Our Graduate Assistants: Xena Becker

This interview is part of a series introducing our graduate assistants to our online community. These are some of the people you will see when you visit our space, who will greet you with a smile and a willingness to help! Say hello to Xena Becker!

A headshot of Xena Becker, a fair skinned woman with long dark hair wearing a green and blue scarf

What is your background education and work experience?
I graduated from New York University with a major in Comparative Literature and a minor in Global and Urban Education Studies. My focus in Comparative Literature was Archives and Library Science, which I personally tailored from classes available in the English, Comparative Literature, and Media, Culture, and Communications departments. Most of my work experience is in education; for a long time, I kept accidentally getting teaching jobs. I really enjoy teaching, though, and my experience as an educator ranges from theater to writing. When I was a junior, I started working in the special collections library at NYU and I have been working in libraries ever since. Now, at the University of Illinois, I work in the Scholarly Commons and the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which is a really good balance for all of my interests.

What led you to your field?
When I was a sophomore in college, I took a class titled Papyrus to PDF: An Introduction to Book History Now. That class was my first introduction to special collections and archives and I was completely hooked. It was taught by an English professor and a rare books librarian in the special collections classroom and focused on the history of books as physical objects, rather than just as pieces of writing. The content of the class got me to pay attention, but the intricacies I was exposed to of the operation of special collections libraries was what made the class so memorable. I knew I wanted to be involved in stewarding and making available texts and materials to researchers and students, and what better place to do that than a library?

Additionally, though, I want to acknowledge that I was invited to enter librarianship by other librarians. My professor for Papyrus to PDF saw that I was interested in libraries and invited me to apply to work for her the next summer; in research consultations with subject librarians I would ask how they became interested in library science. Everyone was very open and encouraging to my questions and interests, which was another defining aspect of what led me to librarianship.

What are your research interests?
I am interested in expanding learning opportunities in archives and special collections—this means both increasing instruction education for library staff and making library spaces and materials more accessible for learners of all backgrounds. Within special collections I’m a little more open with my interests—I am one of many special collections librarians who refer to themselves as “generalists.” I try to keep my interests as open as possible, but I have done some more specific research on queer archival history, special collections instruction, and data visualization.

What are your favorite projects you’ve worked on?
I have enjoyed collaborating with our Data Analytics and Visualization Resident Librarian, Megan Ozeran, on projects that cover all areas of data visualization. Before working with Megan on data visualization projects, I had never really considered academic librarianship as a career that utilizes creative and artistic expression or builds on visual forms of communication—I thought it was all about text. However, learning about data visualization quickly changed my perspective on this and introduced me to a whole new area of skills to learn. Some of the things I have done with Megan include writing monthly blog posts, Exploring Data Visualization, that showcase interesting data viz examples from around the web. Another project was creating posters of historical data visualizations to display at our Data Visualization Competition. That project was a great opportunity to bridge my roles at the Scholarly Commons and the Rare Book and Manuscript Library to show off the cool historic data visualizations out there.

What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend?
Our creative software! We have access to the full Adobe Creative Suite in the Scholarly Commons as well as some open source alternatives, and I love toying around with them and figuring out what we can do to make this software useful for our patrons.

When you graduate, what would your ideal job position look like?
My ideal position would be working in a special collections library doing instruction and outreach. I want to continue sharing what I’ve learned about libraries and collections with as many people as possible through classes, exhibits, social media, and other creative forms of outreach. I love working with the public either at a reference desk or through events and classes, so I want to work somewhere that focuses on bringing people and collections together. I would love to keep working at a college or university, but I’m open to working somewhere like a museum or public library as well. Finally, I’d love to work somewhere that has collections that cover areas that interest me or focus on representing diverse voices.

What is the one thing you would want people to know about your field?
That librarianship can look like so many different things—there’s no one way to be a librarian. Many people who work in libraries don’t consider themselves librarians, and many people who should be considered librarians aren’t. Working in libraries has taught me that I will always be able to learn new skills or try new things, all of which can still be librarianship!

