28 August 2018

Blogging for library and information professionals - notes from an ALIA panel

Last night I was a  panellist at an ALIA Queensland event on blogging for library and information professionals. My co-panellists were Alisa Howlett (www.acrystelle.com) and Amy Walduck (Pineapple Glam), and the session was chaired by Michelle Hughes.

The event was streamed on Facebook Live and is available to watch if you missed it last night. My raw notes for the event are below. Not all of these thoughts made it into the panel discussion, which was a lot more free-range!

My main takeaway from the event is that there is no one 'right' way to approach blogging. Although the three of us had similar motivations for blogging (sharing with others, contributing to professional discourse, maintaining a credible online presence), the platforms we used, the ways we come up with ideas, our writing styles, and our processes from inspiration through to a final product were all totally different.

The panel discussion is making me re-think my own blog and plan some improvements to it, including possibly moving to another platform, re-theming, paying more attention to visual communication (thanks, Amy!) and considering ways to highlight popular or curated posts better (thanks, Alisa!)

Tell us about your blog - is it professional or personal?

Mostly professional, though over time I have probably started to provide a more personal take on professional issues.

I know from feedback from readers that posts that I felt were verging on the too-personal have actually resonated the most. By nature I am a private person, so sharing thoughts about things like impostor syndrome, the negative impacts of being a perfectionist, and being ambivalent about stepping into a management role does not come easily. However the thoughts and feelings that I have shared reflect my experience of the complexity of professional life as a librarian in the 21st century, and having people respond with recognition and empathy has helped me to become more comfortable with opening up in that way.

Reasons for blogging and what you hope to get out of it?

I had actually forgotten this before I started preparing for the panel, but I started regular blogging for a work project well before I had my own blog. The funding agency required the project to communicate and it was free and easy to set up a Blogger blog to do that. The project team collectively wrote thirteen posts over about a year.

Once I had jumped into blogging I realised that it was a great way to write regular shorter pieces on topics that were of interest to me and hopefully others. I liked the immediacy and the non-scholarly nature of it, which made it easier to present more provocative or ambiguous viewpoints.

Do you set goals for how much time you dedicate?

I don’t have specific goals around writing time but I do include a blog writing goal in my performance plan with my supervisor. For the past two years my goal has been to write six posts a year so it is not a particularly hard one to achieve.

I participated in #blogjune for a couple of years, where the goal was to write a blog post a day for the month of June. It is intense but fun! I did write a post a day one year and a post a week the following year. Now I just stick to my own not-very-regular schedule.

I have been along to the ALIA Shut Up and Write sessions and used some of those for blogging. It was great to have some external impetus!

It’s probably important to note that there is also non-writing work involved in maintaining a blog, such as:

  • Sourcing images (with appropriate licences for re-use, of course!)
  • Setting up and renewing your domain name
  • Responding to comments (including dealing with spam, which is mostly filtered but not always)
  • Keeping static pages up to date and fixing broken links. 

Do you have a specific theme/subject you stick to?

Most of my posts are about career or professional development issues of one kind or another.

I sometimes use the NewCardigan Glam Blog Club theme as a starter.

At times I’ve used my blog for a 'behind the scenes' look at other people’s jobs. I find it really fun to do Q&As with colleagues that have jobs that are maybe a bit mysterious to other people. When research data management was still emerging, I did a couple of Q&As on that. Last year I did another series featuring colleagues of mine that include non-coding IT skills as part of their professional practice.

I’ve also used my blog as a place to publish submissions that I have made on industry issues, such as ALIA’s publishing strategy consultation and a letter to my MP about the de-funding of Trove.

I also often include references to further reading. Sometimes I wonder if a bibliography is unnecessarily nerdy, but a lot of my ideas for writing come from what I'm reading. Sometimes I like to review or reflect on the literature in a bit more depth, rather than just sharing a link on Twitter. Acknowledging that inspiration and encouraging others to do more professional reading is something I am always happy to do.

How do you keep motivated to write?

I don’t have to try that hard to stay motivated. I usually enjoy the writing and editing process. Unlike more academic publishing you also get the satisfaction of hitting the ‘publish’ button yourself when you are done and not having to wait months and months to see it appear in a journal.

I don’t really force myself to write now if I don’t feel I have something to say that people would be interested in. I would rather write fewer more substantive pieces on things that I hope will really resonate with people.

How do you attract people to read your blog?

I usually include the web address for my blog in my biography for events and publications and in my social media profiles.

Twitter is the main channel I use to promote specific posts. Three quarters of the traffic to my blog comes directly from Twitter. I also sometime link to my posts on LinkedIn.

