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Interview with Dr. Shaundra Walker

By Dan Bostrom posted 04-19-2021 12:32

Interview with Dr. Shaundra Walker
By By Melissa Fraser-Arnott

“Give yourself opportunities” – this is the motto that has guided Dr. Shaundra Walker’s career. In this interview, Dr. Walker discusses her leadership journey and offers advice for librarians on developing professionally. She offers insights on leading change, building mutually beneficial connections, incorporating assessment into library practices, and continuously seeking opportunities to learn and grow.

You have been recognized as a community builder and were awarded the 2020 DEMCO Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) in part because of your work in developing communication platforms for members as the head of the Marketing and Public Relations Committee. What advice do you have for librarians seeking to create and maintain communications channels to support community building?

Clear consistent communication is always important and this has been magnified by the pandemic. When communicating online, we are missing visual cues and intonation that come with face-to-face interactions, so there is a greater risk of misunderstanding. While the pandemic has limited some opportunities for networking, it has created others. We are missing conferences but it is easy to set up zoom meetings. It is important to create diverse professional networks and online tools are creating new opportunities for building and finding communities. We need to seek ways to create valuable and mutually beneficial connections.

In my experience, mutually beneficial connections are those in which each party’s needs are considered. Sometimes, particularly in connections where there is a power imbalance, the person in the lower power position may not feel they have something to contribute, but everyone has the potential to bring value to an encounter. A really simply way to ensure that the exchange is mutually beneficial is to be respectful of people’s time by preparing and staying on task. Valuing time is particularly important in the online context as people are experiencing zoom fatigue.

Your work in developing a community history preservation project to ensure that local history materials about African Americans are saved and can potentially be shared through the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is inspiring. This project involved community consultation and knowledge sharing. What advice do you have for other libraries or archives seeking to engage with their local communities either to build collections or to create community-focused programs or services?

The project was funded through the National Endowment for the Humanities Common Heritage Grant program to document the history of the African American community. Milledgeville’s Antebellum past is well documented, but there is a lack of resources about the history of the area’s African American community. This project was approached as a mutually beneficial collaboration with the community. The university had a certain type of expertise to contribute to the project, but the community also contributes things to the project that the university doesn’t have. Working together means showing mutual respect for each other’s contributions. The university didn’t take the approach of telling the community what to do in this project, we let them guide us and to identify the things that were vital. Their experiences, even those that are usually framed as being as negative (e.g. segregation), led the African-American community to develop a deep sense of community. Building trust with the community was an important part of the project. Building that trust doesn’t happen over night. It takes time to build and takes commitment. You need to show that you are doing things in the ways that are best for the community.

You served as Georgia College and State University’s project lead for the Association of College and Research Libraries’ Assessment in Action Program in order to develop competencies in articulating contributions to student learning outcomes. Does aligning what or how we assess in libraries require a shift from current assessment and evaluation programs? If so, where do you recommend librarians start in rethinking their assessment programs from a student (or other client group) perspective?

I did my PhD in higher education administration because I knew that I wanted to work in higher education and I saw the degree as a way to prepare myself for success in this field. Academic libraries need to be able to speak the language of higher education leaders and to articulate our alignment with their goals. This can be challenging because even though libraries are considered a public good, they still need to be able to show how their work aligns with the university’s goals. Academic libraries have always done the work of helping universities succeed, but we haven’t always been able to communicate this to leaders in ways that are familiar to them. Many librarians are not trained in assessment and communicating value to leaders through their graduate program and have to learn how to do this on the job.

Being able to communicate library value through assessment is a critical skill and all librarians will need at least a basic level of understanding of this topic. Librarians should look for formal opportunities to develop this competence and be open to learning. Developing a mindset that supports library assessment at the beginning makes the job of assessment easier at the end.

Assessment can come off as top down and bureaucratic, but it has benefits inside the library. We want to be the best at what we do. Assessment encourages libraries to think about benefits internally and help us to find ways to improve the way we operate. Everyone wants to do a good job and our resources are limited. We use assessment to align our resources and the process can be affirming. We can use assessment to shift away from legacy initiatives that aren’t having the outcomes we want and toward new initiatives that offer far more bang for our buck and for our time. It can feel like we can’t do more than what we’re doing, but assessment can help us to shift and prioritize our work.

You have taught, published, and presented on the recruitment and retention of librarians of color and have both mentored and advocated for mentoring opportunities for new librarians and librarians seeking to advance into leadership positions. What should libraries or librarians seeking to develop formal or informal mentorship programs consider to ensure that opportunities for mentoring and professional development are inclusive?

This is a personal topic for me because I experienced a personal struggle to find a mentor early in my career. The main challenges that I encountered were that mentors didn’t have time to commit to the mentoring relationship. There was a need for clear communication and commitment on structure and outcomes upfront.

I have informal mentoring relationships and work to be the mentor I wish I had. I try to make it clear what I can do to support people, such as connecting people to opportunities or offering references. When I get to know a mentee, I am able to connect them to opportunities that I know align with their goals and interests. It is important to find and be the right mentor. Know yourself and what you need in your career and express that to your mentor or potential mentor. This will help you to know if a mentorship relationship is right for you.

I have benefited from informal mentorships throughout my career. I have learned from informal mentors by observing their leadership styles and as models for career moves. Knowing that I have observed others’ leadership styles, I try to model leadership behavior, since I know that people are watching.

