Way too true

A sign in a tattoo parlor, but true for information professionals as well ;)

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Enthusiasm

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about enthusiasm and how it helps one’s career – and life – move forward. Recently at work, I was processing a box containing a number of speeches. The fonds in question concerns the personal papers of a former judge. I read some of his speeches to get more of a sense of who he was, since I hadn’t heard of him prior to this project. In a speech he gave to a professional association, he ended with this:

I leave you with my favourite comment by Stendahl, which, though it loses something in the translation, I cite as my own: “I have had the joy to have, as my profession, my passion!” I wish you all the same joy!

And it seemed kind of like permission to let myself be enthusiastic… because frequently, I feel guilty about being able to work doing something I enjoy. That I don’t have to have a job like bus driver, garbage collector, dishwasher, nurse’s aid. Several years ago I did work as a dishwasher, actually, but that’s really neither here nor there…

I remember one evening at work this past December, talking with my boss about our respective plans for Christmas. He said he was looking forward to having a “proper holiday”, by which he meant taking two weeks off from work and spending more time with his family. He hadn’t had a day off in the past six months, what with starting his own business and all. “Wow, that must be difficult,” I commented. “I can’t imagine going that long without a break.” I was stunned by his response: “Well, I love what I do, so it’s not really that hard.” That got me thinking – when was the last time I was so passionate about something that it pushed me forward and helped mitigate the bad days? The thing that sprang to mind was from six years ago.

Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy working in archives. I do. I love history, and I love the idea of preserving and passing on culture for future generations. In writing this, I realised I’m not really sure why his response surprised me so much. After thinking about it for a bit, I realised I haven’t really focused on enthusiasm as motivation, instead regarding it more as icing on the cake. “Well, if I love my job, great, but that’s not what’s important.” Which, of course, is true to an extent… but I guess I had forgotten that enthusiasm is a big help in keeping your life flowing in a forward direction. Especially when, like me, you don’t have a spouse and children who also add meaning and enthusiasm to your life.

That passage in the speech reminded me of a quote I came across back when I was doing my undergrad. During a course on French literature, I was introduced to the writings of Germaine de Staël (usually known as Madame de Staël), a French-Swiss writer from the 18th and 19th centuries. I had saved this quote because it really struck me (without citing it, though! what a bad librarian I am):

Le sens de ce mot chez les Grecs en est la plus noble définition: l’enthousiasme signifie Dieu en nous.

Freely translated by me, it reads, “The sense of this word among the Greeks is the best definition: ‘enthusiasm’ means ‘God in us’ (or in less flowery language, “The literal Greek sense of the word gives us the best definition: enthusiasm means ‘God in us'”). Looking back, I can remember that that is what it felt like to be enthused by something… a forward-moving, creative kind of energy.

So now that I think about it, enthusiasm is probably the most practical thing I could aim for in practising my profession. And the most practical thing any of us could aim for.

What do you think?

PhD-induced neurosis

The other day I was having lunch with a fellow PhD student. We have the same advisor, who had told us at the beginning of the year that it’s normal to feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster. Sometimes you’ll feel excited about your research, then you’ll feel like you can’t handle it anymore. My friend and I commented how true that had turned out to be for us this past year, and how absolutely draining it is. But on the other hand, it’s kind of funny to look back and realize how up and down it was on a regular basis. The plus of it being so regular was that during the lows, I was able to remember that I would feel better again at some point… and sooner rather than later. Like in a few hours. Or tomorrow. Or next week at the latest. Like that saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.”

I am sure if Dante wrote his Divine Comedy now, graduate school would constitute its own level of hell.  With separate sub-strata within the Greater Grad School Level of Hell distinguishing between masters and doctoral stress.  But I digress…

Doctoral studies seem to be a series of emotional highs and lows profound enough to make me wonder if I’ve unwittingly developed a cocaine habit. And then I have to remind myself that it’s merely a side-effect of the PhD.

If I were to write down the thoughts that run through my mind each day, it would look something along these lines:

-I used to like the morning. But I don’t want to get up and face all the things I have to do today…

-Class is going well. I love being surrounded by nerds who have a good sense of humour.

-ohmygosh they are all participating better than me in this discussion. They probably think I’m an idiot.

-Why can’t I understand this topic? I shouldn’t be in grad school.

-I can’t do this! I can’t do this! I.CAN’T.DO.THIS!!!!!! [commence crying in my office]

-I can totally do this! I have the most awesome friends and having lunch with them is the best therapy session ever. I love my life and I love being in grad school [commence reveling in warm, fuzzy feelings]

-My life is going nowhere… I hate this.

-PhD Land is so cool, it’s like I’m in nerd heaven or something…

In Praise of Not Caring (an after-action review)

This was something I started writing at the end of June and am only getting around to publishing now. But, having recently finished my first semester as a doctoral student, I figured it was also a good time to do an evaluation.

