Things I've Learned & Advice I Wish I'd Heard

Happy Friday! Well, we’ve survived the start of classes on my campus and the chaos that accompanies the beginning of another school year. (Although, of course, some of my colleagues would argue that technically the new academic year begins with summer quarter and not fall quarter. I, however, hold that the year starts when the hordes of students return in the fall, but really that’s neither here nor there.) In honor of surviving the first week of classes, I decided that today I’d celebrate by sharing some unsolicited advice with the library world, especially library students and those who have just started their first professional job. I usually avoid giving unsolicited advice because really, who wants it? But going into my third year as an academic librarian/university archivist/de facto person to talk to about records management, I figured I have some insights to share. I hope this helps. If you’re not interested in advice, not to worry, skip to the end of the post for this Friday’s bit of fun.

First, a disclaimer: I work in an academic library, so my viewpoint is necessarily skewed towards academia. Hopefully some of these thoughts and pieces of advice are generalizable so anyone can find something useful. If not, I’m sorry and The Waki Librarian will return to its regularly scheduled programming next week. Allons-y!

Before we get into everything I wish someone would have told me when I started this job, I wanted to talk about a few things I’ve learned. Hopefully these lessons will help you in your work.

1. It’s important to listen before anything else.
Everyone wants to make a mark and contribute, especially when you get out of school and have so many new ideas. I know I had so much I wanted to add to the library when I started, but it is better just to sit back and listen. I’ve been working on reclaiming my natural state of reflecting quite seriously instead of acting based on knee-jerk reactions; it’s hard to maintain balance when things seem to need to be done yesterday, but it’s important and listening helps immensely.

2. Be kind, even when you think no one is noticing. Trust me, they notice.
This is one where Mom was right (as always)–you should be nice to everyone and everyone notices how you interact with people. As they said in Ocean’s Eleven, someone is always watching. I’m continually amazed by the little things (little to me at least) that make an impression on people. I’ve found that erring on the side of being nice is definitely the only way to live and work.

3. Student assistants, interns, and volunteers are vital to the library; treat them as such.
Honestly, I think the library would crash and burn if we didn’t have our awesome student assistants. They helped me out a lot by answering all the questions I had when I started at the library (and did so without making me feel silly or stupid that I didn’t already know all the details about the library). Interns are fabulous because it is fun to talk with people that are super-enthusiastic about the profession. Plus, working with interns has forced me to reflect on my teaching philosophies which has been very helpful. Volunteers are super-important in many libraries, as we all know. At my library, though, it’s the archives that would still be neglected if it wasn’t for the work of our volunteer (or rather I’d be the only one trying to sort it out which wouldn’t be nearly as much fun).

4. Just because you know the technology, don’t assume that anyone else does.
Because I’m interested in emerging technology, I often think that everyone is up on emerging technology and I’m constantly behind. Well, I quickly found out that I’m not behind the curve. This made me feel a lot better and has given me a niche in the library–teaching my colleagues about technology and how it is fun (and how it can be used in our instruction sessions and classes).

5. Nothing goes as planned; be prepared for anything, and never let them see you sweat.
I like to have a plan. Planning enables me to keep calm and make sure everything is completed on time. I don’t like rushing and I’m not a fan of last minute things because, unlike some of my colleagues and friends, I don’t work better under a mountain of pressure and I don’t like the spike of adrenaline produced by running up against an almost impossible deadline.

Like so many things though, my perfect world of planning got smashed by the realities of the academic library world. I’ve, by necessity, become a lot more flexible at reacting to changes in plans and working on projects that should have been done weeks in advance, but no one bothered to mention those details to the librarians. Such is life.

But the most important thing I’ve learned is to never let them see you sweat, no matter what is happening. It is always important to maintain composure and professionalism. This is definitely going on the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ philosophy which really does work. So does yoga, by the way. Also, keep your sense of humor.

Now on to the advice. I didn’t get a lot of advice, unsolicited or not, when I started my position. I basically wandered around and talked with people because, like so many organizations, most of the important stuff isn’t written down–it’s in people’s heads. Below are a few pieces of advice I wish I’d been given when I started my first professional job. Since I’ve had to learn it by trial and error, I’ll save you the trouble of re-discovering the wheel.

1. People will test you to see how far you will bend, when you will break, and to find your line in the sand.
Everyone tests the new person because everyone wants to know who you are and what you can (and will) do. You will have many opportunities and many challenges in your first year on the job. You will need to figure out what you are comfortable doing and what you will not do (and this doesn’t mean comfort in the sense of you are in your comfort zone in relation to work responsibilities, but comfort in the sense that it will not violate your personal principles or morals). You will need to learn the power of the positive no (definitely check out the book of the same name by William Ury). This doesn’t mean you aren’t still nice and polite, you are, but just with a backbone. Don’t lose yourself in other’s expectations; do grow and accept change; do be willing to say no.

