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Editorial: Rising through the Ranks: On Upward Mobility in Librarianship


Photo by Flickr user Mark Stosberg (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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A few weeks ago we asked you for your suggestions on what you’d like us to cover in future posts.

Two comments asked us to talk about upward mobility.

Kathleen says:
I’d like to see a post on planning for upward mobility in the library world… Training to schedule, additional education, how to find a mentor, etc. Thanks!

Danna says:
I agree with Kathleen – a post on upward mobility in the library world would be interesting and informative.

This one actually provoked a fair amount of internal debate. Some of us took a literal approach to the topic and had knee jerk negative reactions born from a strong aversion to management, some of us jumped in with practical advice, and some twisted the topic a little to discuss personal and professional growth without a focus on promotion. We figured since we had such strong and differing opinions, you might too.

Read on to see some of our thoughts on upward mobility and please share yours in the comments:

Introductions & Institutional Differences

Some of us felt particularly influenced by our personal circumstances and wanted to share those up front.

Ellie (Reference Librarian, Austin Community College): Just as an introduction, I’m approaching this more from a personal growth and leadership perspective rather than a strictly ‘moving up the ranks’ perspective. At my institution we have a fairly flat structure. Each of our eight campuses has a Head Librarian and nearly all the rest of us are Reference Librarians. (There is also an E-Resources Librarian and a Library System Administrator.) Head Librarians trade in some of their reference desk hours and collection development responsibilities to take on more managerial tasks as well as a bigger role in system wide decisions, but we are all on the same set faculty salary scale which is based on level of education and years of experience. There are a number of opportunities to lead committees and other projects and my institution is very supportive in providing professional development.

Kim (Reference and Instruction Librarian, Boise State University): I don’t feel that I know much about upward mobility, nor that I really want to. The term just conjures up images in my mind of pants suits and power lunches, both of which I have some aversion to! It’s true that I’m aiming for tenure and promotion at my university, but of course that’s also my only alternative to finding a new job in a couple of years (no tenure = end of contract). Of course I try to do my job well and perhaps I foster ambitions of “someday” being a dean or director, but I think of that in a very abstract, it-would-be-good-to-be-the-boss sort of way. Would I want to give up the opportunity to work individually with students and see their a-ha moments, to instead spend that time balancing budgets and meeting with potential donors? I’m really not sure.

I haven’t sought out any leadership roles or mentorship programs, though I’ve been lucky to have mentors who have encouraged me to do things like apply for Emerging Leaders and run for chair of ACRL’s University Libraries Section. I’m happy to take charge when the need is there, but my true nature is more of a backstage type. I’ve never thought of myself as UN-ambitious, but when you toss around terms like “upward mobility” I just can’t garner much enthusiasm. I aspire to participate in our field and make a difference on my campus, but I just don’t know if I would ever want to run the show. I’ve read that it’s a characteristic of my generation to be averse to taking on management roles, though I wonder if that’s because we — let’s say Generations X and Y here — have a different perspective on how management should work.

Derik (Web Developer, Springshare Inc.): Upward mobility is something I never looked for either. No desire to manage or lead. I don’t even like delegating work (I’d rather just do it myself, which was problematic when I supervised student workers). But, I did start as a student worker, became a “para-professional”, then an actual librarian, and now I’m a web developer. It’s been upward in the sense of increasing enjoyment of the work, freedom, and pay. For the most part, I achieved all this mobility through two means: volunteering and self-education. More on those below.

Emily (Scholarly Communication Librarian, Oregon Health & Science University): Well I don’t feel upwardly mobile at all, even though, unlike Derik, I do have a desire to manage and lead. I just accepted my 5th temporary librarian position since August 2007, when I earned my MLS; and just hope that there’s another job out there down the line when my current contracts end. Working temporary job after temporary job is frustrating and challenging, as made evident by my mojo post. I work hard to remain positive about these challenges and I hope to form them into opportunities for future growth in the profession. What I experience now will inform where and how I grow. Even though my positions aren’t propelling me into an official leadership role, I am growing professionally in each temporary contract position.

