2021 Charleston Conference Looks at Collections, EDI, Mentorship, and More

The 2021 Charleston Conference, held as a hybrid of in-person and virtual events, reflected many of the concerns of academic librarianship in the COVID-19 era. Sessions were lively and engaging, with a focus on practical information and an eye on ways to ensure that services and programs would remain sustainable in uncertain times.

Charleston conference logo with textThe 2021 Charleston Conference, held as a hybrid of in-person and virtual events, reflected many of the concerns of academic librarianship in the COVID-19 era. These included—but were not limited to—the need to reexamine the acquisitions process as collections budgets tighten; leveraging consortia and transformative agreements to stretch those dollars; boosting the creation and use of open access (OA) and open educational resources (OER); a heightened emphasis on diversity, equity, inclusivity, and accessibility measures; and new considerations of access and assessment highlighted by the past year’s increase in virtual learning. Sessions were lively and engaging, with a focus on practical information and an eye on ways to ensure that services and programs would remain sustainable in uncertain times. The conference saw nearly 3,000 attendees—2,446 virtual and 521 in-person—from 32 countries, 821 of whom were first-time participants, as well as 107 exhibitors.

In his opening keynote, “How To Think Like a Civilization,” Stanford University Consulting Associate Professor Paul Saffo noted that if pessimism is the new black, “how do we find the optimism? Because expectation about the future very often determines the outcomes, and we’ve got to change our expectations.” He also quoted H.G. Wells: “Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe,” as well as Neil Gaiman’s response: “And libraries are the thin red line.” Social cohesion is an increasingly pressing need, Saffo noted, libraries are well positioned to be catalysts for change—and the fact that libraries aren’t the first thing people think about when it comes to saving civilization may be an advantage to operating under the radar. Despite the agreement that times are trying, sessions were largely upbeat.

 

CONTEXTS FOR COLLECTIONS

In “Unlatching Knowledge: Preparing New Subject Librarians for Collection Development,” presenters Cory Tucker, head of continuing resources and collections at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Matt Torrence, associate librarian at the University of South Florida’s School of Geosciences and College of Marine Science, noted that collection development has become more specialized over the years and has often, because of downsizing, moved away from the work of liaison librarians to that of collections management staff. New employees need to be onboarded very intentionally, and at the same time may have a lot to teach longer-term librarians. Well-defined expectations for new staff include policies, current metrics and assessment data—conducting an environmental scan is helpful—budgets, and workflow best practices. Setting up meetings with adjacent units, as well as a forum or workshop series where staff can cover hot topics, is helpful.

On the employee side, they recommended that new hires take time to browse the physical stacks and lists of databases and journals, review libguides and syllabi, and, again, dig out those collections policies. If they’re outdated or hidden away, added Torrence—“I think collection development policies are like seeing the Loch Ness Monster”—it’s time to develop new ones.

Collections assessment is also an opportunity to examine representation. In the session “Centering Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Collections Assessment,” four members of VIVA, Virginia’s academic library consortium—Summer Durrant, University of Mary Washington collection services librarian; Christopher Lowder, George Mason University online learning assistant; Helen McManus, George Mason University head of collections strategy; and VIVA Deputy Director Genya O’Gara—discussed VIVA’s newly created equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) and OA metrics and their application. Using these tools, participants are able to ensure that those values are integrated throughout collections and not siloed into “the diversity category,” incorporated and kept manageable as a living tool, and pushed beyond the “just acceptable” minimum. VIVA metrics go beyond title and subject content to include bibliodiversity—support for small, independent, and minority-owned publishers—as well as platform accessibility, collaborating with the communities represented on naming and other specifics, and a library’s overall demonstrable commitment to EDI in action.

VIVA’s metrics, which can be applied at a consortial or local level, are still a work in progress—some measurements turned out not to be helpful, data entry processes needed to be simplified, and vendor metrics had to be adjusted so they didn’t favor larger vendors. But the assessment system, which is being beta tested, are helping to inform collections activities, OA initiatives, and vendor negotiations. It’s a wide mandate and takes time, cautioned Lowder; don’t try to rate every metric every year, and use it as a warning system rather than doing a complete evaluation every time. Also, be pragmatic—don’t assess resources you can’t cancel.

