About Ellen Keith

Director of Research and Access and Chief Librarian at the Chicago History Museum, July 2012 to present. Reference Services Coordinator and Librarian for Sociology and the Program for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University, December 2002 to June 2012.

And we’re back!

Well, first, UGH. I hate not following our own advice and abandoning this blog. When I was due for a blog post (January? February?), I had a million other things going on (who doesn’t), and it became this looming, horrible thing in my mind. Adriane gave me permission to take a step back, and what a long step it turned out to be!

The title of the post I had in draft was “Paralyzed,” because that’s how I felt then (and many months afterwards). I had been at my new job for several months, enough time that I thought I should know more than I did. I know now that’s nonsense, and as a friend pointed out on Facebook, when you know it all at work, then it’s time for a new job.

My struggle has been in expressing my value to myself and my organization. Our staff size is small, so I double as a reference librarian for about half my work hours. I had always prided myself on my reference librarian skills, but our collection is complex and requires trying several different entry points, so I’ve had days where I’ve felt fairly useless. Time at the reference desk can then sap my energy for my department head responsibilities, so I’ve often felt that I’m doing two jobs poorly. Never mind jack of all trades, just master of none.

As usual, someone else more clearly articulates this feeling. It’s imposter syndrome (thank you, Char Booth, a librarian I’ve admired from afar!). I’ve suffered from this for years, and it’s not enough to take my mother’s advice about it, I need to hear it from an outsider. So, I pledge to reread Char’s post whenever I start beating myself up (I’ll soon have it memorized). In the meantime, I can point to some accomplishments that make me feel I’m making a contribution. I finally wrote a post for MPOW’s blog (now to write another one!). And, I’ve had some exciting discussions about social media with the Executive Director of the Chicago Collections Consortium, and together we’ve launched the CCC’s Twitter account.

And on a personal note (because isn’t that what the internet’s all about?), after losing my beloved 19-year-old cat Katie, I adopted a little boy kitten Teddy, who just recently led me on a wild ride. The loss, then joy, then sheer terror, then huge relief remind me that it’s not all about work.

2012: Our Year in Review

Well, WordPress notified me they’d auto-renew our site, and our first post is date-stamped January 5, 2012, so happy first anniversary to us!

And what a year it’s been! It’s ended with the two of us no longer working at the same library, but I want to return to where it began. Adriane and I, fresh off our poster session at Educause on social media, realized that we wanted to continue sharing what we did—what worked and what didn’t—and the best way to do that was via a blog.

We each brought particular strengths. Adriane’s emphasis started out in Marketing and Events while my focus has been on Reference Services with a smattering of Collaboration. What I’ve enjoyed seeing over this past year is how we’ve both stretched ourselves. We started writing things that we felt expert in, comfortable at, and with changing responsibilities for Adriane and a completely new job for me, we both stepped out of our comfort zones and wrote about new experiences we were having. I won’t speak for Adriane, but for me, sharing what I’m learning as I navigate a different type of library has helped me sort out what I’m doing and realize what I’ve learned.

As for blogging, we’re entering year two as energized as we were in year one. I miss my friends in Baltimore, my fabulous student workers and the super-smart Sociology Department, but continuing to collaborate with Adriane keeps me connected with that world. And collaboration remains a key word. Just as I know I’d never be able to work in a one-person library, I also know I couldn’t blog alone. I need Adriane’s lovingly critical eye to read my drafts and e-mail “do you really want to say that?” Just as I’m sure she needs me to make pop culture references that are way too old.

So, 43 posts and 2,700 page views in 2012 means we’ve had a lot to say and more than just our moms reading us. Stay tuned for 2013!

Come On-A My House

Okay, now I’m just being deliberately annoying because I wasn’t even alive when Rosemary Clooney recorded this, but it’s fun to make Adriane roll her eyes at my dated references.

We had a full house last Saturday at MPOW, plenty of students in for History Fair research, researchers from Friday continuing their work on Saturday, new researchers, and members popping in from the members’ holiday party across the hall. Days like this, or even less busy days, remind me of what I always told my Information Desk students at MSEL: you’re often the one responsible for our students/faculty/visitors’ first impression of the library so SMILE and be welcoming. Now, I’m the one responsible for the first impression at the Research Center.

