Taking charge of your career
There are no secret recipes for a successful career. Librarians more than ever have an opportunity to chart their own future. It is essential for library school students and information professionals at the beginning of their careers to understand that their professional and career development is in their hands–no one is going to come along and open the doors for them.
I moved from shelving at a Canadian university library to associate director of information services at a major American multimedia publisher in six years. So far, I’ve learned that creating and recognizing opportunities, networking, working hard and having no ego, and just a touch of luck are part of any successful career.
When I entered McGill University in 1995, I had some idea where I wanted my career to go, but I had no set plans. I understood that I needed to start with a broad base of experience, so I quit freelance translation–which was paying the bills (including a mortgage!)–and focused on getting a job in the university’s library system and connecting with academic librarians and library school faculty. While I had worked as a professional translator in a large financial institution, I knew that I had to start at the bottom in this new profession, so I accepted a minimum-wage shelving job in the government documents library. I worked hard and got my hands very dirty on dusty old volumes. Within a few months, I understood the various classification systems and was asked to work on a project selecting 18th- and 19th-century materials for rebinding.
While working in government documents, I heard of a shelving/circulation job in the Education Library–I did my homework and learned about the library and its clientele, applied, and got the position. I now had two part-time jobs … but I wasn’t done. Within a few months, I was offered a part-time reference job in the Education Library. I had worked hard and demonstrated growing skills and a willingness to learn from the library staff; the reference job was my reward. So I left government documents and moved on. Never one to let an opportunity pass, I was soon interviewing for a second part-time job at one of the teaching hospital libraries–I knew nothing about medical libraries and thought it would be valuable experience. I got the job not by pretending I knew anything about medical libraries but by demonstrating interest in the subject, a willingness to work hard, and an interest in the collection and the hospital community.
During the two years I spent in graduate school, I worked in four different libraries at the university and for a professor on an international project selecting library science materials for developing countries. I could have stayed in one job for the duration of my degree, but I believed that broad experience would be a valuable asset and would demonstrate to potential employers my willingness to learn. This decision served me well in obtaining my first full-time job, and the exposure to different library environments has helped me in my career so far.
Having banked some decent experience and made some good connections over the two years, I attended an ALA mid-winter conference and interviewed for a slew of jobs. One of the posted jobs–electronic resources librarian in the research libraries of the New York Public Library–offered interesting opportunities, but it meant moving to New York, which I had not considered.
I interviewed for the job with two different people, sent the appropriate thank-you cards, and then waited. After a couple of weeks I decided that if I seriously wanted the job and felt ready to make the move, I needed to take matters into my own hands. I e-mailed the two librarians who had interviewed me and told them I would be in New York City the following week and would love an opportunity to visit the library and talk to them more about the position. They were delighted to hear from me. By taking this proactive step and going out on a limb, I took my career into my own hands. I believe that this additional time with the interviewers gave me an edge over other candidates: A few weeks later I was offered the position.
During my second year in graduate school, I became aware of the importance of networking and building professional relationships. When I left a job, I made sure to tell qualified fellow students about the position and let the librarians in charge know about candidates who fit the job description and had the right skills and attitude. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was not only networking but also helping to ensure that the libraries were well served with the inside track on the best candidates. Even today, I get calls from colleagues and headhunters I know in the profession who ask for recommendations for candidates.
I like to tell the story of how I landed a job at Consumer Reports. Five years ago, I was invited to a cocktail party at a friend’s house in New Jersey, where I met Diane Goldstein, manager of the New York office of InfoCurrent, a placement firm for information professionals. Diane and I started chatting about work, career paths, and real estate. I told her I was house shopping north of the city, and her eyes lit up. “I have a great job for you,” she said. “I’m not really looking right now,” was my response. “Send me your resume.” “Really …. I’m not looking.” Six days later I was offered a job as manager of the Information Center at Consumer Reports.
Networking is an essential part of healthy career development. The associations in our profession create forums for lifelong learning, networking, and leadership development. In the past couple of years, I have become more involved in SLA, first volunteering to work at a career fair, then speaking at a conference, and, recently, accepting a board position with the Business and Finance Division.
There is a great deal of satisfaction for me in giving back to the profession. Moreover, I have met and become friends with some remarkable people. These are people who give of their time, expertise, and experience to help others and promote our profession.
But there is some additional value to making connections. My organization is in the process of selecting an electronic records management system. Having a support system of colleagues to call on for ideas and advice is priceless when you’re faced with making decisions that will affect your entire organization.
Recently, we began searching for a new researcher to join our ranks. The candidate who had the inside track was an experienced librarian who had worked with us earlier as a temporary staffer. I happened to run into her at an SLA event. The morning after the event, I walked into my senior director’s office and suggested that we interview this candidate for the position. A few weeks later, she joined our team; since then, she has been promoted to a senior staff position.
Look at your strengths and weaknesses. Think about what you are afraid of and take it on–head on! You can only understand the areas where you need to grow by facing up to your own short-comings. None of us is an expert in everything, and all of us have at least one area in which we feel weak. Financial management? Managing difficult personnel situations? Don’t ignore it.
I used to be terrified of speaking in front of a large group; in fact, it had gotten to the point where I was beginning to damage my career by avoiding situations where I would have to speak publicly. I built up my courage and faced up to my fears and took an American Management Association course on presentation skills. The difference this course has made is astonishing. I applied the concepts I learned in the three-day course, and today I welcome the opportunity to speak to groups; I have done it numerous times since taking the course.
I am lucky enough to work for an organization that values professional development. In our annual performance appraisal process, we identify areas we would like to develop and build a development plan. From learning new databases to searching skills to advanced courses in competitive intelligence or management, we support staff and create the opportunity for growth and development.
No Secret Recipes
I started this article by admitting that there are no secret recipes for a successful career. We all know that we are in a time of great change for our profession. The future is filled with infinite possibilities and opportunities, and they are there for us to discover. Not sure of the road you should take? Talk to colleagues, go to a seminar, and join an SLA committee. There is strength and knowledge in numbers. Where our profession and our own careers go in the coming years will depend on how much we take the lead in defining ourselves and our field. If we don’t do the defining and create the path, someone else will do it for us.
Kevin Manion is associate director in the Strategic Planning and Information Services Department at Consumer Reports; he is responsible for research coordination and oversight, administering the corporate records program, and overseeing the archives. Kevin is active in SLA, currently serving as secretary of the Business and Finance Division. He is working on a book on the archives of Consumer Reports that will be published in fall 2005. Contact him at MANIKE@consumer.org.
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