How To Be the Youngest Person in the Room

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Catie Carlson, Director of Pfeiffer Library at Tiffin University.

If you were a traditional student who went straight to library school and then found themselves working in an academic library shortly later, you probably experienced it. It being the confident, new librarian who wants to help students succeed only to be confused for a student yourself. At first it can be flattering, but it can quickly become frustrating when you want to have authority and respect in a room. For good examples of why and how that can happen (as well as for a few unfortunate trolls), I recommend reading the comments and replies to Jenny Howell’s tweet.

Dr. Howell is describing the biases and discrimination that exist for young women in academia. She is also touching on imposter syndrome, which is no stranger to ACRLog posts. We all feel not-smart-enough, not-good-enough, not-insert-adjective-here-enough to belong in librarianship and academia at some point. Typically this is just described as a state of mind, such as Veronica describing her internal monologue or Zoe confessing her insecurities fueling her imposter syndrome. However, age and gender can create a physical embodiment of those feelings. These can manifest in ways such as Dr. Howell’s description, being confused as a student, or even being called a “baby” within the profession.

I am no stranger to feeling imposter syndrome. As a young librarian, working with senior faculty could be intimidating with their vast experience in comparison to my newness. I would get nervous if I couldn’t come up with a quick answer for a student fearing they’d think I was useless. These are natural scenarios when you are a “baby” in a profession. With personal relationships eventually forming with these people, it became less intimidating to work with the faculty. As I became more familiar with student needs at my institution, I was taken less off-guard by surprise questions. Slowly, though I was still a “baby librarian,” imposter syndrome started to wane, which is good. Being a “baby librarian” is a problematic way to describe yourself because you’ve worked hard to be in this profession, but it’s even more troublesome when you feel you can accept the term regardless of its connotations. However, imposter syndrome would still appear at times: on an insecure day, when I made a mistake, or in a new interaction with someone.

After just a few years at a small institution, a retirement left the director role as an option. I had only been a librarian for a few years, but I had shown my value to the institution over that time. More than one person encouraged me to apply to the job, but I was on the fence. While I welcome a challenging opportunity to enable self-growth, this seemed like a stretch. Imposter syndrome would start all over with such a promotion. Despite these doubts, I applied, I interviewed, and I accepted a directorship before the age of 30 years old.

While I knew my insecurities in accepting a leadership position going into the role, there were some things I did not expect. Having never been in the position, I had no idea what it is like to be a young female in a leadership meeting, and by that, I mean being the only young female in a leadership meeting. When I sit at a table with our three school deans and Provost, I am one of two females in the room and I am the only millennial. I think it is safe to say there isn’t even a Gen X in the room. When I attend library director meetings across our state, the scenario does not change much. Essentially, I went from being a “baby librarian” to a “baby leader” and so the problematic way of viewing of oneself continues.

It can be scary and lonely to not see a peer in the room, especially when the expectation is for you to be a leader in that room. With just a few years now under my belt, I won’t pretend to be an expert, but I hate leaving problems unresolved. Therefore, here are some things I have found helpful to shed the imposter syndrome again:

Be Confident
Years of experience are important, but they are not everything. Always remember that you got this far for a reason. I have to tell myself every day: You weren’t given a position; you earned it. I tell myself twice, three times or four when I have big meetings. It helps even if just a little.

Play to Your Strengths
I love utilizing technology in my work and life. I once sat in a meeting where the leaders talked about an upcoming survey for us. I offered to just do it then while in discussion because (as always) I had a laptop and it would take 5 minutes to create, distribute, and move on. While it prompted millennial jokes from my colleagues, one approached me after the meeting, apologized for the jokes, thanked me for my initiative, and complimented my technology skills. Moral of the story: People will notice when you know what you’re doing.

Be Proactive
Volunteer for things. It’s how they will eventually notice your great work just like in my survey creation. No one asked me to do it, but I knew I could do it quickly and it would ease the load for others. People like this, but academics must always be cautious about burn out.

Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.
You’re the youngest one in the room and you will be judged. It’s unfair, but I still think it’s the truth. If you screw up, they will notice more than if you succeed. Research, prepare, and practice for everything – then do it again and again. If you succeed enough, maybe you can continue to be that youngest-in-the-room scenario.

Build the Relationships
Senior leaders can help, and those that are willing will mentor you. Without some great mentors in professional organizations, I would not know half of what I know now. Your mentors can help you prepare as suggested in number 4. Their years of experience do come with knowledge, and we’re fortunate enough to be in a profession that values knowledge sharing. Key example, look at the blog you’re reading. Also, don’t forget that the more you work with your colleagues, the more you get to know them, and that personal relationships will again make it less scary to be there.

Be True to Yourself
When I became a leader, it felt like I had to do a lot of image related things to make it true and to be respected, especially at a young age. I’ve realized that trying to fulfill that preconceived notion won’t make it so. Therefore, I won’t be the post that tells you to network if that’s not your thing. People notice you for you and will also notice insincerity and discomfort. To be successful, you have to be yourself.

Being a good leader doesn’t mean you have to have the years of experience (though they don’t usually hurt). Not a day goes by for me without thinking about the day’s growth opportunities and how each day builds on the last day. However, being new to a field, to a position, or to life doesn’t make your ideas and hard work any less valuable. We need fresh ideas, eyes, and experiences to continue to grow and adapt our profession so don’t let anyone refer to you as a baby. (Question: Have any men new to the profession been referred to in this way? I’d love to hear from you!)

