Peer Mentoring in the Profession


I talk a lot about peer mentoring and my network in some of my other ACRLog posts (see “Don’t Underestimate Your Peers” in my tips for LIS students post). The last few months of being a new librarian, publishing my first peer-reviewed article, and presenting at conferences—all of which I couldn’t have done without the support of my peers—have convinced me that this topic deserves its own post.

I presented with a few of my closest friends last month at ALISE. Our panel was about three different student-led initiatives and how LIS schools can more systematically involve students in decision-making. When we received questions from the audience, we would sometimes ask each other to answer a specific question because of that person’s unique perspective or experience. We fed off of each other’s energy. I had somehow forgotten how much they always challenge me, both professionally and personally. It was invigorating to hear their answers—answers that provided a critical lens and held that students were qualified stakeholders that deserved a spot at the table. The panel brought me back to the energy that keeps me going as a librarian.

Right after the panel, a collaboration I facilitated with a peer, Dylan Burns, went live. The ACRLog team had composed a list of questions for Hack Library School and ACRLog writers to address. We had no idea what the posts would look like and if we’d receive provocative, coherent posts from the prompts we created. Almost everyone that wrote for the collaboration was one of my peers and—full disclosure—several of the people posting were my friends. I was awed by the quality of every post. This collaboration pushed me to question my work/life balance, how I treated (and continue to treat) accepting my current job as the “finish line,” and the complexity of my professional identity. Most importantly, the posts made me really consider how much I try to create space for others on this blog and in other places that I have privilege and opportunity. One post in particular made me question how we reward (and, often, condemn) vulnerability and honesty within LIS. The collaboration and the conversation and comments it created took me on a rollercoaster of ups and downs, through joy and even disappointment. But I never stopped thinking. Every post made me think.

That’s what my peer mentors do. They make me think. They challenge me. They teach me. And I, in turn, become a better librarian, teacher, friend, and writer through mentoring them. If someone were to ask me what I like most about being a librarian, I don’t think I would say that it’s working with faculty or students. I don’t think that I would even say that it’s that I get to learn something new every day. I love those things about librarianship. But to be brutally honest, it’s the community that keeps me coming back day after day. My accomplishments are my peers’ and vice versa. Every success is something we’ve worked through together, through the literature or Twitter or personal relationships; every failure is something we can debate and contemplate further.

I thought about my peer mentor relationships a lot when I was writing an article for In the Library with the Leadpipe last October. I respected my reviewers so much that I was afraid to send them a very rough first draft of my article. I asked a few of my closest peers to read the draft and give me feedback. Some of their feedback was harsh but every piece of it was helpful. All of their notes and suggestions helped me restructure the article, find my unique voice, and make my argument more coherent. I sent a revised first draft to reviewers and one of them, an expert in critical open education whom I deeply admire, said “I am grateful that this was written and that it will be published, and I am honored to have been asked to be a small part of it!” I don’t say this to boast about myself or my writing. The draft that she read would have never existed if my peers hadn’t read a much less refined version of it and still seen enough potential to suggest improvements. Moreover, I would have never even submitted an idea to Leadpipe if I didn’t have the encouragement and support of my peers. That comment is as much theirs as it is mine.

I’d like to be clear here: peer mentoring is so much more than giving feedback. I recently read a powerful book about faith and doubt by Rachel Held Evans called Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. The book, which was actually suggested to me by an LIS peer I know through Twitter, begins every chapter with a salient quote. The opening quote for Chapter 30 (pg. 206) was:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.

– Henri Nouwen

This is what peer mentoring looks like, especially in times of transition. My first year of librarianship has consisted of my peer mentors mostly listening and empathizing. It is a lot more complex than coming up with a list of suggestions.

The only experience that I have to draw from is my own. But I wonder if this side of peer mentoring—providing comfort and compassion for others in times of transition—is as foundational for, say, a new library director or librarians new to middle management. In a recent post, entitled “Lost in Librarianship: Where I Wonder Where and If I Still Belong,” Michelle reflects on the challenges of being a new library administrator. She writes,

Now, I have found a few like-minded peers. Thank goodness. I mean, I’d be nuts already without them. But, is there more to library administration than a handful of friends that I trust? Again, where is the community?

A recent “Inside Higher Education” post on Why Mentor Matches Fail calls for faculty to move away from a guru-mentor model to a network-mentor model, which is very similar to what I describe above. The guru-mentor model relies on chemistry and the mentor having enough free time to advise the mentee (para 6). The network-mentor model recognizes that there common needs that all new faculty have: “professional development, emotional support, intellectual community, role models, safe space, accountability for what really matters, sponsorship, access to opportunities, and substantive feedback” (para 11) and that these needs should be met through a variety of mentors and a “network of support” (para 12). This echoes Michelle’s point: where does one find a variety of mentors and colleagues? I also wonder, when does a relationship go beyond a trusted friendship to a peer mentorship? Are they the same? What does true “community” look like?

The first answer that comes to my mind is Twitter. Some of the mentors I have access to through Twitter are “gurus,” but many are peers. Not everyone has access to the peer mentor network that I’ve built. I had the great privilege of attending an active LIS school in-person and having a graduate assistantship that encouraged peer to peer learning at the reference desk and through project work. So the question becomes, how can we use new means to build networks or make our current “network-mentor model” more rich? How can we continue to actively invite others into our network in a meaningful way, particularly when we know that they need access?

I don’t have all of the answers. I’d like to leave you with something that I do know, though. My favorite line of the “Inside Higher Education” piece is: “Let’s face it: mentoring is time-intensive, invisible and unrewarded labor” (para 7). My friend Elizabeth Lieutenant also tweeted about this recently. Peer mentoring is often hurling an unbelievable amount of emotional, uncompensated, invisible labor into the abyss, all while hoping that you’re helping your colleague as much as they’ve helped you. But it is, truly, the most rewarding, fulfilling, and engaging thing that I do.

Thank you to my many peer mentors who inspired this post and who continue to invest in me.

dinosaur from zine- you'll find that your GSLIS friends are your best mentors

My page from the Hello GSLIS Zine, created collaboratively on May 15, 2015

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