And here’s where my welcoming reference librarian skills run smack into my most anal qualities. To use the Research Center, you need to give us a ticket you’ve received at Visitor Services, sign our Research Center register, and lock up your coat and bag in one of our lockers. Not being that great at multi-tasking myself, I like researchers to take care of all that before asking their questions. So, I really have to watch how I come off to our visitors. They’re excited about using our resources, so they come in and launch right into their research request while I’m wanting to corral them into doing the paperwork, as it were.

I’ve settled on a few behaviors to take care of both our needs. I usually stand up from behind the reference desk as I see someone enter the Research Center. Like being at a cocktail party, I say “Welcome!” Unlike being at a cocktail party, I add “we’ll take the white ticket you were issued, have you sign in right here, and ask you to lock up your coat and bag in one of the lockers behind that door.” Getting the requirements out up front and using the royal “we” seems to help me establish an appropriate tone. “Let’s get this business out of the way and then we can turn to why you’re actually here.”

Where this has backfired on me is when we go off script—when people come in without registering with Visitor Services to use the Research Center. I cringe when I remember the family of four who wandered in to see what we had on a particular topic. I got way too hung up on the fact that they hadn’t registered and was about to send them back to the first floor. Fortunately, my wiser colleague intervened and asked them first what their topic was. She determined that what they wanted wasn’t well-represented in our holdings and saved them $20 ($5 per person) in registration fees. Moments like these are a good reminder to me that one of a librarian’s most important qualities is flexibility. We have to roll with the punches, not anticipate that we know the answers, or be rigid in our expectations, but engage in conversation. If one of my Information Desk students had been less than welcoming, you bet they would have had an earful from me. So, I’ve got to remember to practice what I’ve preached lo these many years. Somewhere, years of Information Desk students are laughing at me.

Oh, You Are My Only One

The lack of a post last week was my fault; I was busy catching up with Baltimore friends (oooh, let’s blame Baltimore!) and trying to untangle my thoughts about my post below (I’m not sure if I have).

And yes, the title is another reference Adriane will roll her eyes at because I AM OLD, but hey, I think in terms of musical references and Seinfeld shows. Lately, this refrain is running through my mind because day after day, the e-mail in-box at MPOW is full of plaintive inquiries about holdings that ONLY WE HAVE. I’m sure this is old hat to friends who have worked in special collections libraries longer than the three-plus months than I have, but it continues to challenge my thoughts about accessibility.

When I worked at MSEL, although not a humanities librarian, I was appreciative of resources like Early English Books Online and Eighteenth Century Collections Online, digitized primary sources that meant our graduate students didn’t have to go further into debt to travel to special collections departments that were the only possessors of these works.

And yet this article in the Chicago Reader really resonated with me. I work at a destination. When the research assistant for a professor in Canada e-mails about accessing a collection of more than 100 boxes off-site, my reply is “on-site only.”  But, we get more and more inquiries about remote access; the cost of travel can be prohibitive, making our remote photocopy request look relatively inexpensive. Yet, I hesitated to send it to a researcher who was inquiring about a small archival collection. I retrieved the file to insure it was there, and as I leafed through the collection of nineteenth-century letters, I thought something would be lost in photocopying. Then I mentally chided myself for being so presumptuous. Something would be better than nothing.

So I’m back to sorting through my thoughts about access, and I’m feeling that while getting a photocopy is better and more reasonable than making someone come in person, it’s a stopgap. It recalls my interview with our president several months ago. The museum’s mission is to share Chicago’s stories, and so he asked me what I thought of Google Books. I said as a librarian and a researcher, I found them invaluable. He was a fan as well and in fact, he’s found items of ours they’ve digitized. Remembering that conversation makes me realize what’s nagging at me about a photocopy–just one person gets it. This is no great revelation; our president has noticed this and thought about distribution. In fact, prior to my arrival, he worked with ProQuest, with the result being that they’ve digitized our holdings of the Claude A. Barnett papers and added them to their History Vault database. This has opened a door for us–what else could ProQuest digitize? I think in the end, we have a lot of thinking to do about our holdings. We can’t be only a destination. We also need to be a gateway.

LibGuides Are Here!

I’m going to try my damndest not to make this post sound like product placement but I feel like Springshare‘s biggest fangirl right now. MPOW got LibGuides! And yes, I can’t quite believe how happy this makes me.

