Mentoring in Technical Services

by Cara Mia Calabrese and Michael A. Arthur

The future of libraries is being forged by librarians new to the field, but the success and prosperity of the profession lies with those already entrenched in librarianship. New librarians will only be able to move the profession and the library forward if they build on the knowledge garnered by experienced librarians. Some new librarians bridge the gap between traditional and emerging librarianship by adding a mentoring relationship. Without the help of a mentor, a new librarian could find the transition from classroom to library to be more difficult and less rewarding. This fact alone is why mentoring is so valuable. Mentoring can be as simple as having an experienced librarian to consult with on an occasional basis. However, it can also be expanded into a professional relationship that benefits both the mentee and the mentor. This type of interaction is particularly helpful for aspiring technical services librarians.

Entry-level technical services positions require experience in a host of functional areas including acquisitions, serials control, cataloging, metadata, vendor relations, fund management, licensing, and e-resources management. It is hard to obtain real experience in these areas through MLIS classes because concepts and theory can only take one so far. Experience and practical knowledge plays a major role in being successful, especially in technical services. Working with a mentor can help those new to the profession understand the inner workings of technical services and provide perspective and a platform to test out the waters.

An effective mentoring relationship is advantageous for both the mentor and the mentee. The mentor can choose to grow and change with the new professional. Working with a fresh take on static issues can provide inspiration to look at problems in a different way. With the mentee being in school or having just graduated they will know the newest concepts and be focused on moving forward and discussing the most current topics. Building the mentoring relationship to a point where both the mentor and mentee feel comfortable exchanging ideas and making suggestions for improvement creates an ideal situation that promotes innovation and more effective operations in technical services.

Beyond the Basics

At the University of Central Florida mentoring has moved beyond just advice and answering questions. It has evolved so that two-way communication is highly valued and both parties can exchange ideas and knowledge about a variety of topics. While straight questions are never discouraged, this mentor/mentee relationship seeks to have discourses about different aspects of a librarian’s job and duties. This exchange brings to light many of the hidden aspects of the job. The duties that are not written outright in a job description, but rather are inherent within professional librarian roles are the most challenging to new librarians.

During these dialogues the mentor can explain these intricacies and provide insight as to how to address similar issues in the future.  For many new librarians who migrate to technical services their initial experience in technical services is through student or support staff level experience.  Mentors can be particularly valuable in helping these new librarians transition from staff level to professional level output.

Vibrant mentor-mentee relationships allow for an exchange of ideas and allow the mentee to question the status quo. The mentor can then provide the background on why a system must remain as it is or question it themselves, allowing both to pursue a solution. Being able to shadow and have an open conversation with an experienced counterpart gives the mentee both confidence and freedom to make policy decisions as their comfort level grows. Helping to instill these aspects in new librarians will allow them to be successful in their first position. They will be able to have meaningful conversations and ask questions about procedures they do not understand or suggest changes without trepidation.

Preparing for the First Technical Services Position

The path from student to professional can be lengthy. Having a guide to help navigate this transition simplifies the process and makes it less intimidating. The ability to talk to a professional beyond just an hour interview or a one-day shadow experience allows for the new librarian to get a clear view of what is needed to succeed in technical services.  It also creates a level of comfort between the mentee and mentor so conversation can start to flow freely and difficult questions can be answered.

Open lines of communication with a mentor are useful when the MLIS student has questions about their educational and career path. In talking with the mentor they can determine where the mentee’s interests and skills lie. The mentor knows what the student is capable of and may provide important feedback that will help the mentee align courses and experience in order to develop the right skills for specific specialties within the profession. They can suggest areas in which the student should gain experience or strengthen existing skills based on the area of librarianship the student wishes to pursue. Potential librarians come from a variety of educational backgrounds. They could be changing professions or newly graduated with a bachelor’s degree. In these cases, an experienced librarian can provide answers to questions regarding careers in librarianship and can remain active in the development of the mentee throughout their MLIS education.

Another area the mentee can use help with is getting prepared to apply for their first position. Preparation of a curriculum vita is very different from a general resume. The right type of cover letter is also important because it can sway a search committee. There is a good chance that the budding professional has never had to compose these documents.  Mentors can provide valuable assistance with refining both documents. They will be a good source of information about how professional librarian searches tend to be carried out and the types of questions asked and how to prepare for the interview process.  Practicing potential questions before interviews with a mentor gets the new professional thinking and can help to keep the level of stress from getting too high. Mentors also can help during the job hunt by interpreting job descriptions and working with the mentee to figure out which positions are within reach or appropriate starting points for their particular career goals.

