Last month, I had lunch with two friends who are also in academia. We talked a lot about professional ambitions and “extracurricular” professional involvement. One of them is starting a new book and the other is thinking about doing consulting as a side-job. In every job I’ve had (even before librarianship), I’ve been focused on moving up in my career, whether that was new responsibilities, a promotion, or a job elsewhere, so I was always focused on doing things that might help me get there. When asked about my current professional ambitions, I realized that I didn’t have any. Or, more accurately, I didn’t have any that were not related to my current job.
The fact is, I love my job. I love what I do every day. I love the people I work with in the library, the collegial atmosphere, and their dedication to the students and faculty here. I love the academic community I’m a part of at PCC. I feel a sense of fit that’s uncanny. My major professional ambitions now center around progressing in the work I’m doing, build stronger relationships with faculty, and do work that really helps our students be successful.
Not having ambitions toward moving up or out has, at times, made me feel weirdly adrift, especially as someone who has always felt like I wasn’t doing enough in any area of my life. I was so engaged professionally over my first decade in the profession — starting with blogging and social media, then professional writing and national service. At Norwich, that kind of engagement wasn’t required, but I did it to connect with other wonderful librarians around the world, to support things I believed in, and to build a professional network. I did a lot of unorthodox things like creating Five Weeks to a Social Library and the ALA Unconference with some amazing partners-in-crime, because I wasn’t hamstrung by a specific vision of what being professionally involved should look like. All that helped me build the professional network I have today.
Then, at Portland State, I was on the tenure track, and was required to contribute to the profession. While there wasn’t a specific list of what we should or should not do to get tenure, the assumption was that ideal involvement included publishing peer-reviewed articles, presenting at major national conferences, and serving on state or national committees. I did all of those things and enjoyed some of what I did, but I kept asking myself what I really would do if I had the freedom to choose.
And then, suddenly, I did again. And it was hard to start saying no to opportunities because, for so long, that was what made me feel good about myself; speaking at conferences, getting published, etc. I based so much of my happiness and self-esteem on things that were not very meaningful in the big picture. And I was so focused on my career to the detriment of other aspects of my life. The past year has reminded me of what was important. This year has been soul-crushingly hard for me and my family, and I’m lucky that I could step away from a lot of my outside-of-work engagement without repercussions. I think we’re lucky to be in a profession where most librarians are understanding of people’s needs to step away and focus on their family/spouse/child/parent/health. We often have a more difficult time letting ourselves off the hook, I think. I’m working on that myself.
When I came to PCC, what I did stay engaged with was the Oregon Library Association. I love my service at the state level — the librarians in Oregon are so positive and passionate and have such an ethic of sharing and collaboration. They also are very open to new ideas, like when I and another librarian proposed creating a mentoring program. I’ve been administering the OLA mentoring program for the past three years (and this year we launched a resume review program!) and is has been really rewarding and fun. I’ve stepped away from my leadership role in the organization for the coming year, and I feel lucky that I can continue to contribute in a more limited capacity.
I have friends who are engaged professionally in many different ways. Some are loyal committee members in state, national, or international organizations. Some have taken on leadership roles in those organizations. Some are more focused on contributing to the profession through publishing and presenting. I have friends for whom writing is a passion and have published one or more books. I have friends who are annoyed by the poor quality of library research and want to produce more solid evidence-based literature. I have friends who are fantastic speakers and have engaged and inspired so many librarians by sharing their insights. Many do a combination of all these things. Some do big, visible, shiny things and others do vital work that will never get them national recognition. Some do just a little and others do more than seems possible for one person to do. The key is that they do what is a good fit for them; what makes them feel fulfilled. For many, professional involvement ebbs and flows at different points in their career, depending on other priorities. And that’s a good thing. We sometimes need to step back from things to focus on other priorities in our lives and we shouldn’t feel badly about that.
I also have friends who are not professionally involved beyond their day jobs. Many of them are active in other things, like service to their communities, and even if they’re not, that is a reasonable choice. I am involved in service to the profession because I find the work satisfying, not because I feel like it’s my obligation. Finding the things that make us happy in this life can be hard when we are bombarded with the expectations and assumptions of others. I feel like the past 12 years of my professional life have been spent trying to figure out what makes me happy, and untangling that from what I think will make others think well of me.
My advice to new librarians is to ask yourself what makes you feel like a good librarian? What gives you satisfaction? Don’t feel like you have to follow the same path as your boss or someone you admire; have to join the same organizations and serve on similar committees. Find your tribe. Find your happy place. The opportunities for connecting with other librarians and giving back to the profession are only limited by your imagination. If you don’t see the sort of thing you’d like to contribute to (a conference, a service, a publication, etc.) find some like-minded people and create it! I’ve seen so many librarians do just that. If you’re tenure track, you may have to do things that aren’t a perfect fit for you, but, even then, you usually can tailor your service to the profession as much as possible to things that make you feel fulfilled. I’ve been on too many committees with people who contribute nothing and are clearly only there to say that they served on x committee. Service without engagement is meaningless.
Life is so short that spending time trying to fit a mould or live up to other people’s expectations seems like a tremendous waste of time and energy. Be the professional you want to be.