Does Where You Work Define Who You Are As An Academic Librarian

The great thing about our higher education system is the enormous diversity found in the approximately 4,000 institutions that offer degree programs. Having too many options is sometimes a challenge, but a more significant issue in American higher education is the disparity between the have’s and the have not’s. The same could be said of academic libraries. Some have incredible resources while others subsist on a shoestring budget. I’ve worked in both environments, and I’ve enjoyed both though I now tend to think there are greater benefits to working in the latter. For one thing, it forces you to be much more creative in how you attack problems because the luxury of just throwing money at them isn’t an option. The victories, when they come, may be small but are far sweeter and rewarding. If you are or have been in this situation, or if you’ve ever been part of a team that’s turned around a challenged academic library, I think you know what I mean.

I’ve also known academic librarians who work in the former and would never consider a position at the latter because they like the prestige associated with being at their well-off institution. That’s not to say they dislike their jobs but stick it out for the prestige, but they might not consider the possibilities afforded at less well-off libraries. That’s also not to suggest they see their well-resourced academic libraries as problem-free havens. Those libraries also have their share of difficulties and challenges, though they might be significantly different ones than what those at poorly-resourced libraries are encountering. And by all means, I’m not suggesting our colleagues who enjoy working at a prestigious institution are snobs. Having an abundance of resources – even despite the economic challenges of the past two years – is an asset, and I know well the advantages it can offer in allowing the library to make a difference for the academic community.

But do we define who we are in the field of higher education by where we work? This question was the subject of a short essay by David Evan titled “Going Home”, in which he visits his alma mater for a reunion and contemplates the contrast between it prestigiousness and the place where he teaches which is far less well resourced. He writes:

Like a lot of academics, I’ve had the interesting experience of working at institutions that are much less prosperous and prestigious than the one where I earned my degree…My undergraduate institution is rich and has been for a long time. Although its endowment has shrunk in the past couple of years, it could come close to supporting its entire generous annual budget through conservative spending of its endowment income. Even 29 years ago, when I was about to start as a freshman, it had physical and instructional resources that beggar those at most institutions. The faculty teaching load is 2-2; the average faculty salary is nearly twice that at my current institution (and my current institution pays quite well, relatively speaking). A degree from there has, beyond doubt, been a foundation for my subsequent career.For a long time, I had a strong urge to return to work at a similar institution—a rich, selective liberal-arts college with highly talented students in a desirable location. My first job was at a much less rich (not rich at all, actually), noticeably less selective liberal-arts college in a location that many young faculty members would find less compelling. None of my subsequent jobs have been much different.

While this section of the essay makes it sound like Evan regrets his employment decisions, nothing could be farther from the truth. He goes on to write about how much he has enjoyed and learned from all of his different experiences at the four institutions he has worked in his career, though none of them carried the prestige of his alma mater. He concludes by sharing what’s he’s learned over the course of his career and offer this as advice to others:

Prestige is an immense factor in the academy. We are acculturated by the “big brands” of higher education, and many of us were taught to measure our value by our professional proximity to those big brands. I am convinced that this is one of the main reasons so many academics are unhappy. They were highly talented, motivated students at the most prosperous and accommodating institutions in higher education. Being removed from that rarefied context can be a rude shock, and enduring it can be hard for many people. But there’s a lot to do in higher education that doesn’t depend much on prestige or even institutional wealth. There are a lot of worthy missions in colleges, and a lot of excellent places to have a fine career. I wish I’d figure that out earlier.

At ALA Annual there were several programs directed to newer-to-the-profession librarians. Many of the speakers and attendees were academic librarians. I attended one where the panelists were all new to their jobs and just starting their careers, and at another I was a panelist where we were all well-seasoned academic librarians reflecting on our career paths, and offering advice to newer colleagues. At all of these programs there were both presenters and participants from all types of institutions, both well and poorly resourced. The question of whether it is better to pursue a position at one or the other never came up. In fact, most of those new graduates still seeking their first position indicated they’d be willing to work just about anywhere; institutional prestige or the lack thereof was certainly not on their minds. Had it come it up I would have wanted those who attended these programs to know that where you work, as Evan eventually discovered in his career, should not define your status as an academic librarian, nor should any academic librarian feel inferior or unhappy because he or she doesn’t work at a “big brand” college or university. The rewards of being an academic librarian can be discovered and achieved at almost any institution – just as being at a prestigious one is no guarantee of job satisfaction.