So, I’m starting a Ph.D. in September. Also in Information Studies. With my same advisor.

I think it’s rather appropriate, given my study in Knowledge Management, to do a ‘Post-Mortem’ (called an ‘After-Action Review’ in the US military) on my experience doing the MLIS, in preparation for the Ph.D.

What worked well?

The group-project structure of assignments. I definitely grumbled about them, as did everyone else, but… I think without the help of my classmates I would not have graduated. This format encouraged us to work together and ‘project manage’ (by which of course I mean, ‘manage wildly different personalities and work styles’). When I got my diploma, I felt I should add their names to it.

In a related note, it’s hard during grad school to have good contact with people. Sometimes a friend and I had ‘grocery dates’ where we did our grocery shopping together and used that time to visit. Another friend and I would have ‘parallel study’ sessions in the library… you know how little children first learn to play together by playing separately side by side? It’s called parallel play. We didn’t study together, we just studied at the same table so it wasn’t like we were alone. That helped tremendously. So I guess another thing that worked well was creativity – you have to find the little things that help.

Having a sense of humour. I will be the first to say I am rather high-strung, but I also do have the ability to laugh at the craziness and messiness of life… and even when I can’t, I have friends with amazing, quirky senses of humour and they make me laugh. Even a tiny moment of laughter grants a reprieve from stress. A piece of great advice my dad gave me one time was to enjoy the good times because they help get you through the bad. Sometimes we feel too busy to allow ourselves to enjoy good moments, but they strengthen us; we need them.

Faith. I don’t think I would have graduated without a) feeling loved and supported by God, and feeling that love reflected through my friends and family, and b) a sense of community provided by going to church and singing in the choir. And in the advice of one of my favourite saints: ‘Do not let the best years of your life be overshadowed by chimerical fears.’ Note to self :)

Rest. When I was able to let go and relax, I did so much better. At some point I had to institute a No Studying After Supper rule in order to unwind enough to be able to fall asleep.

What didn’t work well?

Caring too much about… well, everything. Comparing myself to my classmates and feeling like I didn’t measure up, that I wasn’t a good enough student. And it took me a long time before I realized the only person who really cared that I am American… was me. My friends didn’t care and neither did my academic advisor.

This attitude of mine also contributed to a loss of self-confidence. When I started the MLIS in 2010, I had a great deal of it. And that worked well, until it ran out. I think having a more realistic view of the program and of myself would have helped nurture it, as well as managing stress better in general. Granted, there were some family issues which increased my stress level astronomically, and over which I had no control. That sense of helplessness was also a major contributing factor in losing self-confidence.

Not accepting my own work and learning styles. For example, in our society we value staying up late and working around the clock… but I don’t do well operating like that. I am a morning person and while it’s nice to feel like you’ve accomplished everything before you fall asleep, I also know that I am my most productive at 4 o’clock in the morning. So I tried being disciplined and saying, ‘I will stop studying now in order to sleep well, and that will enable me to finish this in the morning’. It was hard to believe that at first, so I had to remind myself of times when this had worked  – then it was easier to ‘let go’ and sleep.

Lack of sleep. It’s harder for me to notice the effects of continuous lack of sleep when I’m not driving. Because I commuted during my undergrad, I had to schedule in enough sleep so I wouldn’t be driving drowsy (it’s the same as driving drunk). And thirty minutes of driving drowsy on a highway would not be a good idea. But here I don’t drive, and, frankly, I found it difficult to start valuing sleep. ‘Oh, I’ll just have a coffee in the morning’. Yeah, that doesn’t cut it. Especially because coffee makes my throat hurt.

Not getting enough exercise. When I was at AC during my undergrad I was on the crew team, and that was excellent. At KSC, I didn’t belong to any sports club, but I did make it a point to walk/run about three times a week. My senior year I learned that the health science students worked as personal trainers at the college gym, so I signed up for that and found that beneficial (and affordable! something like $40 per semester, although this was several years ago).  It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking, ‘Well, I walk around the city all the time so I’m getting exercise’. You are, in the sense of moving, but not in the sense of doing a pleasurable activity that also allows you to ‘burn off’ restless energy and anxiety. When you’re walking to class you are focused on doing a task and probably not enjoying it. When you’re going on a walk you can be in the moment and allow your mind to unwind. At least, this was true for me.

I mention this because one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from my dad when I started college. He said that it’s important to get adequate exercise because as a student you’re spending lots time of sitting and studying. Exercise helps your blood flow well and your brain stay alert. And helps with managing stress (and thus, sleep).

