Career Strategies for Librarians
Ask Not What Your Network Can Do For You…
by G. Kim Dority
In your career-building arsenal, few things are as effective as creating a broad and deep network of
professional connections. However, “networking” has understandably gotten a bad name, assumed by
many to be just an obnoxious way to exploit friends, colleagues, and transitory, business-card
Consider this alternate frame: a network is your professional “family,” a community of colleagues who
support you, share (and request) knowledge and contacts with/from you, and help you move toward your
goals over a span of decades. It is built up from myriad connections and based on commonalities of
interest or shared experiences. When it comes to your career, your network enables you to extend your
reach and expand your opportunities, while also providing a really cool group of individuals to hang out
with at conferences.
In fact, if you’ve not been paying attention to building your professional network, you might want to make
this one of your goals for this year. Here’s why:
Benefits: Let Me Count the Ways…
First, an extensive community of colleagues will open up an equally extensive range of potential job
and/or project opportunities. The more people who know you’re interested in a certain type of work or a
specific job, the more people who can potentially help you with contacts, information, referrals, and
advice. Also, if lots of people are aware of your skills, then lots of people will be in a position to suggest
you when they hear of a great new job opening.
Second, a lot of our work as LIS professionals involves learning new things. One of the benefits of an
extensive network is to be able to tap our friends and colleagues for their coaching, tutoring, or
mentoring, to learn from their skills and expertise in a supportive environment.
Third, that same community of colleagues can help when you seek information. A diverse network of
colleagues means that your friends know things you don’t (and vice versa). A quick e-mail or phone call
to the right person lets us extend the reach of our knowledge “on demand,” from sources we know and
Fourth, if you work as an independent information professional (or are considering doing so), a strong
network will allow you to quickly pull together trusted colleagues for collaboration on a single large
project or on ongoing projects needing more hours and engagement than you can individually muster.
Additionally, some projects may call for a particular skill or knowledge area that you don’t have yourself;
being able to collaborate with a trusted someone who does provide the needed expertise allows you to
pursue more clients and projects.
Building Your Network
So how do you get started if you haven’t already? Any time you meet someone new, whether in person or
virtually, you have an opportunity to build your network. (I say “opportunity” because it will be up to you to
decide whether you want to include a specific individual in your professional community – sometimes
the answer is no.) The ways you can do this:
Face to face. If networks are about building relationships, then growing a network is about identifying
and nurturing “connecting points,” or the links between you and another person. Shared experiences are
always a starting point – for example, having worked for the same employer, been on a panel
presentation together, worked on some sort of volunteer program or initiative together, been students in
the same grad program. These types of face-to-face experiences can create a bond of shared stories
(sometimes war stories!) that form the basis of lifelong relationships.
Virtual. You can also build relationships virtually, getting to know people via e-mail, conference calls,
virtual committee meetings, online courses, etc. One of the most enjoyable connections I’ve ever made
was working with a very smart and wonderfully funny guy on an SLA virtual task force, where we had an
opportunity to share our knowledge, professional histories, and snarky jokes about serving on
committees. Although we met online, we ended up meeting in person at the next SLA conference, and I
now consider him to be both a friend and a highly valued colleague. Others I’ve known have established
professional connections through forums, listservs, and online LIS courses’ virtual team projects (a very
valuable indicator of whether you’d ever want to work with someone again!), among other avenues.
Services. Social networking sites are another option, if you are comfortable posting information about
yourself that strangers will be able to see. Services like LinkedIn are specifically set up so that you can
tell the world at large enough about yourself that other people will be able to identify connecting points –
alumni of same school/employer, shared interest in information architecture or basketweaving, both
volunteers for Save the Lighthouses, etc.
In fact, you may meet people at conferences, continuing ed classes, community events, or virtual book
clubs with whom you strike up a connection that builds to a relationship of shared stories or
experiences. The goal is to continue to nurture those connections, so that the bond between you
remains resilient, even if occasional or from a distance.
Sustaining Your Network
Few of us (okay, absolutely no one I know) have as much time as we need to cover all our “to-do’s,” so
staying connected to your professional community can obviously be a bit of a challenge. In search of
some great tips, I informally surveyed a number of my LIS friends to see what they do to maintain their
professional communities. (Did I point out that one of the great things about a professional network is
that you can tap them for ideas when you’re writing an article?)