As I noted earlier, much of our collection is unique and requires an in-person visit to be viewed. Still, travel to Chicago isn’t possible for everyone. This week alone, we received e-mails from the UK, Germany, and exotic California. And I can see patterns forming, questions being asked that could be answered through our website. While what we have is serviceable, it’s not very flexible. That’s where LibGuides comes in. It’s a flexible, user-friendly platform, easy for Research Center staff to populate and change on the fly.

Our recent acquisition of LibGuides also reminds me how much I’ve changed in my eighteen years as a librarian. Well, not changed so much as relaxed (stop laughing, Info Desk students!). When I was a much younger librarian, everything had to be perfect. I think I prepared for my first library instruction class with a solemnity usually reserved for . . . actually, I can’t complete that turn of phrase as even debates have drinking games these days. I was super serious about it, okay?! Basically, I remember when everything had to be perfect; examples for teaching had to be prepped so I wouldn’t be caught off-guard; handouts had to account for every possible question (and thus be super-long and boring); and reference and instruction was a monologue instead of a dialogue. I realized how far I had come from those days when, in one of the interviews for my current position, my future co-worker asked what I thought of “more product, less process.” I was unfamiliar with it as it applied to archivists, but I caught the gist: get the information out there, it doesn’t need to be perfect, after all “perfect is the enemy of the good” (and I should know as I used to be my own worst enemy).

So, what does all that have to do with LibGuides? It means that I’m not going to take forever to get these out. In fact, although we’re not going live just yet, I’ve started enough to share, so take a look and feel free to let me know what you think. If you were visiting us virtually, does this answer some of your questions? What’s left unanswered? I know I’m wordy so you can’t hurt my feelings by telling me to cut back on the verbiage. Additional guides on Building and House History and Family History are forthcoming (just in case you’re wondering!). I’m taking a page from what my former colleagues are doing, but on a smaller scale. No struggling on my own–I’m crowdsourcing!

I’ll Have What She’s Having*

Soooooooo, that time management thing I talked about in my last post isn’t working out so well. I never got my act together last week to write my post (and don’t even ask about performance appraisals). But, my blog partner is a forgiving sort (actually, I think she just said “whatevs” when I kept texting her my excuses), and she reminded me the deadline was self-imposed.

There’s my subtle introduction to this post: having a friend who supports you at work. If you’re feeling a bit deja vu-ish, forgive me, Adriane discussed this only two months ago. It’s been on my mind, though, as I find my way in my new position. I bitched and moaned about living in Baltimore but I can never discount those nine plus years of my life–they brought me wonderful friends, and almost all of them from my job. Most of us were in the same boat; we had moved to Baltimore for the job. That meant familiar support systems were gone. When I moved there, my new colleagues went out of their way to invite me to lunch and dinner or even just for coffee. After a few years there, I had what I thought was a profound revelation, we had fashioned ourselves into a family, helping each other both at and outside of work. Now that I’m back home, with my biological family, I’ve realized that even when I lived in the city I love the best, I’ve always had a “work family.”

If I were my friend Jen, I would have stats off the top of my head about how much time we spend at work. All I know is, it’s a lot of time. And yes, we hope the work is engaging, but the bottom line is that we don’t work in a bubble. Adriane’s post reminded me that we work better when we have a support system. I’ve taken some baby steps towards finding that at MPOW and people have definitely reached out to me. It’s time to take it further, however, both at work and in my library community. To that end, I’m excited to see friends from DePaul this week when they visit the Research Center and meet my fellow museum librarians out at the Morton Arboretum at the end of the week. I also need to take my CHM colleagues up on their offers of lunch and coffee and sit down with some very important people, the Research and Access staff, to talk about our department’s goals for this year. I’ve still got a great big to-do list of work that only I can do but it will go down easier if I have some support.

*The post title is a shout-out to Adriane, who makes me feel really old when she doesn’t recognize important pieces of pop culture.

An Occupational Hazard

Now that I’m a veteran, with eight weeks under my belt at MPOW, that old adage “be careful what you wish for” is hitting home. I love the fact that being a reference librarian is part of my job. But, I’ve got to find the time for the the other part, the reason why I’ve got the fancy title.

