Your Invisible Board of Directors: Support Networks in Academic Librarianship

Someone much more perceptive and experienced than I once told me to imagine I have an invisible board of directors in my life and career. There are people sitting at your table who have profound effect on your professional and personal life. These are people who offer you support, guidance, advice, perspective, empathy. They may not know they have such a meaningful relationship for you (but they probably do). Think about who is sitting at your table, whether they know they are or not. 

My knowledge of board of directors doesn’t go much further than the many boardroom scenes I’ve seen in Succession [warning: strong language from Logan Roy]. I do know a board of directors sets strategies, develops goals, and advises on the overall vision of the company (the company – in this metaphor – is you!). 

I’m a big advocate of mentorship, whether formally or informally. I believe that professional (and personal) support networks are one of the fundamental pieces to a rewarding life and career. Mentors help with so much: all aspects of job searching, how promotion or tenure work at your institution, understanding work culture, what professional development opportunities to take on, someone to provide perspective on issues you’re struggling with – the list is endless. I’m lucky enough to have a wonderfully supportive mentor at the U of Manitoba, who shares insightful perspective, incisive advice, and endless encouragement.  

Think about seeking out support networks that are available – through your institution or library associations, but also know opportunities will present themselves, whether formally or informally. The whole idea is you build a support network, based on connection and relationship with others, whether that’s others you work with or near. Maybe it includes your colleagues, your supervisor, someone in library administration, someone at a different institution, someone you went to school with, or someone in a different city altogether that you’ve met and gotten to know. 

I recently read an interesting article that identified six types of mentors: personal guide, personal advisor, full-service mentor, career advisor, career guide, and role model. Some guides, advisors, or mentors may offer more professional support, some more psychosocial support, and some a mix of both. Some may be short-term, long-term, or span the length of your entire career. 

I’ve found that your directors may change and that’s okay. As you move throughout your career, you will have different people that are meaningful to you. In the American Psychological Association’s Introduction to Mentoring, the authors note it is common to have multiple guides and advisors over the course of your career, able to address different needs depending on your stage of career or individual needs, and in effect, creating a developmental network. Different people can address different aspects of your professional life. I find mentors promote a sense of meaning in your work, give direction to areas where you’re otherwise directionless, and use their experience to inform your own. 

I’ve written in the past about the power of connection and I strongly encourage you to seek support from colleagues or to take on opportunities for mentorship that you find. Whether you find the board of directors metaphor useful or not, give some thought to who is at the table of your personal board of directors, and let’s just hope – for your sake – there are no boardroom coups or hostile takeovers.

The Work We Do: Reflecting on CARL’s Competencies for Librarians in Canadian Research Libraries

The CARL Competencies

How do you envision your role as an academic librarian? With your job description? The vision and mission statements of your library or institution? Direction from your supervisor or administration? And do you have the knowledge, skills, and values to support this work?

The Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) developed a list of competencies for academic librarians, which were updated in 2020. CARL lists eight competencies including collaboration, leadership and vision, equity, diversity, and inclusion, curation, and assessment, among others.

I like how the 2020 CARL competencies spell out the difference between skills (“learning capacities to carry out specific tasks”), mindsets (“collection of attitudes, inclinations, or habits of mind useful in achieving an outcome”), values (beliefs and opinions that people hold regarding specific issues or ideas), and knowledge – and each competency has a combination of these listed. The CARL competencies are comprehensive because they combine hard and soft skills into each competency; I am learning both are integral to working as an academic librarian. For example, under collaboration, listed are skills to build relationships, knowledge of inter- and intra-institutional organization, knowledge of critical and scholarly engagement, and an understanding of how to work with and engage users of diverse backgrounds.

In searching for other academic librarianship-wide competencies, I noticed a lack from other large academic library organizations, such as ACRL or ARL.  There are the ACRL Standards for Libraries in Higher Education, the Medical Library Association’s specialized Professional Competencies,as well as the Reference and User Services Association’s Professional Competencies for Reference and User Services Librarians, but not profession-wide competencies.

Why competencies?

Competencies can be useful for envisioning the landscape of academic librarianship: what youshould know, where and how you should professionally develop, developing vision and mission statements, and what is included in LIS curricula.

I think competencies help guide our profession. Competencies give bounds to a profession, but do we need bounds? Who has the authority to define a profession? What do I care if a large library association says I need to collaborate, engage, and curate?

The point of competencies shouldn’t be to dictate what work we should be doing — whether that’s an opportunity that comes up (e.g. leading an association or chairing a committee) or something I propose and develop (e.g. a library symposium or new library service) — but if you need ideas for areas of growth, you have a guide, useful for early-career librarians. They could also be useful for mid- or late-career librarians, who feel directionless or adrift, or otherwise want to continue to develop in different areas. By their very nature professional competencies are broad, to capture the wide-ranging work we are involved in.

Competencies add professionalization to our field. Those looking at academic librarianship can see our values and skills. This begs the question, are competencies for us or are they for someone else? Are they to crystallize and focus our work or are they for the people we help, so they have a better idea of the work we do?

I am reminded of the public presentations held for entry-level librarian candidates at the University of Manitoba. Many of the candidates based their presentations around the CARL competencies in answering the assigned question on what is required of today’s academic librarian. I know I referenced the 2010 CARL competencies in my own interview in Fall 2019. Here you have new LIS graduates looking to the competencies to envision their work and publicly present their idea of an academic librarian. In this way, competencies help students and new graduates have an idea of the work of academic librarians.

