Mentoring, Volunteering, Hosting…Oh My!

Recently I was called upon to be a mentor and supervise a volunteer. I have supervised volunteers in the past. My experiences have ranged from being positive to negative. Unlike my experience supervising volunteers, my recent experience as a mentor for a visiting librarian was new. Through these experiences, I have noticed that both my mentee and my volunteers expressed common assumptions, opinions, and sometimes work ethic. These different perspectives touch on several aspects of the job of being a cataloger and/or metadata librarian, working for an academic library, and being a graduate of a MLS program. On my end, I experienced a number of surprises.

My first surprise was the mantra about job openings in cataloging and metadata. I think many of us in the field are already about to guess what I’m going to write or have already guessed it. And yes, who hasn’t heard back when they were in their library program, from recent graduates, volunteers, or their interns that there will be a number of job openings as older librarians in the field retire. I remember speaking to an old veteran in the field who retired last year who heard this when she went through the program almost 40 some years ago. Frankly, this mantra seems more and more to me to be a ploy of library programs to get money from people who want or need a job and have decided that that job be in a library. Simply put, the jobs in cataloging and metadata have steadily been disappearing for years. This is particularly true of “traditional” cataloging jobs. The landscape of cataloging has changed dramatically and will continue to change. This doesn’t mean that there is no roll to play for those who have cataloging experience. Case in point are metadata positions. However, as budgets continue to remain flat or deflate, metadata jobs are not as numerous as one might think. I would even contend that in many departments, a metadata position that is found in one way or another linked to what was a cataloging department runs the risk of being devalued, underfunded, and understaffed.

This is a very cynical view of the job market in metadata and cataloging. I wouldn’t advocate that this leads to there being no jobs in metadata or cataloging. I think because of the many stresses (financial, perspective, or otherwise) associated with the field it is essential to develop a solid, flexible, and ever growing skill set.

I’ve seen many volunteers expect that their coursework is sufficient. My recent mentee also seemed to ignore the number of online webinars, courses, and resources that could lead to skill acquisition and development. Those of us in the field know that it is essential to continue our education. I believe that this is true as well for those who volunteer. It is no longer just enough to get work experience. One needs work experience and the ability to grow (often on one’s own) in the profession.

Because departments are often just a core group of very busy individuals, many of us are trying to learn new ways of doing old and new business. Granted there are the online and in person learning opportunities. When it’s the end of the day, it is up to you the individual to implement what you learned in circumstances that are different and unique from what you saw as the case (and most often simple) study. I’ve noticed that many of the online learning resources are so generic that they fall short of any easy solution for your institution. These learning opportunities do, however, play a role. They help you discover new ideas and often help coin key phrases to get buy in from your administration. It is after this discovery that the work begins. This takes an extraordinary amount of time and energy. Typically because of the lack of resources, staff, and time, this means you’re doing extra work, staying late, or simply not getting something else done.

So what does this have to do with the mantra of there’ll be job openings? Yes there are job openings if you understand that this field is built on sand. It is changing and will continue to change. The position you saw a couple of years ago will be different today. It’s necessary to see how you can acquire the skills needed for those changes. More importantly, it is essential to know how to implement or be flexible enough to implement them making a generic case a reality in your institution.

This is something for which I think many volunteers and my mentee were not prepared. Many had an impressive skill set. Some seemed to lack the conceptual basis beyond those skills. Without that, it seemed that acquiring new skills and applying them was more difficult. Just knowing how to do something without understanding the why, how, what, and when of that skill leads to a disjointed view of a skill. This lack of understanding also leads to a lack of how this skill was acquired, for what purposes, for what time sensitive project, and how it fits into a particular time and space of one’s career.

Many talk about being flexible as in being able to dabble here and there with a certain amount of success. I would contend that being flexible is being able to recognize the archeology of a skill. By archeology of a skill, I mean how that skill fits into a particular time and space, how the skill is temporary yet essential at that time and for that space (as in circumstances of the institution). With this knowledge, one can develop a skill and mold it to the changing aspects of the job. That in itself is a skill that also requires critical thinking.



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