If I have had any success as a librarian, I owe much of it to the mentorship of library technicians.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a professional librarian. I believe in the merit of our professional hierarchy. I respect the role of librarians and our unique opportunities for leadership and management. I loved library school where, more than anything, I learned how to think like a librarian and see the larger picture. However, the first thing I tell any new librarian is, “You are missing the point if you think you are better or smarter than your non-MLIS colleagues.”
I am a second-career librarian, having enrolled in library school just before my 40th birthday. I had a lot of professional and life experience, but after graduation I walked into my first public library job with a big question mark on my forehead. Sure, I could tell you all about theories of information dissemination in a social policy context, but do you think I knew how to process a hold or check out a stack of picture books? Did I know who reported to whom and how understanding the organization’s political culture could make or break me? Not on your life.
Front-line library workers taught me how to use the ILS, how to use the cash register, how to transfer a hold, the best way to make the RFID pad work, how to fix the self-checkout machine, how to restart the self-check-in machine, and more. Library technicians taught me how to explain the dewey decimal system to a Grade 3 boy; how to deal with a chronic problem customer; how to conduct an in-depth reference interview in five seconds flat; how to troubleshoot a computer, photocopier, and washroom door at the same time; the best way to make appealing displays; and how to navigate organizational politics.
Curious about how mentorship is defined, I conducted an informal literature review of mentoring, particularly in libraries. Much is made of the difference between teaching, coaching, counseling, and mentoring. It is clear that mentoring is a hot topic: journal articles, books, websites, courses, and most leadership blogs have something to say on the subject.
Generally, definitions of mentorship are similar: Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a mentor as “Someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person.” Dictionary.com lists a mentor as “Someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person.” Cambridge Dictionaries Online describes a mentor as “A person who gives a younger or less experienced person help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school.” These definitions all assume that mentors/mentorship is the transmission of knowledge from one person to another. However, this makes many powerful assumptions about whose knowledge is recognized and whose knowledge is valued.
There are obvious issues with the “age factor” in these definitions. Sears notes that “In the current culture of individuals changing careers late in life, mentorship is not always from an older to a younger person” (Sears, 2014, p. 130). (It does serve to mention that the older I get, the younger my bosses get).
In scholarly writing about mentorship in libraries, definitions can be more specific to the profession. For instance, James says:
Mentors are those with whom we are able to discuss librarianship as it applies to the profession and to our lives, not just to our current jobs. They keep our interests in mind and volunteer their perspective when we do not know that there is a question to ask (James, 2015, p. 532).
When investigating mentorship in libraries, a difference emerges between the ideas of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ mentorship. Unlike formal mentorship, which has a large body of literature surrounding it, informal mentorship is usually the stuff of casual mention (James, p. 532).
This is evident by the many organizations that foster structured mentorship programs. Todaro, who literally “wrote the book” on mentoring in libraries, indicates that the benefits of formal mentoring relationships include “outcomes to success” and “overall expectations for teaching and learning” (Todaro, 2011, p. 4). Public libraries may have mentoring programs for those interested in management. Academic libraries might “provide mentors to new librarians to help them navigate the promotion and tenure process” (Sears, p. 131). Some organizations may pair experienced conference attendees with first-timers.
In other contexts, there are rigorous and vetted programs like that of the Library Leadership and Management Association. This program has conducted a formal mentorship program for nine years that includes a formal application process and a commitment of at least ten months with regular meetings, strict guidelines, and specific ideas for outcomes (American Library Association, 2016).
A number of respected library leaders acknowledge that informal mentorship can be an effective way for professionals to learn the ropes and develop their careers. By virtue of its very nature, definitions of informal mentorship are less precise. James explains that:
A single definition of informal mentorship is difficult to parse, not just because it is less established in the literature, but because informal mentorship is a less specific kind of relationship than formal mentorship; it encompasses traditional senior-junior relationships as well as group, bottom-up, situational, and lateral or peer mentorship. Long term commitment is not required, and institutional support is not needed to begin a relationship (James, p. 532).
The notion of ‘group’ support is particularly interesting. It shifts thinking away from the notion that one individual carries the authority and power of influence to an expanded view where multiple perspectives can impact personal development. This enables us to think more broadly about how we need support and direction, inviting more diversity into our pool of support. With respect to the “group” mentorship aspect, Sears refers to her ‘trusted network of advisors’ and that she continues to “gain from their willingness to invest time in me (Sears p. 133).
Haycock observes that “There has been a movement from one mentor to more of a ‘board of directors.’” He continues:
One person is never going to satisfy the totality of one’s needs and aspirations. Select several people to put on your board of directors – people whom you respect and trust to have your best interests at heart – and use them for advice and wise counsel. They need not even know that they are on your board (Haycock, 2011, para. 3).
While his use of the term “board of directors” draws on notions of organizational hierarchy, he is nodding to the importance of group mentorship. It is implicit in the literature on mentorship in libraries that this is a relationship between more experienced and less experienced librarians. The importance of a mentor’s experience and personal investment ring true, but my larger point is that the kind of experience that can help foster a librarian’s career does not necessarily come from another librarian.