Hilary (Assistant Head of Collection Management for Engineering and E-Science, North Carolina State University): Being upwardly mobile doesn’t necessarily mean that you manage other people – you could be faced with event management (e.g., welcome back week for students), project management (e.g., acting as a project leader or project contributor), or team management (e.g., acting as a coordinator for a group of people who have no formal accountability over each other). Serving on committees or task forces within professional library organizations (e.g., SLA, ALA) are great ways to build experience with event, team, or project management. Even if you’re not leading the project, event or team, while you’re participating, pay attention that what seems to work and what doesn’t seem to work. Learning management skills by watching others is a great way to soak up both good practices and to lean away from not so good practices.

Brett (Director, Collingswood (NJ) Public Library): I think there are elements of upward mobility that appeal to all of us. I don’t think I’ve met anyone in the field who isn’t interested in any of the following, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t met anyone who’s interested in all of them, either.

  • Job security
  • Promotion
  • Higher pay
  • Management responsibility
  • Greater operational responsibility
  • Greater autonomy
  • Opportunities to teach, select material, work with interesting technology, etc.
  • Do more good for the people you’re already working with
  • Do more good for more people already in your general constituency
  • Do more good for the profession
  • Work at a more appealing employer
  • Work with people you like and admire

For me, the thing that motivates me the most is doing more work for people already in my general constituency. It drives me crazy that there are people who live in my town who don’t have library cards, even though they’re free (or, more precisely, they’ve already paid for them). I feel as though I’m failing them. This particular motivator might not always be closely associated with upward mobility in many librarians’ minds, but I see a very clear connection. In order to reach my neighbors who aren’t using the Library, I need to have a higher profile with more people and with the right people. I need to be invited to the right events, raise more money, and make sure the library is more visible. I need to gain a greater understanding of what they want and find ways to deliver it. For instance, we may need a new building or to acquire a parking lot. I’m not sure we’ll manage it, but these are the kinds of things upwardly mobile librarians accomplish. As near as I can tell, accomplishing them pretty much by definition makes you upwardly mobile in other librarians’ opinion.

I’m also motivated to teach (MLS students, which is why I’m working on my PhD), to do more good for the profession (I want librarians to have a greater depth and breadth of skills, especially in technology and fundraising, and I want us to take more interest in the history of librarianship), and I want to work on cool projects with people I like and admire. I think this last piece is too often overlooked: one of my favorite reasons to get up each day is the possibility of working with colleagues, both at MPOW and across the country.


Ellie: When I started at ACC I was assigned a mentor. This was a reference librarian who had been with the college many years. I was very lucky that he was (and is) incredibly kind, intelligent, generous with his time and knowledge, and fast to reply. However I also paid attention to who else seemed particularly successful in our system and frequently turned to them for advice as well. I also had a chance to be assigned as a mentor to a new hire and the experience has been just as rewarding. I definitely learned at least as much from my mentee as she did from me and that bond has continued. As we both grow professionally we continue to share what we’re learning with each other.

Lastly, I have been lucky enough to have the support to travel to a few national conferences, where I found mentors from outside my institution, mostly through attending social functions and through friends of friends. And mostly from thinking someone seemed cool and smart and starting a conversation with them.

Emily: I used to be anti-mentor–mostly because of my perception of traditional mentor/mentee relationships. I have always perceived traditional or formal mentoring as entrenched in power structures of which I’d like to not be part. Seeing formal mentoring as pairing people in positions of high power with people who had relatively little to none. This made (and still makes) me uncomfortable and I never sought out a mentor relationship in this vein.

However, I decided to try it out when ALA Connect unveiled it’s mentoring network, Mentor Connect. Now I’ve established relationships with three people via that tool, one mentor and two mentees. My mentor is someone who has merely acted as a sounding board, asking leading questions and helping me remain accountable for my personal goals. My mentees are two library science students (well, one recently graduated) who have sought guidance in choices for school and their future careers. I’ve tried to emulate the positive model and experience I’ve had with my mentor, asking reflexive questions, and just enabling my mentees to have an ear when they need it.

I have other informal mentor relationships with former supervisors, colleagues, friends, parents, my massage therapist, and numerous other people whose opinions and advice I respect and admire. I think unlike the traditional model of mentor and mentee relationships, I rely on my vast network of people who have diverse experiences and backgrounds to assist with particular situations and advice as I need it. (Just-in-time mentoring?)

