Career Strategies for Librarians
Leadership for New Librarians
by Susan Sloan
I used to believe that leadership meant having a vision, managing staff, or running a large organization.
After doing some research on leadership for a course in library school, I discovered that many of my
fellow students and I were well on our way to becoming leaders even before we completed our studies.
Each of us already possessed some of the skills, knowledge and attitude that could help us become
leaders in our new careers. According to Judith Siess, editor of The One Person Library (www.ibi-opl.
com), “the first requirement for being a leader is wanting to make a difference in society and to the
profession.” The desire to make a difference and to change lives is one of the reasons many of us
originally decided to become librarians. To determine what makes a great leader I looked at the
attributes of leaders who have inspired me. Here are ten ways for new librarians (and seasoned ones)
to become leaders:
Do the right thing
Ethics is a concept that seems to be overlooked by many business and political leaders these days, but
true leadership requires the ability to recognize and weigh ethical issues. I took a course in ethics in
library school and the most valuable advice I received in that class was “if it feels wrong, it probably is.”
For some decisions and actions there is no clear right and wrong, so you need to determine what is
right for you. Begin to closely examine the decisions you make and the decisions you see others make.
Ask colleagues about the thought process behind their decisions. Remember, your professional
reputation begins the first day of your first library job and that reputation will follow you throughout your
career. Doing the right thing may not always be easy, but it will always be worthwhile.
Part of our job is to keep learning and stay current in the library field. There are many ways to do this,
including attending workshops and conferences, joining professional organizations, subscribing to
electronic discussion lists, and reading journals. You are probably doing many of these things already,
but to be a leader, you need to take your learning one step further. Share the information you have
learned with others. Forward interesting online discussion threads, copy relevant articles, and distribute
workshop handouts. By sharing information, you are helping others, showing initiative, and most
importantly, saving your co-workers time.
Use your skills and interests
In just one of my classes in library school there was an accountant, a nurse, a library custodian, a
marketing consultant, a computer programmer, and a career counselor. Imagine what a talented and
diverse staff we would have been together in one library. It is important to note that the reason most of
us were becoming librarians was to escape our former careers. Even if you too have successfully
escaped from another career, don’t forget to use the valuable skills that you have acquired outside the
library world. Your interests are also important. Do you like antiquing, have you traveled extensively, or
do you speak another language? Skills and interests such as these add to your professional value and
to the overall expertise of the library in which you work.
We all have personal and professional strengths and weaknesses. It is important that you know what
yours are so that you can use your strengths and improve your weaknesses. The first step is to know
yourself; then you can determine if your job best fits your abilities. If you are a terrific storyteller but your
job does not involve storytelling, you need to either seek ways to use storytelling in your job or find
another position that can use your strengths. If your computer skills are rusty or if your organizational
skills leave something to be desired, take a class or enlist a colleague you admire to help you to
improve your skills. Most great leaders surround themselves with people who have skills that
complement their own. Begin to build a network of people who can help you with your weaknesses and
encourage your strengths.
Volunteer to work on committees within your library, your community, or in local, state or national library
organizations. You will not only pick up valuable leadership skills, but you can also make friends and
professional networking contacts. As a former trade show and convention manager, I volunteered to
work on both my local and state library conferences. Volunteering with librarians from different kinds of
libraries, both locally and statewide, has given me a perspective that I never would have gained from only
working in my own library. I also recommend volunteering for committees because it is simply a lot of
fun to work together with like-minded colleagues on a common goal. Never underestimate the
importance of having fun in your career.
During our careers we will probably all be faced with new computer systems, new directors or
supervisors, new policies, and new buildings. In each of these situations we have a choice: we can
either cling to the comfortable past or we can embrace change. As new librarians, it is easier to
embrace change because we are not so invested in the status quo. In a short time, however, we might
find change to be as uncomfortable as some of our more seasoned co-workers. For this reason, as we
progress in our careers we must remember to never, ever say the following seven words: “but we’ve
always done it this way.”
Be a mentor
You don’t need a lot of experience to be a mentor. You just need to know a little bit more about
something than someone else. Mentoring also doesn’t have to be a long term or formal arrangement. I
decided to become a librarian because of the encouragement of a former co-worker. She had only 6
credits toward her M.L.S. at the time, but she guided me throughout graduate school by suggesting
classes, professors and internship opportunities. Once I started school I also shared what I learned
from her and from my own experiences with other students and classmates. All leaders need mentors
and all leaders need to be mentors.
If you have a job, be grateful. If you like your co-workers, be grateful. If you have a supportive supervisor,
be grateful. If you don’t have any of these things, do something about it, but don’t complain.
Complaining is easy and provides immediate gratification; unfortunately, it also makes everyone around
you unhappy, creates a negative work environment and doesn’t solve your problems. You have chosen
a wonderful career. Be grateful for what you have, and the next time everyone around you is complaining,
just walk away. Be positive; look for creative solutions to problems and you will gain the added benefit of
being a much happier person.
Think of any leader from the past or present, whether known nationally or only in your library or
community. They all have one thing in common: they are all passionate about something. You can’t be
a leader without feeling strongly about a cause, a goal, or an interest. Your passion can be about
anything from helping others to digitization to the Patriot Act. A passion is something you are interested
in, you are good at, and most importantly, you care deeply about. A librarian who is passionate about
adult literacy will learn everything there is to know about it. She will recommend setting up adult literacy
programs in her library. She will be familiar with the latest developments in adult literacy and other
librarians will seek her out for her expertise in this subject. Her passion will enable her to be a leader.
Lead with love
Love is not a word that is often used in the workplace, but love is what you need to be a leader. As
librarians, we have the opportunity to truly make a difference in the lives of others. Love your job, love
your career, and love your profession. Love your co-workers, supervisors and clients/patrons. Be
inspired by leaders who help you to recognize the value of your contributions to society and be humbled
by the opportunity to make a difference in the world. Have you ever met someone who truly loves her
work? Her love remains constant even when faced with tedious tasks, boring meetings and difficult
colleagues. The basis for her love is the fact that she knows that the work she does makes a
difference. Figure out how you can make a difference in your job and career and you will lead with love.
About the Author:
Susan Sloan is an Adult Reference Librarian at the Elwood Public Library in Elwood, New York. She
received her MLS in May 2005 from the Palmer School for Information and Library Science in Brookville,
Article published Aug 2005
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.