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Leading and Learning: What a Decade of CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowships Has Taught Us

It is now over a decade since the first cohort of 11 CLIR postdoctoral fellows began their appointments at academic libraries across the United States. This seems remarkable to those of us who were lucky enough to be around for those early days, but what may be even more remarkable is how much the Postdoctoral Fellowship Program has grown and changed. What was once a ragtag band of techno-savvy humanists is now an eclectic array of research specialists striving to tackle massive systemic challenges facing the future of scholarly information resources: building capacity for digital humanities research support, inculcating responsible data management practices, and developing more usable and sustainable digital libraries.

I recently had a chance to reflect upon these changes in the context of the much broader evolution of academic libraries during “CATALYSTS FOR CHANGE,” the 12th annual Columbia Library Symposium, held this year in honor of University Librarian Emeritus James Neal. The occasion was particularly apt for such reflection since Dr. Neal, as a prominent thinker and author of the 2005 essay “Raised by Wolves,” has helped so many of us entering academic library employment from backgrounds other than ML(I)S training programs understand how our presence can be disturbing to some and exciting to others in measures that sometimes seem as hyperbolic as his lupine metaphor. Neal has championed a radical rethinking of academic library operations that embraces bringing a broad diversity of expertise into the library workforce and engaging in deep collaboration across institutions.

During the symposium I shared a few observations about the evolution of the fellowships, including the nature of the work CLIR’s fellows have been asked to do over the years and the characteristics of successful and unsuccessful fellowships. Here are three trends I have observed about our fellows’ changing roles and responsibilities:

  • The range of expertise required to manage academic library collections has grown more diverse. Over time, our fellows’ disciplinary backgrounds have expanded across the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. This increased diversity parallels an increased diversity of skills now required of a well functioning information services organization. Working together and with their colleagues seems to help our fellows more fully appreciate the potential of others’ training and experience. This understanding can help them see the importance of successful collaboration across disciplinary, professional, and institutional boundaries in the interest of solving shared problems.
  • Subject expertise has grown more integral to library core services. In the early years of CLIR’s program, the fellows often represented the “outsider” user perspective in conversations of strategic importance, whether they involve small-scale pilot initiatives or broader assessments of library collections and services undertaken to plan big changes for an organization. Rather than staying on the sidelines, more recent fellows have worked directly on teams responsible for the delivery of library services to faculty and students.
  • Support for teaching and research has become more closely interrelated. While many fellows have been involved in teaching both within and outside academic libraries since the program’s inception, more recently the emphasis on providing research support has grown much stronger. It is now quite common for CLIR’s fellows to play vital roles in planning and delivering research services while at the same time participating in teaching courses, workshops, and training sessions that are closely connected with those services.

We have received strong positive feedback indicating that fellows’ field training makes them useful in library environments; the healthy number of repeat hosts participating in the program is strong evidence of this. At the same time, some fellowships have been more successful than others. Now that we have a decade of experience from which to draw, CLIR is working with fellowship alumni and supervisors to identify strategies for helping fellows become more effective. Here are a few observations:

  • Successful fellows tend to have regular structured contact with supervisors and colleagues. More successful fellows have open channels of communication about their work with both peers and superiors; less successful fellows often have difficulty securing their colleagues’ attention and participation in their work.
  • Successful fellows and their hosts work together to clarify expectations for the fellowship, without being inflexible. More successful fellows have a clear understanding of their purpose and function within their organizations while also having an ability to shape their work to suit their talents and the changing circumstances around them. Less successful fellows struggle to understand their roles, or find that their experience does not match the expectations outlined in their job descriptions. Fellows who do not get to participate in decision-making about what they do can also be less productive.
  • Successful fellows get strong support for professional development. Fellows who have regular opportunities for learning beyond those offered by CLIR’s program (e.g., professional conferences, symposia, courses, workshops and training sessions) tend to be more satisfied with their experience, and ultimately more successful.
  • Successful fellows have broad intellectual curiosity and appreciation for the expertise of others. Fellows who are able to shift naturally between the roles of leader and learner tend to thrive; they can cope with ambiguity while maintaining their focus on top-priority outcomes. Not every Ph.D.-trained specialist can do this easily. This flexibility of mind actually seems much more important to successful collaboration in a library context than a candidate’s exact set of skills matching the requirements of a particular position.

This summer, CLIR and DLF will welcome the twelfth cohort of an estimated 19 new fellows, while about 20 current fellows will enter the next phase of their professional lives. As the program transitions from its childhood to adolescence, we at CLIR are making an effort to build upon the lessons of the past to strengthen support for program participants, their supervisors, and their colleagues in the academy. We will be looking to the examples of other professional development and leadership training programs for ideas and opportunities to share, while also welcoming suggestions of ways we can keep improving what we do as one small community among the many “catalysts for change” striving to make libraries fertile grounds for research, teaching, and learning. We are continuing to look back on what we have learned over the program’s history and will be sharing more reflections, recommendations, and prognostications over the coming months.

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