Reflection on the experience

Yesterday I was in a pub, listening to Irish music. On a table there was a small card, and on it was written “Experience is what you got if you reflect on experience”. This morning, while reading the resources, I found out that the author was John Dewey, and that it wasn’t a quote from some drunk man.

Moon (1999) said that we reflect in order to achieve some anticipated outcome. This is quite true when you apply it on university tasks. For more than two months we had to keep a blog on management, reflecting on chapters of the books and on readings we were given. At first it was quite difficult, but after a while it became easier to get engaged with the topics. This happened because it was a different process of learning. Instead of just go to class, “listen” to the lesson and go home, we were forced (and I don’t mean to use this verb in a negative perception) to think beforehand. It was useful because it wasn’t just reading a chapter, but we really had to absorb what different authors exposed and give our opinion on the topic. Also, I don’t know how the past students who took this lecture were, but in our class there were many people with different ideas, and most of them were also clever, so it was really interesting. First, you create your own idea; then you have the possibility to compare it with other students, and have a chance more to reflect on it and maybe change your mind. A positive aspect from the class was that we really had a good time, while learning and, as Zull (2002) wrote, “it is hard to make meaning of it unless it engages our emotions”. He probably meant something more, but I’m sure that the fact that many personal stories and experiences came out, made it more interesting for everyone to learn.

 Reflecting is not as easy as it sounds. It requires concentration, and the ability to justify choices, contextualize and relate to practice (Niall, 2008). Professionals have made a very long study on reflection, and I’m just at the beginning of the process. Still, writing it sure helped me a lot. As I wrote in a post from the 13th of October, judging yourself is really difficult. However, I can say without any problem that I did change. The first posts were really difficult to write, I had no idea how I was supposed to think as a manager and how I could learn. I am not saying that now I know, but through the weeks I became more confident and I reached a comfort-level. My writing was less “frozen” and I felt more free: I do not know if this had been good or bad, but it was satisfactory! About my strengths and weaknesses, it’s always easier to know the last ones. As I wrote in the very first post, I am not a reflective person. Let’s be clear, I’m not saying I am stupid, but I am more intuitive: I do not spend my days thinking about a topic, but I have a quite clear idea in my mind. The problem is that, as I don’t reflect on it, sometimes I don’t have words to explain it, I miss the “language” (and not because now I’m writing in a language which is not my native one, it happens also with Italian): probably, if I would “mumble” on things for more days I would have the capacity to explain them better lately. The blog helped a lot, because I had to give a shape to what was going on in my brain and I had to try to make it clear for who was reading.

One of my friend is currently working as a manager. Few months ago, I thought it was the most boring job ever. Now I changed my mind. I don’t think I could be “the” manager, but, in the future I would like to deal with it, because it can actually be fun. When I told her that she was right, and management could be interesting, she answered “That’s good. Nobody understands me and they think I am crazy. Now it’s the two of us who are insane”. Fair enough.

From an evil image of managers to a positive one

To better reflect on what happened in these months of class, I went through all my blog posts and skimmed them again. Even if the first lecture was just a couple of months ago, it looked like it was held in another century. During these months many things have changed, in my personal life, in my mind and hopefully also in my culture and my learning skills. On the very first blog post I wrote “at the beginning it will be a very hard challenge, but in a few weeks I will have a positive result back: be capable to think in more than one way”. Back then I was explicitly talking about management class, right now I think I can apply it to any lecture and on everything that happened.

Focusing on the management part of my life, I think that was a total revolution. During my undergraduate my best friend was doing “Management of-Something” and for me that was a world very far away from mine, a bit boring and completely out of my possibility to understand it. Probably that was because I had in mind this image of a cruel manager who just wants to make money, without any regards for people feelings. I have no idea where I got this picture (even because one my closest friend was actually studying those subjects!), probably it was because I had always connected economy with money and capitalism. After the course, I revalued the whole subject and now I can see how managers are essential in every work-field. Not only their work is essential, but it’s even interesting! As a manager you must always be ready and updated with everything that happens in your organization, you do not really have time to be bored (maybe sometimes they have even too many things to do and it can become stressful). As I think that routine kills energies, now I wouldn’t mind to do some managerial tasks once I get a job. Of course I don’t feel like I could work by myself right now, because the term had been busy and I still have to assimilate many of the topics we talked about, but I’m also convinced that you absorb a topic just once you get to work with and in it. If I would get the possibility to use what I’ve learned in a real work environment, five years from now I am pretty sure my managerial skills would had improved drastically. And honestly, I would love that to happen!

