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Session Notes from ALA Annual

ACRL NMDG: The Stories We Tell: Academic librarians and identity

Date/Time: Saturday, June 28, 2014 from 10:30-11:30

Room: Bally Palace 3

Attendance: 22 (plus 6 panelists and 1 moderator)

How do we begin to describe the professional identity of academic librarians? What are the stories we tell about ourselves to our users, our institutions, and especially to each other? Do these stories provide a view that is multidimensional and reflective of the racial and ethnic diversity of our field and the users we serve?

This year, the New Members Discussion Group is teaming up with the creators of Librarian Wardrobe and two of the authors from the forthcoming book, The Librarian Stereotype: Deconstructing Presentations and Perceptions of Information Work, to discuss the shared stories of academic librarianship: ones that reflect our view of ourselves, our professional identities, and professional stereotypes.

We hope you’ll join us!


Isabel Gonzalez-Smith is an Academic Resident Librarian at her alma mater, the University of Illinois at Chicago, in reference and instruction. In 2011, she graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with an MLIS and has experience working in a public library, rare book store, archive, special collections, and academic libraries. She co-authored “Unpacking Identity: Racial, Ethnic, and Professional Identity and Academic Librarians of Color” in The Librarian Stereotype: Deconstructing Perceptions and Presentations of Information Work. Her interests are user experience, assessment, human-centered design, and diversity in academic librarianship.

Derrick Jefferson is the Communications Librarian at American University in Washington, DC.  He received his MLIS from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA as a Project Recovery scholar based in New Orleans, and his MFA in film from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA , where he focused on screenwriting and producing. Interested in diversity in higher education as well as the intersection of race, class, and gender with media and pop culture, he tweets about food, vinyl records, and libraries at @geekandahalf.

Sarah LeMire is Assistant Head of Research and Information Services at the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library, where she coordinates the library's Knowledge Commons and information literacy instruction for the University's first-year writing course.   Her first career was in the U.S. Army, where she served as an Arabic translator in the 4th Infantry Division and deployed to Iraq.  Due to her military service and post-military experiences as a student veteran, she is passionate about her ongoing outreach efforts to student veterans on campus.

Raymond Pun is a research and reference services librarian in New York University Shanghai where he provides reference and research support to faculty and students. Previously he worked in New York Public Library: Stephen A. Schwarzman Building as a research librarian providing reference and instructional services. He holds an M.L.S and a M.A. in East Asian Studies. In 2012, the Library Journal nominated him as a Mover and Shaker, and this year he is part of ALA's Emerging Leaders. He has published and presented extensively in the fields of digital literacy, Chinese cultural studies and history, international librarianship.

Sarah Steiner is the Head of Research & Instruction Services at Western Carolina University Library. Sarah earned her Master of Library Science degree from the University of South Florida and a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Georgia State University. She regularly writes and speaks on instruction skills, social media in libraries, and emerging technologies.

Moderator: Tyler Dzuba



Derrick Jefferson: "If you can work with Paris Hilton, you can work with any patron." Derrick reported that the work he did before becoming a librarian, primarily in the entertainment industry, had an impact on how works as a librarian. When he's working the desk 9 out of 10 times the person of color will come to him. He's a good librarian regardless of what he looks like, but knows that image and identity does have an impact on his work.

Sarah LeMire: In the army everything is black and while. "But librarianship is so much more gray." We are all about service and helping and we make it work. Adapting to that philosophy has broadened her perspective.

Isabel Gonzalez-Smith: Isabel works at the same institution that she received her undergraduate degree from and identifies with the mostly first generation and diverse student body. Patrons will tend to find people who are most similar to them the most approachable. She once had a person tell her that it was good to see a person of color behind the desk. Isabel also pointed out that identity is constantly in flux and that we claim our own identity. Identity isn't everything you are, it's just a piece.

Sarah Steiner: We internalize our role as librarian both inside and outside the profession - we are helpers and it's hard to turn off our goal to always be approachable when we aren't in the library.

Raymond Pun: Initially Raymond wasn't interested in connecting to people, but working at the New York Public Library pushed him outside his boundaries and forced him to connect. It's all about connecting to people and his work in libraries has made him a better listener. Being a librarian means that people are able to talk to us. Even at an academic library he can still be engaged with the community, although it is in a different way than when he was in a public library.

Question from the audience: Can you explain how your previous identity has carried over into your current career. (Specifically the questioner was interested in continuity.)

Sarah LeMire: As a translator in military intelligence, her job was to provide information to help troops on the ground achieve goals. The common thread is joy out of helping people achieve their needs.

