Thursday, August 20, 2015

“…I’m a What?”: Mentoring as an Early Career Librarian, by Tarida Anantachai

As an early career librarian, the idea of mentoring and supporting other early career librarians and LIS students has been a particular interest of mine. This might also be partly because I started my library career in a residency program, a professional opportunity typically intended to bolster newly minted librarians (particularly those from underrepresented groups). [Editor’s note: See Annie Pho’s post from a couple of years ago for more on resident librarians.] Almost immediately after I was hired, I began seeking out other professionals from whom I could learn the ropes, so to speak. I flung myself at conferences, workshops, and other continuing education opportunities; volunteered for committees to connect further with and contribute to the library community; and reached out to my own library’s mentoring program. I was the quintessential enthusiastic recent graduate, excited to develop the foundation I had built in library school. Really, what I wanted was to grow from eager newbie into what I thought of as “legitimate professional.”
But something peculiar was simultaneously happening. Even while I was still orienting myself to the profession, I was already being asked for my feedback by other professionals. I was invited to participate on career-related panels. I was even asked to take our graduate student workers informally under my wing during their training. This may speak to my ongoing battle with impostor syndrome (note: opens .pdf), but while I was delighted to help out in all of these instances, there was a small part of me that questioned what place I had in guiding others when the ink had just barely dried on my diploma. And then one day, somewhere between my first and second year as a librarian, a peer, arguably for the first time aloud, described me as a mentor.
"You're a mentor, Harry!" Peer mentors are all around. Just take a look. (source)

If this were an audio post, this would be where you would hear the sound of a record scratch.
At the time I heard this, I still felt like I was the one needing a mentor, that other more seasoned librarians had more to offer than I could. I’d had (and still have) my own informal and formal mentors who I value highly. Yet what I also discovered was that, while I think sometimes the typical view of mentoring conjures up images of an early career professional paired with a more senior one, in actuality there are other types of mentoring relationships that are just as important—for instance, situational/ad hoc mentoring and peer mentoring. On some level, I’d already understood and appreciated these concepts. But in the moment I was specifically identified as a mentor, I realized that I hadn’t seen myself as ready for such a role, at least within librarianship. I certainly wanted to wear the mentor hat one day, and would like to say that my professional development opportunities were helping to prepare me for this. But again, with barely two years under my belt, I thought I needed more time to get there. And while not all of the situations mentioned earlier were mentoring scenarios per se, reflecting on them has helped me to recognize how not only is it easy to devalue yourself (again, impostor syndrome), but also that you can potentially assume mentorship roles at any stage of your career. When it all comes down to it, mentors are those people who are truly invested in your development, inspire you, and encourage you to explore and grow. In actuality, both the person who had called me a mentor and I had long been doing this for each other without realizing it. If you find such a person (or hopefully persons), or if you find that you are that person for someone, then embrace and remind yourself that we all have experiences and insights to offer. Peer mentors in particular can provide unique perspectives more closely related to your current situation. Additionally, remember that positive mentoring relationships are partnerships. They are not one-way streets with a mentor helping a mentee; rather, they should be empowering, reflective, and self-discovering opportunities of growth for both parties alike.
Since then, I have been fortunate to participate in programs that have helped me to improve my understanding of mentorship and how to be a more effective mentor and mentee. I’ve also joined my library’s mentoring team. So am I a mentoring expert and do I always employ successful mentor/mentee behaviors? Of course not! Still, it has made me think about how, as a service-oriented profession, perhaps we as librarians are inherently equipped to assume such roles from the start. After all, we trust eager newbies when they are first hired to assist our patrons from the get-go. We’re all just as capable of supporting each other. While mentoring a colleague isn’t exactly like helping someone at the reference desk, many of the same tenets, from providing guidance to focusing on another’s needs, apply. So forgive my soapboxery here (in many ways, I think I have still retained my post-graduate enthusiasm), but to all you early career librarians or anyone who doubts their ability to mentor, trust yourself, trust your would-be-mentee, and learn and grow with each other. Find your own mentors—seasoned and peer, formal and informal [Editor: Or even outside our profession!]—but also recognize that you can also serve in this capacity. If you still feel unsure (or even if you don’t), there are plenty of great resources out there on mentoring and how to be an effective supporter no matter where you are in your career. So pay it forward. You might be surprised what you learn. 
P.S.  I also should point out that the term “mentoring” is sometimes inadvertently misused. There are actually a number of other types of supporting relationships aside from mentoring, including helping and coaching relationships—distinctions which I myself may have also confused, or perhaps been confused as inhabiting in the past. Suffice to say that my own definitions of mentoring have shifted over the years. I actually co-wrote more about this in a related posting.

Tarida Anantachai is a Learning Commons Librarian at Syracuse University, where she began her library career as an insufferably enthusiastic Resident Librarian…an insufferability she arguably still exhibits today. She tweets at @taridachai.

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