With afternoons and all day Saturday at the reference desk in the Research Center, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that I need to focus my mornings on my department head responsibilities (both performance appraisals and revised job descriptions were due shortly after my arrival). Well, knowing that and doing that are two different things. What’s most hazardous are the reference e-mails. I open that account first thing in the morning and am instantly sucked into the various fascinating questions, distracting me from my other responsibilities. As I discussed earlier, it’s challenging to figure out where to draw the line on helping remote researchers. I know I haven’t been consistent. A recent query came from a television researcher and sent me into the stacks for membership records for the First Congregational Church and searching the historical Chicago Tribune for any mention of a group affiliated with that church. I was obsessed.

And it’s not just the reference e-mails. One morning that in my calendar I had devoted to revising job descriptions was instead spent with our microfilm machine technician as he installed our new machine. Another morning was spent learning what was necessary for our reference librarian to become a notary (yes, that’s another post).

So, there have been nights where I’ve forced my way on a crowded L and rode home exhausted, feeling like I wasn’t doing the job I’d been hired to do. But, I pull myself together and do my best Scarlett O’Hara (and also cut myself some slack because it’s only been eight weeks). I’ve found some strategies that work: taking advantage of the once a week staff late nights where we can stay until 8 pm; coming in early on Saturdays before the Research Center opens (after having treated myself to a doughnut); and admitting I need help, which means taking our chief cataloger up on her offer to do some of my reference desk time so I can get my work done. I’m also going to try to do what everyone recommends–not check e-mail constantly. There’s a reason why this is such an effective tactic; it works.

I also find that publicly stating a goal and its desired time frame works as an appropriate shaming mechanism for me. So, I say to you, the readers of this blog, I WILL get performance appraisals done this week. Stay tuned.

What’s the Opposite of the Digital Divide?

I’ll say it again, I love MPOW. One of the things I love about it is how well visited it is, both in person and virtually. We’ve got lots of in-person researchers and tons of e-mail queries. A visit is a visit is a visit so I hate distinguishing between the way people access us but the truth is, as far as our special library is concerned, there will be a difference in the level of service we can provide.

When I was a young, green librarian, I was instructed (and would subsequently instruct) that “the person in front of you is more important than the person on the phone.” I won’t even try to defend that now, I’ll just say that if you were like me, a librarian who went to library school when CD-ROMs were the hot new technology, you might understand where I was coming from. Flash-forward many, many years and it’s a whole new ballgame. In academic and public libraries, we don’t and can’t penalize researchers based on their location. Distance education means remote access to library service is a must, not to mention sometimes you just want to do your research in your pajamas.

In a library like ours, though, we do have to draw a line, and that’s been something of a challenge for me. We get lots of questions via e-mail, some easy to answer, and some of which are so involved, that we advise the researcher to visit us in person or we attach our list of local freelancers with the suggestion the patron hires one of them. This response can be explained by the simple fact that so many of our resources are text-based. They’re unique and they haven’t been digitized.Still, we have other questions, which are less complex, but no less involved. These are the requests for searches for multiple addresses across multiple years in criss-cross directories; the seemingly simple request to look for an obituary that wasn’t in the Chicago Tribune; and the requests to scan indices of several titles for the mention of an ancestor’s name.

We tend to take these on a case-by-case basis. The standard-setter in me would like to apply documentation so it’s clear what we can and can’t do, but the fact is, it varies. We’ve got just two full-time staff (myself included) doing reference and once our doors open at 1 pm to our in-person researchers, the people in front of us are indeed more important than the people in e-mail (we don’t take phone calls — that’s another post!).

I’m challenged by this but not discouraged. A supportive supervisor and welcoming colleagues will help me strategize. What are the most frequently requested resources that would be good candidates for digitization? How can we effectively use our part-time pages to assist with these queries? I just know LibGuides would be a huge help (hint, hint TPTB). I’d like to get us to the point where — unique and fragile resources excepted — researchers aren’t penalized for not being able to visit us in person.

Where Did I Come From?

No, I don’t need to have the talk with my niece and nephew. Instead, after just about four weeks at MPOW, I’m struck by how many genealogy questions we get and how, even without the genealogical resources of more well-known genealogical sites, we manage to help our researchers who are tracking down their roots.

