Thursday, November 8, 2018

On Becoming a Leader as an Introvert, by Melissa Freiley


“Wouldn’t you think most librarians would be introverts?” asked one of my relatives when I mentioned that I was going to write a blog post about introversion and leadership in libraries. This is a prevailing stereotype. While research on the percentage of introverts and extroverts in libraries is slim, I did find a chapter by Mary Jane Scherdin in Discovering Librarians  that explains that 63% of the 1,600 sampled librarians in an Association of College and Research Libraries study tested as introverts. Sure, that number is from 1994, but in comparison, of the 44 library workers who answered my (completely unscientific) poll on Twitter in mid-March, 61% identified themselves as introverts.
While most online dictionaries describe an introvert as a “shy person,” I find this definition on Urban Dictionary more accurate—“A person who is energized by spending time alone.” I identify as an introvert. I love being alone, and that is when I feel the most productive. I also have social anxiety, which means I feel incredibly nervous in social situations.
So if we library workers are primarily a bunch of introverts, how do we get involved in leadership? Is it even worth it? I’m going to share a little of my experience on how and why I’m getting started as a leader within my university and my state library association.
First, I had to WANT to get involved. When I was first approached about being an officer in our university’s Library and Information Science Student Association (LISSA) in 2015, I wasn’t ready, so I ignored the plea. I was happy just attending a few events here and there.Besides, I was right in the middle of library school, with my graduation date just a glimmer in the far distance.
What changed? A couple of things. One, I participated in the Data Rescue Denton event, which refueled my passion for information science and made me realize how much of a connection I feel with people in this field. I wanted to do more. Two, with graduation swiftly approaching, I recognized that my resume lacked any leadership or service entries. So I began to think about ways I could get involved that would not be too uncomfortable.
Second, I had to take the initiative, and others had to respond. As I mentioned above, I have social anxiety, so this petrified me. But I’ve found that it’s not as difficult when performed behind a computer screen. For example, as Susan Cain states in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, “social media has made new forms of leadership possible for scores of people who don’t fit the Harvard Business School mold” (p. 62).
Having a few years’ experience with social media, I decided to volunteer for LISSA’s Director of Marketing and Social Media position in spring of 2017. The outgoing officers helped me for the first few months as I began to run the social media accounts. Since then, I have also marketed and helped lead our meetings and helped arrange for guest speakers at our meetings. I have thrived in this chiefly behind-the-scenes management role.
In fall of 2017, I also emailed the officers of the Texas Library Association Cataloging and Metadata Round Table and asked about how to get more involved. I decided to start out with my state organization rather than ALA because it seemed less intimidating and less formal. Plus, I would be more likely to attend state conferences. Thankfully, the officers were extremely responsive and afforded me many opportunities to dip my toes into leadership, from appointing me Webmaster and the Nominating Person, to allowing me to create social media accounts and market programs.
The more I’ve emailed, marketed, and appeared at meetings, the easier it’s gotten. I still have much to learn, of course, especially when it comes to oral communication and leading meetings, but that will (hopefully) come with practice and watching others perform in their leadership roles.
Third, passion helps drive me. I’ll admit I am a passionate person to begin with. Focusing on my passion for libraries—and specifically cataloging and metadata—helps me to not feel as anxious. This passion has been bolstered the most by participation in library communities on Twitter and Facebook. The people I follow and the groups I participate in inspire me to stay involved and grow my experience.
Finally, being an introvert or having social anxiety doesn’t mean I can’t become a leader. I may be starting out small, and I may prefer to start out (and possibly continue) leading “behind the scenes,” but my initiative and my enthusiasm are proving valuable to the organizations I’m serving. As an introvert just getting started in leadership, I am here to say it may not be as scary as it looks. One may even have fun and meet some wonderful people in the process.

Melissa Freiley began her library career in 2007 as a library cataloging technician. She has been an MSIS student at the University of North Texas for a very long time but is set to graduate in December 2018. Find her on Twitter @variouspagings.


  1. You are speaking to my heart with this article. I am an introvert to the core, who is re-energized and most productive when I have alone time, but I am very social and through years of various experiences have become more comfortable taking on leadership roles. I think introverts make great leaders because we are good at focusing on the task at hand rather than the potential for personal reward or social cache. Anyways, I mostly just wanted to say thank you for this article. :)

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting, Eryn! It's nice to hear from someone who can relate. I'd be interested to hear about your leadership path and what kinds of roles you've taken on if you're comfortable sharing.

    Introverts can make great leaders if that's what they choose to do. You're right--focus is one of our biggest strengths.