Libpunk Mentorship

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I have said many times – and will continue to say – that I have been very lucky in that I have had some awesome mentors over the course of my career.  I know I’m lucky because I hear my peers complain that they would like to have one and although I currently have a few, I still would welcome more.  I don’t know if it’s a GenX thing, but we seem to crave mentorship.

Honestly,  I don’t really know how I was able to get them – for whatever reason I’ve connected with more experienced people who have reached out and helped me.  Has it all been a coincidence that the right people have come into my life at the right time?  Have I just been more open to asking for help and receiving guidance?  I really don’t know.

What I do know? Never attempt to get a mentor by saying, “Wow. You’ve been a librarian LONGER THAN I’VE BEEN ALIVE!”  That, uh, doesn’t work. PROTIP.

Since I don’t know how it happened, I can’t really offer any advice on how to get them.  I’ve participated in formal mentoring programs, and those have been good for meeting people, but my deeper mentoring relationships have arisen organically.  In my experience, mentors show up when you least expect it and maybe are not the people you expect…so if you’re looking for the wizened, organizationally active person who is currently running a library to show up and tell you everything you ever wanted to know about librarianship and introduce you to the “right” people, well… that’s probably not going to happen.   The person that you happen to strike up a conversation with at a conference and get on like a house afire?  DING DING DING! You have a potential mentor! Or mentee…

Many of my mentors are people that could easily be called peers…they are either as experienced as I am or maybe just a little more so.  The reason that they are mentors is that they have either completed a step that I haven’t yet (e.g. getting a program accepted at Computers in Libraries) and are willing and able to offer advice to get me there.  Or alternatively, they are are there to give me a kick in the butt when I need it – encourage me to run for an office, proofread a blog post or CV or otherwise listen to me vent about what’s on my mind and either offer advice or just an ear.  Mainly through online social networks, I’ve developed a posse of people to rely upon professionally.  It’s very libpunk.

(Oddly enough, my friend (AND MENTOR) Josh Neff touched upon this same subject today in a blog post that I didn’t see until I started this one. Not only do we support and love each other, but now we are STARTING TO READ EACH OTHER’S MINDS. Spooky…)

I’ve also been surprised to learn that I am already (at a little over 4 years in the profession) a mentor to some people.  It’s really not that hard…I just do what I do and when people ask me advice, I give it.  I also like to offer praise or constructive criticism when appropriate. (Especially praise – and I try to talk up people when possible.)  As with my mentors, these all happened organically – I just happened to meet another person online or at a conference, we get along really well, and it’s sort of flowed from there.  You probably have something to offer – so look around and see who you click with, either online or in person and jump on in the mentorship pool.

Because I’ve been asked about it, here is a compilation some of the best advice I’ve been offered by mentors through my life – from high school through law school to present day.  Now, I want to warn you…there is some salty language in this.  (I mean the F word is going to be used.  Have some pearls ready to clutch. I guess I could have used some artfully placed asterisks, but we all know what the words are….)  I think it’s sort of a by-product of having mainly male mentors – many of which are ex-military or otherwise not scared to use foul language.  And as to why most of my mentors are or have been men?  GOOD QUESTION.  One of these days I’ll write response to Clay Shirky’s Rant About Women that gets more heavily into professional gender politics.  But near as I can guess, it’s because I was raised on a farm around a lot of men and have mainly male friends – it’s just what I’m comfortable with.

So, in the interest of being a mentor to others…


1) Own Your Shit

Not elegant, and deceptively simple.  I guess this can be best summarized as “mean what you say and say what you mean” or “walk the walk if you’re going to talk the talk.”  Don’t be scared of having an opinion and expressing it – a surprisingly hard thing to do sometimes, especially if you are a newer librarian.  It really boils down to having self-confidence to jump into the battle and sticking to your guns.

It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes…this appeared on my law school mentor’s wall.  I spent many an office hour staring at it:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” – Teddy Roosevelt

And if you screw up?  Own up to it and apologize to the appropriate people.

2) It’s Okay to Say “No”

Librarianship is a service profession.  We will bend over backward to get someone the appropriate resource, stay late to work on projects and (again, especially if you are new to the profession and trying to make some career progress) take on all sorts of projects.   Saying “no” just does not come naturally.

But sometimes you should totally say no.

I had run myself into the ground last spring – we were down a librarian due to sabbatical, I had essentially taken on a second job when I began also covering Interlibrary Loans due to staff loss and I was still trying to do the same amount of organizational work I had been doing previously in order to advance my career.  I was a wreck and then when what I realize now ridiculous faculty request landed on my desk, I freaked out and called a mentor.   His advice, “That’s stupid. Tell him ‘No.”  “But…”  “No.”  “He’ll…”  “No.”  “I can do that?” “Yes.”

It should not have been, but this was an amazing revelation to me.  It had honestly never occurred to me that I could tell a faculty member “No.”  Or say “no” to the offer of a professional opportunity.  Or otherwise do anything that didn’t put myself and my well being (physical and mental) last.

Self care, FTW.

