Emily Drabinski: Advocacy is in Every Part of the Job

Emily Drabinski, Coordinator of Library Instruction for LIU Brooklyn

by Gina Cullen

Meet Emily Drabinski, Coordinator of Library Instruction

Emily Drabinski, the Coordinator of Library Instruction at LIU Brooklyn, grapples with a lot of logistics every day. They may take the form of analyzing the metrics of library use, organizing instruction schedules, or reconfiguring the physical layout of the reference desk, but working with the tangible problems is where Emily excels. “What I like about libraries is that it’s material and concrete: books, wires, copiers, opening hours, food policy. You never have a question or problem that’s abstract, they’re always real,” she said while we discussed challenges facing libraries as institutions.

Given the breadth of her responsibilities, it’s clear that she has an excellent grasp on coordination. Every semester she organizes the schedule so that every faculty member has a lab and a librarian available for their requested time slot. She and four other librarians lead about 300 classes a year for primarily freshman and sophomore students, which is only part of their regular duties within the library. Because librarians are also considered faculty at LIU Brooklyn, she has university responsibilities as well, which include attending faculty senate meetings and being the representative at Board of Trustees meetings. She also serves as the secretary of the Long Island University Faculty Federation, Local 3998, NYSUT/AFT, AFL-CIO.

Prior to her career as a librarian, Emily worked in the print media world primarily for magazines. Her last job was as a fact-checker for the magazine Lucky, where she was caught up with the trivial minutiae of tasks like ensuring that the number of bargains listed inside was accurately conveyed on the cover. After getting chewed out for mixing up the telephone number for Barney’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, she realized, “This can’t be my whole life.”

At the time, New York Public Library had a program sponsoring students as they went through librarian school if they worked at the library so she applied for a job with them and in 2001 she enrolled at Syracuse University. She immediately felt at home in her classes, learning about the ways libraries compile, organize, and store all human knowledge for everyone to access. The aspiration of the profession is often confronted by the daily realities of working in libraries.

“It turns out it’s a lot of stapler repair,” she laughs.

But focusing on the little actions and outreach we can have with any person who comes into the library has become a large part of how she conducts her job. Working in an academic setting means that she teaches students not just how to use the library to search for information but how to find and recognize accurate and reliable information. That instruction may take the form of showing health science students, who need sources to debate a critical issue in healthcare, how to find pro and con sources without using the words ‘pro’ or ‘con,’ or teaching them how to access information from Medline. She’s even taught students how to scan book chapters on their phone, a small skill that can have a significant and lasting impact on how they can conduct their work. Sometimes the most beneficial action is something simple like turning on the fax machine or copier, because it makes a lot of students lives better.

Emily’s practical approach to helping students is even more essential given the problems facing LIU Brooklyn. Like many other higher education institutions they have seen declining enrollment, retention issues, and labor issues. Last year administrators physically locked faculty out of the library over contract negotiations and this year they have slashed budgets for nearly every department while also implementing a new policy that obtaining grants is now a factor for achieving promotions or tenure. This has made the primary focus of their outreach and advocacy to be on behalf of their own survival. As she explains, “Working conditions are students’ learning conditions so if we have primarily a contingent labor-force that is getting paid peanuts to teach our students then they’re not going to teach our students very well.”

Part of that work includes what many other libraries have done; they have snack tables at student orientation, they have zines with information about their services, and they have 24-hour service during finals. Assembling statistics and compiling them in reports is another important tool in making the case for additional resources, although the declining enrollment affects all aspects of those numbers. Distilling the intangible act of obtaining knowledge into a measurable metric, something that Emily likens to “extracting resources from higher ed the way you would extract resources from a silver mine, which is just very strange because the commodity is a person,” has its own implications on how it influences the data itself but without that data she can’t show why those resources are necessary. It’s a difficult, challenging time for the higher education sector and that makes Emily’s approach of localized, project-based work all the more essential.

While archival institutions serve a slightly different purpose, this approach of focusing on practical actions can serve as a valuable guide in better engaging with our communities. Emily teaches her students how to navigate the library and learn how to best analyze and utilize the resources they find. Archivists can take the same approach and teach not only how to use the archive but also how to use primary sources and apply the historical context of when they were created. If archivists and local educators can collaborate to create programs that emphasize the importance of these documents –not just historically but relating to many disciplines — then they could provide a valuable service of lasting skills to their community. Hopefully this would also lead to a mutually beneficial rise in usage, further demonstrating their importance and the necessity for adequate funding.

Please check out more of Emily’s publications, which cover a range of topics from information literacy standards and instruction, the intersection of power and library structures, to gender and sexuality in librarianship, available on her website. She is also the series editor for Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies from Library Juice Press/Litwin Books. She considers her article “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction” (Library Quarterly, April 2013) to be one of her most important pieces that has guided her thinking regarding all the projects she’s done since and it provides an nuanced and needed perspective to the discussion.