But, lack of flexibility was also something that didn’t work well. One summer a friend and I tried being accountability buddies concerning swimming. Our goal was to swim five days a week. But we had to realize that life gets in the way sometimes and you can’t be so rigid in your expectations. When you constantly feel like it’s a duty, you don’t want to go (especially when you feel you’re falling short on that duty!). So we went when we could and sometimes it was four times a week and sometimes just once and that was fine.

Lack of focus and boundaries. For example, keeping work and play separate by having a place where I only study so that I associate that place with working efficiently. Some great advice I received during undergrad was to study at a place where you only study and nothing else (i.e., your desk). When your mind starts to wander, get up and go somewhere else for five minutes. My senior year I lived in a suite on campus and my desk was in my bedroom. When my mind started wandering I would get up and go into the living room. Usually I worked on a knitting project, I think…sometimes I would stretch and do something physical. Then I would go back to my desk. I made sure not to eat at my desk, nor study in the kitchen or on my bed.

But I forgot about that during my masters and tried to do everything all at once.

Despite Facebook also being something that doesn’t help, I have come across some great articles which were posted by my friends. One was called ‘Stop Focusing on Your Performance’. This is a lesson I am continually learning – hyperfocusing on something does not help. Focusing on the experience, however, does. The first time I realized this was when I was 18. For a few summers, my dad and I did a triathlon as a team. I swam, he did the cycling portion and a friend of his would do the running. I always felt nauseous prior to the race starting, due to being nervous. However, this particular summer I hadn’t trained as much because of my job. Somehow I was inspired to just let that go – I guess I figured I couldn’t expect myself to do that well without having trained a lot, so it wouldn’t pay to get all worked up about it. Quantum leaps aside, that was my best swim time! I remember thinking afterward, ‘Wow, it’s amazing what I can accomplish when I just stop trying!’ Goal: try to remember that :)

http://www.foxbusiness.com/business-leaders/2013/01/31/stop-focusing-on-your-performance

This semester

Having done this review in June, I went into this semester more aware of what to look out for. I think I did manage to internalize a lot of these ‘best practices’ and ‘lessons learned’. In addition, a friend who is also doing a Ph.D. shared this advice with me: when you feel stressed, remember that studying is a privilege; what is the alternative scenario? That has been a big help for me in seeing the big picture.

I was fairly successful in getting enough sleep – my mind definitely didn’t feel as foggy as it did during my MLIS. But I would have had more (and better) sleep if I had exercised more. I was able to let go of a fair amount of ‘compare and despair’ and just focus on doing my best and getting done what I could. I work more than I did during my masters, and I’m glad to find that I am much better at time management now.

From talking with other colleagues and my advisor, I learned it’s natural to feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster while getting your doctorate. Sometimes you feel confident about it, and at other times, it seems like nothing is going to work out. But remembering that these feelings were temporary definitely helped me keep an iota of equilibrium.

So all in all, my first semester as a doctoral student went much better than my first semester as a masters student, and I hope next semester goes even better. I will have two jobs, but they are both interesting and meaningful, so I feel very fortunate and am looking forward to it.

Man Booker and the Seven Deadly Sins

The following is an excerpt from the user manual for a textbase L. and I made our first semester in library school. It was written tongue-in-cheek, so please read it as such.

Man Booker and the Seven Deadly Sins:

a meta-analysis of the themes of Man Booker award-winning novels, as viewed

through the lens of the Seven Deadly Sins

The Man Booker Prize is awarded annually to a citizen of the Commonwealth of Nations or the Republic of Ireland for a work of fiction. Established in 1968, it is the most prestigious English-language literary award. Even novels that did not win but were considered (“shortlisted”) become successful.

This textbase is intended to be used by university students of English literature. Who else would be more in need of the ability to search Man Booker Prize winners, than English majors?  Possible research themes in our textbase include comparing authors’ country of residency with the setting of their books; demographic changes in prize winners (e.g. country of residence); changes in literary themes and writing styles over the years. From serious students researching current English-language fiction, to ambitious students dreaming of becoming the next Margaret Atwood, our textbase has useful information for English majors.

We noticed a lot of negative themes like revenge, murder and extramarital affairs. This is true of great literature the world over – Anna Karenina, Quo Vadis, The Odyssey, East of Eden…the most ecumenical experience is suffering. Dark-themed literature tends to speak to more people than stories of happy families and well-adjusted individuals. The Seven Deadly Sins presented us with a ready-made set of keywords. We went through the records and assigned books to their applicable sins.

Some stories did have happier themes, like triumphing over adversity or acceptance of one’s life. Drawing from the Catholic tradition of Seven Contrary Virtues (which contrast directly with the Seven Deadly Sins), we added applicable virtues in order to recognize the few positive themes in this collection. There are also larger plot arcs identified (e.g. politics, family discord, loss), providing a meta-analysis of the sort of fiction that has won the Man Booker Prize. The identified sins, virtues and plot arcs make up the controlled vocabulary for this textbase and can be found in the thesaurus at the end of this manual. We have provided both basic and advanced search options.