Some of the ideas were catching coffee (or cocktails) together after work; pinging friends via e-mail at
least quarterly just to see how they’re doing or let them know what’s going on with you; forwarding on
information you know will be of interest with a note that you’re thinking of them; arranging to meet “virtual”
colleagues at conferences so you have a chance to put a face with an online persona; joining LinkedIn
so you can receive automatic updates on friends and colleagues as they take new jobs, titles, or career
paths (which in turn allows you to send a congratulatory note); and keeping an eye out for potential
opportunities that may be of interest to people in your network.
Although many of us would greatly prefer to nurture our professional relationships with a personal
meeting, a handwritten note, or a phone call, the reality is that for most purposes, an e-mail is just fine.
(It works especially well when you’re wanting to share information at 11:30 pm, and a phone call or
personal visit might perhaps be less welcome.)
Building Relationships: The Big Three
Anyone remember the old “Rolodex networking” days? The assumption was that the more names you
had in your Rolodex, the more important/powerful/in-demand you were. In addition to just being a
generally obnoxious way to approach life (and people), it doesn’t seem to me to be an especially useful
approach. If the value of a community of colleagues is in the quality and honesty of its relationships (and
I believe it is), then it’s important to treat people as people, rather than resources to exploit. That means
getting to know them and care about them.
If your first instinct is to ask “what can this person do for me?,” then you’re simply looking to use a
contact rather than build a relationship. Instead, consider the following three actions:
Ask people about themselves rather than telling them about you. Being genuinely interested in people
and their stories and knowledge is the basis for building connections with new acquaintances. To quote
Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand then to be understood.”
People will appreciate your interest in them, and you will learn both who they are and what you may have
Look for ways to help. Talking with people about their lives or jobs or passions also gives you an
opportunity to determine if there are ways you can help them in some way. Building bonds by finding
ways to help each other is not only rewarding for both parties, it’s also a time-honored approach to
getting things done (just look how effective the old boys’ network has always been).
Don’t just say thank you. Yep, it’s imperative to thank anyone who’s helped you, but don’t just say thank
you. Ask what you can do in turn to help that individual, OR someone who is important to him or her.
Reciprocity is the heart of any sustainable network, and you always want to make sure that you’re giving
to others as much as they are giving to you. Remember our hopefully muttered statements about awful
bosses or colleagues, “what goes around comes around?” Well, when it comes to careers and our
networks, it pretty much does work that way.
It’s not necessarily a one-to-one ratio; I may not be able to immediately help a friend who’s just done
something wonderful for me, but perhaps I can help someone else, and then that person can help one
of my recent graduates, who can in turn help one of my new students….There really is a karma circle that
seems to go on through our lives, continually offering new opportunities to use what and who we know to
help others. Your professional community is not only a terrific place to practice good karma, it’s also an
incredibly rewarding way to do so.
The breadth, depth, and diversity of your network doesn’t just ensure the likelihood of a broader range of
professional opportunities for you. Your community of colleagues can also give you good career advice,
including telling you when you’re entirely off-base. They can be your brain-trust on emerging trends and
issues in an area of professional interest, and give you the confidence that comes from knowing you don’
t have to know everything, because your diverse family of colleagues not only pretty much does know
everything, they’re also willing to share. (Because, of course, you have been willing to share in the
past….) You are stronger, smarter, and more capable because of your network; but there is another
benefit, as well.
One of the true joys of being an LIS professional of, ahem, a certain age, is that you’ve worked with and
gotten to know a lot of different people, from many walks of life. In my long career as an info pro, I’ve
worked in academia, the telecommunications industry, publishing, a special library, an online learning
institution, several for-profit start-ups, and for numerous clients from various industries. I’ve built
relationships with individuals and expertise in every one of those engagements, which means that I’ve
got lots of knowledge and contacts with which I can help friends, colleagues, students, and former
students achieve their goals. For me, the ability to call on my network to help others is one of the greatest
benefits a long career can provide. It’s a way of having a positive impact that goes well beyond your
professional skills, and speaks to who you are as a caring human being.
My suggestion? Don’t miss an opportunity to build a new relationship. As E. M. Forster said, “Only
connect.” And then keep on connecting.
About the Author:
Kim Dority is the Vice President of Content and Editorial for Disaboom.com, an online resource for
people with disabilities. She is also president of Dority & Associates, Inc., an information strategy and
projects company. In addition, she teaches a course for the University of Denver LIS program on
alternative LIS career paths, and is author of Rethinking Information Work: A Career Guide for Librarians
and Other Information Professionals (Libraries Unlimited, 2006).
Article published Mar 2008
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.