Fast? Slow? Timing? Luck? Contemplating The Secret To Success

The one time I wrote something on the personal side the nature of the post was achieving success in academic librarianship. I asked how you know if you are where you should be in your career? For the most part the response was positive, although a number of you, particularly the younger demographic, thought my formula for success depended too much on a slow but steady approach. Well, get ready to start hearing a whole lot more about the nature of success, what it takes to achieve it, and on what terms you should define your own interpretation of a successful career. I’ve recently come across some different perspectives on being successful or reaching your potential, and they are showing up in some fairly different sources.

One individual who will be driving the conversations about the nature of success is Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell, best known for his popular books The Tipping Point and Blink, has a new one coming out this fall and according to a recent NYT article, it may be even bigger than those previous two books. A clue as to the book’s content appeared in a May New Yorker article by Gladwell titled “In the Air“. What we do know is that the book is titled “Outliers: Why Some People Succeed and Some Don’t” and that it promises to show that the ways we think about success and how it is achieved are all wrong. The clues suggest that Gladwell will make the point that success is often more about where you are at a particular point in time and whether you have the smarts, intuition and ability to spot the right opportunity and grab it “out of the air”. I think we all know there is something to this idea. In our profession the difference between success and mediocrity can be getting the right student internship, being on the staff at a library that has the right resources for a timely, innovative project or disseminating your ideas in a blog post ahead of a colleague with the same thoughts.

But even if you aren’t in the right place at the right time there may still be some strategies you can use to get on a better path to achieving success on your own terms. The key is to take personal responsibility for your career. That advice comes from an article in the July-August 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review titled “Reaching Your Potential” (subscription required). Career success, as defined in this article, is not necessarily about getting to the top. Rather, the author says “It’s about taking a very personal look at how you define success in your heart of hearts and then finding your path to get there.” Getting there involves three accomplishments: knowing yourself; excelling at critical tasks; and demonstrating character and leadership. All careers, even the rewarding ones – as I said in my post – are a series of hills and valleys. This article wraps up by pretty much saying the same thing, but points out that the challenge for many of us is to not abandon our career plans when we hit the valleys. That’s when we each must take responsibility for the management of our own careers.

Finally, there may be something to gain from taking things slowly in your career. Though you may scoff at my source, an article in the August 2008 issue of Best Life talks about the virtues of taking it slow in life. As the author writes “Apparently, slower is the secret to success.” Surprisingly, there are more than a few things in life where you may actually do much better if you slow up and take your time. It can be difficult to be patient when it comes to career success, making a name for yourself, being in the limelight – whatever you want to call it. But sometimes being deliberate about taking your time can make a difference in whether or not you succeed. The opportunity for success you think will be gone for good if you fail to rush to “grab it out of the air” may only be replaced later on by an even bigger and better one.

So keep in mind that there is more than one path to success, and that career success is based on your own definition of what it is.

Are You Where You Want To Be Professionally

It’s a thought that probably comes to every librarian at some point in their career. Professionally, am I where I’m supposed to be at this point in my life? Should someone my age be further along? Should I be an administrator by now? Should I have a bigger reputation in the field? And the ultimate question, should I be making more money? And when we seek the answers to these questions we often have no choice but to compare ourselves to others, whether it be a colleague down the hall, that blogger being profiled in the Chronicle, or folks who graduated in your MLS class. We seem to have the tendency to judge ourselves against the A listers rather than the mass majority of library professionals who are in all likelihood doing about the same as we are. It’s a harsh mirror into which we gaze. It’s hardly unique to librarians.

Now, if you are completely satisfied in your current post as a reference librarian, cataloger, systems specialist or achivist, and you have no intentions of doing anything else other than what you do right now, this post may not be for you. But if you are experiencing anxiety about your status in the profession, and wondering where you are supposed to be in your career and how to get there, read on. I’ve been fortunate to achieve some nice accomplishments in my profession. There’s a balance of some scholarly publications, some notable opinion pieces, a few presentations each year that have enabled me to travel about, a secondary career as an adjunct faculty member, and more recently, some blogging and a few keynote speeches. Some academic librarians who are newer to the profession may think that’s the story of my library career. But it wasn’t always this way.

I went to library school as soon as I graduated from college, and was fortunate to obtain my first professional position soon (about 6 months) after I received the MLS. I was all of 23. But it wasn’t an academic library position and so for the next eight years I toiled in complete obscurity as a librarian. It wasn’t until my first academic library position, as a frontline reference librarian, in 1986 that I began to start writing and was able to get a few articles published – and some more conference presentations – but nothing spectacular. I finally published a book in 1992 – a resource guide – co-authored with my boss at the time. This helped me to gain more of a reputation, but only in business librarianship. Fourteen years into my career I had never belonged to ALA, ACRL, been on a national-level committee or any activity that gains you more national recognition. But I now had an administrative position in access services and would soon move into an assistant director position at the same library. I finally thought I might be library director material after all. To further my career I began a doctoral program in higher education administration – a program that would take me six years to complete. Are you beginning to get the idea that success doesn’t come over night for the vast majority of us – even those you may think have always had recognition.