I am pretty sure a significant amount of my Twitter traffic comes from the Aus GLAM Blog Bot, which autotweets my new posts several times on the day of publication. One thing that I have noticed is that the time of publication makes a difference to the size of the audience, so having a notification go out a few times at different times of the day really helps.

I try to provide reasonably descriptive titles. Looking at the stats for my blog, I can definitely see that a more provocative headline draws people in.

I’m not much of a visual communicator, but I do try to include at least one image in each post to make it more visually interesting.

Has blogging improved and made you feel more confident in your writing and is it a completely different style?

I’ve always enjoyed writing and I did a journalism major as part of my first degree. Although I realised quickly that journalism wasn’t going to be a career path for me, news writing training provided me with a good grounding in non-academic writing.

I’ve also done writing-for-the-web training with different employers, and that’s been helpful too. I would recommend writing-for-the-web training for anyone in the library sector as the principles will make all your writing better.

Blogging is different from other professional writing that I do. Scholarly writing requires a lot more time and a lot more effort to comply with style guides, referencing systems, and the general requirements such as including a literature review. If I am submitting to a journal or conference proceedings, I would usually run a draft past a writing mentor or peer reader when doing that kind of writing, as the standard is very high.

I also have to do a lot of business writing at work e.g. reports and project documents. There are a lot of similarities between blogging and that kind of writing, in terms of keeping paragraphs short, using plain English, and making use of headings and bullet points to structure your writing for easy reading by busy people.

Any interesting connections or opportunities that have come out of a blog post you wrote?

Last year I published a series of posts based on a presentation that I gave at the New Librarians Symposium. One of the things I showcased in that series was the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA), a widely-used IT competency framework.

I received an email from one of the senior people at the SFIA Foundation saying that they found my application of SFIA to the library world interesting to read. As a result of that series of posts, I also had a number of students and recent graduates get in touch with me via Twitter, which was really gratifying and expanded my Twitter network quite a bit.

What tips would you give to someone who is wanting to start a blog?

I would encourage anyone starting out to think more about the audience than about yourself. Rather than thinking about writing as self-expression (what do I want to say?), think about what your audience needs or wants, and what new or interesting perspective you can bring that no-one else is currently providing.

You could try guest blogging or writing short pieces for newsletters like ALIA's InCite first to get a feel for the effort that is required. It is also possible to publish pieces via LinkedIn now; this could be a good way to get started on a smaller scale with your existing professional network.

Always be ethical and professional and make it explicit somewhere on your site that your views do not represent those of your employer. Being aware of any formal social media policies that your organisation may have is really important, as these policies can differ quite a bit depending on where you work.

24 August 2018

Trying on a new hat: acting/interim roles as professional development

About six weeks ago I took on some additional responsibilities as acting manager of two extra teams at my library.

In this post, I reflect on this experience so far in the context of some insights gleaned from some recent LIS research and practitioner literature on this topic.

As a result of a restructure at my place of work, recruitment was underway for some new positions, but until those were filled a number of teams did not have managers in place. My supervisor (the Director) was planning to manage these teams on top of her usual duties as well as leading the recruitment process for new position. This didn't seem feasible or fair, so I approached her as part of a regular one-on-one meeting about sharing responsibility for managing these teams.

As well as taking some of the pressure off her, I argued that this would be a valuable learning experience for me. I would gain some insight into areas of the library's operations that I am less familiar with, and would also get some experience managing a larger team of direct reports. (In my usual job, although I have responsibility for a team of nine overall, only two of those people report to me directly.)

It took me a few days to get my head around the idea of making this request to my boss. I still feel like I am finding my feet with a lot of aspects of my management role, so taking on more felt daunting to say the least. As the duties were more of a sideways shift into another part of the library, rather than a 'step up' into a more senior position, I knew that I would not receive any extra money for the extra time and energy I would need to put in. I also knew that I would be taking on the new duties on top of my usual job, so I would need to much more seriously put into practice some time management strategies such as delegation. 

I have been in this dual role for a while now, and am finding it challenging, exhausting, stimulating, exciting and many other things all at once. It is a bit of a rollercoaster really! There has not been a lot of time for reflection, with my number of direct reports increasing from two staff to eighteen.

Benefits and challenges: what does the LIS literature tell us? 

Although taking on acting roles is often spoken about informally as a professional development strategy (alongside other workplace learning through things such as projects, secondments and exchanges), there is surprising little in the library literature about this.

Partly this is due to terminology; when I was trying to find some relevant professional reading it took me a while to discover that what I've been doing is called "interim leadership". Interim leadership can include both acting temporarily in a role that you intend to apply for, as well as taking on alternative or additional duties. 

My experiences so far are consistent with what has come out of the surveys and interviews carried out as part of the research projects and case studies I've added below as further reading.