3) It’s Okay to Cry

I’m going through a stressful period right now with my job change and interstate move and all of the attention I got last week.  By the time Friday rolled around, I was just toast.  And so I lost it and started to cry.  And I don’t mean that I was stoically wiping tears away, I mean I was *crying*.  Ugly crying.  Snotting up everything and unable to talk.  I kept apologizing for it, but one of my mentors very rationally said to me (paraphrasing) “You’re sick. You’re worried that you just committed professional suicide.  And some jerk on the Internet just called you the c-word.  Crying is actually a pretty appropriate response right now.”

I don’t know why we’re scared to show any weaknesses.  Or any real emotion in professional contexts.  You can get angry when someone is deliberately mean to you.  Or miffed when you didn’t win that award. Or happy and geeked out when something cool happens.  I mean, flipping out and punching someone?  Not okay.  Taking a quiet moment in your office and fantasizing about it?  Not the worst thing you could do.

On a broader level, this advice is about recognizing your own humanity and that of others.   My friend (AND MENTOR) Jenica Rogers wrote a great post about something called “charitable reading.”  This basically means that you should not assume the worst about others when you interact online.  But why limit it to online?  When dealing with others, also remember that they are human too.  Maybe they spilled their coffee or missed the bus or had a fight with their partner that morning – maybe that’s why they are being obnoxious.  So maybe, even if in the most charitable reading you could give someone they are still acting like a jerk, maybe you should try to grant others the same benefit of the doubt that you would want.

4) Fake it Until You Make It

One of the points of the Skirky Women Rant is that women don’t promote themselves or volunteer for opportunities that they are not 100% confident that they can accomplish.  I…do not have that problem.  Again, I don’t know if this is because of the masculine socialization I received on the farm, but I throw my name in the ring at the drop of the hat.  I’d never completely rebuilt a website before, but did that stop me from volunteering to be an organization webmaster?  Heck, no!  Give a CLE on business research which I haven’t done since library school?  Sure, I can do that! Buy a standard transmission Jeep even though I didn’t know how to drive stick?  Well, it seemed silly to get an automatic Jeep…

So, yeah, that’s not a problem for me.

But it goes beyond just volunteering for things.  I have been told – by more than one person and on several occasions – that I lack a certain gravitas. Is it because I wear stupid hats? No.  Is it because I don’t mind – nay, am compelled – to put goofy pictures of myself (possibly while wearing said stupid hats) on the Internet? No.  Apparently I lack gravitas because I admit that I don’t know what I’m talking about.


Seriously, y’all, I am making this life up as I go along.  People ask me if I want to have children and all I can think is “Are you high? Can’t you tell that I just barely made it to work today with my hair brushed and clothes on straight?”   I have no idea what I’m doing and I am very open about this fact.This is apparently a bad thing.  Apparently the secret to professional success is to act and speak and write confidently.

However, there’s a certain smugness and ability to say “this is what everyone should be doing” that I just am unable to do.   I don’t think professional discourse is a zero sum game where there’s a right side and a wrong side and the winner is the one who puts the most comments on a post and out argues everyone else.   If I ever get around to writing anything for a print publication, I will probably try for a little more strident tone.  However,  my blog will remain as my lab notebook for the experiment of my life.

So, while I am not taking this particular bit of advice, I do appreciate my mentors pointing this fact out to me so I don’t spend the next few years banging my head against the wall wondering why I still don’t get respected in certain circles.

5) Fuck ’em if They Can’t Take a Joke

One side effect of following through with the first four pieces advice is that people are not always going to love you.  As a matter of fact, they are going to be quite upset with you.  That’s okay.  Some might say if people aren’t getting upset at you, you’re not saying or doing anything of consequence.   It’s a scary thing to be disliked.   But at the end of the day, you’re the one that has to live with yourself.   As another one of my favorite quotes says, “Be who you are and say what you feel. Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”  That’s Dr. Seuss, by the way.


So that’s the formal knowledge I’ve been able to glean from my mentors.  Use it in good health, pay it forward and all of that jazz.


  10 comments for “Libpunk Mentorship

  1. February 9, 2010 at 7:04 am

    Great post! I don’t know how to say no either. I run myself into the ground every single day! I am also so thankful for my mentors in my PLN. And I love being a mentor to some in my PLN and to the grad students I teach and the ones I have as interns in my library. Go Dr. Suess! He gives such good advice! 🙂

  2. February 9, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Excellent. As for charitable reading and interactions, I like to remember what my mentor (AND FRIEND) Jessamyn West says — that one should assume everyone has just come from a root canal and the Novocaine is starting to wear off.

  3. Cindy Martin
    February 9, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Thanks for sharing all that great insight – I can empathise with trying to do everything to advance your career which has lead me to feel over qualified for some job applications but still quite underqualified for others that I’d like to move into – maybe I need a bit more of that Fake It until you make it mentality – I will give it more of a try. On this note – any tips about moving up from a librarian to managing a team or becoming a manager? Any mentors that might be able to share on that aspect?

  4. February 11, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    Great post! And thanks for the link to “libpunk” — hilarious!

  5. Louise Alcorn
    April 22, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Sarah, my friend, this is brilliant and wonderful…and much of the great advice I, too, have received over the years. I may have more or less success with these guidelines, but they’re still quite valid. Well said!

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