I should mention that my first son was born when I was 26. Then the next when I was 29. While there are some folks who can accomplish everything all at once, that wasn’t me. When I started in academic librarianship in 1986 I had a 5-year old and a 3-year old. Between child care, t-ball, soccer games, helping with homework, meetings with teachers, and all the other responsibilities of parenthood it was difficult to even consider publishing and presenting, but I did my best to be active in associations on the local level. I’m not suggesting parenthood held back my career – those were great years – but it wasn’t until the kids became a bit more independent that I could attend night classes, write an article, travel to a conference or those other things some folks take for granted.

When I became a library director in 1997, with the doctoral studies behind me and teenagers helping out at home, it became easier to take on professional responsibilities, like becoming the president of my regional ACRL chapter. Another change that I made somewhat intentionally was to force myself to try writing articles with more opinions and viewpoints rather than the same technical or scholary pieces I’d been writing. I don’t know if the newer generation of librarians can appreciate it, but before blogging it was much more challenging to be heard. A piece like the one I’m writing now would be unthinkable. And to my way of thinking those opinion pieces, not unlike blog posts, are more likely to provoke thought, garner some attention and tend to result in requests for presentations.

The ten years since the start of that first library director position were certainly the most productive of my career. When I left the big ARL research library where I was I thought for sure my publishing and presenting would plummet owing to lack of inspiration. If anything it was the complete opposite. I’m not suggesting you need to be a director to achieve professional recognition. Many directors don’t do anything beyond directing their library, and more frontline folks are finding ways, mostly through blogging, to get the attention. But if earning more money is important to your success equation, moving to the rank of library director is one surefire way to increase your salary. But it comes only with sacrifice. That’s true of any of the colleagues you know who are, in your mind, an A or B list library professional. Those folks are doing more than just putting in the nine to five day. There are long nights of writing or preparing for a presentation; deadlines are waiting to be met. It may mean getting to work an hour or two early to have time for keeping up and quiet contemplation – those ideas and inspirations must come from somewhere. Less attention is being paid to family and friends. There is a price to be paid.

All of this may be a long winded way of saying that I urge you not to worry about where you are professionally. If you think your career needs to be progressing faster, I say think of it as a long run. You’ve got to pace yourself. And keep in mind that the road is a series of hills and valleys. Sometimes you will get things right at the right time and you’ll be on the hill. But then it will be someone else’s turn, and you’ll be in the valley. It’s much better to look at the long view, and focus not on one time recognition but developing the ability to acquire and nuture ideas and inspiration. I can’t tell you how many librarians I’ve seen gain instant recognition only to be relegated to the dustbin of forgotten personalities once change came and their great idea was bypassed by the next big thing. Then there are the librarians who seem timeless and are always in the forefront of our thought leadership because they are adaptable and always have something of value to say no matter what changes come and go.

One of the great things about the library profession is that it is something you can do for a long time if that’s your desire. It’s not physically demanding. I can do my job as well now as I did thirty years ago when I started. I’d like to think that I’m even better at it now than I was then. I should be because this is a profession where accumulated knowledge and experience is of great value to both those we work for and those to whom we provide services. My father was an auto mechanic, and by the time he was the age I am now it was pretty hard for him to physically even do his job. Eventually he had to find a second career with a desk job. So if it seems that things are not moving quickly enough for you professionally try to keep in mind that over the long haul things will happen for you – if you are willing to make certain sacrifices for your career. Since a number of other folks have preached about the need for life/career balance I won’t take that up. You should already know about that, and besides, I’m probably not one to preach about it to others.

Perhaps what I can preach about is for you to be strategic in thinking forward about your career. Where would you like to be in five or ten years? What would you like to be doing in your library or a different academic library? What will it take to get there? You may need to move to a position where you have more management responsibility. There may be workshops and continuing education programs where the right skills can be gained. Professional associations have their costs too, but a key benefit is a network of colleagues who can provide mentoring and opportunities – if you put yourself in the right place at the right time. Can you earn an additional or advanced degree at your current institution? It’s hard work and risky, but the return on your investment may be getting to the next level.

That summarizes my story up to this point in my career. I haven’t always been publishing and presenting. I haven’t always had professional recognition. It took time to develop my voice, and gain the ability to think and write about things in a way that communicates them well to others. It didn’t happen in a vacuum. I had plenty of support and encouragement from good colleagues and family. I’m still working to improve and accomplish new things, to share new ideas and to help those in the early stages of their careers to develop professionally. I’m still moving through the hills and valleys.