Every few months, I get an email from someone in library school or a new librarian basically asking me how I’ve accomplished all that I have in this profession in three years and how they can do the same. It’s an awkward question to answer, because there are always so many factors that come into play to create success, and a lot of them (the luck, the right place/right time, and the knowing the right people elements) are difficult to replicate. Also, I know they don’t mean what I do in my 9 to 5 job, which is weird, because it’s such a big part of my life. They usually mean the writing, speaking, teaching, etc. that I do outside of my day job. Frankly, I can’t explain how it all happened myself. The past three and a half years have been so surprising to me. Five years ago, I felt trapped in a profession I was miserable in. Now, things couldn’t be more opposite. But I really struggle to offer advice when I get emails like this, because I don’t think there’s any answer I could give that would really be useful.
But I’ll give it a try anyways.
I may be wrong, but I think that most of the people who end up “movers and shakers” in the profession (and I mean that not in the Library Journal sense, but it certainly also includes many of the LJ Movers and Shakers) didn’t explicitly try to become movers and shakers. I started blogging because I had strong opinions and a lot of ideas about the profession, and I wasn’t having the sort of discussions I’d hoped for in library school. Blogging helped me process my own ideas and, eventually, got discussions started between me and other people interested in the same things. I think when you do something out of a passion for it, it shows. When you do something because you want to get noticed or you want accolades, there’s a very strong possibility it won’t happen. I don’t think Helene Blowers created Learning 2.0 to get named a Mover and Shaker or get countless speaking invitations around the world. She did it out of a real passion for lifelong learning. Similarly, Casey Bisson didn’t create Scriblio to get famous. He was frustrated with the OPAC as it was and had an idea for doing it better. I could be totally wrong and perhaps every mover and shaker is an Eve Harrington in disguise, but my experiences with these people tells me that most of them are extremely genuine and committed to contributing to the profession.
Casey and Helene’s cases also point to something else: seeing an unfilled need and filling it. Learning 2.0 was so huge because it filled a need for lightweight staff training on Web 2.0 stuff. I created the ALA Chicago Wiki in 2005 because I was frustrated by the lack of information about the conference other than what ALA was putting out (which didn’t tell me much). ALA 2004 in Orlando had been really overwhelming and confusing for me, and I just wanted to figure out a way to collect knowledge about the conference and the city in which it would be taking place. I would have been tickled if just a few librarians had added their two cents (better than me just putting in what I know), but the wiki received thousands and thousands of edits by hundreds of librarians. It ended up becoming this incredibly rich guide to the conference because of the efforts of so many people. It exceeded my wildest dreams. That wiki (and the Library Success Wiki) led to my being noticed by a number of influential bloggers and folks at WebJunction. Creating a similar wiki for Computers in Libraries 2006 led to my invitation to give a Cybertour at the conference as Jane Dysart was so grateful for my creating it. I certainly hadn’t expected it; I just wanted to know what restaurants people thought were good near the DC Hilton. But that speaking gig led to several others and it just snowballed. There are still so many unfilled needs in the profession. It just takes someone who notices a need and is willing to put in the time.
And time is what all this takes. Read the profiles of Movers and Shakers in Library Journal and read about a lot of the big name librarian bloggers and you will see a lot of people who are really passionate about what they do. Many of us spend lots of time outside of work on these projects. We spend our free time writing, speaking, and networking online with folks who have similar professional interests. We often spend our own money to go to conferences in our areas of interest. The woman who wrote me last week mentioned that she doesn’t get many opportunities to publish or contribute to the profession. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve mostly made my own opportunities and I’ve done all of it on my own time. Sometimes you just need to do something and hope for the best; you can’t sit around waiting for someone to drop opportunities into your lap.
The woman who wrote me last week mentioned that she felt like she was spinning her wheels toiling in obscurity in rural America. So I asked her what she was doing to connect with others. There are so many online communities one could be involved in that bridge the distance, no matter how rural a location you’re in. Look at Laura Crossett. She lives in rural Wyoming and doesn’t have the funding to attend national conferences, but still, she is part of a vibrant community of librarians as a result of her involvement with the Library Society of the World, Twitter, and her own blog. Many of those friends she’s made online she hasn’t even met in person, yet any of us would probably love to give a talk at a conference or co-author an article with her (I know I would — she’s awesome!). So when I hear the “but I’m rural” excuse, I don’t buy it, because the only limits these days on being part of a professional network is the time we want to dedicate to it. And I love that!
That woman also mentioned feeling like she couldn’t start a blog because most of the niches have been taken. I don’t think one necessarily needs to write a blog on a topic that is totally unique. Obviously, you have to have some interest in the topics they’re writing about, but I certainly wouldn’t mind reading yet another blog about library technologies if what they’re writing (and how they write) captures my interest. Some of my favorite blogs aren’t actually “about” anything, but are just a person’s musings on the topics they’re passionate about. When someone writes in a really honest and interesting way, it makes all the difference. So focus more on writing about something you’re passionate about.
So I guess my advice is to focus on what you are passionate about and have the guts to put yourself out there. I wouldn’t have a column in American Libraries today if I didn’t tell several people in ALA Publishing (including the head of ALA Publishing) that they should hire me to write a column. When the worst thing that can happen is rejection, it’s totally worth giving it a try. I submitted a couple of writing proposals early on that were rejected, and I didn’t let that discourage me from trying other things. Rejection isn’t fun, but it’s not that bad.
Most of all, be great at your job. While I’m happy with all the things I’ve done outside of work, I’m most proud of the things I’ve accomplished at my 9 to 5 job. I feel very good when I look at what I’ve done for our patrons over the past 3 years. This is why I became a librarian. Being great at what you do and balancing that with other contributions to the profession is what will make you advance. It’s wrong to think that my having written book and done a lot of speaking and whatnot really has an impact on my day job.
But I’m just one person speaking from my own admittedly unique experience. What advice would you offer a new librarian looking to start speaking, writing and networking on a national level?