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On Collegiality, Leading at Any Level, and Non-Traditional Mentors

by on December 19, 2012

I’m surely not alone as a librarian who subscribes and partakes in conversation on many electronic discussion lists*, and though this topic may feel taboo, I’m probably not alone in finding myself conflicted and befuddled by how to respond when colleagues (increasingly as of late), desperate in the 11th hour, make emergency pleas for lesson plans or proposals or board reports. It bears making the distinction between this type of request from those targeting and culling examples for their own research and development far in advance– to whom I’ve gladly handed over full lessons plans with handouts and intensively elaborative developmental details, etc. – as this custom is more attune with the collaborative intention and collegial “let’s compare notes” spirit of such a forum. But in the case of the former, I wouldn’t be being honest if I didn’t to some degree feel defensive and protective – like a student elbow-blocking their answers from a neighboring snoop – and I’d be further remiss if I didn’t mention that I was tempted to judge them as ill-prepared or unprofessional. I’ve managed the work. We have the same degree. I’m super busy too. Why should they reap the reward of my labor? But this stance didn’t sit well and I began soul-searching why this bothered me – Is it just poor phrasing or tact on their part? Were they more inclined to ask such a thing under the cloak of internet anonymity? Was it a demonstration of generational laziness? Was I the one overacting and not being understanding? Or was it because it felt ironically absent of the collegiality and didacticism that our profession is based upon and, to be quaint, were we not being librarians to each other?

To be fair, there is a branch of this conversation that concerns listserv/discussion list etiquette, but saving that for another day, the greater issue to me seemed a matter of collegial ethics. “Collegiality” to me referred to the relationship of colleagues united in a common purpose and respecting each other’s abilities to work toward that purpose, and I’ve always, however cheekily, taken great pride in this collaboration. In reasoning what conditions might spark such desperation, context is certainly a primary instigative factor – many librarians are overworked now more than ever, and asked to do more in less time with fewer resources, while offered zero support or career development. But focusing on it alone is tantamount to treating the symptoms and not the cause. The better approach is to disregard context completely because it only invites judgment and potentially corrosive insinuation – it doesn’t matter how they got there. Surely times for many are more desperate than ever, but if we champion showing our patrons or students and not just telling –teaching them how and preparing them for the future – then why didn’t we do or expect the same of each other? Decorum in this sense calls for not judging the question (or imposing a premise or context), but valuing the opportunity to guide with the answer.

What has become increasingly apparent to me in the face of such instances is the importance and tragic absence of mentors in our profession. While there may seem valid excuses for the lack of mentors – skeleton (or singular) staffs, no money for conferences or committee work, zero time to network then nurture a relationship – they are more important now than ever, and can be found in non-traditional places such as those very discussion lists. This sounds all well and good and contrived and nice, but less face it, nobody tomorrow is going to go out and ask if someone can take them in as a protégé or mentee – even though they may be completely welcomed and warranted in doing so, as for many librarians, listservs are the only form of collegial contact and serve as a snorkel to the profession at-large. And though it may intuitively seem that that’s how such relationships begin, non-traditional situations call for unique and non-traditional methods – such as librarians informally volunteering to mentor each other, non-committal and a la carte, as it were, by mentoring the moment. Just as leadership is about approach and not position, mentors don’t have to fit the stereotypical mold of being older or of even of significant professional “rank” to be effective and impart wisdom or share knowledge with a less experienced colleague. “Mentorship” in this sense responsibly upholds collegiality and values delivering assistance didactically, and most importantly, begins with the mentor – not the person asking for help. The value has never been in just giving or proving an answer but in sharing the derivational process of it.

* Commonly known as “listservs” – though this is, in fact, a trademarked name.

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