2. It’s necessary to have an elevator speech about your research because no one cares as much as you do.
If you are in a position where you are expected to research and publish, this becomes essential. People will smile and nod when you explain your research, but really, their eyes start glazing over when you get to the 30 second mark. So figure out what to tell them and wait until you find another research nerd to go into the details. (And yes, you will find someone who will be thrilled to talk research with you for hours–keep those friends, they are golden and will keep you from feeling like an idiot for being able to passionately discuss theory for hours.) I could talk off anyone’s ear about my research in archives and language and power dynamics and historic changes and continuities, but I can guarantee I’ve bored half the readers of the post already. So what I usually say is I study community archives.

3. Music may be the universal language, but baked goods work pretty well too.
I read one post, and I’ve completely forgotten which blog it was on, in which the author wrote that she didn’t bring baked goods to work because it was somehow unprofessional or would undermine her position as a professional. While I can respect that point, I completely disagree with it.

I picked up the tradition of baking for the library from another librarian who has since retired. Baking is something I love to do, as I’ve stated before on this blog, but I have absolutely no need to have five dozen cookies in my house, even if I now have one of the coolest cookie jars ever. Sharing the cookies seems like a much better idea. To me, bringing in baked goods is one way of saying, ‘Hi. I appreciate you and what you do for the library and for me. So thanks, and have a cookie.’

If you don’t bake, don’t worry about it. Just find some way to acknowledge the work and dedication of your colleagues. It’s important to stop, smell the fresh baked cookies, and remember to be kind to each other so we have the ability to transfer that kindness to our patrons.

4. Committee work will take up three times the amount of time (at least) that you think it will; plan accordingly.
Especially if you are in academia, you will be on committees–probably lots of them. They take up a lot of time; you will learn things and some committees will make a good deal of difference, but no matter what else they do committees will eat up your time. Just be prepared, that’s all I’m saying.

5. Keep up with the literature, the technology, and the profession.
You will be overwhelmed your first year as a professional. It’s okay, but don’t become so immersed in the job that you forget about the larger profession. Read widely–I know it’s old advice, but it is good advice. I’ve found wonderfully helpful articles in other fields such as business, cognitive science, history, etc. It’s important to keep up on technology too and what’s going on in the profession. Go to the blogs and Twitter, dear reader, and you’ll be just fine.

6. Get good at presenting because you will do it, a lot.
If I could counteract only one stereotype about our profession, it would probably be that librarians (and archivists) never interact with the public and have no need for public speaking skills. Maybe you’ll be able to avoid all public presentations. I suppose it’s possible. But, more than likely, you’ll have to present before committees, your director, at workshops, in classrooms, and even possibly at conferences. Get good at public speaking and it will help you make an impression because so few people are good at it.

Remember that it’s okay to be nervous. I’ll let you in on a little secret, before every talk I give, I still get nervous (and I give presentations and teach classes all the time). If you get nervous, it is a good idea to remember the ‘fake it ’til you make’ approach. You’ll be surprised at how many people you will fool into thinking you are a cool, steely presenter while you grip the podium so they can’t see you shake. But before you know it, you will be a cool, wonderful presenter and someone whose presentations people want to come and hear.

7. Become invaluable.
You got hired for a reason: you are made of awesome. Now you need to prove it. You need to stick out of the crowd in a good way and you need to let your personality, work ethic, and creativity shine. Seth Godin calls people who are invaluable Linchpins. I think that’s a great term; it reminds us to not become replaceable cogs in the library machine, but maintain our humanity and force us to be great. You don’t want to be like everyone else, even if that seems like the safe way to go. You need to be recognizable, memorable, and fantastic at what you do–even if this means creating a new niche.

Does becoming invaluable necessitate that you become a workaholic? Nope. In fact, I’d argue against becoming a workaholic–everyone needs a life outside of work. (Yes, even I have a life outside of work.) You need downtime to maintain a balance and to have the space to see the solutions to problems and to be inspired.

I hope some of the advice was helpful. If not, I’m sorry. Next week we will be back to more technology fun. In parting, I leave you with this fantastic video with David Tennant and Catherine Tate, which I may or may not have posted before. Either way, it is great fun.

Have a lovely weekend and the Waki Librarian will be back next week.

One thought on “Things I've Learned & Advice I Wish I'd Heard

  1. Thanks for the great advice! I would also add (esp. for academic libraries) “Learn the system as quickly and quietly as you can.” Many of the headaches of my first job could have been avoided if I had taken the time to learn the system: the information flow, the hierarchy, and who is the best poker play of the bunch (metaphorically speaking). 😉

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