Do You Have a Mentor?
It’s January, which means everyone is setting goals and making plans for the year ahead. As my year of being your Everyday Advocacy Member Content Editor draws to a close, I’m thinking about how my career aspirations align with being an everyday advocate. I know being excited about my work makes me more enthusiastic about speaking up for libraries, and for staying excited about work, I owe a debt of gratitude to my mentor, Sarah Houghton, aka the Librarian in Black.
I asked Sarah to be my mentor a couple years ago, over wine and pizza (memories!). Not every mentor relationship is so formally established; I also have friends who serve as mentors just by being open to my career questions and offering advice when I request it. But I was burning out on librarianship. I wanted to grow in new directions, and knew I wanted a mentor whose expertise (in Sarah’s case, emerging technologies and digital rights) lay outside my established skill set (children’s books/reading them aloud in funny voices). I wanted someone smart and savvy who would sit down with me every other month or so and talk just about my career. I read a handful of articles (including this helpful one from Lifehacker) about career mentorship and how to find it. And then I reached out. Sarah agreed happily.
In the years since, Sarah has been a source of reflection and strategic thinking, and her perspectives help me stay inspired and open to possibility in librarianship when burnout threatens. These days I don’t have quite as many career questions for Sarah as I did at first, but we still have wine and pizza.
A new source of inspiration for me is realizing that, as a mid-career librarian, I can BE a mentor as well as having one. It’s a whole new world to be able to offer reflections and insights of my own, as I’ve begun to do with a colleague, Jessica, who’s just starting library school.
Could 2019 be the year you get a mentor, or a mentee? Why not both? I can only recommend it for people who are looking to grow in their career, or who need a jump start. And how can we stay motivated to be library cheerleaders if we’re feeling less than rah-rah-rah?
Read on for interviews from my mentor and mentee. They inspire me continually to sing the praises of libraries and the people who use them and work for them. Mentorship helps me stay in the fight.
Here’s what’s in the January 2019 issue:
- Side-by-side interviews with my mentor and my mentee.
- The latest in advocacy-related ALSC blog posts.
- Advice from the trusty Everyday Advocacy site on dealing with complaints.
- Plus, as always, a few things you can do in just five minutes.
It’s been a great year serving as your Member Content Editor. Keep up the inspiring work, ALSC members!
Amy Martin, Member Content Editor
ALSC Everyday Advocacy Website & Electronic Newsletter
Mentor, Mentee Interviews
The Mentor: Sarah Houghton, Discovery & Delivery Director for the California Digital Library
1. What does it mean to you to be a mentor? What do you do with/for your mentees?
Being a mentor means sharing with another person my experiences, knowledge, strategies, and professional development opportunities. It means answering questions. It means asking questions. It means not telling the person what to do, but providing a framework and resources through which they come to their own decisions. I've been both a formal and informal mentor in a number of different ways--face-to-face at conferences, video calls with LIS students, casual lunches, email exchanges, etc. The only constant is that I expect the mentee to drive the discussions, to come with their own questions and topics of inquiry. I'll then act as a sounding board and help in any way I can to make their lives easier and better.
2. What do you get out of acting as a mentor? What have you learned from the experience?
That's a great question! I think I get the satisfaction of paying it forward. I have always, even now, had mentors who I call upon when I am stuck on a professional issue. As they have helped me, I want to help others. I also think the drive to be helpful is intrinsic to most library workers. We want to pass on information and provide assistance. I also love seeing people solve their own problems, coming to a conclusion on their own or seeing a problem from a different perspective. I also get re-inspired by the energy, ideas, and exuberance of the people I mentor. What I've learned from mentoring is best summed up as humility, a realization that of all the things I think I know there are many more things that I still don't--even after 17 years as a librarian.
3. What kinds of mentoring have you gotten during your career, and how has it changed your experience of librarianship?
Early in my career I had two mentors who helped me in the early days of digital and web librarianship. These folks had a jump start on me of only a half dozen years or so, but could answer simple questions about coding tricks and complex questions about network security. I don't even remember how I met these folks--and we never created a formal mentorship arrangement--but I continue to credit them with enabling me to succeed early in my career. As I moved into more advanced technology librarianship, it was more of a cohort of us who were all learning the same things at the same time. It became less mentor-y and more support-group-like. Then, as I moved into library administration I sought out those administrators I had encountered who I trusted to serve as a sounding board for the brand new (to me) issues I was facing. I think that without this community of information sharing, mutual support, and willingness to help each other, librarianship would be a lot less friendly of a profession to work in than it is. If, say, we were a more internally competitive field with winners and losers, I think a lot fewer of the widespread successes would have permeated as many libraries as they have. But fortunately we're a nice bunch of people who love to help!
1. Tell me about some of your experiences being mentored, both in libraries and in other areas.
My first experience with mentoring was at my girls club. I was paired with a woman during my sophomore year of high school (we stayed in touch afterwards). The purpose of the program was to help "urban" teens get ready for college. My mentor did that and so much more. From her, I learned about my love of poetry and film criticism. She really exposed me to a whole world I didn't realize existed.
Cooking is a lot of mentorship. Even if you come at it from a formal learning institute there's still a lot of watching and secret sharing required to get up to speed at a job. I was mentored by a few French and Vegan bakers. Like my high school mentor who brought me into realms and opportunities, I didn't even know existed. In those restaurants, I also received a lot of coaching about how to be a manager. Restaurants require synchronization. That means getting people to do what you want how you want it done on your timeline--hopefully with minimal yelling. My FoH [front of house] counterparts gave me a lot of advice about how to talk to staff and direct workflow. It has been endlessly helpful and applicable throughout my whole working life.
