Teen ServicesVocate 4.0 December 2017

Mentoring . . . What’s Mentoring?

Jessica Snow

Who has had the benefit of being mentored as a new teen librarian? Was the mentoring opportunity something that your library set up or did the mentoring happen organically? Mentoring can help to bridge the gap between education and practice. More and more libraries are realizing this and setting up informal and/or formal mentoring opportunities for new staff to learn the ropes of teen librarianship (and other specializations) and also to be exposed to the library institution. One can search in the database, Academic One-File, and find several articles on the subject. This isn’t new territory; it’s been written about before, too. Searching on the American Library Association (ALA) website, one can find mentoring opportunities for most of the twelve divisions in ALA as well discussion groups tailored specifically to the mentoring experience. Is mentoring simply an altruistic pursuit on behalf of the mentor, or is it going beyond that, trying to build a cadre of library leaders for the institution or teen services as a whole? This question intrigues me. Perhaps in addressing it by sharing my own experiences being mentored and being a mentor, an answer will emerge.

Mentors and Proteges

I have had mentors for a short period (up to a month) and for long periods (one lasted over ten years). I had a supervisor ten years ago who actively engaged with me and the rest of the staff he supervised, and to this day, he continues to be an active mentor in my life. What does mentoring look like? Using as an example my previous supervisor, it was something done on a regular basis with all of the staff and it was deemed a serious issue. Because the teen services focus within librarianship is unique, my mentor viewed his efforts as essential. He demonstrated a sense of obligation to help shape teen librarians, to imbue them with a strong sense of helping the teen voice to be heard; to ensure they cultivated professionalism within teen services; and to show them ways in which to advocate for teen services. This type of mentoring allowed him to develop a passionate, dedicated, and uniquely focused staff in teen services. This seemed to be the focus of this mentoring.

As teen librarians, the six of us met for a whole day once a month. This, in and of itself, was unprecedented. We had an agenda for the meetings. We were given readings about the profession to be read before the monthly meeting, so we could discuss the issues contained in the materials. The readings got you out of the “island” of your branch or your library system, and they presented things in a big picture. Through this practice, I feel I was exposed to the larger issues of teen services and could think in broader terms, not just about my own library. This supervisor encouraged each of the teen librarians to specialize in a specific area. For example, I had an interest in serving the underserved and working with underrepresented populations. I was encouraged to seek out these populations in my work and received support from this supervisor when doing so. Whenever one of the teen librarians did something that needed to be shared with the whole library system, he would send a write-up of whatever it was to the internal newsletter. He would also share with the teen librarians why it is so important to get the word out about the teen services’ developments and who is doing it. About a year and a half into the job, he began to encourage me to think about writing an article on the library work I was doing with teens in foster care, and then encouraged me to propose a program at a conference. These things were encouraged and supported in ways that led me to pursue my interests. Having had this experience with a mentor made me want to do the same for teen librarians.

Why Mentor?

I have mentored in many different capacities; short term, long term, organically, informally, and formally through YALSA. I have never felt that the mentoring has been done in an altruistic manner, rather in a way that is similar to my own experience with a mentor—for the benefit of teen services as a whole. Yes, also for the benefit of the institution in which I work, but more for the overall focus of teen services. Because teen services is marginalized in a way that children’s services isn’t, mentoring teen librarians to retain them is part of the focus. I feel it’s important to encourage new and/or not-as-experienced teen librarians to go beyond just what they need to do in their daily jobs.

I have worked with and supervised teen librarians that show promise in the field of teen librarianship but may not have the experience and/or knowledge they need to excel. This is a perfect opportunity to mentor—although, thinking of yourself as the “one with all the answers” isn’t the right approach. Mentoring is guiding, supporting, encouraging, and coaching, and all of these actions take time and a commitment on the part of the mentor.

The point of mentoring is to help do all the aforementioned in an effort to help grow, support, and cultivate the profession of teen librarianship.

How to Become a Mentor or Find a Mentor

There are many different ways to become a mentor. If you take a formal route, you can become involved in one of the twelve divisions in ALA and participate as a mentor in one of their programs. You can do the same if you are interested in seeking a mentor. Informal mentoring can happen anywhere and anytime, short term or long term. A teen librarian could ask you directly to mentor them or it could happen organically. Have you ever worked with a teen librarian that really seemed to get “it” (teens, teen services, outreach, advocacy, and more)? Asking that person for coffee to “pick their brain” is a perfectly suitable way in which to gather input and even guidance. This type of mentoring is coming from you; you are directing the learning, you are the one asking the questions, and you have some idea of what you want to learn. I’ve done this numerous times with librarians who I think are talented. I write questions I may have beforehand so that the time I have with that teen librarian is used constructively. Seventeen years later, after beginning as a teen librarian, I feel fortunate that I still recognize there are things I need and want to learn and ways in which to do so by finding mentoring opportunities.

Things to Do as a Mentor

  • Encourage, model, and assist in the writing of articles and blog posts.
  • Encourage the teen librarian to take the lead in presenting at a conference if he or she is exhibiting knowledge in an area that may be unexplored or shows promise. Offer support to do this; don’t just encourage but guide them in the right direction. Give support by connecting them to contacts or helping to edit, if needed, etc.
  • Encourage teen librarians to take the lead in training other staff. Set them up for success by training them, and let them observe and see you model the behavior. This is not about delegating. Mentoring encompasses training librarian, supporting him/her in their position throughout, showing her/him quality librarianship. The librarian is supported by the mentor and will be successful in the training because of the observing, training, and support.
  • If you directly supervise a teen librarian, share professional readings with him/her. This is something the two of you can also discuss together. Reading professional literature can strengthen the focus of the teen librarian.
  • When a teen librarian does something worth sharing, take the time to write about what they did and share it with other staff. This not only gives a shout out to the librarian but models what should be done in our profession.
  • Offer opportunities that go beyond what they are doing in their daily job. This can help push them out of their “everyday” and get them to learn new things at which they can become knowledgeable, possibly specializing in, writing about, or teaching.

Having someone that you can go to with questions who will give you the time, support, and response you need is invaluable. The time commitment isn’t something that can be approached casually; it should be taken seriously and entered into with intention.

This article was first published in the print edition of VOYA Magazine, December 2017.

Jessica Snow is the teen services team leader of Teen Central, the still newly renovated (2015) teen space of the Boston Public Library. She is an Advisory Board member of VOYA and a YALSA Board of Directors member 2017-2020. Snow is also interested in outreach services (library services and programs to the underserved and underrepresented) and writes regularly and has presented on her work. She publishes a regular blog post on the YALSA Blog about the work other teen librarians across the country are doing in outreach services. She has been in teen services for over fourteen years in public libraries.

 

 

 

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