Many guest speakers came and I did enjoy any class, but probably what I’ve liked the most had been the case study with my team, for many reasons. We went to visit and observe the new library in Maynooth, an awesome building with a lovely and professional staff working in it. Building a new library is such a challenge, but it is also one of the most interesting thing a librarian can have the chance to do, because as the Senior Librarian for Teaching, Learning and Research, Mary Antonesa, told us “it’s something that doesn’t happen every day, you will create a new library once in your life time”… if you are lucky! Apart from the fascinating project we got to work on, it was great to have the chance to apply what we have read in books and articles to a real case study. Back in Italy, I’ve done a lot theoretical works and projects, but I’m not sure I would be able to apply what I studied in a practical field. I think there must be a good balance between theory and practice, and this class gave us this opportunity.

About the class in general, I enjoyed so much every lecture. I thought management it was going to be boring, and I can’t stress enough times how I changed my mind in these three months. We all participated actively and the atmosphere was relaxed for everyone, so that talking and making comments had not been a problem, even if English is not my first language.
I would like to get a management-related course also in the second term. Especially now that libraries had a reduced budget, it’s really important to know how to manage the few resources that they had been given. Now I don’t see managers as an evil person, but as a necessary figure to make a library works in the best way possible.

Reader’s Advisory

During my undergraduate degree I studied Journalism. Some things were interesting, some were non-sense, and there is a quote teachers kept repeating us which I’ll never forget: “Communication is so damn difficult”. We never took it seriously (because of the people we heard it from) but there is some truth behind it. It’s impossible to not communicate. Communicate what you are thinking is usually even more impossible.

“Organizations are communicating entities” (Clegg, S., Kornberger, M. & Pitsis, T., 2011), and what is a library if not one of the most fundamental place where communication must go on in the best possible way? Communication goes on with users, stakeholders and co-workers. When it’s with patrons it’s called marketing (Clegg, S., Kornberger, M. & Pitsis, T., 2011): librarians need to accept the fact that users are customers (Rowley, J., 2003).
When we think about marketing, we have the idea that is useful just for selling products. As libraries don’t sell anything, a marketing strategy doesn’t seem necessary. This happens because we think that payment can be just in money, but as Rowley (2003) states, users’ time is a kind of payment. From a more selfish point of view, libraries need to sell their “image and values” in order to survive (they need money from the stakeholders, who will be more generous if many customs use that library), even if they won’t get paid directly from users.

So, what can do a library to market itself? I never worked in the marketing fields, but – comparing what I read in the articles and how my library used to work – there are actually many things.

To begin with, it’s nice to have (or create) a pleasant environment: friendly staff, clean areas, good services (Clegg, S., Kornberger, M. & Pitsis, T., 2011): for as long as it look banal, it’s the first thing that a client will notice. Appearance is important, if the library is well-kept and pretty, it’s more likely that an user will come back (even if just for the last newspaper). E.g., my favourite library in UCD is the Richview one: it has wood tables, it’s small, isolated. James Joyce is beautiful, but sometimes I feel lost because there are too many different people. Richview is so “far away” from the main campus that few students go there for study, and they are always the same ones. Simply, it’s nice to spend there the whole day.

A thing a library can do to connect with users is the “Reader’s advisory”, which is also one of my favourite task, because you get the opportunity to recommend books to people. What is a “reader’s advisory” if not the action to market what the library has to offer? With it, you are marketing both a product, showing books, and a service (because there’s a work of selection and caring behind any reader’s advisory – it’s everything but easy to give the right book to the right person when he needs it). Building a reader’s advisory, a librarian is actually developing the five steps of marketing communication identified by Kotler (Clegg, S., Kornberger, M. & Pitsis, T., 2011). First, the librarian needs to identify the target audience. For example, you are creating a reader’s advisory for children. What age-range? Because a five years old won’t pick the same books of a six years old. Saying you decide to create a shelf for first year primary school children (who, in Italy, are six years old), now you have to define the objective: are you choosing books to stimulate them to learn how to read? Or do you want to show them which animals live in a farm (because maybe they live in a city and have no idea that chicken have feathers)? You go with farm animals (because you can’t believe that they have never seen a hen). Now, design something which will capture their attention (or at least their parents’), how will you write your message? Will you paint something? Are you able to draw a rooster? This process is connected also with the communication channels: will you write on the library homepage about your amazing farm animals dedicated reader’s advisory? And how? Will you put an advice on other sections of the library? Finally: is all you have done working? Are they borrowing those books? Do they come back and give you feedback about them? And how can you improve the next one you will create?
These questions look silly, but they are not. Creating a reader’s advisory is way more difficult than “choose some books and put them on those free shelves”. If your rooster looks like a cucumber, it will attract the wrong audience.

