On being involved

This topic (you did read the title of the post, right?) came up twice last week, with two friends who are newly-minted librarians: Laura (who went to Simmons) and Marielle (who’s out in CA). Both are looking for full-time jobs right now. Marielle’s story is linked above; Laura finished up at Simmons in January, and recently moved to Chicago to join her sweetie.

Both are struggling to find something; this is in contrast to excellent response my resume has been getting lately, for both full and part-time jobs. I don’t think that coursework had anything to do with the response, and I don’t think it’s my jobs (neither of which has involved any true library functions). I think it was all the extras–chairing ASIS&T@Simmons, coordinating the GSLIS Workshop Series (technically listed as part of my work for the GSLIS Tech Lab), teaching workshops, and my upcoming poster presentation (with the Knitting Librarian) at NERCOMP.

So, I suggested to both of them that they think about getting involved with a professional association. And when I say that, I mean more than just going to events. I mean actually volunteering to do things. Yes, sometimes it is really annoying to give up your time, and maybe you will miss part of the event because you have to run the registration desk or something. But it is worth it for the networking possibilities.

In 2004 I was looking for a new copyediting job; as part of my job search I was reading everything I could find online about the topic: resume tips, cover letter advice, all of it. One of the things that I encountered over and over again was that networking was practically the only way anyone ever got a job. (I don’t really subscribe to that theory, but that is another post.) I didn’t have, and couldn’t really find, a network at that point. And anyway, I hate the concept of networking–it feels like a very sales- and business-oriented thing. “Let’s make this connection for the sake of making it, so that someday when I need a contact at a firm that does X, I can cold-call you directly, instead of going through the switchboard.” I’m not comfortable with that. Some of it is shyness, some of it is the difficulty of then using those contacts when you haven’t spoken to the person since you met them. That makes me feel icky. (“Icky” being a technical term.)

I’ve been thinking about this lately, because over the course of this year, I want to make as many points of contact as I can in the field, especially in New England. I am hellbent on getting a job soon after finishing the degree in December, so I’ve been gearing up for a year of networking. At first I was dreading it, because last year I had some disappointing experiences in networking; partially it was my shyness in talking to strangers (which has dissipated somewhat, more below), partially it was that the vibe at some of the events I attended was less “make new connections” and more “reunion of colleagues.”

But then I started to think that I have gotten myself into a really good position for randomly introducing myself to other librarians. Given my involvement with ASIS&T and the workshop series, I’ve created a great foundation for myself as I get out and try to meet people who might remember me later, when my application goes across their desk (or their supervisor’s).

Networking for the sake of networking is silly, and in situations where that’s the sort of networking being done, I’m a flop. I firmly believe that the best form of networking you can do is to get involved–this is beneficial for you and helps give the people you meet some sort of reason why they shouldn’t forget you as soon as you walk away.

  • If you’re shy, it gives you a reason to talk to people. If you’re working at the registration desk, you have to say hello and be friendly. Maybe later, this will help you go back to someone you checked in to ask about their cool job title. If you played a behind-the-scenes role (figuring out food for an event, setting up the registration webpage) you can introduce yourself to folks and talk to them under the auspices of getting feedback about whatever you took care of. People love to offer their opinions.
  • Bonus for students: volunteering at events often gets you free admission.
  • It gives you a way to introduce yourself if you’re at a purely networking event. I’m still terrified of just walking up to someone cold and introducing myself, but all this year I will be doing my best to do this, and you can bet that I will say “Hi, I’m Alison. I’m the chair of the Simmons chapter of ASIS&T.” People will either be familiar with us or not, and either way I think it’s a good conversation starter.
  • It’s another way to demonstrate your skills in a real-world situation. Especially helpful if, like myself and Laura, you don’t have much library-related work experience. “I don’t know the first thing about your ILS, but I can prove to you that I am generally competent, because I have successfully done x for Such-and-Such Association.”
  • Actually volunteering enables you to add a bullet to your resume. (Just being a member doesn’t mean anything, and in fact I have been told that it’s pointless to list affiliations if you don’t actually do anything for the organization. Makes sense. Anyone can fill out a form and mail in a check.) It demonstrates “commitment to the profession,” which translates to “I care about this field, and by extension would care about this job with you.” Need something to talk about in your cover letters? This might help.
  • Actually being involved gives people you talk to a way to remember you. You’re not just one of several new librarians who chatted them up at that lunch. You’re the one who was working on pulling together the fall event for the Blahdeblah Society’s local chapter. (And if you get that person’s card, when the details are finalized, you can send an email to say “we talked about this at x event, and I wanted to make sure you saw the final lineup and details. Registration info will go out over several listservs in the next few days, etc etc.”)
  • You’ll work with other (presumably established) librarians. Librarians are, on the whole, incredibly friendly and helpful–especially the ones who are involved in professional associations. They want to help. If someone thinks you’re doing a good job with your volunteer work, and knows that you are looking for a job, you can probably ask them to keep an ear to the ground among their network. Or act as a reference. Or introduce you to other people who can help you.

So, those are some thoughts for you on better ways to approach networking; I hope they’re helpful for someone. It’s sometimes really hard to take the strategies you read about in job-seeking help stuff (network! network! network!) and turn it into a reality you’re comfortable with.

I’d also like to throw in one more tidbit which is true for me, and I’m sure for others. Appearance counts, and part of appearance is how you feel in what you’re wearing. If you’re self-conscious about your low-quality suit, or you don’t like the cut of the pants, get something else to wear. If I don’t like how I look, or don’t feel like myself in an outfit, it undermines my confidence and makes it that much harder to make new connections. There’s something to the saying “Dress for the job you want” (even when interpreted loosely).

If you feel like you lose your personality when you put that suit on, find accessories that will bring you back. If you follow my flickr photostream at all, you know I just got a spunky little polka-dot business card holder, and that I’ve been on the prowl for unique jewelry. (Bonus: That cool necklace might prove to be a conversation starter with other librarians.) When I put it all together with my suit and some nice, not-plain shoes, I feel like I am still there, and that’s important for me. I don’t have a lot money for this stuff, but it makes enough of a difference that it is worth scrounging up the funds. (Tip: Find a good consignment shop or two. Pick one in an area where people who will discard clothing in the style you’re looking for will be likely to live. This means that if you live in CollegeTown, you might have to go next door to ProfessorTown to find a nice suit. But maybe you can sell that cheap one at the store in CollegeTown.)

2 thoughts on “On being involved

  1. Well said.

    Two of my fellow students, the president and vice-president of one of the student groups at lib school, both got fantastic jobs right after graduation. They also both had circ desk experience, which I think helped, but probably not as much as the volunteering. They also had the financial freedom to take on several unpaid internships/practica while still students – another form of networking that I think is worthwhile for those who have the ability to do it.

    Now that school’s behind me, I’m hoping that I can find time to do some volunteering – the kind that will lead to a real job! 🙂

  2. Ugg, your right. I’ve got the cold-calling down pat, and I find it fairly easy to chat with librarians I don’t know–hence the volume of informational interviews I’ve set up–but I have a hard time joining roundtables and such. I guess I feel like I should be spending my time listening and observing rather than dishing out my “professional” opinion to fellow librarians. I know, get over it and eat your vegetables, but can we put a bit of cheese on the brocolli?

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