I promised myself I wouldn’t make too many comparisons between my former POW and where I currently hang my hat. And, although there are more similarities than differences, my interactions with our patrons doing genealogy research are definitely different. In the past few weeks, I’ve assisted researchers, both virtually and in person, who have very personal reasons for finding their roots. We get queries from adoptees, both those who have found their birth parents and want to see where they lived and those who are seeking their birth parents. Senior citizens come in looking for a trace of a beloved grandparent at the turn of the century. We’ve even seen teenagers who want to spend their vacation tracing their roots (much to the surprise of their parents who thought they’d get out and enjoy Chicago).

What all these searches have in common is that unless these ancestors were Harrisons or Burnhams, finding information can be extremely challenging. The first time I got an ancestor question, I gaped helplessly at the researcher until my fabulous colleague Lesley came to my rescue. Now, I feel I’ve got a better grasp on where to start.

Newspapers. We’ve got the historical Chicago Tribune, and it can be a surprising source of information from obituaries to society mentions. Searching it requires some finessing and thinking about how newspapers were reporting in the 19th century. Early on, I searched for an ancestor by “first middle last” name and quite confidently said “sorry, there’s nothing.” The researcher gently suggested that I try “first initial middle last” name and up popped ten or so hits. Lesson learned: variations are my friends.

City Directories. It took me several days to realize that these are goldmines. Printed from 1839 to 1928, these directories listed Chicago residents by name, thoughtfully including their profession (tinsmith or bookkeeper, anyone?) and their address. The city directory predates the phone so it’s not a phone directory, and if your ancestor was a woman, good luck (they’re underrepresented, surprise, surprise) but still, goldmine!

Sanborn Maps. These maps started as fire insurance maps in 1877 and Sanborn began issuing them in 1894. We’ve got them in digital form online in the Research Center, and they are invaluable. Did someone’s great grandfather have a business on a city street? These maps might tell you the business was there and also tell you what other businesses were around it (business that had a lot of wood were certainly marked! I wonder why. . . ).

I’m by no means an expert now, but I’m starting to feel more confident. I’ve got more to learn and more resources to share, so I’ll revisit this topic again. I’ll end with how great it feels to help these researchers. For the most part, they come in with no preconceived notion of what they can find. After years of working with undergraduate, graduate students, and faculty to find, in some instances, very specific research, I’m enjoying working with people whose faces light up when they’re presented with an address or a mention in an article. Every small bit of information is more than they knew when they came to see us.

Everything Old is New Again

We took another week off last week (it is summer, after all!). Adriane was busy coming off her week at the Maryland Library Leadership Institute, and I was settling into my new job. Now, at my two-week anniversary here, I’m ready to report back. And the verdict is . . . I love it. Love it, love it, love it. Yes, I’m well aware that I’m in the honeymoon phase, and I’m going to enjoy it. This is not to say that I haven’t been extremely humbled by what I don’t know and had days where I dragged myself home on the L and fell asleep in my clothes.

With so much to discuss about this new environment, I’ve got several posts in me, so I’ll start with where I began my career—reference librarianship. One of the appealing aspects of this new position was that it included working at the reference desk. So, while I’d have new responsibilities in terms of leadership and management, I’d retain an element of my comfort zone. Famous last words.

While I still have my essential reference librarian skills—listening and performing reference interviews—I’m now faced with a different set of resources (hint, more print, less online) and a different set of questions. The Research Center is open fewer hours than the academic libraries in which I’ve worked. It’s not uncommon to find a line of patrons waiting at our door for our 1 pm opening, anxious to make the most of their time.

In my few short weeks there, I’ve witnessed the following: an out-of-town visitor tracing where her grandfather lived in 1910; a search for the orphanage at which a grandmother was raised; queries about restricted items in our collection; and questions about house plans. My first day out there, I felt like an idiot, and turned anxiously to my colleague Lesley, whose knowledge and patience know no bounds. My second day, I felt more confident and my spirits lifted. My third day, I felt like a moron again. But, this is exactly what it’s like to go into a new environment, and this is what I wanted—to grow my skills. And, I’ll confess that no longer being able to turn to 900+ databases makes me feel like the Indiana Jones of librarians. Last week, I was down in the Vault to see an original letter written by John Quincy Adams. This week I was up in the Stacks tracking down a publication from the Century of Progress.

So, although my comfort zone isn’t so comfortable lately, I think that’s a good thing. Complacency can be the death knell for a reference librarian, assuming you know what’s out there and cutting off your patrons. I certainly have lost any complacency I might have had.