Monday 1 August 2011

Thing 11: Mentoring

Welcome to Thing 11, where I discuss an often overlooked -- but quite important -- part of professional development: having a mentor.  By ‘mentor,’ I mean someone who takes an active interest in your career either by sharing advice and knowledge or by facilitating professional opportunities.  A mentor is an advisor who is usually more senior than you (ideally by 5 to 15 years), but does not have to be, and you can seek one out at any time of your career.  Everyone should have a mentor, but circumstances often prevent many of us from having one.  

A bit of personal sharing

I have been lucky thus far in my career to have had two very good mentors, one formal and one informal.  These mentors have provided advice about my career path, explained the political workings of a new work place, provided professional opportunities, and have been a sounding board when I had hard decisions to make.  Though busy people, they took an active interest in my work, and my career benefited tremendously from them.  In return, these mentors learned from me about new technology developments in the field and (they said) were inspired to try new lines of research by my enthusiasm.  The mentoring relationship has been so critical for me that I would encourage everyone to seek one out, no matter where you are on your career path.

My formal mentor was someone I explicitly asked to be my mentor -- something that admittedly was scary to do.  However, as many writers about mentoring in librarianship have noted, reaching out like that is tremendously rewarding (and it was).  Before asking, I was worried my mentor wouldn't have time or, worse, wouldn't see me as worthy of being mentored.  Upon asking, I discovered that she was actually flattered and thrilled to be asked, as it validated her role as a leader in the library world and gave her a chance to give back to the librarian community.

My informal mentor was not someone I asked explicitly to be in a mentoring relationship with me, but someone I chose to consult a lot and to emulate early in my career ('What would so-and-so do in this situation?' was something I would constantly ask myself).  Having a role model to aspire to gave my career path a clearer trajectory and, even though she likely would not call me a 'mentee' per se, she did indeed mentor me as I often sought after her advice.

Qualities of a good mentor -- and of a good mentee

If you do ask someone explicitly to be your mentor -- highly recommended -- you should choose someone you feel comfortable with and would like to learn from.  It's imperative to be clear about what you would like from the relationship -- career advice, sounding board, professional opportunities -- and then to ask about such things in particular.  A mentor/mentee relationship needs to be cultivated like any other.  Remember that your mentor is giving his/her time and energy so make sure to reciprocate accordingly with gratitude and offers to share information from your perspective and experience.

What sorts of qualities should a mentor have?  Not everyone is cut out to be a mentor.  For starters, you should look for someone self-aware, respectful, and empathetic, with a strong sense of collegiality.  After all, you're asking someone to help you, so that person should enjoy helping and understand the need to help colleagues network and find professional opportunities.

As a mentee, your role is not to accept the advice and assistance of a mentor passively, but to try to give back in terms of gratitude, professional sharing, and enthusiasm.  You should be quite clear about your strengths and weaknesses and be honest about what sort of assistance you would like your mentor to provide.  Such clarity and straightforwardness will lead to a much more productive and successful relationship.


In short, do try to find a mentor.  At any stage of your career, reaching out to people you admire and seeking their counsel is immensely rewarding and beneficial.  You will find that if you cultivate a good mentor, it is likely that one day in the future you will in turn ‘pay it forward’ and generously give of your time to a fellow librarian seeking advice and traction in this rapidly changing world of librarianship.  

Further reading

The literature on mentoring in and out of librarianship is voluminous.  It is not possible here to give a complete resource list, but a few good starting places online include:
Mentoring page:

How to Find a Mentor

Effective Mentoring
doi: 10.1177/0340035209105672
IFLA Journal June 2009 vol. 35 no. 2171-182

Sharing program: The Big-Boy Boomeroo of mentoring
Carrye Syma and Cynthia Henry
C&RL News March 2009, pp 178-180

Revitalizing a Mentoring Program for Academic Librarians
Diana Farmer, Marcia Stockham, and Alice Trussell
College and Research Libraries, July 2009, pp 8-24

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