Thursday, May 17, 2012

Breaking Away: Networking like a Cyclist, by Daniel Ransom

Networking. It can be a big, scary word, especially for young librarians constantly told that they need to “network” to get a job. There’s a preconception that networking is a tense, nerve-wracking process by which a job-seeker constantly puts themselves in the paths of decision-makers (department heads, directors, hiring managers) until getting magically exhumed into employment. Alternatively, that magic moment can come when someone asks their cousin who knows a guy who is friends with said director, and somehow all of that leads to a job. Frankly, this isn’t all that realistic. You can never expect to just march into a director’s office and walk out with a job – a restraining order is more likely.

I’d like to remind all young librarians and MLIS students that it doesn’t have to be like that. Networking can (and should) be lively and even fun. I know I have benefited just by being friends with energetic, ambitious peers, even if those peers were similar early-career librarians with iffy employment (perhaps even competitors for the same diminished list of job opportunities).

Indulge me as I twist this into a cycling analogy (the only chair I like more than one in a comfy library is the bike seat). To start, a simplified glossary: the “peloton”, from the French for “little ball,” is the bulk of riders in a professional road race (such as the Tour de France) riding close to each other in a big group. There is safety in the peloton; in a large group, you are protected from wind and hazards. There is also danger in the peloton; if one rider crashes, many crash; and, if you always finish with the peloton, you can never win. In our analogy, the peloton is the nameless, faceless hoard of MLIS-holders all applying for the same short list of jobs.

Another key term in cycling is “slipstreaming” (or “drafting”). A bike with a rider pushes air and wind aside as it moves forward. Another rider right behind the lead rider benefits by not having to work as hard to maintain the same speed – the slipstream formed by the front rider helps “pull” along the second rider. The more riders work together, the more amplified this effect becomes (except for that poor rider working so hard at the front, but a good group rotates who “pulls”). A group riding together forms a “paceline” (a far friendlier word than the ominous “networking”).

Finally, there’s a “breakaway,” which is either a single rider or a group of riders who move out in front of the peloton in the hopes of winning the race.

The solo breakaway almost always gets pulled back into the peloton.
Photo by flickr user Team Traveller [sic] used via Creative Commons license.

Inevitably, thanks to the powers of the slipstream, solo riders who attempt to breakaway from the peloton are almost always caught. They exhaust themselves working alone and eventually get pulled back in by the riders who are working together. However, when the breakaway features a group of riders, it is much more likely to be successful. They can work together, rotate who rides in the front, and draft behind each other to build up a lead over the peloton. They each succeed by making sure they all succeed. Winning a cycling race is hard, but the key to victory is to be a part of that cooperative breakaway.

Three breakaway cyclists work together to stay ahead of the chasing peloton.
Photo by flickr user mdavidford used via Creative Commons license.

I’m sure you’ve figured out where I’m going with this analogy. Similar to cycling, , trying to secure a library position – or even just a job interview – can be daunting. How to stand out? Write an intellectually stimulating blog? Submit articles to professional and academic journals? Sharpen those code-writing skills? Spend time volunteering? Pull out that rolodex and attempt some old-fashioned networking? Those are all worthwhile endeavors. Keeping up on all of it, though, is exhausting, especially if you’re feeling isolated and alone. You’re the cyclist pushing into that headwind with no one to help move it aside, with a peloton looking to swallow you up.

That’s why you want to be in a breakaway group. Surrounding yourself with ambitious early career professionals – even unemployed ones – will help you keep up and even get ahead. When I sit down in a social setting with other early-career librarians, we talk and share professional ideas, even in casual conversations. I hear about what other people are doing – their projects, articles, grants or scholarships, and so on. Their enthusiasm and energy is contagious, and that helps me get things done, which in turn makes the work feel less like a burden and more like an exciting challenge.

I know what you’re thinking: How do you find those other ambitious early-career librarians to surround yourself with? If you’re in an MLIS program, introduce yourself to the folks who are helping run student groups or other organized activities. Odds are that other MLIS students want the same things you do.  If you’ve already graduated, use social media to try and find other librarians in your area. Organize a meet-up. Start with a couple friends – if they each invite a couple more, you’d be surprised how quickly a nice size group can come together (that’s what my friend and I did two years ago to create the Information Amateurs Social Club, which is now nearly a hundred and fifty members strong, drawing from the Bay Area alone).

Never worry about how some of those people might be competition. Is it possible both you and a friend will apply for the same job? Of course, just like every rider in the breakaway group fantasizes about crossing the finish line first. But the fact is, for every friend of yours who applies for a job you want, dozens if not a hundred strangers will apply too. If you can’t get that job, wouldn’t you rather your friend get it than a stranger? Who knows, perhaps that friend will later help you secure an interview at that same place, or provide you a professional reference that comes in handy down the line. In a decade or two, some of the friends you make now will be library directors and department heads, which will open up even more opportunities for you.

Lastly, as I mentioned above, in a well-organized breakaway group, every rider takes turns riding lead. If you have a friend who is struggling to keep up – he or she can’t seem to get a job, or they are struggling to stay motivated – pull them along behind you for a bit. Offer to review their résumé, do a practice interview with them, or offer to collaborate on a paper or a poster session at a conference. It can keep them from falling back into that anonymous peloton, and they’ll remember to help you out someday when you’re struggling. We’re always stronger when we work together.

Networking the old-fashioned way is hard. You can’t always spend your day hobnobbing with the high and mighty. But if you take the time to socialize with your peers, people in the same position as you, you’ll be surprised at how fast that helps you move.

Enjoy the ride, my friends. I’ll see you in the paceline.

When Daniel Ransom is out of the bike saddle, he's the Librarian for Research and Electronic Resources at Holy Names University in Oakland, California, where he provides reference services, information literacy instruction, and manages electronic resources. He is also the co-founder of the Information Amateurs Social Club and can be found on twitter and tumblr using the handle @ThePinakes, the Ancient Greek term for the catalog at the Great Library of Alexandria.


  1. Ironically, I've been trying to network this week XD Thanks for the pointers! I'll have to share your post with my Employment in Libraries class :)

  2. This is such a great post! I was just selling another recent MLIS grad last night on the value and fun of networking among your ambitious and hardworking peers. Until fairly recently, I thought of networking as 'trying to impress someone senior and scary' and so avoided it like the plague. I've since realized some of the ideas you express here and have been much more active in my professional community, with real results. I now think of networking as talking to people who are interesting, highlighting their achievements to others and trying to help out your colleagues- much less scary!