I've had slightly less robust mentorship in libraries. My first one was through BayNet. We weren't really on the same page. She was prepared to give me career advice for specific questions, I was looking for the abstract secrets of the profession. Now I'm a little better equipped to ask questions, but I'm still not confident I know what I'm looking for. But the ability to observe and ask questions is really what has provided me the most robust guidance while working in your office. You have been recreating those earlier mentorship moments of access and enlightenment but finally within the library environment.
2. How has it benefited you to have mentors in your various careers?
Mentors have been pretty important in my career and my life in general. No one gets through alone, ever. Mentors have this ability to see a bigger picture. When they work with a mentee (me in this case) they open up a level of access, to people and ideas, that is unavailable to the newcomer. This is more than just secrets of the trade; it's often institutional/profession knowledge, bureaucratic histories, and political narratives. Access to that information is huge, but it can't just be doled out (otherwise we'd all just learn it in school). It has to be discovered by the mentee through observation, interaction, questions, and feedback. I think all these things have helped me steer and correct my path.
3. You’re heading into your second semester of library school. What do hope to gain from having library mentors in addition to formal education and work experience?
Just on my own, I've seen what the students lacking real-world experience are missing out on. Resources and process familiarity I just take for granted because I've been around for a while. But I know there are other nuances to becoming a librarian that I can't even imagine yet and won't be able to read in a book. I've already learned so much from you about my strengths and weaknesses in regards to librarianship. As I continue to progress through my courses I'm hoping that the insights I pick up from you not only show me how my coursework is applicable; but also guide me to take classes and develop skills that serve a greater purpose than a grade. I want this experience to shape me into a practical real-world librarian that will be marketable and valuable on day one.
The digital divide isn’t just about access; it’s about the quality of access. (Library Service to Underserved Children and their Caregivers)
If you’re new to Everyday Advocacy or just want a refresher, you’re in luck! Each issue of Everyday Advocacy Matters helps you dig into the initiative’s five tenets—Be Informed, Engage with Your Community, Speak Out, Get Inspired, and Share Your Advocacy Story—by directing you back to the great content on the Everyday Advocacy website.
Is someone wrong on the internet? This month, let’s take a look at how to Respond to Complaints and Skepticism.
Respond to Complaints and Skepticism
Stay connected. Social media is an important part of these ongoing conversations. Reading the comments on news stories, Facebook, and Twitter is an excellent way to see what your community is saying about the library.
Comment strategically. Sometimes, these conversations will contain an error. Should you jump in and correct the error, or let it go? If the error relates to a fact, correct it. If someone comments that a program starts at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, and it really starts at 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, your users will thank you for making the correction.
If the error relates to a perception, it’s wiser to let it go. You won’t be able to “win” an argument based on an opinion. If someone says, “I think libraries are a waste of taxpayers’ money,” addressing that comment will probably spur additional, similar comments. Chances are, someone else will stand up for libraries - and the testimony of an outsider carries more weight than that of an insider. Strategically, comments that are very negative, hateful, or serve no real purpose should not be given additional attention by an official response.
Be honest about your identity. When posting comments, be open about your position with the library. Pretense or attempted anonymity is dishonest, and others will see through it. When they do, the library’s credibility will take a huge hit.
Stick to the facts. When responding directly to complaints, address the actual complaint without emotion. Be factual and straightforward, and avoid getting drawn into an emotional response.
If the complaint is something you will act on, let the person know. If you disagree, let the person know that, too, and offer a factual explanation of why you disagree.
If you are uncertain of your own facts, tell the other person you will get back to him or her as soon as you can, and be diligent in following up.
End on a positive note. A library’s most important asset is its reputation. Whenever possible, end an exchange on a positive note. Thank people who comment for their interest in the library. While you are not always able to change an individual’s negative perception, you may earn that person’s regard by dealing respectfully with their concern. More importantly, the silent watchers will see that even in fielding criticism, the library treats people with respect, and the library’s credibility with them will rise.
Articles from outside the library world for you to email, tweet, or cite in your speech to elected officials.
That’s a lot of Americans! “95% of Americans find libraries 'important,' Pew reports.” (LA Times)
Need a tearjerker with your inspiration? “Separated by travel ban, Iranian families reunite at border library.” (Reuters)
I know I’m happier in a park, road, or library. “Study: Americans Happier in States That Spend More on Parks, Roads & Libraries.” (Psych Central)
If your library one of the many trying to get rid of fines? This site collects resources for making arguments to your stakeholders. End Library Fines
For those of you who want to do aaallll the advocacy, but it’s gotta be fast.
- Don’t have a mentor? Or a mentee? Time to find one!
- Set up some self-care to keep yourself primed for advocacy.
- Take some time to read online feedback about your library (gulp), and practice deciding whether and how to respond.
- Share a news article from this issue on your (or your library’s) social media accounts.
- Make a display of the Youth Media Award winners and honors.
January is National Mentoring Month.
January 25-29 - ALA Midwinter Meeting
January 28 - ALA Youth Media Awards
February is Black History Month.
February 28 - Digital Learning Day
March is Women's History Month.
March 1 - Read Across America Day
March 16 - Freedom of Information Day