Research across many fields has shown that having a mentor can be crucial for people of color. Mentoring can lead to knowledge, experience, networking opportunities, and increased job satisfaction. One of the most important things mentoring offers is a sense of community and emotional support in one’s career.
Research demonstrates that people of color in libraries benefit from having a mentor with a similar background, but it can be difficult for new librarians to find such a person with years of training. Because of the lack of diversity in librarianship (in 2020, approximately 83% of credentialed librarians were white) and problems retaining librarians of color, it can be challenging for new librarians to find a mentor with ample experience in the field. Peer mentoring—a relationship in which the participants are at similar points in their career—can help fill this gap by providing mentees with opportunities to build community, share knowledge, and support other librarians of color.
We, the authors, represent a successful peer mentoring relationship. We met as staff members in an academic library and learned that we were both interested in obtaining MLIS degrees and becoming librarians. What started out as friendly conversation developed into professional camaraderie as we worked together on committees, proofread each other’s essays for scholarships and grad school admissions, and even researched and presented on the benefits of peer mentoring at the National Conference of African American Librarians. We’ve also been able to support each other emotionally through difficult events like microaggressions, bullying, and isolation in the workplace.
Other resources on peer mentorship in libraries show that our experiences are not unique. At the 2016 National Diversity in Libraries Conference, Genevia Chamblee-Smith and Christian I. J. Minter’s poster presentation “Beyond ARL Diversity Initiatives: Peer Mentoring” cited research showing that participants in two Association of Research Libraries (ARL) diversity initiatives received peer mentoring from other members of their cohort after those programs ended.
Having a mentor who shares a similar background can help build connections.
Through surveys and interviews, Chamblee-Smith and Minter learned that 58% of survey participants received peer mentoring from within their cohort and found the experience helpful. Benefits included increased self-confidence, a more developed community or support system, help in career decisions, new skills, and greater resilience.
Peer mentorship is especially crucial for early-career librarians. Although there have been various diversity initiatives for people of color to enter the profession, many of those librarians leave relatively early in their career. The Association of Southeastern Research Libraries webinar “Why I Left the Profession” details many concerns, but most importantly it tackles the truth about retention in librarianship from an equity, diversity, and inclusion perspective. Mentorship can provide support through difficult times in one’s career. For new librarians of color, having a mentor who shares their cultural background can help them establish a bond and build connections, factors that help increase retention.
Research has also shown that minority librarians place more importance on formal mentoring programs than their nonminority counterparts do. Likewise, peer mentoring can help fulfill a critical need by providing mentoring relationships and communities of shared knowledge, which help to support and retain librarians of color.
Institutions, too, can foster peer mentoring by giving them proper credit. Often, librarians and information professionals of color participate in a great deal of invisible labor, including mentorship of their peers. Libraries can ensure that those relationships are respected as much as formal mentorship is. As data on peer mentoring in libraries is scarce, institutions should prioritize it as a rich area for future study and support it by allocating more resources to these valuable relationships.