At the very least, remember that you’re only young once. You get older every day of the year. One day, you won’t be the youngest in room any more. That may be a sad day; I certainly am no longer looking forward to it. When that day comes, remember where you started and be the always-needed-mentor.

Handling It: Under New Management

I’ve recently moved into a new role at the college library where I work. Our former Chief Librarian retired, and I applied for the job and was appointed as the new Chief at the beginning of the semester. My new job is exciting and challenging — I’m fortunate to continue to work with my terrific colleagues in the library and at a college in which the faculty and administration view the library as a valued partner. While I miss the teaching I did as Instruction Coordinator, I hope to be able to add some instruction back into my days once I get more settled. As Steven has blogged here, it can be hard to move into an administrative position that affords fewer opportunities to work directly with students. I do have one reference shift this semester, and I’m also looking forward to more opportunities in my new role to make good use of what I’ve learned in my research on how students do their academic work.

Any new job comes with a learning curve, even one in the same institution you’ve worked at for a while. Some days I feel a little bit like Atta in this scene from the movie A Bug’s Life:

And other days I like to channel Manfried from Adventure Time:

Luckily there haven’t been any literal (or even metaphorical) grasshopper infestations or fires to extinguish (…yet?). But I’ve been a bit surprised by how busy I am. In other new jobs I’ve always had some breathing room as I learned the ropes, some down time in those first couple of weeks in which there wasn’t anything immediately pressing to do. But moving into a new job in the same place has kept me nearly constantly busy with meetings, planning, and other duties.

I’ve got my eye on a couple of books to read about academic leadership and library management, but with my time so short I haven’t been able to carve out a space for reading them yet. Instead, I’ve been collecting shorter reads — blog posts and articles — about library management and leadership in general. Here are some that I’ve found really helpful so far:

Jennifer Vinopal’s blog post My job? Make it easier for employees to do their jobs well was published at the perfect time for me, right before I was interviewed for my new job, and I’ve kept it in mind ever since. It pairs well with an article published in the May issue of C&RL News: Start by interviewing every librarian and staff member: A first step for the new director, by Scott Garrison and Jennifer Nutefall. Even though I’ve worked with most of my colleagues for 6+ years, I’ve adapted these questions and am meeting with everyone one on one to learn more about their jobs and goals.

I’m also learning from several folks who’ve been doing this for longer than I have. At the end of last summer Karen Schneider posted her reflections on five years of being a library director, a post chock full of characteristically level-headed and wise advice. I’ve been reading Jenica Rogers’ blog Attempting Elegance for a while now too, even before the thought that maybe I would be interested in being a Chief Librarian entered my mind, and I’ve always appreciated her transparency about the large and small tasks that come with being a library director, and the highs and lows.

One of the things that’s been occupying my time this semester is working on hiring in two faculty and two staff positions. While I’ve been on search committees at my library in the past, this is the first time I’m acting as chair of these committees. I thoroughly enjoyed this well-written post about orienting new staff by Megan Brooks — Hospitality and Your New Staff Member — on Jessica Olin’s Letters to a Young Librarian blog last week. This post provides a great reminder about what to do (and the reverse, what not to do) when bringing new folks on board.

Do you have a favorite or recommended reading of the shorter-than-a-book variety for busy new library managers? Let me know in the comments!

Working With Undergraduate Student Employees: An Appreciation

At my library we are celebrating “student appreciation week” this week, and it’s got me thinking about the wonderful students I work with, and all of the ways that my own position has evolved and adapted to meet the challenges of supervising them.

I am the junior member of a two-woman librarian staff in my library unit.  My job description includes hiring, training and supervising the 5-6 person undergraduate staff that works for us.  So I assumed that when I was hired, I would act as a kind of “bad-cop” or “vice-principal”; that is, that my job would involve a lot of nagging people to do their job, and taking corrective action if/when they did not.  I know it sounds strange, but I didn’t really think about the upsides!

I’m happy to report that supervising students is quite different than I expected.  Our crew is a self-selected bunch of high achievers, who applied for jobs with us because they are constantly studying in the Research Commons anyway.  In addition to taking great pride in their work for the library, they are also a deeply hilarious, bright, and inquisitive group of people.  I really enjoy conducting interviews, managing trainings, and writing recommendations, and I find that these activities offer unexpected rewards in the form of opportunities to reflect on my work, notice issues in the workflow, or discover new ways to articulate our mission.

As is common in many libraries today, the Research Commons Help Desk is staffed by student employees the majority of the time. We rely on our students completely to be our public face.  This makes sense in an area like the Research Commons, where we do not have a print collection, and reference interactions are limited. Help Desk interactions typically consist of equipment checkout and directional questions. However, the Research Commons is very busy, particularly now, as winter quarter draws to a close. The traffic doesn’t slow down on weekends and evenings, when most of the librarians go home. It is therefore essential that our student staff be prepared to exercise sound judgement in a variety of situations.

As their supervisor, I find that modeling, encouraging, and rewarding the behavior that is expected of our students is a big job. For example, a student that I supervise was recently called upon to assist emergency personnel in a crisis situation that occurred in our facility during our evening hours.  It was a tremendous relief to realize that the student was prepared to act appropriately in that situation. Coping with the trauma of that event and supporting that student and the rest of the team thought the uncertainty that it caused has been difficult, but it has also provided an opportunity for our staff to come together as a group.

Ultimately, I am very grateful for the contributions of our student staff.  Incredibly, a couple of them have even expressed an interest in librarianship as a profession.  Does that make me a role-model?!  It’s an identity that feels weird to me, but I’m starting to get used to it.