Question for Mid-Career Information Professionals: What has Been Your Biggest Career Challenge?

By Ellen Mehling, Career Development Consultant, METRO

A few months ago, we asked new information professionals about the best career advice they’ve received. This time we are asking a question of mid-career professionals: “What has been your biggest career challenge so far and how have you dealt with it?” As with the earlier question, answers are of varying lengths, and this time three of the respondents have chosen to reply anonymously.

20140306_AdviceforNewProfessionals.pngThis may be a bit more abstract of an answer than you're looking for, but the biggest challenge of my job right now is wanting to do Everything! Right Now! In my first couple of years, I felt as though I was settling in, getting to know the field and my job. Now that I'm a little more settled, I find myself wanting to do so much. There are so many projects I'm excited about, and so many things I believe that my archives needs to be doing, but we are a very small staff, and like so many institutions, we just don't have the staff resources to do all of these things. What has been helpful to me in dealing with this feeling of wanting to do so much was to develop a strategic plan, which we didn't previously have. The plan allows us to take that huge list and to prioritize what's most important, and to set realistic goals around those priorities. Perhaps most important, the strategic plan reminds me that I have many years ahead of me in my career, and even though I can't do Everything! Right now! I have a future ahead of me to keep working on those goals.

- Madeleine Thompson, PhD, Librarian & Archivist, Wildlife Conservation Society

If I can say it in a nutshell, my biggest challenge so far is, as a manager, dealing with both staff AND a building. Especially when the staff is small and much of the managing of both staff and building needs to get done by me while I’m still manning an Information Desk. Delegation is key, knowing who can/will handle tasks you ask them to complete by a certain deadline. You need to know your staff and their strengths and delegate accordingly.

- Anonymous - Public Library Manager

The biggest challenge of my career, and one I’m currently dealing with, is: staying motivated and engaged in a role (and library) that I’ve been in for nearly a decade.

The beginning of my professional career was spent learning from others, being mentored, trying new things, moving into different roles, discovering what I was really good at, and defining (and redefining) my career path. And now, when I should be enjoying a period of stability in my career, I’m wondering… what’s next? Recently, I’ve encountered a lack of respect from younger colleagues, a lack of caring from older colleagues, my own lack of patience with office politics and inefficient workarounds, and an escalating frustration that stems from a lack of leadership with few incentives to grow and learn. I find myself struggling with a realization that I’m not learning anything new at this point, in this position. I also understand the importance of having a job – a good job, a stable job – and I don’t take that for granted. However, I find myself disengaging from my role and my colleagues and my library, and it makes me sad.

My child will ask me, “What do you want me to be when I grow up?” And my answer is always the same: “Happy.” But she wants me to give her a career choice, not a state of mind. She doesn’t yet know that the two are not the same.

For now, I try to find challenging projects to work on. I try to ignore negativity. I try to say “yes” to more opportunities. I try to collaborate more, with colleagues who inspire me. I devote (possibly too much) time to professional development activities. And I try to imagine what my next role will be, and how I will change my state of mind.

- Anonymous - Academic Librarian

The biggest challenge of my career thus far has involved the strategic planning of my career path. Overall, I feel very lucky to be working in art libraries. The work is incredibly rewarding and my colleagues young and old have helped to form me professionally. I’ve been a librarian for a decade and during that time; I have seen incredible change to our economic environment that has driven permanent shifts to the workforce, particularly in academic libraries. Technologically, mobile computing is central to how we work and communicate with one another. And in terms of art libraries, open access, digitization/digital publishing and copyright continue to push the center of scholarly research far outside the physical domain of place (i.e. the art library), with decentralized resources and virtual services. The career trajectory that I saw for myself, even somewhat hazily, is completely different from what I first anticipated.

20140306_AdviceforNewProfessionals2.pngNow in my fourth professional position, I have arrived where I hoped to be, but took a somewhat circuitous route. Mentored in library school as an academic librarian, I wanted to be in a larger institution, doing art reference at either an art library, or as a subject specialist. I saw myself working on a desk mainly, interacting with students, faculty and staff. I saw that as the ultimate goal but didn’t anticipate how my own ambition and developing passion for libraries would fuel personal change and motivation. The job I took out of library school involved digitizing images for teaching and learning, as well as rolling out a brand new resource, Artstor, for cross-campus use. As I worked with this resource, I saw the future of collaborative image collections and implications for visual literacy by promoting such resources to users outside of art. I saw the need to de-silo the art librarian and to point continuously to our value in the campus conversation, even at a very small school, with faculty from diverse disciplines and working partners in educational technology.

My work with Artstor landed me at…you got it, Artstor! And during that time, hand-held devices such as iPhones came into fruition. Suddenly, we were thinking not only about making images available, but making them available in new environments that involved touch screens. During that time too, the market turned down, and campuses reacted by freezing many faculty searches. When I found myself ready to return to libraries, the options were far fewer, with projected retirements having never happened and colleagues afraid to move into other positions. I took a job that offered me administrative experience, but in a school that was not in my career path—the art and design school. While there, I learned a lot about managing people and projects, but often without the infrastructure tools and processes that support many of us in our work at larger institutions. It was a hard battle, and many times felt as if I were recreating the wheel. Because it was so work-intensive, there was limited time for research and my own work, which was less fulfilling and harmful in terms of how I compared to colleagues in research institutions. Still, the work sustained me, and being able to place it within the larger context of libraries, helped me move on to my present position at Ohio State University.

And here I am, just where I always wanted to be. I’m in an amazing research library setting that points to the future, with incredible colleagues and the chance to have real impact on the library profession. What a long strange trip it was, but I learned so much along the way. In getting here, I learned that having a strong mentor and advocate can be one of your best assets. Mine kept telling me that indeed I needed to be in a larger institution where my energy and love of collaboration could shine. She helped me on that path, in articulating what I had done and where I needed to be. I also never shied away from doing something outside the realm of libraries for added experience. Serving on committees around accreditation, curating an exhibit on interior design and working on institutional strategic planning were all incredibly valuable parts of my previous position. The bird’s eye view of traveling to institutions for Artstor cannot be minimized, as well as being a part of more technological workflows. For the next 20+ years, I anticipate I will see as many changes as I have for the past ten. I no longer project myself into the future, but rather focus on the now, which for me means gaining tenure. My strategy is no longer oriented around what kind of institution I would like to be at, but rather in developing myself so that I can be in the larger discussions about where libraries are going, not just witnessing the changes.

- Sarah Falls - Head, Fine Arts Library, The Ohio State University

As my career progressed my management responsibilities grew to the point where I was responsible for a very multi-faceted department with about 9 staff. Although there were positive aspects to this work, for the most part managing people drained me. I felt like I was spending far too much time parenting my staff and dealing with bureaucracy and far too little time being the effective, inspiring leader I wanted to be. This transition also meant that I had to leave behind what really brought me the most job satisfaction - innovating new products and services and implementing them. Now I had to rely on my staff to do those things, and frankly, it just wasn't happening. I knew I had to leave. It was a very difficult decision professionally and personally to resign, but the very next day after giving my verbal notice my boss and the library director called me into the office and asked me what I wanted to do instead. I told them and then - they made it happen. So now I'm doing something entirely new - something I love, something I am good at, and something that makes a difference. If I hadn't made that very hard decision to take a leap and resign this would not have happened. Being courageous paid off!

- Anonymous - Academic Librarian

Many thanks to each of the respondents for their thoughtful and thought-provoking replies. Our next question for the pros will be for those who are at or near retirement.