This type of guidance from a knowledgeable librarian helps shape the future of the new professional and in turn the profession.  A positive mentoring relationship can help put the new librarian on the right path towards a job in technical services that will benefit both the mentee and the profession.  This in turn benefits the mentor because contributing to the future of the profession should be a goal of all librarians.

Ideas Meet Experience

Mentoring at UCF is not just about prepping the new librarian for a job, but also getting them to think critically and express their ideas in a controlled and constructive environment. While having creative ideas is a good thing, it is important that new librarians have an opportunity to speak openly in a supportive environment. This opportunity early in one’s career will encourage new professionals to be more vocal and willing to contribute their opinions.  Mentors can play a key role in developing new talent in such a way that they feel empowered to contribute new ideas and implement effective solutions to the problems they encounter. Mentors are responsible for creating this welcoming environment.

The new generation of librarians see the library and its services differently than experienced librarians. They often think more technologically, especially in regard to workflow. They have many ideas and are eager to implement them.  However, their lack of experience makes it difficult to filter out impractical ideas or to explore the potential ramifications of decisions that benefit their own area of the library without considering the potential impact for other units of the organization. The mentor can provide the opportunity to discuss potential problems with suggested new ideas and work with the mentee to develop acceptable alternatives that are based on the mentor’s breadth and depth of knowledge related to library management.

While the new librarian is gaining the knowledge from the experience of their counterpart, the mentor is seeing the library through new eyes. The new perspective can bring to light aspects of services or workflow that can be adjusted to create a smoother transition between departments or better service for patrons.

The MLIS student or recent graduate is more familiar with new approaches or concepts. Graduate library coursework focuses on providing an introduction to the basics, just like any math or physics program would. Graduate schools look to teach the newest techniques when preparing their students. This can be enlightening for the established librarian. Since they are entrenched in the real world of librarianship it can be harder to connect to the newest concepts. The mentee can impart their understanding of such concepts, which will reinforce their own knowledge. The mentor can evaluate the practices and show practical applications for such concepts, whether traditional or state-of-the-art.  Being able to share these ideas can benefit both parties. New librarians gain confidence and a greater understanding of the library’s inner workings, while the mentor has a fresh take and new ideas that can create a better library.

In the literature, the benefits of having a mentor are well established. Throughout this article we have focused on the advantages the mentee and mentor relationship can bring for both parties. The mentor can shape the next generation. This can have as much impact on the direction and advancement of the field as their own contributions. The discussions that come out of a strong mentoring relationship allow each member to exchange thoughts and ideas, and promote professional growth. The mentee learns about the practical applications and issues of changes within a library, while the mentor gains an eager partner with a fresh outlook, and new ideas to possibly implement.

Imparting knowledge to inexperienced librarians may help them make less mistakes and missteps as they begin their professional career. This prevents new librarians from encountering the same pitfalls experienced by their mentors and allows them to move into new territory faster, enabling them to face greater challenges and move the profession into a better future. At the University of Central Florida, MLIS students and new librarians have benefited greatly due to the prevailing attitudes in the library. Mentoring is highly valued and is seen as a benefit to the library and profession.

About the Authors

Cara Mia Calabrese is pursuing her Masters of Library and Information Science at Florida State University and is scheduled to graduate in May 2015. She currently holds a staff position at the UCF Libraries in acquisitions and collection services and has worked with acquisitions and collection services, interlibrary loan/DDS, and reference units as a student assistant since 2009. She is active within the UCF Libraries community, serving on committees including the Director’s Advisory Group and leading the Diversity Week Team. Calabrese is a contributing editor of Illuminations, a UCF Libraries publication for new faculty, has presented at a Florida Virtual Campus user meeting, and has an article published in Footnotes, the newsletter of American Library Association’s (ALA) New Members Round Table. Calabrese is a member of ALA and is on the Association for College and Research Libraries Education & Behavioral Sciences Section’s Psychology Committee.

Michael Arthur is head of acquisitions and collection services at the University of Central Florida. Arthur received his Bachelor of Science in sport marketing and management in 1991, and his Master of Library Science in 1999, from Indiana University in Bloomington. He received his Master of Public Administration from Old Dominion University in 2006. He is a member of the Pi Alpha Alpha, the National Honor Society for Public Affairs and Administration. Michael is active in ALA and regularly attends The Charleston Conference. He has presented at NASIG, The Charleston Conference, The North Carolina Serials Conference, the American Library Association Annual Conference, and the Acquisitions Institute. Michael was honored by the University of Central Florida in 2015 with the Excellence in Librarianship Award. This award, one of the Faculty Excellence Awards, recognizes a faculty librarian for sustained service to the profession and the University of Central Florida.