Career Strategies for Librarians
Getting to No Yourself
by Chris Matz
Does your typical day on Netscape Calendar have all the times blocked in green? Do you find yourself at
meetings where frequently you have no idea what anyone is talking about, yet you’re still planning on
showing up to the next meeting? Do you “rest” on the reference desk, only taking two stacks off your
desk to work on between questions? Do you find it difficult to take two whole days off on weekends? Are
you on more committees than you can count – literally?
Nearly every profession requires this kind of commitment, particularly of its new professionals. It isn’t
just that we all have a lot to do -- because we all DO -- but that we aren’t getting enough of it done. More
precisely, we aren’t getting done what’s important for our personal and professional satisfaction. When
you’re a librarian on the tenure track, that isn’t just a minor issue, that’s a problem. This problem of over-
commitment has to be addressed head-on in order to satisfy promotion criteria, yet that doesn’t stop
everyone from asking you to be on this committee or help with this project, all in the divine name of
“looking good for tenure.”
Friends, newsflash: your review panel may ultimately decide what looks good for tenure, but you and only
you can decide what they get to review. Close the door to your office, take the phone off the hook, turn off
all electronic devices, and think about that for just a moment.
Only you get to decide what your tenure review panel gets to review.
If you do nothing else with this article, consider that statement a professional koan and make it your
own. It’s your career and your life. When you assumed your current posting, it was (hopefully) a mutual
selection process where the library wanted you and you wanted them. Tenure is a continuation of that
process, where each party gets to determine the other’s fitness to sustain the relationship. Putting
aside all other Pollyanna pleasantries, tenure is an opportunity for you and your employer to figure who
you are and what you can be. Now, what are you prepared to do about it?
Get Over Yourself
This may come as a shock, so brace yourself: librarians are not that important. Sure, we’re fairly
important, especially in areas like literacy and intellectual freedom, but we’re not vital to modern society
like doctors, presidential candidates, or Hilton heiresses. You are – or can be – off the clock for at least
half of your waking hours. It’s OK. Take some time for yourself; you have my permission.
While you’re smelling the roses and whatnot, contemplate what it is you want to accomplish in your
current position. Not just tenure, for example, but the implications of that process. Will you finish a
second master’s degree? Perform valuable work in a particular field? Participate in developing a new
library program? Gain experience working in local and regional library organizations? All of these?
None of these? In short, think about where you’d like to be when that crucial fifth year rolls around.
Now, what are you doing to get there? This is a much more complex question, because it’s easy to say
that everything you do is part of the journey toward the promised land of tenure. Mostly, this is true, but
SHOULD everything you do be part of the journey? There’s the rub. If you’re following through on my
advice to have at least eight non-sleeping hours per day to yourself, you have to focus on what’s
happening during the hours at work and determine how those activities are helping you meet tenure and
Review carefully the guidelines for tenure and promotion, ideally with someone who already has tenure
at your library. Your current activities should be directed toward satisfying the guidelines. If, for instance,
your institution emphasizes scholarly publishing, lay off the book reviews and consider dropping a
committee assignment to give yourself more time to write for peer-reviewed outlets. And don’t put off this
personal assessment until your tenure process comes to term or even until your third-year review.
Ocean liners can’t turn on a dime, so you need to give yourself plenty of time and opportunity to change
your course as needed.
What to Do, What Not to Do
I started my present job at a library that had not guided anyone through the tenure process in several
years. During that time, the guidelines for tenure and promotion had changed at least once, and indeed
were in the process of being revised again when I was hired. It would have been very easy to fall through
the cracks, given these circumstances. Fortunately, several factors worked in my favor.
The new dean of libraries had started just a few months before I did. She put a huge emphasis on
recruiting a caliber of librarians that could ably meet the requirements of tenure, so she established a
strong T&P presence in the hiring process to ensure that candidates knew (1) how important it was and
(2) exactly what needed to be done to meet those goals. Professional development and service are part
of the criteria and are therefore encouraged. New librarians are given a broad menu of possibilities to
serve on university committees and engage in regional and national professional groups, based on the
preferences and interests of the individual. For instance, I had already been doing a lot of work on the
USA PATRIOT Act for our library and various groups around the state, so when the Tennessee Library
Association asked me to be co-chair of its Intellectual Freedom Committee, I was glad to accept. I was
planning to continue with education on USAPA anyway, and this was an opportunity to get tenure
acknowledgement for my advocacy. We could all use more coincidence of wants like that.
Since the priority for tenure and promotion here is publishing, however, further adjustments were
required. Time was expected to be carved out of new librarians’ schedules so that they could pursue
research and writing on the clock as much as possible. That’s not a perfect solution; some librarians
have work routines that don’t easily allow them to drop what they’re doing for an hour twice a week, for
example, but with the dean emphasizing the importance of publication, department heads knew they
would have to accommodate this responsibility.
Other new librarians were hired after me, and to my benefit. Our growing empirical presence prompted
the creation of a writing group, where we all meet once a month, led by the chair of the library’s T&P
committee. Understanding that all of us had similar obligations in the area of publishing made the
notion of actually getting published seem more plausible. Our respective mentors have also supported
this task, encouraging without pushing. We are all adults, after all, and it is up to us ultimately to do the
Perhaps more importantly, the writing group nurtured a kind of solidarity among our new librarians, and
a kind of courage, too. As we collectively understood what our priorities should be towards achieving
tenure, we helped each other recognize what was reasonable to accept as a new duty and what was
reasonable to decline. In the end, though, that wisdom to know when to say no – and stick to it – is up to
My most vivid personal example was when I was being encouraged to assume a department head
position. It was very flattering, because that department’s staff members were my biggest supporters,
and there would have even been a modest raise. I talked it over with my mentor, other new librarians,
and eventually the dean. I concluded that I could not do that job well and still fulfill my tenure
responsibilities, including continuing my progress toward a second master’s degree – well, maybe I
could have, but not while staying married, though that’s a whole other article. People in the library were
disappointed, yet they respected my decision. It was still the right call for me to make at that point,
though, and I’d do it just that way again.
Your own mileage may vary, of course, but the recognition that saying no was even an option was
powerful stuff. I have since used that power, if sparingly, to modify events or positions that would
otherwise have been quite difficult. I have no regrets. Now, next month after my third year review is
completed, I might be prompted to work up some regrets, but I don’t think I will. My workload feels like it
is where it should be, and on most days, showing up for work still seems like a good idea.
Hey, maybe you’re doing everything “right” (i.e. – the way I told you to) and you’re still swamped. That’s
also a whole other article, but it does seem endemic to the workplace environment these days, so you’re
not alone – and that’s important to remember whether you’re working your way through the tenure
process or you’re already a “made” professional. Librarians continue to be the best thing about
libraries, and we operate best when we operate together. Keep that in mind when, years from now,
someone falls off the MLS turnip truck and looks to you for help. If you can save them just a little anxiety
based on your own experiences, well, that’s pretty darn collegial of you … which is more or less the
point. On behalf of future MLS turnips, thanks in advance.
About the Author:
Chris Matz has been the Collection Development Librarian at the University of Memphis since August
2001. Prior to that, he was the Acquisitions Librarian and acting Library Director at Livingstone College
in Salisbury, North Carolina.
Article published Sept 2004
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