Since coming back to librarianship one of the things I’ve been most grateful are the library pals that have for whatever reason still decided to keep talking to me. Not in a weird I WANT A JOB AT YOUR COMPANY type way (true story, someone only kept in touch with me for that reason in previous roles – I hear nothing from them now) but in an actual hey, how’s work going, what’s your career plan, how can we help each other type way. For the most part it is women (but guys are welcome too obvs) and it made me realise how invaluable the whole ‘support network’ thing is.
I’m going to try and explain something that is really intangible – that glistening line between friendship and professional pals. It is hard because they are my friends in a traditional sense of the word BUT I only know them because of libraries (hence library pals) and they fit into a different part of my life. Like I said, it’s tough! I’ve always liked Cher’s (Clueless not the singer!) philosophy of friends/people insofar that we all fulfil different needs for different people and we can’t be all things to all people and vice versa.
I’ve seen lots of articles about networks when you’re a new professional, also as a woman in tech, and as a BAME individual. BUT I don’t often see support networks as Thing for mid-career librarians (regardless of gender , orientation or #funnytinge). The type of network where you can have proper bitch about things that are happening at work with people who aren’t *there* but know enough about the industry and the context of where you work to UNDERSTAND but also offer useful advice. It sounds a bit twee but if you think about it, especially for information professionals (of any ilk) trying to talk about a bad day at work with someone who doesn’t get it almost always preempted with:
‘oh but don’t you work in a library, what’s so hard about that?’ or ‘haha did the books do something wrong’
Therein lies the problem. It is actually pretty hard. All libraries (regardless of industry) are subject to their own foibles and if you don’t work within them you have no idea. As an example, I only have an outsiders view of what it would be like to work in a law or academic library.It’s not like accounting or HR or software development where you can take a stab at what that person is doing all day. This is not the case for me or yours either I would wager. I have actually stopped talking to friends (non-work/non-llibrary) about work in anything more than a general context because it is exhausting. I settle for a ‘work’s ‘OK’ type conversation because honestly it’s not worth the hassle. Rob listens (but also because I listen to him talk about software testing) but I know that he also really likes that I have other people (as does he) that I can talk to about the nitty gritty bits of my day and career.
So what do I talk to my ‘support network’ about? Usually it’s work stuff. It’s x person did this, what should I do, along with the context. Or in previous roles, it was my boss has done this and not sure what to do. Having people that you can talk to that are outside the situation but understand the context has been invaluable. A different perspective works wonders on figuring out issues and also if they’re a good support network they will tell you when you’re the one that’s in the wrong and then work on how you need to go about apologising. More importantly it’s the job stuff. Like – should I apply for this job, should I be looking at this level or am I not ready yet. AND it goes both ways – when someone asks me those questions – sometimes it’s not about having been BFFs but rather having a very intense shared experience that gives you shared reference points that mean you just ‘get’ each other.
I appreciate that it sounds a bit like mentoring but it’s not really. One person doesn’t know more than the other. It’s more, that we know a lot about our respective areas and cross pollination with each other’s areas can sometimes lead to excellent ideas or greater connections. I would be lying if I hadn’t used my connections to great advantage and people haven’t used me for theirs.
This may be an age thing? A mid-career thing? I’m not sure. But in the past year, I have benefited more from library pals helping me with work stuff than I have with some friends. Case and point, I was offered a management position a while ago and I really dithered about if I wanted it or not – I ended up turning it down (yes I know I *will* write a post soon on my aversion to management). What was interesting was the reaction of different people in my life. When I have to make serious decisions, I usually have a instinct about what I want to do but I try and talk to varying people to see what the external perspective is and then I make a decision.
In this instance, Rob was all: ‘if it makes you happy do it’ and ‘Do you want to do it?’ one friend was like ‘That’s amazing, you have to do it’ – library pals? It was more ‘ Why?’ ‘Do you actually want to do it’ ‘What’s the environment like’. Interestingly between Rob and my library pals I made the decision to turn it down. I am incredibly glad I did because otherwise I wouldn’t be looking at horrible pictures of peoples’ insides and worms now. If we unpack this a bit, outside looking in, it looks great no? Management position woo! But my library pals actually unpicked it a bit for me and lay out why it may not be the best choice for me. It wasn’t a ‘You shouldn’t do it’ it was more ‘these are all the things that you may have to deal with, and do you want to’ <- Sometimes this is what you need. And this isn’t something that friends or even loved ones can’t do really (even if they would want to) because duh! they don’t know what you do. Well ok, mine can’t because what I do is so niche.
This scenario really highlights the benefit of having industry-pals, if only for a different viewpoint and people you don’t have to explain yourself to. I’m incredibly grateful to the women that do listen to me go on and on (and on) and also still are willing to listen to me. You don’t have to share the same politics, have similar goals and values etc they aren’t going to be best friends who I play boardgames with or invite over for pizza on a Friday night (although that can and does happen sometimes) but rather they’re the professional network that keeps you grounded at work.
I used to scoff at the whole concept of networks but now I definitely see their value.
I know that I’m a much better professional because of it. Also, it eases some of the pressure off other people in my life. (I don’t ascribe to the belief that your partner should be the person you tell everything to). It goes both ways as well – I listen and offer guidance where I can and poke fun and secretly we’re all glad that we don’t work in the others’ workplace because it wouldn’t work for me. It’s great that I can learn about other workplaces by proxy though? I love it.
As a mid-career professional this is the type of the network that I didn’t know I needed!
I will be honest and say that my library network of pals evolved via Twitter, courses I’ve been on and events I’ve been to. Sometimes you do just click with a person and it doesn’t have to last forever but it’s that career bus (or the friendship bus actually) some people are going to sit with you for the whole journey and some people will set next to you for a while and you gain something and they gain something and you move on, all the richer for it. My library pals network is like the seats with the table, and you’re there, sharing and exchanging and having the best time.