Derrick Jefferson: Derrick likes stories and currently works with the School of Communications at his institution, which includes a film program. Even at the reference desk people tell a story to give context for their research. Research is a story and people have interesting stories. Even in data there is a story behind the question. The story helps to break down the desk as barrier.

Question from the audience: An audience member commented that two of our panelists and our moderator were male, which is an underrepresented group in libraries and asked them to discuss how that has impacted their experience.

Derrick Jefferson: Derrick was the only black male out of 125 people in the first year of his MLS program. It was tough being expected to be the poster child and he has worked hard to not be the diversity guy. The pipelines are open, the problem is retention.

Raymond Pun: Raymond recounted his experience at a library event earlier in the conference. The first 10 minutes were awkward for him because he didn't feel like he belonged. While he was hanging back in the crowd, someone came up to him and said something about how they didn't want him to be marginalized. Unfortunately, that comment made him feel marginalized. Raymond also discussed how many people assumed that he wanted to work in systems or IT, and there are still assumptions that he's with IT now that he's a librarian. Raymond pointed out that sometimes organizations make assumptions and decisions for you.

Question: What support do you want? (This question was asked by someone in the audience who works in an administrative capacity.)

Derrick Jefferson: Derrick explained that he had colleagues in the room so this was a challenging question to answer. He hated library school because he went in wanting to do good things, but kept hitting walls. Doors have opened at his current place of employment, but having been told no for so long at times it's almost surprising to hear yes. He recommends that supervisors ask "What can I do to help you?"

Sarah LeMire: Sarah reports feeling supported, even when she left for maternity leave shortly after a job change. She has the freedom to explore her interests and see how the library can play a role to support a certain group - in her case student veterans. She also has the freedom to fail, so she doesn't have to always succeed.

Sarah Steiner: Sarah just became a department head and had some recommendations for how to support colleagues even when they aren't new. Supervisors can offer general support and availability, especially to help give context to "the monsters in the closet" that are present in every organization.

Isabel Gonzalez-Smith: Isabel said that there are lots of little things that supervisors can do. She looks younger than she is and gets a lot of comments related to her apparent/assumed age. This makes her particularly angry because if she flipped the comments to refer to her older coworkers it would be awful. She has also received comments all her life about her appearance - specifically her "ambiguous race". She has had people ask her why she cares about people of color because they assume that she isn't a person of color. She discussed how she struggled thinking that she was doing something wrong, when in reality it was the organization and you can't change an organization.

Raymond Pun: Raymond recommended something as simple as asking a colleague if they want to go to lunch, since it's hard for some people to speak up. He also discussed some challenges related to his identity as an Asian. It is hard for him to say no because of how he was raised. A superior in a previous organization once told him to "Stop being so Asian" because he was saying yes all the time. Culture is important.

Comment from the audience: Perhaps the comment wasn't meant to be offensive, and instead had its root in the generational divide. She understood the comment/advice as telling him to slow down.

Isabel Gonzalez-Smith: Reported that a friend had almost exactly the same experience as Raymond. Pointed out how interesting and important it is to hear about experiences that we will never experience (given our own racial, ethnic, or other identities).

Sarah Steiner: Sarah pointed out that some of these assumptions and experiences are universal, even for the white women who make up the majority of our profession. Her example was that young professionals are expected to have high energy levels and be tech savvy and new to the profession.

Comment from the audience: Individuals decide who they are, so it's important that we listen to the stories we tell each other.

Sarah Steiner: While working on the research for the Librarian Wardrobe book, she conducted 31 interviews about the stories we tell each other as librarians. Our own stories map really clearly and closely to the ALA values, even though those values sometimes seem remote. We also tend to tell stories in which we are heroes, which sometimes deviates from reality. The stories we tell can sometimes turn into the professional equivalent of the big fish that got away.

Sarah LeMire: We talk about our successes, but not about our failures. A library school professor once told her that librarians like to be nice. But that isn't always authentic. We don't criticize and shy away from talking about failures. We don't see the long list of failures that led to the successes that do get reported. Sarah asked whether our image as positive helpers undermines our work with faculty members.

Sarah Steiner: There was a lot of guilty in their interview responses whenever anyone said something negative about the profession. It's seen as a threat to our profession if we aren't happy and perfect.

Isabel Gonzalez-Smith: Isabel pointed out that we all identify differently and there are some people for whom "librarian" is a large part of their identity, while for others it is just a small part. Experiences can also impact how ______ you feel (e.g. how black you feel when surrounded by white people). This is one of the reasons why the ethnic caucuses within ALA are so important.