 

“PEOPLE ARE NOT PIPELINES”

Centering diversity in libraries and beyond was clearly top of mind—various sessions looked at collections, OA initiatives, scholarly communications, vendor relations, and policies through an equity lens. Many were aspirational; some were critical. The session “Diversity Is Not a Webinar: Navigating the Library Industry in the Age of DEI” brought panelists from a range of organizations—Regina Bourne, director of organizational development and community engagement at the University of Cincinnati Libraries; Stephanie Garrett, director of technology product management at SAGE Publications; Elaina Norlin, Association of Southeast Research Libraries professional development coordinator; and Tony Zanders, founder and CEO of Skilltype—to take a hard look at recent DEI efforts and the ways they can often fall short. Since summer 2020, libraries have expressed their alignment with diversity and antiracism work in ways ranging from statements posted on their websites and book clubs to trainings and discussion groups.

All panelists agreed that although these were well intentioned, they were often too siloed to be truly effective. What Bourne called the “do something syndrome” moved the focus onto personal, rather than institutional, responsibility. “I was hoping people would see the complexity of [DEI work] and approach it that way,” Norlin said. “What I found was a Band-aid check-off list, a compartmentalized approach, and then lots of frustration when that strategy didn’t work.”

“I don’t know if people can address on a professional level, day-to-day, their biases,” Garrett pointed out. “They can recognize it, but the work takes longer.”

The fact that people were talking about being Black in the workplace was encouraging, said Zanders, but he didn’t see true progress being made. Instead, efforts stalled because people weren’t sure what to do next and became frustrated. “One group of people can’t solve very complex organizational problems—they don’t have the expertise to do that kind of work,” noted Norlin. “We need variety of people to pull together to move that change forward.” This needs to happen at top levels, added Bourne. “You have to have the right people at the table to begin with.”

The academic library is a particularly challenging milieu to bring about such change because degree requirements and the tenure structure create automatic barriers of classicism. More money for scholarships is one solution, but cultural disparities also need to be acknowledged. Zanders recalled checking in to a hotel for a conference at one of his first jobs, and being told that he needed a credit card to secure his room even though the company was paying for it. Zanders, who didn’t have one, had to speak with the manager, fill out a credit card form, and make excuses to his colleagues, who were meeting for a meal. “From a policy standpoint, if you’re recruiting people of color from backgrounds that aren’t traditionally represented, someone has to be at table who’s representational,” he said. Recognition of people’s strengths is also critical, the panelists noted—whether those are soft skills or areas of knowledge that they don’t regularly use on the job.

“If we’re going to make strides beyond statements and book clubs and checklists, we need to treat our own people better,” said Norlin. “People are not pipelines.”

 

MID-CAREER MENTORSHIP

Human-scale solutions and unseen mentoring needs were also at the center of “PeMento: Exploring Midcareer as a Gap in Library Professional Development.” PeMento cofounders Ashley Krenelka Chase, associate director of the Law Library at Stetson University College of Law, FL; Lindsay Cronk, assistant dean, scholarly resources and curation at the University of Rochester, NY; and Rachel Fleming, scholarly communications librarian at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (cofounder Maurini Strub, director of performance and user engagement at the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries, was unable to attend) discussed the development and implementation of PeMento, an independent peer mentoring and professional development program for midcareer library workers.

Cronk described talking with colleagues about their shared sense of mid-career burnout and isolation. She and her fellow mid-career librarians decided to replicate that support on a larger scale through a peer mentoring cohort. “Turning this into something more, that we could expand to librarianship as a whole, was important to us,” said Chase.

“We had a series of discussions about what was missing in traditional mentoring experience for mid-career workers,” said Fleming. “What does it mean to grow professionally when you’re geographically bound—how to include personal fulfillment in the equation. What parts of peer mentoring have been valuable?” They set up a website and began recruiting last spring via social media, email, and word of mouth. Their first cohort had 75 international participants, incorporated both synchronous and asynchronous mentoring sessions, and received an “amazing response,” said Cronk. When that period ended, several volunteers helped facilitate a second cohort of more than 100 people over the summer.

The team is working to keep the program sustainable as it grows beyond the prototype stage, and continue to deliver a quality experience. The website has free worksheets available for any library or system that wants to set up a peer mentoring system; PeMento is currently being adopted by the Boston Library Consortium. Its success has been both exhilarating and exhausting, they said, and noted that as it grows, people’s expectations increase. “We are not therapists, and we are not your lawyer,” noted Fleming. “Some situations require a professional to address.” One benefit, Cronk added, has been seeing the range of experience, from burnout to frustration to satisfaction “You have to give group space to vent without being resentful of the person who’s happy,” she said. “We have all kinds of thinking, and being involved in PeMento helped me see the truth in all of them.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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