In the latest of our In-Depth Interviews with Library Journal Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, sponsored by SAGE, we spoke with Sarah Sagmoen, learning commons and user services librarian at the University of Illinois Springfield’s Brookens Library. Hired as a visiting instructional librarian in 2009, Sagmoen was managing the reference desk and public computers by the end of her first year. In her third year at Brookens, her work inspired the library to create the position she now occupies. Between her academic duties and a lively student outreach program, she is busy building a strong community both inside the library and out.
LJ: How did you jump into a job at an academic library straight out of library school?
Sarah Sagmoen: This was my first full-time librarian position. I was hired for a ten-month visiting position only. I looked at it as an opportunity to get my foot in the door, so mostly my focus was on getting as much experience as I could. And then I never left! We ended up being put into a hiring freeze, so the few of us who were hired on in visiting positions were allowed to get a second, and in my case a third, visiting contract.
In this interview series, sponsored by SAGE, LJ goes in depth with this year’s Movers & Shakers from academic libraries, delving into just how and why they pulled off the projects that brought them recognition as innovators, change agents, and more.
You wear a lot of different hats within the library and on campus, and you manage it all well. How do you prioritize everything so successfully?
I’m glad it looks that way! For me, it’s about just knowing that if I come to work and I’m productive all day, some days that’s the best I can do. It might not be what I intended to be productive on, but so long as I’ve taken advantage of the day to the best of my abilities, I just have to be happy with that.
Before I leave at the end of the day I make a to-do list for myself for the next day that has a variety of short, quick things I can do. That way if I find myself with ten to 15 minutes here and there I have a couple of little tasks I can knock out, whereas otherwise those little gaps can get wasted because you look at them and think ”that’s not enough time to get anything done.”
Also, it’s so important to take lunch. Get out of your office and don’t eat at your desk!
What projects do you have going on right now?
Right now we’re in the midst of a large project we started in summer , where we completely revamped our student employment model. Previously we looked at student employees as a benefit for the library—they help us keep our doors open, they staff our major desks—and we turned it around to make it an opportunity for us to really teach them some things. We created two student manager positions, and we created a three-tiered circulation training module to train them to do basic reference. We’ve empowered them quite a bit and we expect more out of them. It’s exciting to see students taking on much more responsibility than they previously had, and the skills we’re teaching them are making them better students. They’re learning how to do research better to help other students at the desk, but they also take it back into the classroom.
You participated in the most recent Knight News Challenge for libraries—how was that experience?
I enjoyed it a lot. We’re in desperate need of a larger, more sophisticated classroom in our library. Our classroom only seats 20-25 comfortably and it’s not a lab—there are no computers, other than the computer and projector in the front, and it’s just not working for us. It seemed like a good opportunity for me to really work through how we would go about acquiring a classroom of the size we would need, and think about what technology we would need, what the process would be—because I work for the state we have to work with state contracts, and I can’t just work with any company I want to. I spent a day in my office and hung Post-it notes all over the walls and brainstormed.
Even [though my proposal wasn’t] selected, it was a good activity for me because we’re actually going to put some of those plans in place, at least the initial stages of allocating the funding. It was fun, and I feel that any time you’re forced to do something like that it’s useful. It’s like conference proposals—even if your proposal doesn’t get submitted it’s a nice activity to work through what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and whether or not it’s working. We don’t often reflect enough critically about what we do because we’re all just so busy.
How do you feel about the literacy skills in the students you teach?
That’s an interesting question because yesterday I and two of my colleagues did a faculty development session entitled “Getting Better Research from Your Students.” It was geared to the idea that the expectations college professors have aren’t matching what our freshmen are coming in with—due to a lot of factors, but mostly because school libraries are getting cut across the nation. There’s this expectation that college freshmen understand the difference, for example, between a scholarly and a popular journal. But they just don’t. It’s not any fault of the students’, it’s that the system has failed them in this way. We were presenting yesterday about creating better research assignment handouts to help students bridge that gap.
Who are the mentors who made a difference for you?
I have a really supportive group here, but most importantly, I work for a boss, Jane Treadwell, who’s very supportive of me—just having that person I know I can ask for quick advice on little things or big things, and also the knowledge that I don’t have to check everything with her. She trusts what I do, she trusts my decisions. I’ve been empowered from day one as very young, new librarian. She’s been more than instrumental in my career at this point.
What changes would you like to see at your library?
A chunk of my job is redesigning and managing the spaces within the library, and I would like to see better funding so we can get this [renovation] that we so desperately need—from little things like not enough outlets to bringing in technology and collaborative spaces, being prepared to serve our ever-growing population. I’d like to see us build that classroom so that we can really show what we do on a much larger scale—I think it would have a big impact on our campus. It would certainly have a big impact on us here within the building. It would be a good way to refresh and get excited about little things again. When you’re doing instruction in a new, cool space, it helps you imagine larger, cooler, more meaningful activities.
What would you tell someone starting out who wants to be a library leader?
I would say follow your passion. It’s more likely that you’re going to find something awesome to do if you’re passionate about it. Too often people think that those things have to be flashy or outside of the box. But they don’t have to be—they just have to be something you feel very strongly about, whether it’s helping incoming freshmen bridge that gap through information literacy, or creating collaborations outside your library building. That’s the thing that I’ve found I’m really passionate about, and that I just kind of fell into. I had a teaching background and I came in thinking that instruction was going to be my thing, and it wasn’t. I still love being in the classroom and doing instruction but I don’t do tons of it, or at least not as much as I used to, because I’ve moved into the outreach/partnership area. This opportunity fell in my lap and I took advantage of it.
As young librarians, so often we’re told we have to have these five-year plans, but the reality is you just don’t know what’s coming down the pipeline. Keep your eyes and ears open, and if something that you think is cool—or that you’re excited about—happens in front of you, take advantage of it, just roll with it and see where it goes. (This article was taken from Library Journal).