Noted benefits include:
  • New or improved skills that you may not be able to develop in your current role
  • The opportunity to showcase your abilities to senior stakeholders who may not be aware of your capabilities or career goals
  • A chance to try something new without needing to make a long-term commitment - this could help you apply for that role in future, or equally importantly help you to identify that this is not a career path that is a good fit for you
  • A change to grow professional networks, both inside and outside the library
  • New perspectives for example, finding out more about how your organisation as a whole works ("joining the dots") or getting more insight into how the library fits into its parent organisation (the "big picture").
Interim leadership is not without its concerns though. These can include:
  • Workload and time management - interim leaders report physical/emotional exhaustion and negative impacts on personal life and other commitments
  • Difficulties balancing responsibility for your usual position while undertaking the new responsibilities (particular where your substantive position is not backfilled)
  • Having the same accountability and responsibilities, but little guidance
  • Lack of training in advance, due to the often unplanned nature of the temporary role
  • Difficulty forgiving yourself for making mistakes
  • Relationships with others, as new relationships are formed and existing relationships change in terms of their dynamics - this can include feelings of isolation
  • Ramifications of acting in a temporary role that you intend to apply for, including disappointment if you are unsuccessful in applying for a role that you have already been doing
  • Transition issues at the end of the interim period, including dissatisfaction on returning to your substantive role after having done something different or more challenging.
For the teams being led, it can also be challenging to have to adjust to a departing leader, a temporary leader and then to a final more permanent leader. 

My lessons learned

If you are considering an acting role, it is well worth reading the articles mentioned below as they contain some valuable lessons learned.

The ones that seem most relevant to me as someone currently in this situation are to be clear about scope and expections, take good care of yourself, and don't be afraid to ask for help. 

Lesson 1: Be clear about scope and expectations

The readings I mention recommend a discussion and agreement in writing prior to the appointment. Things to cover should include:
  • the timeframe for the interim period - while in some cases this might be open-ended until another position is filled (and you should be prepared for unexpected extensions), knowing a rough timeframe is essential for you to determine an appropriate scope
  • the goals for the position, so that you have a clear understanding of the priorities that they will need to focus on
  • the authority that you are being granted, and the reporting lines both to and from the position
  • any contract and salary changes e.g. a temporary new appointment or a higher duties allowance
  • any other ways that the additional contribution may be recognised or rewarded beyond financial compensation, such as enhanced access to funding for course or conference attendance.
Before I took on acting responsibilities my supervisor and I had a conversation about the goals that I had set myself for the year. It was clear that I would not be able to meet my existing goals and that a number of things would need to go on the backburner for a period of a few months at least. While we did discuss organisational goals and authority for the acting role informally, I would make more of an effort next time around to document a plan in writing. I would also make an effort to update my own performance plan to be more explicit about my own goals for professional development during my interim position.  

Like many people, I have taken on my acting responsibilities on top of, not instead of, my normal duties. Whether this is reasonable seems to me to depend a bit on how long the time period will be and whether there is a definite end in sight. I have been able to re-shuffle some of my usual duties and delegate in the short term. In future, if I were in an acting position for a longer or indefinite time period, I would probably make an argument to have my usual position back-filled by another staff member under a higher duties arrangement.

Lesson 2: Take care of yourself

It is reasonably common for interim leaders in libraries to feel burnt out by their additional responsibilities. It's important if you are taking on acting responsibilities to think about how you will take care of your physical and mental health. 

I've been trying hard to maintain healthy habits such as eating well and doing my regular exercise. I've also planned a week of leave - I know work will pile up while I am away but I'm also aware of the real risk of burnout!

Lesson 3: Ask for help

There are a number of aspects to this:
  • asking colleagues to help, including by delegating but also by actively seeking advice and support from trusted peers and seniors
  • seeking help from family and friends
  • delegating or outsourcing personal tasks - for example, I recently got a fortnightly cleaner, which has made a big difference to me in terms of my ability to balance my work and other commitments. 

Further readings

Bielavitz, T., Lowe-Wincentsen, D. and Read, K. (2018) ‘In the Interim: Leadership Shorts from Three Interim Library Directors’, PNLA Quarterly, 82(2). Available at: https://arc.lib.montana.edu/ojs/index.php/pnla/article/view/1268.

Farrell, M. (2016) ‘Interim Leadership’, Journal of Library Administration, 56(8), pp. 990–1000. doi:10.1080/01930826.2016.1231547.

Irwin, K. M. and deVries, S. (2019) ‘Experiences of Academic Librarians Serving as Interim Library Leaders.’ Preprint available at: https://crl.acrl.org/index.php/crl/article/view/16994.