Career Strategies for Librarians
Getting the Most Out of Mentoring
by Jennifer Osborn

Mentoring (“learning by association with a relevant role model”)[1] is now used by many organizations in
the library and information profession as a valuable career development tool. This is the case in the UK
and in America; in Australia, our  Library and Information Association (ALIA) endorses mentoring as one
of the CPD learning activities that count towards its members’ Continuing Professional Development
assessment. Many employers (particularly in our higher education sector) encourage experienced staff
members to mentor new professionals as they come into the workforce.

If, like me, you have the opportunity to take part in a professional mentoring program: do it!  Mentoring
has been one of  my most rewarding experiences as a librarian. It drew on and developed all of my skills
in coaching, counseling and motivating, it helped me feel that I was “giving something back” to the
profession, it challenged and stimulated me in a dozen different ways. Best of all, over the six-month
mentoring program, I had the joy of seeing my mentoree develop her confidence and skills to the point
where she moved happily into a new and exciting job. Whether you participate as a mentor or as a
mentoree, you stand to gain immensely from the experience. Here are my tips for getting the most out of

Join a structured program
Your employer, a local training organization or your professional association may be able to give you
access to a mentoring program. Where I work, at the University of Adelaide, I was able to join the
university’s WPDN (Women’s Professional Development Network) staff mentoring program; in South
Australia, a local branch of ALIA runs a group called Mentor SA. Ask colleagues, search the Internet,
contact your professional association and see what options you can find.

The benefits of participating in a structured program are very significant. When I joined the WPDN, I  
received clear guidelines on the mentoring process, attended training sessions and met my fellow
mentors. Throughout the six-month program, we had opportunities to get together and discuss our
mentoring strategies, successes and failures. I found this support network to be invaluable. My
mentoree also attended workshops and discussions, and came away from these with clear
expectations about the objectives of mentoring, her role as a mentoree and my role as her mentor.

Set goals and objectives
Whether you are part of a structured program or not, it is vital to set goals and objectives for mentoring,
and to develop a specific action plan. The clearer you are about what you want, the easier it is to get it!  
For example, a mentoree might want to make herself more “visible” in her organization; in discussions
with her mentor, she could learn about the right committee(s) to join or the most appropriate work project
to become involved with. My friend, Helen, as a mentoree, decided that she needed to develop her
presentation skills to get the kind of job she wanted; her mentor coached her in these skills and gave
her opportunities to speak to a number of community groups.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions
Mentors want to help you, and the more questions you ask us, the more we can do for you! Mentoring is
based on mutual trust, openness and confidentiality. We are your friends, colleagues and teachers
rather than your managers or supervisors; in a good mentoring relationship, you should feel free to ask
even the trickiest of questions! So if you want our advice on organizational politics, or if you need to know
who we  really think would be the best supervisor for your research project, please ask us.

Be prepared to accept criticism
My colleague Karen showed her CV to her mentor, and was very taken aback when Andrea suggested
making a lot of changes to it. It isn’t easy to accept feedback when it doesn’t come in the form of praise
or reinforcement of what you’re doing. Karen was initially upset when she began the major task of
rewriting her CV, but as she did so, she realized how valuable Andrea’s advice was. Andrea’s job in
Human Resources meant that she saw many CVs in her day-to-day work, and when she passed on her
experience and insights to her mentoree, Karen was able to produce a much more professional and
polished curriculum vitae.

Keep a journal
Mentoring encourages “reflective practice”, the process of carefully considering your learning and
assimilating it into your work practices. A learning journal is a recognized tool in this process; both the
mentor and the mentoree can benefit from keeping a personal record detailing their mentoring activities
and outcomes. You can make notes of your meetings, the actions you need to take,   the insights that
you are gaining. A mentoree can review his progress towards his goals, a mentor can use her journal as
a tool for reflecting on what has worked (or not!) with her mentoring strategies and coaching skills..

Explore more by reading
The activities that you decide to work on with your mentor can lead (both of) you in many directions. For
example, when my mentoree went to a particular conference, she came back with  ideas about the effect
of personality on career choice and job satisfaction. Robyn’s enthusiasm encouraged me to do the
Myers Briggs Personality Inventory again myself, and to do further reading in this area of workplace
psychology (which has helped me with my work as a trainer and Staff Development Co-ordinator.)  In my
turn, I lent Robyn one of my favourite books on the development of leadership skills. Mentoring is
definitely a “two way street” of sharing ideas and experiences, and building on them with further reading
and reflection.

Expect the unexpected
In her life coaching book Life makeovers, Cheryl Richardson discusses the concept of “the magic of
grace.” Her argument is that the positive changes you make in your life have a “snowball” effect, that the
more you try, the more your efforts will be rewarded (sometimes from unexpected directions.) When my
mentoree became motivated enough to form a professional networking group with her friends, she also
found the energy to do other important things, like working on her CV and attending a new training
program. Her smile became brighter and she began to look more happy and confident. A few weeks
later, she was offered a new job.

Pass it on!
As I said at the beginning of this article, mentoring has given me one of my most rewarding experiences
as a librarian. It has renewed my commitment to our profession, and given me more incentive to “pass
on” whatever knowledge and experience I have gained in my twenty years in the workforce. Similarly, I
now have the pleasure of seeing my lovely mentoree involved in the informal peer mentoring that is such
a valuable part of the  “new librarians” networking group that she co-founded. And you can do this, too:
join a mentoring program, share your experiences, help other people in your field – and make our
profession an even more successful, rewarding and satisfying one to belong to!

Fisher, Biddy. “Do as I do: mentoring developments” Record 99 (10) Oct. 1997

Richardson, Cheryl. Life Makeovers (London : Bantam, c2000)

Ritchie, Ann & Genoni, Paul. My Mentoring Diary: a resource for the library and information professions
(Canberra : AIMA Training and Consultancy Services, 2000)


[1] Fisher, Biddy. “Do as I do: mentoring developments” Record 99 (10) Oct. 1997

About the Author:

Jennifer Osborn is Staff Development Co-ordinator and a Reference Librarian at the University of
Adelaide Library in South Australia. She gained her qualifications (B.A. Hons., Grad. Dip. Lib. St.) in
1982,  has worked in special, public and academic libraries since then and has never ceased to  learn  
from her friends and colleagues in the library and information  professions.  

Article published September 2003

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