All this long process, with all these questions, is nothing but management and marketing. This is just an example, there are many other fields in which marketing and managing the communication are vital, but I chose to talk about the reader’s advisory because it can look like a small job, but it’s connected with the old-fashioned idea of librarians, and I just love it. In the library I worked, the children section had a very good reader’s advisory, and I contributed sometimes. After a while, you will enter in the process and the long list of questions you have to answer while building one it will just pop-up automatically in your mind. This doesn’t mean that you can underestimate your work: as I wrote before, recommending books is a delicate, not easy-at-all job.

What am I learning?

For “Digital Library” course we have to create our personal digital library using Omeka. In order to do so, we first had to prepare an essay, explaining how our digital library is going to be, why we chose some characteristic or metadata and what are the challenges for the future.

Completing the task I understood better what metadata are and how to use them. Still, I’m far away to say I totally got them, but working on a practical project it sure helped. Also, I had to manage my library: I had to think what users might be interested in, how to present it, how to keep my website up-to-date with the changing world. I tried to think “great”, adding all my ideas and my knowledge. Right now I’m working on creating the library on Omeka and I’m realizing how huge is the difference between “thinking about a project” and actually do it (in Italy we have a way to say: “Between saying and doing, there’s the whole sea”). It’s probably the same for any worker who has a project: I’m writing this piece in the School of Architecture’s Library, and I can see many students putting so much effort in their works: must be really different to draw something on a paper (or probably on a computer, nowadays) and then realize the effective miniature!

My library is about Dublin’s cemeteries. Giving the fact that I chose this topic because I’ve always been fascinated by graveyards, while studying it I became more and more attracted by this subject. As Watson-Boone (2000) states, academic librarians might go on studying a subject just for their own curiosity. Librarians are researchers, even if they might not cover the common-sense associated with this word. Citing Watson-Boone (2000): “you don’t feel that you could be a good librarian without doing research”. While studying cemeteries, I’m collecting information and I feel like a researcher: might not be the best one, but I’m still learning and having fun during the process!

Creating this digital library will also increase my narrative skills, because I’m trying to recreate the cemeteries’ histories. Narrative thinking belongs to the human nature since the Dawn of Creation (Brophy, 2007) and it’s an important skill for librarians, as they are often dealing with people. Developing narrative skills will help both librarians and patrons, as the librarian will be able to communicate with different groups of users (Brophy, 2007). The importance to understand customs will never be stressed enough: librarians are there for help them and anything that could improve the relationship is welcome.

The digital library I’m working on will be online and, if turns out good, I could include it in an eventual portfolio. If it won’t, I will have to work on it, in order to be able to include it someday! Before coming to Ireland, I never thought that I could create my own portfolio: for me, it was something that just IT people would have had to do. As libraries are changing, I should start to create one, and right now, because “time for job hunting may seem far away, but it really isn’t” (Melissa Autumn, Portfolio – General Advices, 2010).

Week 6 – Sharing knowledge is power

Jay Liebowitz (2000)’s “sharing knowledge is power” reminds me, by contrast, of “1984”’s motto “ignorance is strenght”. Every time I think about libraries and information environment Orwell’s words come to my mind. Librarians and information professionals have an huge power: they decide what users will know and they can prevent them to accede to a part of the knowledge they retain. “1984” is one of my favourite books and, even if I read it more than six years ago, I still remember it very well, because I’ve been thinking a lot on its topics. It’s scary how knowledge can actually be changed by professionals and how in so many countries information is censored. Maybe, one of the reasons I’m studying “Library and information” is Orwell’s book and the picture he gave of the world.

