‘They’re going to rule the world’: Librarian Kristina Bush on fellowship and creating community amid chaos

An online meeting of the Library Fellows
UC Berkeley Library fellows meet on Zoom on April 26, 2021. Digital Literacies Librarian Kristina Bush, top row, second from left, co-runs Berkeley’s Undergraduate Library Fellowship program and worked to foster a sense of community during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Zoom)

Last year, as cracks from the pandemic spidered into nearly every part of normal life, the UC Berkeley Library’s fellowship program turned fully remote.

The fellows proved resilient. But something was missing.

“Everybody was working on their own projects, and it felt like things weren’t really coming together,” says Kristina Bush, UC Berkeley’s digital literacies librarian, who co-runs the Undergraduate Library Fellowship program with Nicole Brown, head of the Library’s Instruction Services Division. “We had our group meetings, but we didn’t have a community.”

So starting last fall, the program shed its individually driven approach, with students working on their own specific projects, for one that funneled the fellows’ energy and talents into bigger, ongoing efforts to solve some of the Library’s pressing problems.

What emerged from that shift was a fellowship in the purest sense of the word. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the program offered students a reliable support system, a safe and welcoming space to learn, a spirit of unity, and, against all odds, a semblance of the Berkeley experience at a time when the trappings of university life were blown to the winds. (Read blog posts from fellows reflecting on their experience in the program.)

“We’ve all very much come together and grown together,” says Bush, who joined the Library in the summer of 2019 and has spent most of her time at Berkeley working from home.

We caught up with Bush to talk about the fellowship program, the mindset it shares with the Center for Connected Learning (the new vision for Moffitt Library, also known as CCL), and the faces smiling back on the other side of the Zoom screen.

Can you tell me a little bit about the Undergraduate Library Fellowship program?

It is a cohort-driven program — we usually have somewhere around eight fellows — and the fellows are partnered with mentors from the Library’s Instruction Services Division. We have the goal of improving Library spaces and services through peer-to-peer initiatives, especially peer-to-peer learning. What we give to the fellows is mentorship and training in aspects of librarianship — user experience, learner-centered service design, research, instruction, reference, making.

What projects did the fellows work on this year?

There were two groups: One group became really interested in making research accessible — how to make the process of doing research feel approachable, not overwhelming. The other group became really interested in outreach, and especially diversity, equity, and inclusion.

They both created surveys. The outreach team created a survey that was staff-facing, to find out about initiatives or resources or collections that they can share with underrepresented populations. Their student-facing survey was designed to find out where those needs gaps lie. Why are students not feeling comfortable coming into the Library, or why are they not using Library collections or services? (The group also developed an easy-to-navigate database of multicultural resources.)

The research group wanted to find out how students are doing research: How are they going about it, especially if they’re not using Library collections or Library services?

The data from the surveys will be used by next year’s fellows to help create even more solutions.

How does the fellows’ work tie in to the Center for Connected Learning at Moffitt Library?

It’s really about the mindset, and keeping it student-focused and empathy-first. This is the same kind of perspective that we take when we’re thinking about the CCL — that user-centered, learner-centered approach. The fellows are helping us identify why the students don’t feel welcome in Library spaces or don’t know about Library services, and in the process of designing CCL services, we want to know what students want and why they’re not engaging — or why they are engaging.

Can you talk about what you hope the students are taking away from the fellowship experience, and what you are learning from the students?

Something that I like to remember is “Less prep and more presence.” Something that has come across in all these meetings is the importance of authenticity. I feel like we’re all kind of being our authentic selves and learning together as a community. Also, valuing process over product. We tried to get them to focus more on the thought processes, and empathizing and reflecting, rather than coming up with a polished, shiny product. And iteration as well. I think it was really powerful that we gave them the amount of time that they needed to continue to iterate on the surveys, instead of saying, “OK, you need to get it out in March, then in May you need a final product that is perfect.” We let the process take the time it needed to take.

Is there anything else you wanted to add?

I just love seeing their minds work. It’s just so wonderful seeing them grow as individuals. They’re all go-getters and resilient. They’re going to rule the world someday, all these fellows.

It must be strange not seeing them ever in person (because of the pandemic).

I’m sad that I won’t get to meet those who are graduating this year in person. But hopefully we’ll get to meet those who are not graduating in the future. This is the first group that I’ve seen all the way through — from interviews, applications, hiring, all the way through the entire process.

They’re going to stick with me. I’ll always remember them.

This Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.