Librarianship lessons learned: a series of bullet points

For today’s blog post, I hereby present: bullet points of things I’ve learned as my career progressed, at the request of Amy Hildreth Chen:

  • Talk less, smile more. (Hamilton reference!). While this can be read on occasion in a female-dominated profession as sexist advice, there are moments where it turns out to be very important. For me, as an enthusiastic extrovert, I needed to learn how to function effectively in a profession with a high percentage of introverts. That meant learning to be a better listener. My introverted colleagues had much of value to add to our projects and meetings, and I needed to learn to leave enough space so that they would be comfortable speaking up. This was not always the easiest lesson for me, but it was an important one. And it has taken me years to learn.
  • Corollary: Sometimes you do really have to speak up. At some point, we all need to find ways to advocate for something, whether it’s a software, a process, a policy, or your own work. For my introverted colleagues, especially, this was often a challenge. It is better to prepare, practice, and speak out than to suffer in silence and see your work elided or forgotten or devalued for whatever reason. This is one of those moments when building up collegial relationships with your extroverted colleagues may be helpful. We may be willing to help you advocate!
  • Try to think like an administrator.  Administration is not (generally) the enemy. Understanding the administrative perspective means that you have a better chance of getting your own needs met (personally or departmentally), because you’ll be able to discuss your needs within the framework of the whole library/archive/administration. Which means that you’re likelier to make requests that fit the mission/vision of your organization–and likelier to get your needs met as a result.
  • Ask. There will, in any organization, be unwritten rules, Major History, things you just don’t know, and the like. Find someone trustworthy that you can ask about such things. Ideally, someone not in your reporting structure, although your boss may have good suggestions for whom to talk to, if they are Good Mentoring Bosses. (NB: Your Boss May Vary).
  • You will make mistakes. Big ones, even. This will not be the end of the world, although it may very well feel like it at the time.  If you aren’t making any mistakes at all, you aren’t learning, moving forward, or trying to do something differently. What matters is how you pick up the pieces, learn from them, and figure out what to do next.  The question is, are you failing differently each time? Failing is how we level up, sometimes. As much as it can hurt.

You will notice that I don’t have specific advice to offer as to when to speak up and when not to. This will be navigated differently for every person, in every organization.

  • You don’t have to do everything, and you don’t have to do it all right now. I had some additional thoughts about this for early career folks here. Schedule your work week if at all possible to match up with your energy levels. For example, I try to schedule meetings on Mondays and Fridays, because my focused brain for doing intellectual/project work (e.g. writing, editing, etc.) tends to happen on Tuesdays through Thursdays. I try to block off those times as much as possible.
  • Learn to say no to things that are not good fits for your expanding skill set, or take up more time or energy than you get back personally or professionally. There will be other opportunities, I promise. It’s okay to take one for the team once in a while by taking on a big service commitment, for example, but make sure it’s part of a rotation, not the only thing you do, all the time.
  • Corollary: if you must bail on something, do so earlier rather than later.  It is always easier to replace a person’s role or re-shift responsibilities further from the deadline. The worst possible thing you can do is watch the deadline whoosh by with nary a word and not do the work.
  • Build in recovery time. Do something routinely that is not work. Especially if you are lucky enough to end up in a tenure track gig, the pressure will feel enormous if you’re already inclined to being an overachiever type. *ahem* Make sure to guard some down time for yourself, whether that’s a hobby of some kind, or just the occasional Netflix marathon. See friends and family if that’s your jam. Cook. Knit. Garden. Hike. Take actual vacation days. Hang out with your pet. Sleep in. Find ways to recharge.

Thoughts on teamwork, committee work, and generally working with other folks:

  • You don’t have to do it alone. In fact, it may be better that you don’t. There is a reason that library school is all group projects, all the time. Most of my projects have been collaborative in some way, with varying group sizes from 2-person partnerships to 21-person committees. The major advantage to a team approach or partnership is that you don’t have to do everything yourself. You can tag out when you need to. You can be the person who tags in when your colleagues need to tag out. Teams and partnerships allow more balance with life stuff.
  • Be as inclusive as you possibly can. Bringing in perspectives that are not yours means that your projects will be more comprehensive and better. You will miss things. You will mess things up. You will forget things. There will be stuff you are not aware of that could be relevant or helpful. Having other folks contribute (and the more diverse a group in terms of perspectives the better) means that you miss/mess up fewer things, and your project will likely be stronger for it.
  • Do the f***ing work. Seriously. The most functional teams bring a lot of respect for each other to the table, and doing the work. We all have horror stories about that one group project that went horribly wrong because one person didn’t do the work. Try not to be that person, and you’ll be fine.
  • Clear and timely communication is key, both of expectations/assignments and the possibility of not meeting them.  Academia is not always the speediest, and that’s to your advantage here. Many, many road bumps and problems with a given assignment/project can be managed if you communicate with involved parties, especially before deadlines pass. This allows for re-jiggering if necessary.
  • Understand your strengths and weaknesses, and be honest about them. Find the ways that you can comfortably contribute to your team(s). Are you a crack note-taker? Are you happy to report for the group? Are you a big picture person, or really good with arranging minutia in ways that make sense? All of these are valuable things to bring to group work, and most people are not great at all of them.

And most importantly:

  • Pay it forward.  If you find yourself in a decent position, having learned and survived and succeeded, take the time to be the kind of colleague that younger you needed. That’s how we change librarianship for the better.

About Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas is a nine time Hugo Award winning editor and podcaster. In her day job, she is Head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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