If what Haycock means is “creating a pool or network of expertise that you can draw from, rather than relying on one individual for all your needs,” this illustrates my point exactly.
Many librarians have mentored me, and none of those relationships were formal. These individuals were “simply available and willing to provide mentorship when it was needed” (James, p. 532). Many library technicians have also played that role in my career. This may be an example of the “bottom-up” mentorship James references. If so, my “board of directors” has been made up of non-MLIS staff as well as other librarians, and I find their contributions to my career to be equally as valuable, albeit different.
I acknowledge the efficacy of formal mentorship programs and learning relationships between librarians. Any professional assistance from someone with a genuine interest serves the recipient well. As Haycock advises: “Learn from whomever you can” (Haycock, para. 4). What I propose is that front-line workers should not be eliminated from the mentorship conversation just because of their job titles.
It has been suggested to me that I am talking about “workplace savvy” on the part of all involved. I agree, but maintain that just because an experience of professional guidance happens in the workplace—and from the bottom-up— it is not necessarily eliminated from being defined as mentorship. A variety of voices from the every level of the profession (on my “board of directors”) is an opportunity for well-rounded growth on my part and an opportunity for effective “workplace strategy” on the part of a library technician.
Library technicians, particularly those with many years of experience, have an opportunity to help shape their own workplace culture when they make a connection with and are open to mentoring librarians—some of whom they report to. Benefits may include, “…a more transparent process and improved communication. This leads to more buy-in to decisions and less negativity” (Sears, p. 133). “It is fair to acknowledge that this can be difficult due to power dynamics in the workplace,” but when the opportunity arises—without a formal process or even an explicit arrangement—it is the wise library technician who is conscious of how he or she can influence his or her environment and help guide a career by taking a librarian under their wing.
Mentoring your boss: Four tips for library technicians
If you’re paying attention, it will be apparent when the librarian is having difficulty with something. Ask if there’s anything you can do to assist. Be willing to take the time to listen. Being attentive also gives you the opportunity to step in if you see a dire mistake about to be made. (Those who saved me from myself in this way have my eternal gratitude.)
If your librarian asks detailed questions about a particular procedure, practice, or system, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re judging. They are likely just trying to familiarize themselves with local processes. Support their learning by explaining in detail, and when you can’t help, refer them to the right resources or people.
A friendly colleague in a new work environment makes a world of difference. Demonstrate that your workplace is easygoing and supportive. Chat about something other than work in the lunchroom. It’s nice for you and your librarian to see each other as someone other than a library hound.
I do not believe that they really exist, but I have heard horror stories of librarians who emerge from library school with an “I’m the boss” attitude. There are many ways that you can assert your experience and expertise, just make sure that you do it respectfully. Demonstrate best practices, continue to do your own job well, and refer to number three.
One tip for new librarians and/or librarians entering new jobs
It is the wise librarian who enters a new job with humility, an open mind, a soft touch, and a willingness to learn from everyone—even those who report to him or her.
Call it what you will: teaching, mentoring, coaching, or savviness. It’s happening all the time in libraries, both formally and informally. Being aware of the process and potential of multi-level, multi-directional mentorship only enhances our ability to be helpful and effective in “supporting the individual you are working with, listening to them, building self-confidence and encouraging new ideas and effective leadership practices” (Sears, p. 130).
A library technician may certainly be a part of someone’s “board of directors.” After all, we work in an industry based on relationships. If we accept and even embrace all the ways that we can provide and receive mentorship, we can create happier, more productive, more collegial workplaces, and stronger institutions; a better foundation for delivering exceptional service to those who look to us for our expertise.
Smitty Miller is Community Librarian at the City of Langley Library (Fraser Valley Regional Library) and a 2014 Library Journal Mover and Shaker.
American Library Association. (2016). LLAMA mentoring program. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/llama/llama-mentoring-program
Comito, L. (2016, April). Mentorship 101. Library Journal, 141(7), 51.
Haycock, K. (2011, May 2). Mentorship [blog post]. Retrieved from http://kenhaycock.com/mentorship
James, J. (2015). Are you my mentor? New perspectives and research on informal mentorship. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 41, 532-539.
Mentor. (n.d.) In Dictionary.com. Retrieved from http://www.dictionary.com/browse/mentoring
Mentor. (n.d.) In Cambridge dictionaries online. Retrieved from http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/mentor
Mentor. (n.d.) In Merriam-Webster online dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-http://webster.com/dictionary/mentor
Sears, S. (2014). Mentoring to grow library leaders. Journal of Library Administration, 54, 127-134. doi:10.1080/01930826.2014.903368
Todaro, J. (2011). Mentoring: Advice from an expert. Library Leadership and Management, 25(3). Retrieved from https://journals.tdl.org/llm/index.php/llm/article/view/3288
Todaro, J. (2015). Mentoring A to Z. Chicago: American Library Association.