Career Strategies for Librarians
Lessons in Leadership: Practical Ideas for Growing Your Library Career
by Steve Oberg
Where has all the time gone? I find it hard to believe that I am well into my tenth year in the library
profession since graduating from the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information
Science in August of 1991. There has been a lot of growth and experience gained during that period,
and my hope is that that growth will only continue, and that new experiences will continue to come my
What about you? Where are you at in your career path as a librarian? It doesn’t matter whether you are
just beginning your studies in a graduate program in library and information science, or you are a
lifetimer librarian (LL for short). Without growth and new experiences, we tend to stagnate and become
brittle. Who wants to be a same-old, been-there-done-that librarian? I sure don’t.
With that in mind, I would like to share with you a few lessons I’ve learned along the way in my career
thus far. My hope is that for the newbies, these common sense points will encourage and stimulate you,
and for the LL’s, that these will resonate with you. I hope you will be nodding your head and saying to
Lesson #1: Seek a Mentor, Be a Mentor
Nothing has been as important to my success as mentors. I have been incredibly fortunate to have
people in my life who have willingly given of themselves in order to provide me with encouragement,
advice, and a good kick in the seat of the pants once in a while. This began with Kathryn Luther
Henderson, my advisor and professor at UIUC GSLIS. She is the queen of all mentors and someone
whom I am fortunate enough to call my friend. My tenure in GSLIS was marked by a lot of personal
turmoil, and there were many times when I was ready to quit, to throw in the towel and not carry on.
Kathie would not allow that to happen. Her door was always open to me, at any time. She would gladly
interrupt her busy schedule to allow me the opportunity to share my thoughts and fears, and to give me
advice and encouragement. I would never have made it through the program without her. And her
mentoring did not end with my graduation, but has continued to this day. It is impossible for me in this
short piece to adequately document how much she has done for me.
Another mentor whom I was incredibly fortunate to encounter was my first boss in my very first
professional position, as a serials cataloger at The University of Chicago Library. At the time of my
interview, it was pointed out to me by an administrator at Chicago, that I had no prior experience as a
librarian, and no training in serials cataloging, all of which was true. Yet I was told that I could be
working with someone who excelled at training and coaching, and it was hoped that I would fit in well.
Cameron Campbell, then Head of Serials Cataloging at Chicago and now Director of Indexing at the
American Theological Library Association, fit the bill. He took a chance on a real newbie and helped
expose me to the wonderful world of serials librarianship, which is my first professional love. (Who
would have thought?!) Like Kathie Henderson, Cameron, also, remains a good friend.
There are many others who have mentored me whom I could highlight here. But I wish instead to make
an important additional point: It isn’t just about being mentored, but also mentoring others yourself.
Frankly, it’s a waste if you do not extend the effort others have given to you and share of yourself with
others in a similar way. Try to seek out mentoring opportunities and give back what you have been
given! If you do, you will be astonished at how much you will learn and grow.
Lesson #2: Learn to Be a Good Communicator
As you read this point, perhaps you are thinking “Duh, that’s common sense.” However, it has been my
experience that too much of the time we take this for granted, believing either that we are already good
communicators, or that we don’t need to make the effort to learn to be one. Wrong! There has never
been a greater need for communication skills than now, especially in this wired, electronic information
age. It is also important to clarify that being a good communicator involves the whole package: written,
verbal, interpersonal, and visual.
How does one become a good communicator? My approach has been simple: If at first you don’t
succeed, try, try, try again. For instance, by nature I am not a very outgoing, party animal type. I tend to
enjoy one-on-one conversation interspersed with bouts of nice solitude. Lots of social interaction can
leave me exhausted. However, early in my career I made it a goal to overcome those personal
tendencies and sought out opportunities to interact with others, especially in terms of public speaking. A
crucial platform for me to achieve this goal was involvement in the North American Serials Interest Group
(NASIG). Within NASIG, I was quickly able to test and expand both my verbal and written skills. For
example, I volunteered to write up a workshop presentation that would be published in Serials Librarian.
I also agreed to write up a proposal for a presentation at the next year’s conference along with a fellow
NASIG member. To my astonishment, the proposal was accepted and we found ourselves giving one of
the more heavily attended workshop presentations at that conference. I sweated bullets, believe me, but
it was a great learning experience.
In short, recognize that being a good communicator is essential, and don’t be afraid to stretch yourself by
seeking out opportunities to improve your abilities in this area.
Lesson #3: Leadership is an Attitude, not a Position
As librarians, we all tend to poke fun at library administrators from time to time (ditto for those in
leadership positions in professional organizations). In fact, we often wonder what on earth they are
doing, and why! During the past ten years, I have found the hard way that first of all, being a library
administrator or leader of a professional organization is NOT an easy task, and secondly, that
leadership is not necessarily related to a position.
I was very fortunate to have held a management position at Chicago after three years as a serials
cataloger. My job was to supervise a large copy cataloging unit, and then later on, to also manage
technical services-related involvement in electronic resources development and administration. During
this same time, I was somehow elected president of NASIG (yes, that still amazes me). Both jobs were
tough, much more so than I had ever imagined! However, among many other lessons I learned was that
the job or role in and of itself doesn’t matter, it is how you approach your dealings with others and the
attitude you bring to the role that will make you a leader. Some of the people in our profession whom I
admire the most do not have any supervisory responsibility but are clearly leaders who cast a long
Do not think that you need to have an administrative position of some kind in order to be a leader!
Conversely, do not emulate those who pride themselves as being Somebody just because they are an
administrator or work for a prestigious institution or somehow managed to get elected to a leadership
position in a professional organization. We all know people like that, and frankly, there are far too many
of them in our profession already. Instead, strive for excellence, for an understanding of the “big picture”
in addition to the minutiae of your own area of expertise, for a strong working relationship with everyone
with whom you work or are in contact, and always be willing to explore new professional frontiers.
Lesson #4: Don’t Take Yourself too Seriously
This is basically an extension of what I already stated above, but put more directly. You will make
mistakes, you will screw up, you will have days in this profession where you are dying to escape from it
or wonder why on earth you ever chose to become a librarian. And if you don’t wonder that for yourself,
there will be plenty of people who will wonder about that for you! It is strange that librarianship has such
an image problem among the general public. After all this time as a librarian, I still get teased about it
once in a while. But you know what? Who cares!
You many not get all the respect you crave, you may be as poor as a church mouse because no one
pays librarians very well, and you may endure frustrations galore in your library work. But realize that you
are participating in a most worthwhile profession; keep the bigger picture always in mind. Don’t allow
yourself to get a big head, either. Keep yourself humble.
About the Author:
Steve Oberg has been a librarian for ten years now. After holding positions of increasing responsibility at
the University of Chicago, he left academia to spend two years on the "dark side" as a business analyst
at Endeavor Information Systems, Inc. He recently accepted the position of Electronic Resources
Librarian at a private, evangelical Christian liberal arts college named Taylor University, and is very
happy to be settling into his new role there. Visit his personal website at http://homepage.mac.
Article submitted Apr 2002
ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective
and do not necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.