Developing a Peer Support Group

There’s been a lot written here on ACRLog about the importance of mentorship, and I echo what many others have said: there is enormous value in learning from and being supporting by experienced librarians. There’s a separate kind of mentorship, one that doesn’t necessarily fall under the traditional mentor-mentee model, that has also been hugely beneficial to me as a first-year librarian: peer support. Quetzalli wrote a few weeks ago about the value of peer-to-peer relationships, and it inspired me to reflect on my own experience as a member of a newly formed Early to Mid-Career Librarian Support Group at my library.  

Last semester, a few of my colleagues at the University of Virginia convened a group for early- to mid-career librarians to share advice, ideas, and support. The group operates autonomously and informally. We meet every few weeks for a discussion, and anyone can contribute to the agenda or propose a project.  Our first meeting was a chance to introduce ourselves and discuss our career trajectory and what we wanted to get out of the group. While some people were looking simply for camaraderie and support, others were looking for more concrete advice on how to do to do things like pursue a research agenda or how to more purposefully develop their career. These early conversations have informed the direction the group has since gone. We’ve surveyed group members about their research interests, invited senior administrators to discuss professional development, and coalesced around some bigger documentation projects that I will discuss below.

While plenty of opportunities for collaboration and support arise naturally throughout the course of my daily work, having a more formalized avenue for this kind of peer support is especially valuable. Because of the size of my organization, there are people I still haven’t met yet, particularly in departments that I don’t work with closely. This group allowed me to connect with people across areas of the library that I wouldn’t normally encounter in the course of my workday. It’s also a great way for me to avoid some of the isolation that I can sometimes experience in a small branch library. Because meetings are kept collegial and informal, I’m able to start building some of the relationships that happen more easily if you see someone in an office every day.

Finally, conversations in this group have led to projects that would be overwhelming undertakings without the support of many people. For example, one of the most consistent themes that came from our early conversations was a desire for more robust documentation, especially among newer employees of the library. As we compared our on-boarding experiences, it became clear that we had all experienced some version of the same thing: not feeling sure how to do something and asking around until being directed to email a certain person or pointed towards documentation somewhere we never would have thought to look. As a group, we decided to pool our collective knowledge and document everything we wish we had known for future new employees. Working together, we compiled information about the University, the Library, digital spaces, physical spaces, money, time, and travel, for future employees to reference during the on-boarding process. The resulting document lists basic information like where to find forms or how to get access to certain pieces of software, but it also explicitly outlines some of the library’s conventions, like when to use which communication tool, that are not immediately obvious to people who are new to the organization.

While this type of documentation is often compiled by supervisors or administrators, it was actually really useful for it to be generated by people so close to the experience of being new, because we were able to remember what we had to figure out on our own. It’s easy to forget how overwhelming it is to be brand new to an organization, and easy to forget all the things we expect people to know without explicitly telling them.  The group dynamic also really helped us flesh out this document, since we all had overlapping but not quite identical lists of things we thought needed to go into it. Whether or not documentation like this already exists at your institution, I think there is value in asking newer employees what they wish had been spelled out for them when they started and sharing it with new hires. Having a pre-formed group that you can consult with will make this process that much easier.

Creating space in your organization for peer support groups can lead to collaborative projects, like this one, that might not have happened without all of us getting together and talking through some of the challenges we’ve experienced as early career librarians. It can also make employees who work in isolation, physical or otherwise, feel less alone, and open up space for us to ask questions and bounce ideas off each that we might not yet feel comfortable discussing with mentors who are more experienced. I imagine it could also be a useful concept to apply at all levels of experience, such as first-time managers or administrators, as they navigate new challenges. Do you have a peer support group, formal or informal, at your institution?

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