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Unlikely Experts: Learning on the Job

by on June 30, 2017

Have you ever been enthused by an idea that you didn’t know much about? Wanted to work on a committee or give a presentation at a conference without the base knowledge you think you need? Sometimes being interested is enough to get started. If you are looking for a chance to gain more experience in a certain area, sometimes it’s okay to announce that you are interested, even before you start learning about the topic.

I recently attended a conference and saw a great presentation given by a team of talented librarians, who didn’t know what they were talking about…literally. They brought together a committee of professionals from across the state to contribute to an idea, and mentioned early on in the talk that they were still learning  the pros and cons of the idea, but that they wanted to hear from us.

The program focused on data-sharing between public libraries, but it helped me to realize the possibilities of tackling topics you want to learn about. They presented the program in order to to attract others in the field to their cause, and by the end of the session they had a list of librarians who wanted to help with the work that comes next. Thirty people sat in the room discussing the idea long after the session was supposed to end.

This experience reminded me of a conference program I had worked on. The program was about supporting patrons on the autism spectrum, a service I had minimal expertise in. Over the course of preparing with other librarians for this presentation, I learned much about best practices for serving patrons with autism. I came in with no knowledge on the topic, really, and left feeling much more equipped in that area.

I took a similar approach to committee work when I was starting in the field. Like many of you I have a Masters Degree in Library Science, but within a year on the job I felt like there was so much more to learn. I joined committees with no knowledge of the committee’s focus, rather wanting to learn about the topic. I’d show up for my first meeting, and tell the others that I didn’t know much about the topic yet, but that’s why I was there. I was enthusiastic, wanted to help, and approached the opportunity with a willingness to contribute. Over the course of about a five year period I joined a Conference Committee, an ILS Taskforce, a Collection Development Committee, a local cable television advisory board, a Cultural District Committee, a Marketing Task Force, and a few others too.

I made a point never to be on more than two committees at once, and let them know upfront that I was coming to learn for a year, contribute for a year, and then move on. Most times they were completely thrilled to see someone with interest willing to help, novice or no. I know plenty of librarians are reluctant to join a committee in their community, consortium, or at the state level, because they think they don’t have the right base of knowledge to contribute. I think one of the best ways to get the experience is to join the committee, spend a few months listening and learning at the meetings and then start to actively participate.

Soon I will attend my first committee meeting on Continuing Education for Adults in my municipality. I’m not sure what I can contribute, but I’m going to go and find out.


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