Identify your values and meaningful work

I find competencies useful in identifying work that is meaningful to me. Another way I identified meaningful work was when I came across the idea of personal librarian philosophies after attending a 2021 WILU (Workshop in Library Use) pre-conference session on teaching philosophies. The instructors — Dr. Betsy Keating and Dr. Margie Clow Bohan — suggested while teaching philosophies can be helpful for librarians, it may be more useful to develop a librarian philosophy that could guide not only your teaching, but your entire professional practice, including goal setting.  

After the conference, I set out to write my own librarian philosophy. In my philosophy, I commit to building relationships and community, doing meaningful work, lifelong learning, and supporting myself and the work of others – both inside and outside the profession.

I am reminded of Christopher P. Long, the Dean of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University, and his idea of values-enacted leadership: identify core values that are meaningful to you so you can guide your work and check-in with yourself to ensure you are keeping to those values and infusing them throughout your work. My librarian philosophy identifies values that are meaningful to me and help guide decision-making and goal setting.

Our future as academic librarians

Does academic librarianship need more voices to tell us this is what we should be doing? On the one hand, I don’t think so since there’s so many voices already, and voices that need to be amplified. But on the other, we need new direction, vision, and leadership. Professional competencies can unite a profession, by identifying what work is important, or necessary, or meaningful.

By identifying and putting bounds on our work with competencies, we can envision what we’re doing now and where we want to go. Competencies give the profession a starting point, a place to think about the work we do. There won’t be unanimous agreement on which competencies to include. I think that’s okay. There’s something positive about looking inwards to identify the bounds of academic librarianship to expand and strengthen our profession. We need to continue to have discussions on the direction of academic librarianship, continue to identify what it is our work entails, and continue moving the profession forward to better support ourselves and our users.

The CARL Competencies for Librarians in Canadian Research Libraries are available at https://www.carl-abrc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Competencies-Final-EN-1-2.pdf

Learning to Fly: Life as an Early-Career Academic Librarian

Editor’s note: We are pleased to welcome Justin Fuhr to the ACRLog team. Justin is a Science librarian at the University of Manitoba. His professional interests include reflective practice, librarian philosophies, organizational culture and community, and support for early-career librarians such as mentorship. His current research assesses researcher profile library workshops and profile usage at his institution, as well as a project on relational practice in Canadian academic librarianship.

Life’s hard as an early-career academic librarian working on contract, not knowing if your contract will be renewed or where you will be working three years, a year, or even six months from now. It’s tough job searching; there’s so many qualified candidates, not enough positions, and it can be hard to make yourself stand out with experience, education, certification, volunteer work, interviews, public presentations, and on and on.  

I was relatively fortunate. I’ve been working at the library at the University of Manitoba for over seven years, starting out as a library technician, then working as a term librarian at the beginning of 2020. After several interviews for different positions, I got a continuing position in May of this year. Working at the same institution for so long helped to know our library system, run through my public presentation with my work buddies, and know of upcoming vacancies. Our library also started giving candidates the interview questions in advance. This improves accessibility and helps to prepare for the interview in advance.  

For all my worries and whinging — and trust me, my coworkers can attest to that — I’m now working as a science librarian. I moved from supporting Catholic studies, religion, and peace and conflict studies to mathematics, physics, and astronomy. Suddenly I find myself moving from B (Philosophy. Psychology. Religion.) to Q (Science) — that’s fifteen whole letters away! And what do you mean mathematics profs like old books? Oh wait, that didn’t change from the humanities.  

I now have the task of learning my new subject areas, getting to know the faculty and students, my coworkers, how to manage and develop the collections, learning how best to instruct sciences students, new databases like MathSciNet, signing up for new mailing lists like PAMNet (who endearingly refer to themselves as a PAMily), and where the closest and cheapest coffee shop is on campus.  

This is the fun stuff. It’s intimidating to learn a ‘new’ position, but it’s rewarding in so many ways. I used a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song for the title of this post — we’re all learning to fly in some ways, maybe early-careers librarians the most — but I could have just as easily used another Tom Petty song: “You Got Lucky.” 

Earlier this year I was speaking about librarianship as a career to undergraduate English literature students at the institution where I got my B.A. I was amazed at the interest they showed. I mean, I was talking about a research project I’m doing on researcher profiles, and at one point I stopped, apologized, and said this must be excruciatingly boring for them to listen to. “No,” my previous English professor said. “This is really fascinating.” I got lucky.  

One piece of advice I can offer to librarians currently job searching is to rely on your colleagues, librarians at other libraries, friends, family — whoever! — for support and guidance. I found it especially invaluable to hear from other librarians of their experience job searching, even if it had been many years since they’d gone through it. We work in a helping profession and one thing I’ve found is librarians want to help other librarians. Rely on your community, look to others for support and provide support to others when they need it. We are lucky.  

If you’re looking for a job, considering a career change, or finding early-career librarianship challenging, please keep going, you can do it. You got this. It may take time. It will take time. It will be worth it. You’ll get lucky.  

If any academic libraries are considering giving interview questions ahead of time – please do! It helps the candidates immensely. I also encourage any librarians that know of early-career colleagues currently job searching to reach out, be available, offer encouragement and to answer any questions they may have. If you can think of any other advice to job searchers or those in new positions, please leave a comment.  

For all that academic librarianship deals with and is going through, you can help guide the profession positively and I feel it’s a great profession to be in. I’m teaching students, involved with library associations, working with my colleagues on different committees, completing research with fun and collaborative coworkers, and talking all things academic librarianship with whoever will listen; sometimes I think I’ve found my dream job. I got lucky. Now it’s time to get to work.