Sample natural language search:

natural language search

Sample advanced controlled language search:

advanced controlled vocabulary search

Our colour scheme adds character without straining the eyes. The modern font used for “Man Booker” was chosen to complement the modern logo of the Prize, while the calligraphic font used for “and the 7 Deadly Sins” was chosen because it looked dark and evil. Since our textbase is, by nature, very textual, we thought having a visual of one of the deadly sins was appropriate and added a nice ambience to the main menu.

Since we feel that separate textbases for author information versus book information would be useful for relational searches of overarching themes, we intentionally “left the door open” for a later inclusion of this feature.

MLIS

So…the MLIS has been officially granted! Convocation is not until June 6th, but my transcript reads: Master of Library & Info St Granted:  May 2012.

This past weekend I was at Kent State University attending their Conference on Information and Religion. Two faculty members at their library school are former ministers. Several years ago the then-director said to them, “How many library schools have two professors who used to be ministers? You should do something with this.” So they founded the Center for the Study of Information and Religion.

I was there presenting a poster and was so nervous at first… “My poster looks so hokey next to the others.” “Did I come to the right conclusions in my research?” “Oh my goodness, what am I even doing here!” Fortunately I was able to regain objectivity and after a while I was more relaxed.

Overall I enjoyed the conference very much. One presenter talked about appraising records for a religious archives. She had recently helped her synagogue start their own archives and talked about the differences between secular and religious archives – on one level, records are records, but on another level, you are trying to document the intangible. Religious records contain evidential value but also symbolic value that demonstrates belief.

Another presenter talked about Hymnary.org, a non-subscription hymn database. I was impressed, not just as a church musician, but also having studied taxonomies and faceted searching. Hymnary presents many facets by which to search, including the incipit of a melody. You type in the notes or solfège. Isn’t that neat?

Myths of Digitization and Paper

I am not anti-digitization – I appreciate it. But there a lot of limitations and it seems people are largely unaware of them.

Recently I was listening to two librarians discuss their work in eScholarship at a university library. This is not a critique of them or their work. They themselves mentioned many limitations of digitization – the main one being accessibility and migration.

Over the past 10-15 years we have seen remarkable changes in technology. When I was in high school we used diskettes. In university we switched to CDs and then to USB keys. What did you do with the work you had saved to diskettes? Did you print it and save it on paper? Did you migrate it to another digital format? Did you make sure you had a computer with a disk drive so you could read it?

Myth 1: Digitization is a great method of preservation

Digitization is a helpful auxiliary to your paper records or print holdings. It reduces wear and tear on older print versions, such as that yearbook from 1912. Need to consult a thesis in a library far away? Being able to consult the digital version is very convenient.

The issue is making sure to migrate all your e-content when the technology changes…and becomes obsolete. Because it will. And migration will be expensive. The example I always hear is, “Remember ‘Word Perfect?’ Can you still access documents saved in that format?”

At their university, theses and dissertations are no longer printed and stored in the library. The version of record is electronic. They do get backed up – onto tape and stored off-site (seriously – microfilm is very stable). They are stored in PDF-A – that is the current archival quality technology. Operative word being “current.” So what happens when some new format comes out and our computers can no longer access PDF-As? Is their library prepared to spend a ton of money and time migrating all its theses and dissertations?

I wonder why this decision was made, instead of continuing to print them and using digitization as an auxiliary medium. Sounds to me like digitization for digitization’s sake.

Digital formats are not that stable. Acid-free paper (not newsprint) is remarkably stable, as is microfilm. The two most stable media for long-term preservation…and we are moving away from them. Smart.

Myth 2: We’ll save space and money by digitizing everything

Creating born-digital records is one thing. Digitizing paper records is very expensive.

Myth 3: Paper is a fire hazard

Digital media can succumb to fire, too. Use them to back up important paper records and store them in a separate place.

Myth 4: Paper can get wet

So can computers. And while wet paper documents can be salvaged, I don’t think electronic media is that flexible. We had a flood at the Archives in September. When paper documents get wet, the main issue is making sure the ink doesn’t run. So you freeze them to stop the ink from running. And then you freeze-dry them to remove the water (this prevents the paper from getting crinkly).

Myth 5: Print versions waste trees

The “paperless office” is an oxymoron. We actually use more paper now, often from printing everything out, or from using more paper than necessary to get a job done. Case in point: the town clerk where I grew up used to type out vehicle registrations on little slips of paper. Then she switched to typing them on a computer and printing them out. I really don’t need a full sheet of paper to prove my car is registered. What a waste.