Mentorship from Both Sides

A role reversal makes the relationship a two-way street

August 12, 2011

Librarianship is a profession with a strong tradition of mentorship. At some point in grad school, every future librarian has the daunting assignment to “find a librarian and interview him or her about his or her job.” You groan, you sigh, you poke around on the internet, you start sending e-mails or making calls, hoping to find someone who has time for you, isn’t a fuddy-duddy old-school librarian, doesn’t look at the clock the whole time you’re sitting in their office, and maybe, just maybe, will even inspire you, just a little bit.

My own mentor is someone I sought out before I decided to go back to school for my MLIS. Maryly is retired now; she held a position for years that for her was really more of a crusade, and anyone who knows her will tell you she defies definition. Throughout the years she sent me inspirational notes that would sound preachy coming from anyone else, but she’s Maryly, considered to be an institution in her own right. I was fortunate to have her around to give me the push at the very beginning and then to have her on my side all along.

Among the handful of library school students who contacted me as a prospective mentee over the last 15 years, Madeleine stands out—not only because of our memorable first meeting and the longstanding friendship that ensued, but also now, because of what she has taught me, as we have in effect traded places in the mentoring relationship.

I can’t remember just when she first contacted me with an “I found your CV on the internet, can I meet you?” sort of message. At the time she was a hip fact-checker for glossy architecture magazines, and I immediately liked her and knew she’d make an enthusiastic, open-minded librarian—just what this profession needs, I thought, imagining her picture on a future ALA READ poster. Maddy became a true friend and later a part-time colleague, and is now a children’s and young adult librarian, as well as a tireless activist for a major urban public library system. I can only hope I played even the tiniest, most miniscule part in any of her successes, even if I simply told her “Do it!” on the day I met her.

Now, years later, I have given up my job to move to the Netherlands, and I’m in need of a professional reinvention because of the dearth of library jobs here. For months I have been looking for a job where I can speak English until I achieve academic-level Dutch—and what should happen to present itself but a librarian position at a private school, with a 90-minute commute. It is not my ideal situation, but it has its merits. The school is interested because of my credentials, but I need to demonstrate how I can handle the students. How will I prepare for the interviews, which involve library lessons for kindergartners and 1st-graders? My simple strategy: Write to my former mentee and ask for her guidance.

Of course as soon as I ask, adroit Maddy sends me links, book lists, copious instructions, go-get-’em pep talks, all off the top of her head. Now she’s the professional in this equation. She is inspired. She inspires me. She convinces me: I can do this. During my interviews, Maddy becomes the voice in my head, allowing me to combine what I already know with her knowledge for this new context. Because of her, I am confident.

This experience—turning to my former mentee for advice—has shown me a new ideal to which mentorship can aspire: that we can learn from, and depend on, each other. In our case there has indeed been a completely circular aspect to the exchange of ideas, and the mentoring relationship has morphed into a total role reversal. This can happen if you’re lucky enough to foster and maintain the relationships you’ve made. Isn’t this great? I’m being coached by the person whom I once had the privilege to coach!

Relationships like this can only come about when we give attention to future generations. “Service to the profession” is a phrase that is tossed about, often in job descriptions or performance reviews, but many of us take it lightly, or as an afterthought to our “real” responsibilities. Ask yourself if you really believe in it. No matter what you do or how busy you are, you were new to the profession once, in need of support. Were you fortunate enough to have someone to welcome and guide you?

I have witnessed the “I don’t have time” mentality from colleagues and professional acquaintances, and it is a truly damaging attitude. Librarians who don’t have time for library school students must not be able to see past next week, nor must they care about whether the profession should someday meet its demise.

This experience has shown me that the “willingness to give to those who have given to us” aspect of librarianship is a critical part of true mentorship and is one of the rewards of our profession. Indeed, each of us has the ability to benefit substantially if we do our part to uphold the foundation of the universe, to paraphrase Maya Angelou. I’m privileged to have participated in the process of mentoring and to have gained surprising and substantial benefits from it, both as a working librarian and as a job-hunter.

And, yes, the school offered me the job.


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