I recently met Graham Lavender, a recent MLIS graduate seeking employment in the GTA.  Many colleagues ask me “what’s the caliber of the new grads?”  My response? “Awesome.”  These new grads are ‘out there’ — networking, taking extra courses to further their insights, gaining experience with different types of positions, and writing.  And, most importantly, they are contributing to and participating in professional associations. Like so many of us, they recognize that CLA, OLA, SLA and many other library associations are OUR associations: they are foundation for networking, advocating, learning, and, as Graham writes here, leadership development.

Graham is a talented writer, and I thank him for letting us share his thoughts on leadership development through our professional associations. For more writing by Graham, check out his blog at grahamlavender.com.  Here he reflects on his involvement with associations in Montreal, where he worked for two and a half years as a liaison librarian at McGill.

By Graham Lavendar

For many, library school is a time of heady optimism and ambition. Students graduate with the desire to land a job and immediately set to work improving their new library, armed with a post-graduate degree’s worth of theory and best practices. Unfortunately, most entry-level librarian positions do not include leadership as a core duty, and this can leave new professionals feeling impotent and unappreciated. Why should someone with twenty or thirty years of real world experience (in addition to an MLIS and possibly numerous publications and other scholarly work) be given leadership roles over someone with a head full of good ideas and a crisp, uncreased, and perhaps even framed degree? What an outrage!

Fortunately, leadership opportunities are available even if they are not part of the duties of a given position. In my experience, professional associations have been a terrific source of leadership possibilities, and some of these opportunities are more obvious than others. In my first two years as a librarian, I’ve identified and taken on leadership roles in three different ways. Sometimes opportunities will present themselves to you, and all you have to do is accept the offer. Sometimes you will see an opportunity advertised, and you will express interest. And finally, sometimes you will identify an organization you’d like to work with, and then inquire to see what opportunities are available.

My first leadership role presented itself to me within a month or two of beginning my first professional position; I received a phone call from the outgoing Past President of the CLA Montreal Chapter (at the time, an Interest Group of CLA) asking me to join the executive as the new President Elect. The outgoing Past President was someone I had become acquainted with through local library events when I was in the MLIS program at McGill, and I felt honoured that she thought highly enough of me to offer me this invitation. I readily accepted, and soon I was working with the President and Past President to organize events and take care of other Chapter business. I consider this to be an important leadership role because of the flexibility and room for creativity we had on the executive in terms of coming up with activities that would best serve our members and the Montreal LIS community in general. CLA Montreal holds an informal series of themed get togethers called the Salons des Bibliothécaires, as well as more structured workshops and lectures. Promoting these events has allowed me to learn a great deal about the use of social networking sites in a professional context; although email was the most important tool for advertising events, we also used a blog and a Facebook group, and we had a wiki to share information among the executive. Another leadership challenge with this group presented itself at the CLA Conference in May, when all Interest Groups were dissolved. The executive all had to work together to create a vision for the new Montreal Network. We wrote up our Terms of Reference, gathered the requisite ten virtual signatures, and finally this fall we officially became a Network. Of course, not everyone will be fortunate enough to have this kind of opportunity come knocking; I certainly benefited from being in the right place at the right time. However, if you keep your ear to the ground, you will probably hear about groups that are looking for new members, and this technique has worked for me as well.

When the Re:Generations Committee (at the time, a committee of CACUL, which was a CLA Division under the old structure) put out a call for new members, I was eager to join. I had learned about the group (affectionately known as Re:Gen) as a student and was familiar with the work they did to encourage students and new professionals who were interested in careers as academic librarians. Unfortunately, in the chaos of beginning my first professional position I missed the deadline, so I wasn’t able to become a member, but I was welcomed aboard as a writer for the Re:Gen blog. I had been blogging on my own for a while, but it was a valuable new experience to participate in a multi-author blog. A year later, I made sure to submit my CV and writing sample on time, and I became a full member of the committee. One thing that made this experience unique for me was that the committee members were spread out across Canada. This was my first time participating in meetings over Skype, and it worked more smoothly than I had expected; we had to take various time zones into consideration, and once or twice we lost someone due to internet connection issues, but overall it was an effective way for us to hold our conversations. I was interested in being involved with the resume review service (open to all CLA members, but aimed at students and recent graduates applying to academic positions), but I was concerned that as a new librarian who had never served on a hiring committee, I would not be suited for the role of Resume Review Coordinator. In the end, I teamed up with a more experienced committee member, who gave me some guidance, and between the two of us we gave feedback to everyone who submitted a resume to the group. Another project I took on through the committee was organizing a panel of academic librarians to speak to MLIS students about their careers; I brought in four librarians from three different universities who had a wide range of experiences to share. While I was lining up the panellists, I coordinated with the McGill CLA Student Chapter to determine the most appropriate time for the event and to make sure it was promoted sufficiently to students. The committee also gave a similar panel discussion at the CLA conference in Halifax, which we geared towards students and recent graduates who wanted to know what it was like to be an academic librarian. I both convened the session and participated as a panellist, and it was a great success, due partly to the experienced committee members who had been involved with a similar presentation the year before and had insight into what would work and what wouldn’t. Although Re:Gen has been disbanded since the changes to CLA’s structure, there are plans to create a Network with similar goals, and I’m glad I took the chance to work with the group while I could. Even if you don’t hear about an opening, though, leadership opportunities are often still available if you’re willing to ask around.

After attending the Special Libraries Association (SLA) conference in 2010, I was sufficiently impressed with the organization that I decided to become involved (without decreasing my commitment to CLA, of course!), so I contacted a member of the SLA Eastern Canada Chapter executive and asked whether there was anything I could do to help. Sure enough, they needed a Chair for Awards & Honours, so I immediately volunteered to be in charge of the two annual awards: the Anne Galler Award, presented to one student from each of the MLIS programs in the region (McGill, Université de Montréal, and Dalhousie), and the Member of the Year Award. My responsibilities have included soliciting nominations from the membership and announcing the winners at the awards ceremonies. Although all of the roles I’ve described here have included challenges of communication, my work with SLA has been unique in that the meetings I’ve attended have been conducted mostly in French. While I did take French all through high school in Toronto, I didn’t have much chance to put it to use (aside from a brief immersion program one summer) until I moved to Montreal to start my MLIS, so my skills are rather basic. Participating in meetings was intimidating at first, but all of the Executive and Advisory Board members were very friendly and patient, and I soon felt at ease (it also helps that they all speak at least some English and are willing to bail me out when necessary).

Leadership opportunities through professional associations may come straight to your door, they may be announced, or you may have to go looking for them, but no matter how you come across them, I would highly recommend taking the plunge. There may be moments when you worry that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, but I expect that you will find yourself surrounded by people who want you to succeed. After all, we’re librarians. We’re here to help.