Libraries are people-based places and our profession is very much a relationship business. Don’t underestimate the importance of networking

Seven helpful steps to get you to the top: libraries are people-based places and our profession is very much a relationship business. Don’t underestimate the importance of networking

Dan Tonkery

Librarians can climb to the top of the profession through many different avenues. In my 35-year career, I’ve been fortunate to work as a librarian in many different roles, from advancing to a senior position at the National Library of Medicine to working as an associate university librarian at UCLA and then moving over to the business side of the industry, where I served as president and CEO of three different library services companies. From this unique background, I have found several healthy career habits to be invaluable in helping me achieve my professional goals.


1. Develop your professional strengths.

Any person working in the library should come into the profession with more than one area of expertise or strength. In my case it was with a background of science (biology) and computer science. Through on-the-job training, I gained other skills such as negotiation, and accounting and financial services.


In today’s competitive job market, it is essential to have strong communication skills, extensive computer knowledge with a concentration on technical skills, and a subject focus that is helpful in the library setting. Be prepared for a lifelong learning experience and look for the special skills that are most useful in a library setting.

Develop a proper understanding of bibliographic control and the principles behind it. One of my most important classes in library school focused on bibliographic control–in the Dark Ages we called it cataloging–and that has formed a strong basis for my understanding of the organization of information.

2. Network, network, network!

Libraries are still based on people and our profession is still very much a relationship business. Early in your career, start building a professional network. To do this effectively, you need to get out and participate in regional and national meetings with your peers. While funding is often limited, don’t underestimate the importance of networking, and what can come from the relationships you’ve built over the years.

Networking is a continuing process. Many of the people with whom you networked in the early part of your career will retire, and you must focus on rebuilding that network of influential people. It is not uncommon for me to find that I have known the last six directors of some of the major libraries in the United States.

3. Seek leadership and volunteer opportunities.

Become an advocate for your profession. Library associations offer great opportunities to help you meet new people, expand your skill set and assume leadership roles. Some of my best friends in the profession have come from boards or committees where we both served.

Be the first to volunteer. Enthusiastically take on assignments. Don’t be afraid to tackle projects that are new or seem difficult. Successfully fulfilling these roles will help build your reputation among peers.

4. Take risks.

Too often, we avoid taking risks for fear of failure and fear of the unknown. If you want to get ahead, you’ve got to step outside your comfort zone.

You will never know if you are capable of accepting a new role until you roll up your sleeves and do it. Learn from your successes and your failures. Successful people take risks every day. Risks help us identify when our careers need to go in another direction.

5. Update your skills.

Lifelong learning is vital to our profession. Seek continuing education opportunities. Make a commitment to update your skill set on a regular basis. On-the-job training is also important. Embrace new assignments that require new skills.

6. Cut your losses and move on!

It’s important to develop a sense of timing. Many jobs start out as great learning and growth opportunities, and then you hit a plateau. Learn to recognize when it is time to cut your losses and move on to the next position. When you have exhausted what you can learn and what you can contribute to a current job, pursue the next opportunity.

7. Identify mentors.

This is perhaps the most important suggestion, and one that has been very rewarding to me through the years. Early in your career, find a star in the profession and seek their advice and training.

If your career goal is to become a library director, then locate the top 10 library directors in your region or country and find a way to introduce yourself or make an opportunity to meet them at one of the national meetings.

Develop more than one mentor in different areas, and as you advance, consider choosing another mentor at the next level. Choosing the correct individual(s) to work with is one of the most critical decisions you can make to influence career advancement.

I have been privileged to be mentored by some of the best in our profession. Having benefited from that early guidance, I now have an opportunity to be a mentor as well. That has been one of the most satisfying aspects of my professional career.

By Dan Tonkery, MLS

Dan Tonkery is vice president of business development at EBSCO. Before joining EBSCO in 2001, he served as president of the Faxon Co. (before and after its acquisition by RoweCom), president and CEO of ReadmoreInc., and president and founder of Horizon Information Services. He was on the board of directors for the Council on Library and Information Resources and is a member of the Friends of the National Library of Medicine. A past president of the North American Serials Interest Group (NASIG) and active member of ALA, Tonkery is the author of more than a dozen papers addressing various aspects of the information services industry. In February 2005, Tonkery was named the 2005 recipient of the ALCTS/Bowker Ulrich’s Serials Librarianship Award.

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