short shrift when I put it that way. They are beautiful spreadsheets and like Big Daddy Kane they get the job done.)
I’ve thought a lot about how we can improve our data collection and management over the past couple of years. I’m not thinking about little tweaks here: I’ve done those little tweaks already. I want to make significant changes, and I’ve put a lot of thought and done a lot of work to figure out how to do so.
My office is presently implementing a new two-to-three year strategic plan. As the plan has fallen into place, a lot of the work I had done has been incorporated into it. Even better, my colleagues have come up with new ideas that either complement or improve on mine. Fresh sets of eyes bring fresh perspectives, and people who haven’t lived with the day-to-day tasks of data management can help those who do see the forest through all of the trees.
We recently had a meeting with folks from outside our office to talk about our data plan. They will be helping us put it into motion. One of the social scientists we met made a point that summed up how I’ve felt the past couple of years: How do we move from data management to data evaluation? We all agree that we’ve come up with a framework to make that leap.
I love it when a plan comes together. Now if we can just continue our work without further interruptions, everything is going to be great.
I’ve become fond of LinkedIn, mainly because of its newsfeed. A lot of news outlets and companies share updates from their sites, and LinkedIn has made an efforts to get “influencers” to post to their profiles. It’s not perfect (I follow Quartz, but never seem to see articles they post in my feed), but I find it an interesting, if eclectic information source.
Of course, a lot of business news outlets like Fast Company and The Muse often post articles about how to maximize your LinkedIn profile. It’s sort of like how Oscars voters like to give the Best Picture award to movies about Hollywood. Anyway, a lot of the tips are geared towards people who are looking to get hired or are trying to market themselves to their industry. Although I’m not looking for a job or trying to be an “influencer,” I like reading those suggestions to improve both the way I present myself and the way I share information on the site.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I am about to switch employers for the fourth time since I started my current job. I took the opportunity to change my LinkedIn profile to reflect both my steady job of seven years and nine months and my rotating cast of employers. I kept my job details in the main job description, then left the description fields blank for the contract staff companies. This way I don’t have to copy and paste my job description every time I switch companies. I am also able acknowledge my employers but connect my place of work to my profile, which makes it easier for my colleagues to find me.
To wit: I used the same format for my previous long-term contract position and within an hour, a former colleague of mine at NOAA reached out to connect. It makes a difference.
It’s been 10 years since I received my MLS from Maryland. Much of what I learned in library school has been supplanted by the progress of time, the faster progress of technology, and my ever-evolving duties at work. Like, does anyone still use AACR2?
It’s also been seven years since I took my current job. I was hired as a Cataloging and Metadata Specialist, but my title now is Program Evaluation, Applied Technology & Information Resource Contractor. It’s a bit of a mouthful and I am hoping we can make it more succinct on my next work order. But it does reflect how my job has evolved since 2010.
I probably have been a bit too over-eager to pick up new duties. My supervisors worry about burnout and, given my bouts of anxiety, I can understand where they are coming from. I can get overwhelmed and only manage the most humdrum tasks while I recover. Although proofreading spreadsheets is surprisingly relaxing.
But I am also happy to take on new projects because they keep me on my toes and keep me from being too complacent. (Not that it’s easy to be complacent these days.) They also give me new perspective on what I already do and inspire new ways to think about the tasks I already have.
It is easy for me to get bogged down in minutiae and worn down by day-to-day frustrations. I never want to lose sight of the fact that I am lucky to have the job that I have. Is it the same job I took in 2010? Nope, but I don’t mind one bit.
I was still in graduate school at the time, but it was a pivotal moment in my professional career. Among the participants on the tour were Eileen Deegan from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Information Resources and Fran Perros from State’s Ralph Bunche Library. I stayed in touch with them after the tour (which was easy to do since I served as DGI’s chair-elect when Eileen was chair). Three years after the tour, they recommended me for a contract position at the Office of Information Resources. The office is now called the Office of American Spaces, but I have been there ever since.
While on the tour, I met with an Information Resource Officer named Sheila Weir. It was the first time I knew that there was such a thing as a foreign service librarian. (Or Regional Public Engagement Specialist, as they are now called. We like to change the names of things at State.) While I never did run off to join the foreign service like I thought I was going to, I am at least happy enough to live vicariously through the FSOs I work with now. Sheila eventually became my supervisor in the Office of American Spaces, because it’s a small world and Washington, DC is a small town.
Anyway, before the tour started, Dr. Curtis Rogers started up a blog to share information ahead of the trip. He was nice enough to make me an editor. I wrote recaps of the tour for my old website, but I eventually moved those recaps to the group blog. I had embedded photos from my old Flickr account into my posts. When I took the Flickr account down, I inadvertently broke all the photos on the site. So I spent some time this weekend uploading the photos to the blog. What can I say, I will look for any excuse to look through old photo albums. And old blog posts.
By the way, one of my favorite photos I took on the trip is the one to the left. It is a surfer in the Isar River. There was a bridge we walked over when we were heading to the Bavarian Parliament, and it just so happened that this spot acted like a little wave pool in the river. There were a group of surfers hanging out there and, fitting into certain German stereotypes, a couple of them had no problem changing out of their wetsuits in front of everyone.
I’ve wanted to go back to Germany ever since, particularly to Berlin. Outside of layovers in Frankfurt and Munich, I haven’t had the chance yet. At some point I need to, though, because the t-shirt I bought at the Ramones Museum isn’t getting any newer.