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See It, Build It, Be It: Equitable Pathways for Library Career Success

Women pointing to whiteboard with group of students at table with laptops listening. Representing a visual of a library career.

By Guest Author Monica White, PhD

Ever feel like your library career is going nowhere?

You are great at what you do, you do it, others recognize it; moreover, they are even grateful for your service. And yet, you wonder, “Is this it?” This happens to the best of us and leads to career stagnation if not addressed. But, how can you address it? What should you do?

Dorie Clark, the author of Harvard Business Review article, What to Do If There’s No Clear Career Path for You at Your Company, identifies four things an employee can do to help them make the right moves to develop new possibilities for themselves professionally: 1. Make yourself aware of the possibilities, 2. Seek out help, 3. Identify your own ideal opportunities, and 4. Cultivate influential allies. Although Clark speaks in the context of corporate America, I believe the advice works in the education sector as well; particularly, the library industry.

In this post, I identify ways in which professionals can design their own library career trajectory and identify the support and steps needed along the way to make your career goals a reality.

Create a vision for your library career beyond a specific job title 

Reflect on what you are doing. How you want and what would bring joy to your work; that is, spark exciting energy to your work. Think about why you first joined the library profession and your motivation. What did you hope to influence in your career? What did you hope to gain from it?

We all have those thoughts, hopes when we first start our careers. Think about libraries when you first started your career. You’ve probably witnessed a lot of change within the industry. For example, tasks that were previously done by phone and mail, are now done via email and chat. Also, library staff now connect patrons to electronic resources, including ebooks and audiobooks. Yep, a lot has changed. It’s time to see if your skills need updating. To do something about that, let’s look at the next step.

Assess where you are now, and where you have been

This self-assessment step is critical in creating your path to further enhance your skills. It tells from where you are beginning and what assets you have to bring along for the journey. Moreover, you are clear on what you are missing. As well as can begin to develop the skills needed for each stage of your career.

Often, employees are provided professional learning opportunities that are compliance-based. The completion of these workshops indicates that some information has been transferred, such as safety protocols, training on new technology, or safe environment concerns such as new gender identity, pronouns, and naming policies and the like. But they do little to help participants advance in the skills that will make them better at their jobs, enjoy their work, or develop new skills that will increase their marketability.

Being reflective about your own skills and desired career path and potential will help you become more selective about your professional learning opportunities. Also, the reflection will equip you with the knowledge necessary to be a better advocate for PD opportunities that will meet your needs as a professional. Better informed about your professional development needs, you can now engage in step three.

Seek opportunities to build the skills needed for your library career

To advance to the next stage or different areas of your career, continual enhancement of skills is critical. There are a plethora of professional development opportunities available out there, but knowledge of local continuing education opportunities is usually passed on from supervisors. Supervisors don’t have to be, nor should they be, the sole source of this information for you. Library workers can consult their state library, their state library association, and their regional library consortia for information on continuing education courses, some of which may be offered online and free of charge.

In addition to listservs that hold information about opportunities, there are various communities online (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, and Slack) that are great resources. Also, let your supervisor know of your interest and some of your professional goals, so they can have you front of mind as opportunities arise.

To help save time with keeping track of the best opportunities, create a free Skilltype profile today. If you manage employees, and want to save time providing recommendations to your direct reports, request more information about your library adopting Skilltype for Teams.

There are equity implications for targeted PD options and increased access

PD opportunities involving registration fees and travel are costly (note: even virtual versions of the conferences of the national organizations have remained in the hundreds of dollars. For example, take a quick look at a couple of conferences for 2021: ALAACRL.) The professional development budgets of many libraries are limited and are thus spent on a select few workers. In academic libraries that might be limited to workers with faculty status only. The para library staff, if not able to self-fund these learning opportunities, are left without skills-based PD that prepares them for advancement opportunities in library careers.

This system of how library staff learns the skills needed for advancement could be a root cause for why the librarianship looks the way it does. According to Fact Sheets — Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO, the librarian role is primarily White and female (~83%). They also note that it has a larger percentage (~33%) of professionals over 55 years of age than other professions with the same demographic (~19%).

So, how can we use broadening access to professional development as a tool for building equity within the profession? How can we change the career advancement pipeline to include more underrepresented populations, including Black and Brown library staff? 

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Close the PD access gap by funding skills-based PD for para librarian staff.
  2. Know the skills needed to meet your organizational goals.
  3. Engage staff in creating professional goals that include developing or enhancing skills with in-house staff support (e.g., mentoring programs, professional reading groups, etc.)
  4. Provide leadership opportunities by allowing others to participate in off-site professional learning. Follow up by ensuring there is space to share the learning upon return with other staff members.

These are just a few examples of ways to enhance equity in the library profession via professional development. Please share with us the ways in which you improve equity and access to professional learning in your organization.

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