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

The Born Librarian: My Professional Identity in Librarianship

creation
Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You may have noticed from my last post that lately I have been grappling with questions of my professional identity. For example, I tried to understand or argue for the importance of libraries, and my best answer was that libraries’ most important role is their role as a public space and gatekeeper of information. I have been using writing as a means to work through these important questions; my professional identity is very important to me, and I want to develop it deliberately and carefully.

I recently had a draft for this current post, only to decide that I was too negative about librarianship in it, that I questioned my professional role too much and had no sense of assuredness or confidence about the “fit” of the profession for me. The blog post was about being a generalist, how librarians are generalists, and how, essentially, I don’t want to be a generalist. My biggest fear is that to be a generalist means that I didn’t really know anything, that I have nothing in which to anchor my intellectual pursuits. Librarianship is very “meta” – all about access, discovery, evaluation, interpretation, use, creation, dissemination…but I want to know the substance and depth of this information that we are providing!

Then I asked my Dean and mentor, Patty Iannuzzi, to read the post, as it had been a direct response to learning that she values librarians’ being generalists, because it results in more balanced collections and services. The conversation was stimulating and a little unsettling, perhaps for both of us – for her because I have professional identity issues, and I’m not the only librarian who has them, for me because I realized, through attempting to answer her questions of me, just how shaky the ground is upon which I am standing in terms of my professional identity. Patty is the biggest champion of libraries that I know, and I felt badly revealing these doubts and insecurities to her. But I knew that if anyone could help me solve those issues, she could. Patty had several challenging questions for me, one of which was about why I do what I do, and what role librarians have. My answers for her felt grossly inadequate. They amounted to “helping people do research,” or “helping people access information.” My answers felt so simple, even shallow, and I wondered: what makes these activities unique to libraries anyway? The truth is, I am not sure that librarians are indispensable. After all, I went through all of my academic programs, up until library school, without ever having to really rely upon library services or sources even. I was required to purchase all my course texts, which were core readings in the disciplines.

Oh my! Have I chosen the wrong profession? I will admit, this was my second pick, an alternative to my original plan and dream for life. Certainly I would fall into the category of “failed academics,” (if such a category should even exist, but it sounds so negative)! I attempted to complete two PhD programs prior to entering the field. I finished a different master’s program with the intention of completing a PhD and going on to teach in a specific discipline. In all honesty, I chose librarianship because of its convenience, and chose to leave the program I was enrolled in to attend library school because I needed to move towards financial independence at a faster rate than I was currently. I needed something stable, and I needed something that would be more likely to land me an actual job.

I acted very quickly (deciding and then immediately applying in April, and receiving an acceptance letter a few weeks later for fall enrollment). As a consequence, I didn’t think too much about what it means to be a librarian, or the crises or growing pains that librarianship is experiencing as a profession. Maybe in the back of my mind I was aware of the clichés that librarianship was dying, but at the time, it seemed like a very good, practical career option; I knew there were still jobs out there. I believe that I made the right choice given my situation, because librarianship has provided me with a good, stable job and that was my top priority. I also happen to like what I do on a day-to-day basis, and when I tell others that I am a librarian, I say it with a sense of pride, because people respect and revere librarians. I simply have yet to figure out its significance for me as a profession – as a vocation or a calling. I am like Jason Bourne – I have an identity as a librarian, and I am trying to find out the truth about what that means. I don’t yet experience recollection in this role – it doesn’t feel familiar. It’s as if I have this new identity that comes with a past, a history, that is totally foreign to me.

I have faith that it will happen in time. In fact, I don’t think that attaining a sense of professional identity has to happen before one actually enters the profession and develops as a professional. That is because there are all sorts of factors we can’t predict before starting a career, and we can never really know what a particular career is like until we actually gain experience in it. Library school doesn’t teach you what librarianship is really like, only skills and some theory to help you work through or think about particular issues. Library school doesn’t take you to the essence, or the heart, of what it means to be a librarian. Library school doesn’t make you ask those important questions about professional identity. Now, library schools are becoming even more far-removed from actual libraries, becoming Schools of Information Science (including my alma mater). Does this mean they don’t even care about the physical spaces and services of actual libraries anymore? You can read more about that in Scott Walter and Carol Tilley’s College & Research Libraries editorial.

In response to my doubts and questions, Patty didn’t really have clear-cut answers for me, because I do not think there are clear-cut answers to such doubts. Those doubts are very real, and very personal. However, she did help me come to some realizations. She helped me to realize that it is okay to have doubts, that it is pretty normal at this point in my career – that is pretty normal for librarians in general – that I am not alone. She helped me understand that it is okay for me not to have a strong sense of professional identity right away, because that is something that I can develop over time, as I become more confident in the services that I provide, as I innovate more, and as I realize that my services are indispensable and beneficial to a large number of people. I can forge a path and make this profession my own. I know that this is possible because Patty, and many others, model it for me. I will simply develop my professional identity after-the-fact.