Hilary: SLA also has various mentoring programs within its divisions (groups of members focused on a particular facet of librarianship, such as the Science-Technology Division) and chapters (groups of members brought together in a common geographic area, such as the North Carolina Chapter of SLA). When I first joined SLA, I signed up to be a mentee within the Physics-Astronomy-Math (PAM) Division. I had an enjoyable, yet very informal experience working with a librarian and SLA member who helped me get my bearings with collection management and collection building for the physical sciences.

Photo by Flickr user kool_skatkat (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Training/Education/Gaining Experience

Hilary: Some of the ways one can gain some training/prof development to either prepare for upward mobility or to give one some good perspective of what it’s like for managers is to partake of opportunities such ALA’s Library Leadership and Management Association (LLAMA) group offered last year. A series of webinars led by Pat Wagner covered topics such as as techniques to guide decision-making, empowering library staff and library managers without the use of micromanagement, and how to develop and implement strategic planning.

When I was working as a library assistant, I would jot down notes about “what not do to” when/if I ever got into the role of managing others. We’re all human and humans sometimes act without thinking things through completely. Looking back on my experience as a library assistant (as someone who now manages other professionals), I always have this fear that I am not providing the kind of leadership and guidance that I wish would just come naturally. As a new manager, I expect my approach to management will change over time and will improve with experience. Most of the folks who I formally supervise have been librarians far longer than I and are completely competent at what they do. My current approach is to make sure that I communicate as best as I can with them about what projects or initiatives are coming down the pike that will impact their work or to anticipate how their expertise and experience could benefit a new project or initiative. I try to model my actions/intentions off of the more experienced librarian experts/colleagues to help guide my decision-making, communication skills and ways to empower others around me. I expect that I’ll always strive to be a better manager throughout my career, no matter what stage I’m at.

Ellie: I think the number one thing you can do is let people know what you want to be doing. I was very lucky in that I was continually asked this. I started part time with my college doing very basic website cleanup. My supervisor took the time to ask me what my goals were and I told her I wanted to work as a reference librarian. A new campus was opening soon and needed hourly reference librarians and my supervisor suggested me.

If you’re hoping to move up within your own institution, your supervisors will be the best people to help you figure out what trainings are available that will gain you the skills they want you to have. If you’re hoping to move up outside of your institution, I would probably start by reading job descriptions that appeal to you and see what you’re missing and look for opportunities to fill those gaps. Many higher positions require a certain number of years experience with increasing responsibilities or a certain number of years experience managing. Are there opportunities in your current position for you to lead a committee or supervise interns or student workers? The ideal situation is to have support from within your organization to help you, but if that is lacking, I think Hilary and Emily pointed to some excellent ALA resources for a more self directed approach.

Derik: I volunteered for committees and projects a lot at my previous jobs. This gave me the opportunity to learn and become more knowledgeable in the workings of the library. I ended up doing instruction sessions while still in library school because I volunteered to help out when my library was short-staffed. And the more active you are on (on diverse projects) the better your resume will look when you do job searching.

Even more so, taking on projects that forced me to learn new skills, is what lead me to my current job. From building my own website to doing some heavy customizations on an open source ticketing system, I learned tons (in these cases, html/css/javascript/php/mysql) by having a project and then learning my way to a solution. You can learn a lot by reading, but unless you really put it to a directed goal, you’re not likely to get as much from the experience.

Kim: The thing that troubles me most about upward mobility in our field (any many fields, I’m sure) is that success by traditional definition is always going to involve a tradeoff. In order to move up the ranks you have to be willing to give other things up: like the ability to spend time with family, or to live in a certain location. Does more responsibility have to mean more hours at work? It shouldn’t. Or if you’re dedicated to living in a certain place — and I think this applies to Emily’s frustration above — it’s going to be much harder to find that full-time position and move up the ranks than if you’re willing to toss all your belongings in a truck on a regular basis. In Libraryland, moving UP usually means moving AROUND to a variety of institutions in a variety of places as you step up the ladder. How much are we willing to give up to move up? These are the questions we have to ask ourselves.

Of course, it doesn’t always work that way, right? There are people who manage to advance their careers in their desired locations and still maintain their life/work balance. There are people — like Brett — who manage to find the seemingly perfect position in the perfect location for them. Perhaps we need those people to offer us some insight into that true kind of upward mobility, the kind that allows you to rise in both your personal life and career, simultaneously. If you’re one of those (possibly mythical) people, please be sure to comment below.