Luckily, that’s not the common scenario everywhere and usually libraries work in order to share knowledge. First of all, sharing must be between the organization’s members. Microsoft’s Library (Choo, 2000) enabled its employees to search the information they needed. To do so, it developed an efficient intranet system, with an user-friendly interface and a news-page that everyone could read. Intranet is a powerful tool that organizations should develop. In the library I worked in, I didn’t have a full access to intranet, so I’m not able to tell exactly how functional it was, but I’ve seen it and it wasn’t so good. Due also to this fact, communication between workers was often poor, and that brought to some inefficiency even with users.
As libraries are the main institution which bring knowledge, a strong leadership in knowledge management should be required. In order to do so, librarians and IT professionals need to work together (Hwa-Wei Lee, 2005), as libraries will become more and more digital in the future. Librarians love books (of course they do, and they will never stress it enough times), but they don’t have to make the “Facit’s mistake” (Clegg, S., Kornberger, M., Pitsis, T., 2011): communication with users is vital, what if they love e-books and will go to a library which could offer them more? The first one will lose patrons. Libraries can’t be pride, but follow Socrates’ “I know that I know nothing”, adapting themselves to the changing world (and it has to be a process: it’s not just today that the world is changing!).

The library I worked in was still static. They offered e-books, internet and other things, I’m not saying that it was an old-fashioned library, but some workers had a frozen mind. Organizations should work combining exploitation of knowledge and knowledge exploration (Clegg, S., Kornberger, M., Pitsis, T., 2011) and “my” library had the opportunity, but it wasted it. I got to enter to work there through the alternative civil service (one year contract) and, with me, other 17 young people had this opportunity. I want to say it was an amazing experience and I don’t regret any single second of my time there, but sometimes we were used just as manpower. We were new, we were excited, we wanted to explore that brand new world, and some of us had some great ideas and tried to share them with the old co-workers. Some of them didn’t even pay attention to us. In my opinion, the library had the opportunity to effectively combined the knowledge exploration (through us, who could have brought a fresh point of view) and the exploitation (because the library works well, its standards are high and quick) and it missed it in a stupid way, closing itself to the new, refusing to collaborate. Thinking about that environment after some months, I can declare without hesitation that who learned more from our experience there were the ones, both in the main staff and in the civil service, who shared knowledge and experiences.

Week 5 – How hard is it to judge yourself?!

Even more difficult than write a piece on a management subject, is to evaluate my own writing. How do I write? What should I improve? I almost have no idea.

When I reread what I wrote during these weeks I was disappointed. When I first posted my reflections they look a bit better. I wasn’t satisfied, but I thought they made more sense. Instead, my observations all look quite superficial, while I actually worked a lot on them!

So I started to think what could have had been my mistakes.

The main problem I noticed is that I don’t bring so many personal examples. I gave a few, but mostly I shared my opinions on some abstract theories, more than on my own experiences. This is mostly due to the fact that I don’t think I have a strong background in the management field, so I’m not able to view what happened to me from a managerial point of view. I still have to start to think like a manager: that was the main scope of this blog, as I wrote at the beginning of September, and I’m still far away from reaching it!
When I started UCD I thought English was going to be a big problem. Funny fact: it’s not the real challenge. Of course, my English is far away to be good and I have a long way to go to reach an academic level: my vocabulary is inadequate and my grammar is quite simple, but I’m looking at the blog as an opportunity to improve my language skills (when it comes to mark I’ll surely change my mind!). I observed I have problems with the language when I have to paraphrase, so I tend to quote a lot and this is an issue. Quotations “break” the post, which it’s more supposed to be a stream, in direct connection with the reader. For this, I have an explanation: UCD policy about copying is so strict that I’m afraid to do a bad paraphrase and get into some troubles. What UCD doesn’t seem to understand is that, when you are learning a language, repeating and copying become normal: you don’t do it to cheat, you do it spontaneously, like a child, just to improve yourself. This “copying” can happen even while making reflections on some articles… to avoid it, I prefer to quote, instead of paraphrase, and I usually pay a lot of attentions on what I write. This fact could also breaks the communication, as my writing results to be a bit frozen. I’m sure is something I can get rid of as long as I become more confident with the language.

Another problem I have, even while talking, is that I tend to stray from the topic (as you can see from what I wrote until now). My thoughts flow, come and go and it’s really difficult to organize them, even because I’m not a reflective person: I’m intuitive, I tend to accept things for what they are. In front of a new culture, for example, I am really interested but I usually don’t try to dig too much if I come along “weird” behaviours: I just think that the person is reacting in a certain way due to his background and I take it as he is.

Obviously, I’m not totally a mess. I think my strongest point could be that I’m not shy or afraid of judgement and that brought me, during life, many opportunities to learn. Giving a simple example: I was never embarrassed to speak another language, whatever it was Spanish or English, especially with native-speakers. Clearly they could speak better than me, because they were born in that country and they are speaking their language since they were children! I always take the occasion to talk with a native-speaker as an occasion to learn and, even if sometimes people will had judge me, is not something I really care about. At least I’m brave enough to try.

