Last month, the incredible Alyssa Brissett and I had the opportunity to serve on the Race Matters unconference: A conversation about race, libraries, and inclusion, held at the CUNY Journalism school. Alyssa and I are both recent MILS graduates and this was our first time serving in an unconference committee, as well as, participating in an unconference and overall it was a great experience. This blog post started as a way to share our experience in the race matter unconference but quickly became a conversation about our experience as new grads, the challenges of finding a new position in the field, and our hopes and wishes as new professionals. The structure of this post is a bit unorthodox because we are both incredibly busy people who mostly talk via email.
Where we meet in the intersection:
we are both recent MILS graduates,
we are both library workers at an academic institution,
we are both women of color.
Questions from Diana to Alyssa:
Hey, Alyssa! How do you want to start this? Unconference work? Student life? New grad desperation?
AB: New grad desperation is me all the time! After graduating, I felt so much pressure to find a job that was “professional” but I also wanted to find something where I could utilize what I learned in library school. I think that we put too much pressure on ourselves as new graduates and we should learn to enjoy the process and be open. I don’t think we have to settle. We are qualified and brilliant so we can find great positions and work in places that align with our passions and our interests!
What did you enjoy most about participating in the unconference committee? How about the conversations from the breakout sessions? Did anything surprise you?
AB: I loved meeting new people in the field. For a long time, as a support staff and working in access services, I did not interact that frequently with librarians where I worked. So it was great meeting librarians from across different libraries and areas. I also got to work with my friends so that was great too! 🙂 The experience also made me feel more comfortable with speaking up and making suggestions in a group setting.
I was surprised by how easily the conversations flowed in the breakout sessions. I had never been to an unconference so the concept was new to me. Even though at times the group was quiet, for the most part, everyone had something to say and were genuine about wanting to learn more. I was a little skeptical about how people would react but I am glad that everyone felt comfortable and were open. I do not see librarians talking about race and racism that often and it was good to hear from white librarians who often do not talk about these things or at least that I know of
DM: You did great!
What would you have changed?
I wish that the unconference could have been longer! It was an exhausting day but I loved having those conversations. I wished I was able to go to all of the breakout sessions. I hope that there are more events like this that are a little more unstructured and allow everyone to be open and listen to other points of view. I wish that there were more representation from support staff who are often people of color in libraries. I think a bigger venue would make it even more accessible in the future.
What frustrated you the most about library school? How about searching for a new position?
I had a love/hate relationship with library school. On one hand, I enjoyed it and I was happy to be there. I met a lot of new people, met new friends and I learned a lot more about the profession. Being in library school made me want to be a librarian so much more. I learned about all the possibilities and I had a better idea of where I could take my degree. On the other hand, I was sometimes frustrated because I felt that in the online environment (I took all my classes online) was harder to navigate. Since we were all from various states and even some from other countries, it was harder to make lasting connections with people. I also felt that some professors did not seem to invest that much in the content of the class and let us lead discussions. That’s a good and a bad thing. We learned a lot about leading discussions and time management but then I had a professor completely disappear halfway throughout the semester and it was harder to get any feedback from that class.
This is a tough one! The more that I work in this field, the more I am drawn to librarianship. I did not start out wanting to be a librarian. I honestly had no clue what I wanted to do while I was an undergrad. I had a vague idea. I wanted to work with people, I wanted to write but about different cultures and that led me to cultural anthropology which I loved. As a senior, I did not really prepare and think about my next steps so I ended up applying for an Education program thinking I could become a teacher. I followed someone else’s advice and did not really think it through. Although I enjoyed that program and it certainly brought me to where I am today, I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I gone a different path. I worked in libraries all through college and grad school and got a full time position in access services at NYU. So basically libraries are all I know. I was hesitant to go to library school to rack up more debt but when I got my scholarship, it became more real. I like librarianship because it is so multidimensional. There are opportunities in the profession for anyone to mesh what they are passionate about. Participating in the unconference also helped me realize that. Attending conferences in general, made me realize that librarians can make changes and be activists and participate in society while being apart of the “academic world”. I want to work in a position where I am making an impact and providing information that is useful and relevant. I want to participate in organizations and groups that are talking about real issues that affect the underrepresented and also working towards solutions to these issues.
What are your thoughts on library work?
Library work is multifaceted. I think that each librarian can make it their own as long as they are working in a supportive environment. I like that the concept of a librarian is changing and that it is adaptable and that the work is user and patron- focused. Even if librarians do not work directly with people, they are still working towards something that is grounded in improving how people interact with, share and access information. Which is important in today’s society and political climate.
You went to an ischool, why? What did you like about it? What didn’t you like? What do you think, you gained and missed by going to an ischool?