10 Responses

  1. Kathleen

    This was my question, and I admit that the different interpretations of it made me smile! I don’t really remember exactly which definition I meant!

    I think I was interested in hearing about each of your experiences advancing through the library world. I love direct service, but I do feel a desire to lead, and wanted to prepare accordingly.

    I wanted to hear which trainings or programs were worthwhile, and which were a waste of time? How did you find mentors (I was indeed curious if anyone had used ALA Connect!) and how did that relationship work. Whether there were any resources for management skills you recommend (I’m particularly fond of the the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s career advice section, which has a lot more in common with libraries than you might think). I also wanted advice on managing a work-life balance and the need to travel to advance… How to reconcile those things?

    Overall, I think your responses are a good place to start!

    1. Kathleen, I feel very strongly about work life balance, and being healthy at work. I wrote about this way back when in December 2008. https://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2008/our-librarian-bodies-our-librarian-selves/

      In terms of traveling to advance, Kim pointed out that one of the reasons I might be frustrated is that I am unwilling to relocate for a professional opportunity. To me it was a decision in being happy in my life (e.g. in the city I love) and to possibly sacrifice opportunity. That being said, my experiences, albeit temporary, have all been very rich. I’d be happy to continue dialog with you about this (divulging more personal detail if it helps)over e-mail if you want.


      1. I’m big on work/life balance too. I forgot to mention that in the post as another difference between reference librarians and head librarians at my college. Once you’re a head librarian, you’re always on call. I’m not tied to my location like Emily is, but I am tied to my free time being my free time and work to make sure I get my work done in my 40 hour week and have it encroach minimally into the rest of my life. I love my job and my profession, so it’s not a perfect separation, I’ll read blogs, talk to colleagues, and discuss issues with friends off the clock. But I won’t take home work and I try not to check email. And if something requires extra time, I make sure to get extra time off later to make up for it.

        I couldn’t tell you whether it’s a personal choice or an expectation, but I can say that very few of our head librarians only work 40 hours and very few don’t work from home in addition to their regular work week. I don’t believe it’s impossible to find that balance, but it does seem that people who take on higher level responsibilities tend to be more willing to accept the hours that tend to go along with it rather than fight to keep work and the rest of their life separate.

  2. I really appreciated Ellie’s last comment: “I think the number one thing you can do is let people know what you want to be doing.” It’s easy for your co-workers, supervisors, and even friends to think that you are content in your job or have no desire to try something new. I think that letting people know that you have interests in areas outside your regular job duties and aspirations to achieve something more will help them keep you in mind when new opportunities arise.

    Also, in response to Kathleen’s comment, the LLAMA Mentoring Program within ALA is excellent if you’re interested in leadership and management. The ACRL Instruction Section Mentoring Program is also a good fit for librarians who want to grow and progress as teachers.

  3. Karl Ericson

    I often think about how I would “run” the library if I were “king” of the library. But, I also know that my director has to deal with tons of institutional flack, in terms of dealing with deans and other administrators. I don’t see a lot of opportunity for “moving up”. There is only the slim prospect of a full time job. The reality is that I will continue to be used by my institution as, relatively high-wage labor, but infinitely cheaper than a full-timer who has “benefits”. I don’t blame the institution. They are working within the confines of a broken system that works to benefit corporations and profits instead of the needs of humans regardless of their status. Oops! Kinda ranted along there. Take care!

  4. John Jewell

    If one is focused on how do I get promoted or have a higher ranking position, that leads more to looking at the organizational chart, job classifications, career paths, etc.

    Another approach, that I found much more interesting and satisfying, has been to find projects that I think are interesting and that benefit the library. That way I continue to grow mentally and professionally whether the library formally recognizes that growth or not.

    Through the years (Yes, I am an old-timer), interesting projects seem to grow and need teams to be done successfully. That in turn led to needing to understand working with people, team-building, group dynamics, and project management as well as more technical aspects of library and information science – whether community information databases and outreach, selective dissemination of information, enterprise web sites, digital preservation, or currently enterprise digital accessibility.

    That also meant having bosses who were willing to allow me to undertake those projects and who saw the benefits they provided.

    I offer no guarantees, but beginning by looking at the needs of the library and one’s own professional interests can be a great way to develop – possibly providing upward mobility in the process.

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