I don’t know where I should put myself in the reflective scale, but I think I try hard to reach at least the descriptive reflection. I think on what I read and I try to express it in my writing, but it’s really hard. I would like to reach the dialogic reflection, if not for the end of the semester at least for the end of the year (Moon, J., 2010). Anyway, I think they are a bit too schematic to be really useful: while judging something a person wrote there are so many factors to be kept in consideration that four skimpy descriptions can’t be really reliable.

Week 4 – Meeting users’ needs

“If librarians put in 1000 hours in creating a library’s strategic plan, that is 1000 hours that they could have used for interacting with faculty and students, processing the backlog of uncataloged materials, and making decisions about how to improve the collection”.

I want to start this weekly reflection with this citation from Mott Linn’s article, “Planning strategically and strategic planning”. It just summarizes the work of a librarian. Even if users don’t know (how many times a librarian had been asked from his friends “But what do you do in the library? Do you JUST shelves the books?” – and now I’m not going down to the dark road regarding that “just”), the amount of things to do in a library is huge. Sometimes there’s no time to waste, users don’t allow you to think too much (they want an answer. Immediately!) and books just keep coming everyday. Also, decide which books to buy or to which journals subscribe is not based on your opinion or tastes: you have to think about users. Got a certain amount of money, got a dead-line to spend them, got picky users, you just have to make your choice on how use financial resources and do it for the public.

In the library I worked in, sometimes leaders and managers discussed about many things, such as “Shall we buy more books in Chinese for Albanian people who lives in Nicaragua” instead of a small, more important things such lights. Lights were so low that studying, especially during winter times, was very difficult. Instead of talking and buying books which were going to be unread, they should have bought new bulbs. That happened because they were trying to achieve “a goal without taking into account their organization’s strengths and weaknesses” (Linn, M., 2008 p. 23). What was the problem? Easy. People who were making the decisions worked in the office and they were never in contact with the public. As Fairholm states in his article “Leadership and Organizational Strategy”, “strategic thinking is downward focused so […] that tactics can be developed to meet the real needs of the organization” (Fairholm, M., 2009, p.2). If you work in a library, you have to know your public! It’s better spend more time with people, and less thinking: it will just make decisions easier, because the public will just tell you what the library needs to change, or have, or buy. It is known that users don’t shut up, and I’m not saying it with bad feelings, talking with clients was one of my favourite things. Just listen, and forecasting will become an unknown problem. I actually laughed when I read the table at page 7: “strategic thinking is embrace chaos”.  I don’t know about academic or national libraries, but in the public ones there are just so many messy things the leader has to take in consideration that he can’t pretend to fight the Chaos. The leader needs to understand that it will always be like that and work on a strategy to make a good use of it. Fairholm suggest to be a philosopher, more than a technical expert (Fairholm, M. 2009 p. 9), and I agree with him, for many different reasons. The first is quite dull: love for the wisdom should be what brings people to desire a job as a librarian and if you are in charge of the library you should be the “One who Embrace Knowledge”. As Fairholm asserts purposes and values (in this case: meet the users’ thirst for learning) must come before goals: good outcomes will just follow (Fairholm, M. 2009 p. 8).

Obviously, I’m not saying that the library organization just have to follow users’ directions, neither that it can make up decisions from nowhere or follow its leader’s heart. Management has to be concrete, especially with money, but the approach should be slightly different. Citing Fairholm again: “leaders must share information with and receive information from others” (Fairholm, M. p. 12). This means both talk with users and talk with people who work directly with the public, even if the final decision will be based on more factors.

Many libraries published their strategic plans online, in order to make them visible to everybody. UCD and NLI’s ones are short, users might read them. Probably they won’t, because there will be other ways to get to know the library’s project (exhibitions, workshops etc), even without reading the strategic plan. In many of them, communication policy is stressed as one of the most relevant aspects to take care of, but clearly they contradict themselves when they write too much (e.g. Regina Public Library Service Plan). Anyway, every library focused on the importance to meet patrons’ needs, but they don’t really seem to offer a way to connect with people. On an another hand, I was glad to see that they are really into the preservation of the Irish cultural heritage. Sometimes, when I talk to Irish people, they don’t seem to realize how deep and interesting their culture is, so it’s important that all the libraries take this mission as a main point. To better accomplish this goal, it’s important that the whole staff is trained and efficient, as many strategic plans don’t fail to point it out.