Career Strategies for Librarians
Mentors: What Are They Good For?
by Sophie R. Brookover
You’ve got the degree. You’ve found a job. You are now a bona fide, employed librarian. Good for you!
Now, think back to your job interview. You were probably asked where you see yourself in the next five to
ten years. Maybe you wowed the search committee with a month-by-month spreadsheet outlining your
projected career path. Maybe you made up something slightly less grandiose on the spot. Maybe you’re
so relieved to actually have a job in the present economy that you haven’t given your career path a single
thought since you were hired. Regardless, for your career health and mental health, you’d do well to
start thinking about your professional future now.
If that sounds overwhelming, don’t fret. There are countless ways to develop yourself professionally, and
you don’t have to do them all at once. A good place to start is to work with a mentor. A mentor can help
you learn the ropes of librarianship as a whole, can guide you towards deepening your knowledge of
your present area of focus, and perhaps most importantly, can help you define and reach career goals
you feel passionately about.
Finding a Mentor
This is easier than you think. Look in obvious places first. Your state-level professional association is a
very good place to start. In New Jersey, the New Jersey Library Association’s Professional Development
committee has just established a formal mentor program. Program Chair Sharon Goldschneider
describes the program as an effort “to match more experienced librarians in the state with newer
librarians who wish to become more involved in their careers and NJLA. We hope that the wisdom and
experience of involved librarians will inspire mentees to develop and explore their fledgling skills. At the
same time, we hope the energy and enthusiasm of the mentees will spark continued involvement and
goodwill in their mentors.” School librarians in New Jersey are doubly lucky, as they can sign up to be
matched with a mentor through the Educational Media Association of New Jersey (EMAnj), as well as
through NJLA. Both programs encourage participants to arrange a regular schedule of “meet-ups” and
to establish a set of long-term and short-term goals to work towards achieving over the course of a
The meet-ups can take whatever form is most convenient for mentor and mentee alike. My mentor for
the year is a school librarian in a high school too far north from where I live and work to make frequent
face-to-face meetings convenient, so we will meet by telephone biweekly, and use e-mail to share ideas,
thoughts, and concerns between phone conversations. The many opportunities to stay in touch
electronically – telephone, e-mail, Internet Relay Chat, private chat rooms, to name a few – make the
possibility of working with long-distance mentors viable, which can be useful if you live halfway across
the state (or in an entirely different state) from your prospective mentor.
What if your state library association doesn’t offer a mentoring program? By all means, ask them to set
one up. You could even gain some regional association experience if you offer to assist in the
preparations. Organizing a statewide program will take some time, though, so while one is in the works,
seek out other mentoring opportunities. Most mentoring relationships you seek independently will be
informal to start, but you may wish to establish some formal guidelines for yourself once you get going.
There are probably a number of people at your workplace whom you admire. Think about what draws
you to these coworkers: Does one of your colleagues work on the kinds of committees and projects you
aspire to participate in? Does the manager of another department demonstrate conflict resolution skills
that should qualify her for the Nobel Peace Prize? Is your own supervisor 1 working on a manuscript that
interests you? Approach these people, and ask them questions. Ask about how they plan their
projects. Ask about how they balance their professional involvement with their duties in the workplace.
Ask about their career paths. They will be flattered that you’re taking an interest in their work, and will
probably be happy to share information, tips, and insights about their interests and projects.
The Wild and Wooly WWW
Look online for mentors, too, even among your own peer group of new librarians. Every national and
most state-level library associations offer electronic discussion lists which can provide invaluable advice
and thought-provoking discussions on career development. Often, the discussions on lists like
NEXGEN and NEWLIB are perfect examples of the whole being far greater than the sum of its parts.
Most of the members of these lists are new to the profession, but the breadth and depth of the group’s
collective experiences can provide a formidable sounding board for questions about career
development, from handling your first supervisory experience, to pursuing association involvement, to
writing professionally, to career-life balance, to navigating a smooth transition from one organization to
another without burning bridges.
Mutually rewarding one-on-one relationships can develop from electronic discussion list interactions, as
well. You will notice that a number of people on your favorite lists consistently write posts that strike a
chord with you. Contact them off-list and strike up a private discussion through e-mail. Informal mentor
experiences like this can be either a stopgap measure, or the sum total of your mentor-seeking
experiences, depending on your preferences. NEXGEN list creator and moderator Christine Borne
views the mentoring aspect of the list as an indicator of the economic climate. She notes that in the
present dissatisfying job market, “you might have to wait a while to actually work with your ideal boss.
Electronic lists expand your possibilities of finding a mentor. In my opinion, it’s not an ideal situation – I’
d really like to have a mentor with whom I work in close contact every day – but it’s a resourceful solution."
For my part, lists have been vitally important, both in terms of offering practical advice on career
development, and as reality checks. The daily e-mails from my NEXGEN colleagues are full of friendly,
practical reminders that I am not the only newly-minted pop-culture-obsessed, nose-ring-wearing,
skeptically optimistic Youth Services librarian out there.
Looking Even Farther Afield
Don’t limit yourself to looking for mentors in the field of librarianship. Potential mentors are often hiding
in plain sight. Look around your community and social circle – business leaders, members of the
school board, a savvy family friend, members of your religious organization – to find someone who is
already in the habit of giving their time and expertise, and whose career path you would like to emulate in
one way or another.
On Your Way
Clearly, there are many ways to find a mentor who is right for you. Take your time, think about your goals
and communication style, and approach some potential mentors. And who knows? Perhaps one day,
you will continue the cycle of grass-roots professional development by mentoring a new generation of
1 Caveat Mentee: Enlisting your own supervisor as a mentor can be a tricky business. Sometimes it is
a very satisfying, mutually beneficial relationship, but it can also backfire in a number of ugly ways –
among other things, your mentorship could be perceived as favoritism by other staff members, your
supervisor could be furious with you when you decide to take a position at another organization, or you
may begin to feel that the line between supervisor and employee is too blurry for comfort – so proceed
About the Author:
Sophie Brookover is a Youth Services Librarian at the Mount Laurel Library in New Jersey.
Article published Dec 2003
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.