When I was thinking about library schools, I was considering my finances most of all so I really didn’t think I would go through with it because I was trying to avoid taking out more student loans. A friend told me about a grant called Project IDOL which basically was initiated to help improve diversity in librarianship. I was part of the first cohort and there are 10 of us. The scholarship allowed us to attend library school at Wayne State University and also attend the ALA conference 2015 in San Francisco! Which was one of the best experiences of my life. If you have a chance, attend library conferences! So because of the scholarship I had to go to Wayne State and I was attracted to the opportunity to do the whole program online because at this point I had a full time job and did not want to uproot my life and move to another state. I loved that I was able to meet people from around the world and even though we were from different areas and time zones, collaborating online was not a problem. I developed a lot more of those skills and it helped me become better at organizing my thoughts because we were writing all the time and also I felt that I was more confident participating in an online environment because I had to stand out in some ways. I was forced to talk more and participate more. I am a shy person so this was stepping outside my comfort zone in a big way. I also made some new friends outside of New York!
The only thing I didn’t really like were the inconsistencies with the professors. But I also feel that this is relevant in traditional schools too. Some of the professors were not that keen on teaching online and voiced that opinion and some were not very responsive. So that is one thing I think would have been slightly different if it were not online. At the same time, I’ve had that happen in traditional programs so I don’t think there is anything I was missing.
What do you wish to accomplish in the library world?
I don’t know yet. I am still learning and figuring out what it is I want to do. I want to participate in conferences more and meet more librarians of color who are interested in social justice issues and want to share knowledge. I hope that I can be successful in that I am helping patrons from all types of backgrounds to find what they need and to guide them in their research. I want to be able to help other aspiring librarians of color who go through some of what I go through or who are even having worse experiences to understand more about what we can do in the profession. I want to talk more about racism in librarianship and whiteness in librarianship and why the structure is the way it is and work with others to come up with real plans and ideas that can help reframe what we think a library is and who librarians are. I want to be more proactive about mentoring and supporting aspiring librarians who are in support staff roles.
Questions from Alyssa to Diana
What were some of your expectations about participating on the planning committee and also attending the unconference?
Ummm, as you know, this was my first unconference work, and I really didn’t have many expectations, I was just happy to be included! However, I discovered that I love working in committees, I think is all about idea sharing and compromising to reach a goal, it was a great experience, I hope I get to do it again, soon!
Why did you want to become a librarian? What do you hope to accomplish within the profession and how do you want to leave a mark
This is a great question, I had no idea I was going to become a librarian in undergrad, I wanted to read and write, make a difference in social/racial justice realm, interact with people, and get paid for that!
During that time, I was also working as a library assistant at Baruch College and submitting applications to law schools, but the more I worked in libraries and learned about what librarians do and who/how they served, the more I saw that my interests aligned with the profession -So, I left my idea of law school and went full-force to librarianship! No regrets so far, lot’s of hope, excitement, and anxiety for the future!
I want to leave a mark in my teaching and interaction with my students- to teach beyond the classroom. I also want to help bridge the gap of under-representation in the field, you know the number well- librarianship is 86% white but our patrons are multi-cultural, from so many different backgrounds. My research goal is to understand why such gap exists, and how to join the amazing people already doing this work- I want to help dismantle the ideas of white supremacy that currently holds the profession and our society hostage. I also want to do research on the emotional isolation of International students. I, most importantly want to be a tool for the success of students. I am not the only one or the first one to work towards this goal, but I want to be one of them- I find this work satisfying and important.
In a nutshell, want to work and meet students where they are, and truly listen to them and understand their needs to help them achieve- whatever it is they want to achieve, I want to produce valuable research on the topic of diversity and inclusion, collaborate with other brilliant librarians in meaningful projects, and I kind love being part of planning committees and conferences!!! I want to leave a mark in my teaching, I want students to know that I am not there as a gatekeeper but rather as an information sharer- is that a word? Grammarly insists that is not-. I want to work from a place of love and understanding to help them succeed.
Were you surprised by anything at the unconference
I wasn’t surprised by anything in particular, except for the amazing job of the facilitator and his ability to guide us through the exercises and not let his baby fall- that was truly amazing- Also, the openness of everyone, their willingness to talk about race without much reservation in some cases. Their willingness to face a problem on the lack of diversity in the academic library world and just talked to find solutions together.I was expecting a lot of resistance from the participants, but no, everyone went with an open attitude and willing to discuss, to listen and to be heard.
What were the conversations that stood out to you? Is there anything that was not discussed that you wished was addressed?
Yes, we didn’t talk much about library schools and cultural relevance classes, our world is multicultural and library schools are not. Ohh and mentorship! As a new librarian, it fills me with anxiety.
Would you have done anything differently?
- I think I would have had more doughnuts 🙂 and I would have been braver, you were brave and it was awesome!
- I would have been more prepared to lead the sessions, like have more questions and activities.
What was library school like? Did you feel out of place? Did you feel like your experience in library school prepared you for work and the culture of academic libraries?
I think I had amazing professors in grad school, they taught me the basics of librarianship and let me explore my interest and passion through my projects. Did they prepare me for the culture of academic librarianship? I don’t think so. I think every institution have their own culture and way of doing things and that is something you’ll prepare and get used to with time. In school, I was working full time and it was difficult to connect with others, to participate in student associations, etc. I went to class, did my work, and went home, although I loved my classes and was able to find meaningful friends, sometimes I felt completely out of place. Very few people in library school looked like me, that’s a problem.