I once had a mentor who told me, “I want to help you become who you are.” I may not have been born a librarian; this hasn’t always been who I am, and I don’t quite yet own this identity. I have the potential to become who I am, though, and I am committed to this process. It may take patience. I’m not sure yet how it will happen. I just have to keep plowing forward, with openness to change, the willingness to innovate and create, and a lot of dedication to discovering out exactly what this means for my life, in this particular geographic location, and how I fit into the bigger picture of the profession. As I chase after this identity, this identity may actually chase after me too, and I’m sure there will be plenty of people, like Patty, to provide clues along the way.

Wrapping Up Our Collaboration (And Many Thanks)

Our collaboration with Hack Library School (HLS) ends today. The collaboration helped bring a lot of new voices to both of our blogs and, we think, fostered really invigorating and important conversations about librarianship.

We’d like to thank Hack Library School for agreeing to team up with us. We’d also like to thank all of the guest bloggers that wrote for both venues. We so appreciate the time you took to make us think. Thanks, too, to all of our regular ACRL and HLS bloggers. This collaboration was possible because of their willingness to interrupt the regular blogging schedule and, for many, write over the holidays.

Finally, thank YOU for reading, commenting, engaging, pushing back, and encouraging our writers. This collaboration wouldn’t have been a success without our many readers.

Thanks to Dylan Burns for putting up with my intense, Type A work style (which comes with many, many reminders). I’m so thankful that you took the lead on this! It’s been a pleasure to collaborate with you personally.

Stay tuned for our regular blogging schedule!

 

Experience Necessary

Check out our post on HLS today too! Nicole Helregel, ACRLog guest blogger and former HLS blogger, provides some tips for how to get involved in ALA and ACRL. See more information about the HLS/ ACRLog collaboration here

Dylan Burns is a current Master’s Candidate in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He focuses on digital publishing and initiatives for both the Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the Scholarly Commons, where he traverses the gap between analog materials and the digital future. He is the Community Manager at Hack Library School and tweets about book history, media, and memory @ForgetTheMaine. Dylan was asked to write about his most valuable experience as an LIS student.

I am extremely fortunate to attend school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (soon to be sans library) encourages and facilitates interaction between professionals and students. Partially this is out of pure economics. The campus is home to an incredibly large collection and, as a result, they need warm bodies and learning brains to keep the library functioning. Without this experience I wouldn’t be the candidate for jobs, nor the librarian, that I am today.

I work in two units at the University Library. While geographically close, literally across the hall from each other, these two jobs, one in the Scholarly Commons and the other at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, could not be more different. Before I started at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library I’m not sure I had handled a codex older than 150 years old, since I started I do it daily, if not several times a day. Now I am starring in a YouTube series watched by hundreds and publishing on blogs read by thousands. At the Scholarly Commons I work with undergraduate researchers and graduate students on implementing and designing undergraduate research journals and online exhibits.  My library encourages us to gain experience in all facets of the academic librarian job; we answer reference questions, we help patrons, we help build the collection and design online exhibits. I am so lucky to have professional librarians and bosses that respect grad students enough to give us a seat at the table. What I believe is most valuable here is not what I am gaining from these experiences but the way in which, as a student, I am contributing to the larger library and campus environment. I am not a cog in the faceless machine, but an equal colleague, albeit one who is still taking classes.

Unfortunately, this is not how it always is for library students. Even here, at the number one program, funding and experience don’t always come easy, and while I was lucky to get a position some full-time students aren’t able to. Because of the experience I have working in and out of two divisions of the library here at U of I, I will be able to compete for jobs that students without experience might not be able to. From what I’ve heard from other LIS students, the situation at Illinois is much better than most institutions, both in terms of funding and mentorship opportunities. Recently, this was discussed at length on twitter between myself and several librarians and library students, with me suggesting that a requirement for experience might be necessary to create competitive graduates.

If the LIS programs in this country continue to be held as professional, that is programs who by their very nature lead to professional employment, and if experience is required even for entry level positions, it is essential that graduates have what they need to attain employment. Thus far, at most schools, this is on the student to seek out volunteer hours or practicums for no pay, while the students like me who are taken care of funding-wise don’t have as much to worry about. As funding sources dry up, as Illinois’s current budget crisis enters its 8th month, it might be unreasonable to expect every LIS student to have a Graduate Assistantship like I have, but as long as experience is required by employers it might be unethical to graduate students who aren’t able to compete.