Our Graduate Assistants: Michael Tahmasian

This interview is part of a new series introducing our graduate assistants to our online community. These are some of the people you will see when you visit our space, who will greet you with a smile and a willingness to help! Say hello to Michael Tahmasian!

What is your background education and work experience?

I have Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Kansas and for a long time I had no idea what I wanted to do with that. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I moved with a friend to Chicago for “the next big adventure.” At first, I was a security guard at an art museum. Then I was a substitute teacher in the public schools. Eventually, I ended up as a CyberNavigator in two different branches of the Chicago Public Library, where I worked with patrons to help build their digital skills.

What led you to your field?

I’ve always loved teaching people things, but I struggled to see myself teaching in a traditional classroom. It just never felt right for me. When I finally realized the huge role that instruction played in librarianship—in small moments at the reference desk or through programming and workshops—everything clicked for me. I could see myself as a part of that space. There are so few places people can go to these days to get help learn new things without having to give something in return. I’m truly so excited to be a part of that.

What are your research interests?

My main area of interest is instruction, but to me that includes both those formal and informal settings; both workshops and one-off questions at a reference desk. Currently, I’m interested in how feminist theories can help us understand and improve instruction in both places. Our profession is focused on helping people get the information they need—and while I believe in that I think sometimes we lose sight of the people we’re supposed to help and focus solely on the information itself. Feminist theories allow us to challenge our field’s traditional values and focus on the people involved, patrons and librarians alike. These theories help us highlight the often-overlooked effective aspects of librarianship and the amount of emotional labor that goes into it. Not only do I think that this work should be acknowledged and celebrated, but I believe effective qualities like empathy need to be fostered within librarians through education and training. I think how we work with patrons and students is just as important as the content we’re trying to teach them and empathy is integral to that, understanding their emotional processes in using the library is integral to that. So really I’m interested in exploring how empathy and something like the ethics of care can be incorporated not only into our instruction at the desk or in the classroom, but also in the training of librarians.

What are your favorite projects you’ve worked on?

My ongoing work in the Scholarly Commons revolves around undergraduate research here at the University of Illinois, which has taught me so much about collaboration between academic libraries and other units across campus. I’ve worked a lot on managing intake of undergraduate research work into IDEALS, our institution’s digital repository, and creating education materials around that for both students and faculty.

Additionally, I was able to spend time over the year designing and piloting a workshop on editing podcasts with the software Audacity. The workshop served as a collaboration between the Scholarly Commons’ Savvy Researcher workshop series and the Media Commons in the Undergraduate Library. It was a wonderful chance to learn about designing a workshop and the challenges that come with that, especially one so focused on technology. The process challenged me to think about the availability of the technology and how we could work with what we had; the role attendees of the workshop would have in actively contributing to their own learning; the accessibility of my lesson and materials; and, how to market it all. Getting to test it out this spring was incredibly rewarding. Overall it went really well and I was excited to get feedback to help improve it for the next time around!

What are some of your favorite underutilized resources that you would recommend?

My favorite underutilized resource in the Scholarly Commons might be the space itself! Although this will change sometime in the future, right now we’re tucked away on the third floor of the Main Library. I think people who use the space genuinely love it—we have a lot of regulars. The space is really open for people to make what they want of it. If they need a quiet hideaway, this is great. If they need a place to work collaborate with others, there’s room for that too. Physically being in the space also allows people to see some of our other available resources—like our specialized software or our collection of books on data, programming, and research.

When you graduate, what would your ideal job position look like?

After graduation I am hoping to work as a Reference and Instruction Librarian in an academic library. I just want to be able to keep teaching people things, keep learning things myself, and be comfortable enough wherever I end up to finally adopt a dog. That’s the dream.

What is the one thing you would want people to know about your field?

You should never feel bad asking a librarian a question! I know it can feel awkward or weird, I’ve felt it too and I work in libraries. But librarians truly just want to help you with your problems, no matter how big or small. Stop by, give us a call, or chat with us online! We’re here for you