From New England to Japan: Closing the Distance

In summer 2010, I joined Plymouth State University (PSU)’s Lamson Learning Commons as the Digital Projects Librarian. When my husband, also a faculty member at PSU, asked me less than a year later if I would be opposed to the idea of living in Japan for a year while he pursued his research, I paused momentarily to consider how this would affect my still-new position. We’ve always supported each other in our professional endeavors and aspirations, so my moment of hesitation quickly passed and an application for a Fulbright Scholarship was submitted.

Jen Green
Jen Green

My work at Plymouth State University had been positive and productive. I spent the first year researching and recommending the institutional digital repository software (CONTENTdm), writing a digitization feasibility study, and developing relationships with campus departments interested in contributing digital collections. With image collections from Spinelli Special Collections and Archives, the Museum of the White Mountains, and Draper and Maynard Sporting Goods added during Fall 2011, the digital project wheels were well in motion by the time the Japan opportunity emerged as a possibility. By spring 2012 (as projected by myself and Dean of Libraries and Academic Support Services) The Digital Repository at Plymouth State University was officially and publicly launched. Soon after, my husband received an offer from the Fulbright Program. A Tokyo venture quickly turned from dream to reality.

I hadn’t really allowed myself to consider Japan as a possibility until an official offer came in, so in the next five months, there was much to prepare personally (finding an apartment and a school for our two kids) and professionally (what would I do for one year?). Professionally speaking, the Fulbright offer would pay for my husband’s work in Tokyo, but that would leave me to coordinate my own employment situation. I was enjoying my position as PSU’s Digital Projects Librarian and was not ready to let it go. However, I anticipated that whatever we discovered while in Japan would build our professional and personal aspirations in significant ways, which would, in turn, benefit PSU.

Once we decided to take this extraordinary opportunity and venture towards Japan, there were two results that seemed likely to me before I broke the news to the library dean: (1) I would have to resign my position or (2) I would be granted an unpaid leave of absence. I wasn’t thrilled about option two, so I approached my director with the intention of advocating for a leave of absence. Fortunately, the dean and university administration agreed that the Fulbright Scholarship was a boon for the university and an opportunity not to be surpassed. They’d been impressed with the productivity with digital projects over the past two years and they saw that maintaining my connection to the position (and PSU as a whole) was a practical and economical way to ensure that digital project management would continue to progress across the campus.

With the digital collections groundwork laid, the idea of working remotely seemed feasible to me as well, but I was concerned about maintaining and assessing my productivity while working remotely. My position requires extensive online administration of CONTENTdm’s storage space and permissions. As a hosted system, we rely on CONTENTdm’s technical support staff for problems or customization questions, and this communication typically occurs via email and resolved online. However, hands-on training and technical support is required for individual PSU departments launching collections in CONTENTdm; these were typically provided face-to-face. However, for departments already trained to manage files and catalog in CONTENTdm, it seemed likely that continued support could occur in an online format using conferencing tools such as Skype. New digital initiatives, such as collections emerging within the art and public relations departments, could be fostered via email for the duration of one year.

Conceptualizing the remote work became more difficult when considering the reference, instruction, and liaison components of my job, which constitute about fifty percent of my work. Fortunately, the Learning Commons had hired an adjunct librarian to manage digital collections for the Spinelli Special Collections and Archives. She was already trained to manage the administrative areas of CONTENTdm. She was in an ideal position to facilitate communication about CONTENTdm while I was away, and eager to accept the reference, instruction, and liaison portions of my job as added duties to hers. In the end, it was agreed that PSU and I could commit to a partial-leave status and that I would work twenty hours per week from Japan maintaining digital collections, advising the adjunct librarian who’d stepped into the remaining portion of my position, and maintaining my leadership obligations.

Setting goals and objectives for the year was simple enough, but I wanted to ensure that these goals could be accomplished across continents and time zones. The library dean and I agreed that Skype conversations would be a critical component to working remotely. We established a general schedule to communicate often via email, and Skype as needed. In addition to this, I would submit monthly reports on my achievements during the 10 months abroad.

It would also be important to regularly Skype with the adjunct librarian who would take on much of my work. Before my departure, she and I met weekly to prepare for my absence. We continued with our weekly meetings once I arrived in Japan. As far as staying connecting to the library faculty and staff as a whole was concerned, it was agreed that I would continue to be included on all librarian and staff emails as usual. Consistently reading and responding to these emails became essential to maintaining awareness of changes and initiatives developing in the library.

To be productive within the confines of the thirteen-hour time difference, I set aside two hours each morning to check accumulated emails. My responses would be received by colleagues near the end of their workday. Those two hours were also used to attend Skype meetings, participate in interviews, and pursue initiatives laid out by myself and the dean. I realized early on that maintaining this schedule was important for connectivity and productivity. The monthly reports completed and submitted to the library dean would be reviewed on my return, as part of the process of reintegrating into the library full time.

As I prepare for my return to the PSU campus, I am optimistic that the approach and efforts made to allow distance work have been successful. I am communicating currently with departments about new digitization initiatives, and I will be well situated to assist them with the workflow this summer. Plans to resume library instruction sessions for fall 2013 are underway as well.

As I look back on this past academic year, I realize that perspective, goal setting, and professional drive were major contributing factors leading to an opportunity that would allow me to work from another country. These have also been key components to sustaining productivity and lines of communication across the world. Working from afar has also highlighted for me the importance of staying in tune to the daily happenings of the library and the institution in order to maintain productive working relationships and progress with projects. This is especially critical when working remotely, but directly pertains to on-campus work as well. Establishing and committing to workflows, effective time management, and maintaining project goals are essential to a work environment that requires one to be a self-starter. These are skills I’ve refined over the past year as I’ve lived and worked at a distance, and I will always carry as I progress through my career in librarianship.

—Jen Green, Digital Projects Librarian, Plymouth State University, New Hampshire