My motto is “give yourself opportunities.” Be prepared to be uncomfortable and do new things. Do things that you don’t feel prepared to do and present yourself to others as a mentee. Don’t find yourself looking back and wishing that you had tried something.

How do you find the right opportunities and maintain a balance?

Finding a balance can be difficult. I grew up with a strong sense of responsibility to respond to people’s needs. When I accept an opportunity, I want to be fully present and do the best job I can. If I can’t do that, then I say no to the opportunity. In cases where I do have to say no, I see if there is something else that I can do. I may offer to participate in a project at a different time.

Self care and balance are so important. Their importance can’t be overstressed. Balance should be the goal. I have found that being back in the office actually creates better work-life balance for me. When working from home it is hard to turn off at the end of the day. In my experience, I struggled to set clear boundaries between work and home when teleworking.

You have led many successful change initiatives at Georgia College and State University, including the development of a scholarly communication program, the revision of your faculty’s promotion and tenure policy, and the development of a range of instruction and research services operational procedures. What advice do you have for library managers seeking to lead change projects?

In 2018 I participated in the ACRL Harvard Leadership Program. What stuck out from this session was the importance of culture and the quote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I cannot stress enough the importance of recognizing the unique culture that exists in your organization. This culture may not be written, but there is a story at your organization, there are norms. You need to take culture into consideration to be successful. You need to understand your organization’s communication style, “sacred teddy bears”, and symbols in order to use challenges to your advantages.

Cultural change takes time and can span across leaders. Some leaders plant seeds, some water and fertilize, and some harvest. Don’t focus only on the results, but instead look at your leadership impact. You may present initiatives that may not be well-received initially, but you are planting and nurturing seeds. I know that some of the fruits that I am reaping were sown by leaders who came before me.

When I came to Georgia College and State University in 2013, I put in place some changes that were kind of ambitious, particularly around virtual reference. I shifted staffing to research consultations and encouraged our faculty to integrate more our resources into the learning management system. There was some hesitancy to embrace some of these initiatives, like offering online modules for information literacy training, but we presented these online resources as one option in a service menu. Some faculty were reluctant to come onboard with the scholarly communication program, so we focused on students initially. After many years or hard work, and with proven success of our open-access undergraduate research journal and other student research activities, more faculty are embracing our efforts in this area.

This meant that when the pandemic hit, we were in the systems already. We were positioned well to meet needs for remote learning. The need to deliver online learning during COVID has shown the value of all the work that we had been doing. We had the infrastructure to support the shift and the pandemic gave a way of contextualizing the conversation about handling and sharing researchers’ intellectual property. These experiences were encouraging. Seeing wins with changes that were difficult is very encouraging and it helps other change projects to seem less daunting.

What advice do you have for new or mid-career librarians who are seeking to develop strategic leadership skills or to move into leadership roles?

Very early in my career I tried to find postings for my ideal jobs and I looked at the skills and experiences that they asked for and then I positioned myself to get those skills. I am a proponent of professional development.

I encourage my staff to engage in professional development and I ask how I can help them to get the skills that they need for their career ambitions. I work with them to see how their current work relates to their long-term career vision.

I also encourage participation in leadership programs like the ACRL/Harvard Leadership program and the ACRL Immersion Information Literacy program. Both of these professional development experiences have been impactful on my career. The relationships that I developed through these programs are also a source of support. I keep up with the people from these programs. Professional associations also offer opportunities to build and develop.

I encourage people to seek out opportunities and to take risks. If you want to do something different, you have to step out of your comfort zone. Professional development and preparation are essential.

Library education was foundational, but at this point in my career I use very little of what I learned in library school. I rely more on the skills that I developed over the years since graduation. You need to continuously build your competencies. I have had managers who have supported my professional growth, but I was self-motivated to find opportunities. I initiated experiences instead of waiting for someone to encourage or promote opportunities for development to me. I reward employees who seek out opportunities for development.


Shaundra Walker.

Shaundra Walker
serves as Library Director at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. She is also tenured Associate Professor of Library Science. A native of Macon, Georgia, she earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Educational Leadership from Mercer University. Shaundra also holds a Master of Science in Library and Information Studies from Clark Atlanta University and a Bachelor of Arts in history from Spelman College.

A member of the American Library Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Georgia Library Association (GLA), and GLA-Black Caucus, she was the recipient of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association/DEMCO Outstanding Librarian of the Year Award in 2020.

Her research interests include the recruitment and retention of librarians of color, organizational development within Minority Serving Institution (MSI) libraries, and critical librarianship. Shaundra regularly speaks on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in library science. Her most recent book chapter, “Ann Allen Shockley: An Activist Librarian for Black Special Collections,” appears in Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory, edited by Sofia Y. Leung and Jorge R. López-McKnight (MIT Press, 2021). She is currently co-editing The Black Librarian in America: Reflections, Resistance, and Reawakening (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Melissa Fraser-Arnott.

Melissa Fraser-Arnott is the Co-Chair of the Leadership and Management Division’s Marketing Section. She is the Chief of Integrated Reference Services at the Library of Parliament in Ottawa, Canada. Melissa has a PhD from the SJSU-QUT Gateway PhD Program and an MLIS from the University of Western Ontario.