Embracing Vulnerability as a Perpetual Learner: Starting on the Tenure-Track as a Mid-Career Librarian

Editor’s note: This guest post has been authored by Nimisha Bhat. Nimisha (she/her) is a subject librarian for social sciences at the University of Cincinnati, and is passionate about helping students make connections between ideas and information.

I’m always telling prospective library school students that the best part of my job is learning something new everyday – I may not be a subject expert, but every time I have a research consultation with a student, they teach me something new while I determine the best way to connect them with the information they need. 

This is also something I have been trying to remind myself of everyday since I started a new tenure-track library position earlier this year. As a mid-career librarian ten years into academic librarianship, this is my first time navigating and developing a completely new identity as a faculty member. 

As a subject librarian, I’m used to leveraging new facets of information retrieval every time I pick up a new liaison area. I dedicate a large amount of my time to reading up on particular subjects before I do collection development. I’ve experienced my fair share of feeling like a fraud as I stand at the front of classrooms and speak to students about research in subjects in which I have no educational background. I’ve been teaching without any training in instruction or pedagogy for at least eight years. But like many librarians, what I lack in theoretical learning I’ve made up for in experiential learning as a practitioner. I’ve done my best to do deep reflection work in relation to my practice and engage in scholarship and conferences to learn from my amazing peers and colleagues doing this work in their own areas. And slowly over the years, I’ve been able to navigate my job in a way that satisfies me while also leaving room for curiosity and growth.

So here I am once again, adding another new facet to my work with which I lack experience – tenure-track faculty status. A brand new set of criteria, rules, and recommendations to measure myself up against. It’s an unmooring feeling, being considered a “mid-career” librarian while also feeling brand new at the same time. And since many of the reflections and guidance out there about starting the tenure clock and developing a research agenda are written by and for a largely early career audience, it sometimes feels like I’m “behind.” I feel like I’ve lived several lifetimes across all of my past jobs since graduating from library school over a decade ago – shouldn’t these feelings of doubt and vulnerability be behind me by now?

I had always been in positions before where research was not required, expected, or supported, but I loved to dabble in it anyway. Which is why I became a contributing and then lead editor for The Librarian Parlor, a blog where students and practitioners share their experiences, knowledge, advice, setbacks, and successes related to LIS research in an effort to demystify the process for our community. LibParlor’s mission was so important to me even at a time when I wasn’t pursuing research for reappointment, promotion, or tenure purposes. Now it feels serendipitous to be reading our past posts as an “official” researcher trying to develop my own research agenda and librarian-researcher identity. I find myself pulled in so many different directions, to research all of the different topics related to the profession that I find fascinating and important. Now that I have the institutional support to pursue the research I want to work on, where should I even begin? Will I ever feel like an expert in anything?

Thankfully, I have mentors and colleagues to learn from and with at my new institution. There is a genuine investment in us as junior faculty, and everyone is always willing to share what knowledge they have. I’ve created a cohort with my fellow junior faculty so that we may navigate the reappointment, promotion, and tenure process together, share and document answers to our questions and institutional resources, and serve as accountability partners to one another. We’ve expressed a desire to create documentation and guidance on all of this as we go, so that everyone coming up after us has the answers that we didn’t. I also find that as a person of color, I’m often unsure of how I’m being measured against my white peers. I’m hyper-aware that there are things I could be judged for differently, and so having clear and concise directions about how I’m expected to conduct my work as a faculty member is important to me. I’d especially like to be able to provide that kind of direction to fellow librarians of color in an effort to remove barriers to and increase retention in our profession, which is also something I’d like to make a part of my own research agenda.

So here I am again, learning something new and reminding myself that I love that aspect of my job. I am notorious for quitting things that I’m not automatically good at the first time I try it, which is why I have a tub of craft supplies buried in a closet related to various hobbies I’ve picked up and put down over the years. But now I’m trying to be more open, more vulnerable, more willing to ask questions in order to improve my craft and help others do the same. And instead of feeling like I’m behind, I’m going to embrace the part of me that loves learning. 

Are you a seasoned librarian navigating tenure for the first time? I’d love to hear how you’re feeling!