Ten years ago, John Berry III, then editor of Library Journal, posited that “the profession must consider making the availability of a formal practicum a requirement for the accreditation of any LIS program” (para 2). It continues to be a controversial proposition to require experience as a graduate requirement. He continued that “While many schools offer such opportunities, few make them mandatory. Yet some kind of library practice gives a new graduate an immense edge in an extremely competitive employment arena and adds substantially to the educational value of the coursework” (Berry III, 2005). My experience builds on my coursework, and my coursework builds on my experience; they are the two legs upon which my library self is built.

Whether or not we make experience mandatory in gaining the MLS will continue to be a controversial topic. While I see fostering an open and inclusive environment essential to the future of our field, I believe that it is necessary that LIS programs take into account what employers need from graduates in constructing curricula. If that means that experience is necessary, then it might be time to revisit these kinds of requirements. In the end, I want to stress how lucky I feel I am to have great mentors and great support. What I think is important for current professionals to know is that we need your help as much as you will once we graduate; mentorship is essential to a functioning model of apprenticeship. In my experience, my most fruitful times in library school have come from interactions with current academic librarians and once I am a professional, I will work to guide others on this path. I value what I have learned and I will forever value the things I have accomplished here working with current professionals in serving this campus community.

The Slow Gradual Veer to Academic Librarianship

Check out our post on HLS today too! Jen Jarson, ACRLog blogger, reflects on the importance of place and work environment in “Room to Grow?” See more information about the HLS/ ACRLog collaboration here

Hailley Fargo is a second year masters student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When she’s not in school, Hailley is an avid oatmeal connoisseur, baseball scorekeeper, bike rider, and reader of memoirs. She also likes to live tweet every once and a while (check out @hailthefargoats). Hailley was asked to write about why she’s interested in academic librarianship.

When I decided to come to graduate school, my heart was not set on academic librarianship. After working summers with children at my hometown public library and then working with all sorts of people at New York Public Library as a community outreach intern, I figured my place was with the communities at your local public library. I came into my graduate program dead set on children and youth services. The classes I first took at the University of Illinois pushed me away from that end-all-be-all focus and I ended up in the world of community informatics, digital literacy, and public libraries.

My second year in graduate school provided two opportunities that helped me to make the slow, gradual veer into academic librarianship. The first was my assistantship, as a library supervisor in our residence hall libraries. My job gives me the best of all library jobs – supervision, collection development, programming, and community building. I felt like I had finally plugged back into the college life – during my office hours I felt the energy of undergrads that I realized I missed when I entered graduate school. I was able to apply all my community engagement theories into actual lived experience and I found myself fully immersed. The job has given me challenges too, such as new projects for this spring and thinking through what undergraduates actually know about the library. What I love about this job is the daily work – there’s always something to do and I actually get to be out in the libraries, meeting students (and trying to relate to them), working with the clerks I supervise, and helping students and staff find information. It’s incredibly rewarding and I kept thinking to myself, “How can I stay in this sort of environment?”

The second opportunity was taking library instruction this fall. Our main lens to look into instruction was through academic librarianship. While the class was helpful in thinking through instruction to the elementary students I work with, reading books like Maria Accardi’s Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction and the collection of critical library instruction essays compiled by Emily Drabinski and company, got me thinking through what instruction for undergraduates might look like. My final instructional design project was focused on keyword searching for freshman and sophomores living in the residence halls my libraries are at. As I turned in my final PDF of the project I asked the same sort of question when I was in the residence hall libraries, “This is fun and challenging. How can I keep doing this?”      

To me, academic librarianship seems to be about balance as you attempt to put together an intricate puzzle. You are trying to serve so many different groups across the campus. From the bright-eyed freshman to senioritis seniors to student research rockstars and then a faculty with wide-ranging and diverse interests. Of course one can’t forget about all the other people with access to the library, such as staff, other members of the institution, and sometimes even the public. I get so excited about trying to help them all and finding ways to connect these groups, not only with each other, but with other aspects of campus. Academic librarianship seems to provide this unique community engagement opportunity because you have access to a community that (sometimes) lives very close and who have a constant need for information (two to four years of coursework). I see the chance to be the spokesperson, to engage outside the library walls to help faculty understand why library instruction is, and to remind students the library is an important presence to have (and to take advantage of). Perhaps I’m being a little too idealistic and ignoring the actual reality of academic libraries. However, based on my experience at the residence hall libraries, it’s possible, it just takes time and lots of relationship building.

I haven’t firmly settled on academic librarianship. But it’s calling to me. As I start my job search, I seem to more drawn to the job descriptions I’m seeing at colleges across the United States. Reading through those job descriptions are exciting and I’m going to apply to some of them. Two years ago, I would have never suspected that academic libraries would have been on my librarianship path. Now, I feel the opportunity is available to me and I feel my experiences this spring will help to decide what I decide to pursue next.  

Thank you to the ARCLog and Hack Library School for the opportunity to write this post.