I just had a conversation with a professional friend about work. It reminded me of some of my earliest professional experiences, so we talked a bit about those. I hadn’t spent much time thinking about that period of my career lately, and the context I’ve gained with time helped me understand it better–and helped me understand the approach isn’t as common as I thought at the time. It also helped me shape advice I could give a new professional:
Your job is to do excellent work, but to learn and have fun while you are doing it.
Our conversation started out about isolation in libraries, and how often there’s no one in the organization to talk to about your work. You have the position you have because the library recognized the need for someone to fill the role and they hired you. There’s no one else in that role. (Even if you’re in a position like “reference librarian,” there are often differences between each person’s work.) It’s nice to have someone who gets it and can share perspective from their background, approaches they’ve tried, pieces of news related to the work, and a passion for what you do day-to-day.
I dealt with this isolation in a number of ways over the years. One way was to join professional associations. Another was to get involved in social media. Another was to instigate or organize field trips to get to know other local librarians (doing my job at other libraries). But my favorite way to combat isolation was to form community while doing something interesting. Where did that something interesting come from? I would think of something that sounded like it had potential, or I’d be part of a conversation with someone that led to something interesting, or I identified something that our users might need. These ideas came from all over: professional literature, popular media, conversations with users.
Once I thought of something interesting I thought about who my partners might be… (because this was about combating isolation, remember?) I would consider who I could learn from, who had more experience than me, who could lift my moods if the project wasn’t working, who would say “yes, and…” and colleagues that would want to grow with me through doing this project. And I would float the new idea/concept/project by those people. Every conversation was a chance for the idea to become a little more concrete. And if the particular idea gelled, it was already clear who was interested.
Most of the time this does not lead to amazing output. For example, there was a period of time where some colleagues and I discussed making a magazine based on our collections. That never happened. But we felt a little more connected to our community and we learned a lot in the process. In the magazine planning discussions we talked about the scholarly process, special collections, web technologies, design, and our personalities and how we might work together. All of these made us better professionals in our day-to-day work and in future projects. Several ideas that never happened still would make it on a list of best experiences I’ve had in the office. I got to know colleagues very, very well. I learned more about their approach to work and their expertise. I learned about how to approach those types of project if I were to do it in the future. I gained experience that helps me collaborate, meet deadlines, run meetings, delegate, communicate, motivate others, and be a good colleague today. These projects might not represent my best work, but they do represent some of my best learning, the times I’ve had the most fun at work, and points when I gained more enthusiasm for my place of work and what it is doing.
All that said, I’m not advocating any librarians shirk their job. I am advocating for carving out a little bit of time to to work on your own projects. I’m advocating looking for ways to connect to colleagues and to learn in every opportunity that you have in your position. I’m also advocating to have fun at work: because it makes work more fun, but it also helps you avoid burnout, gain closeness within the community in your workplace, and feel like you’re part of the same team pulling in the same direction. What might this look like? Here are some tips:
Things to consider:
- Get ideas by scanning the larger information environment. What’s happening in the literature, popular culture, technology, or publishing?
- Think about what you want to learn and what projects might enable you you to pick up those skills.
- Think about your colleagues that might have similar interests, skills that you like to learn, or that might have something unique to the project. Chat with them about the idea before committing to it. (Everyone wants to contribute… so be genuinely flexible when approaching collaborators.)
- Determine your outcomes: to learn? to building relationships? to help the user? Knowing your outcomes will help you structure a project that will be successful for those outcomes.
- Be open to the idea that every project won’t pan out. Even “failed” projects can help you learn things.
- Be open to stopping the project if it seems like it won’t help users, is growing to be a burden (more time or stress than is warranted for a side project), or isn’t working as expected.
Things to avoid:
- Cliquishness. Please invite anyone actually that is interested in the work. Be quick to involve your colleagues.
- Flying too low under the radar. Many libraries will be okay with you taking initiative if the project is small, but every supervisor I’ve ever know would want to be in the loop about something that’s taking up bandwidth. Some of my projects have been small enough I just gave a heads up. Other times I’ve gotten approval. Each library (and every manager within a given library) has a different threshold for when projects need to be approved. Your job as an innovator is to learn where that line is and work with it. Try to understand this before getting into deep.
- Expecting everything to be perfect. Any work in this vein should be thought of as a pilot. If the project is a success for the user, then celebrate that surprising twist of fate!
- Don’t be too invested in the project. Remember that your outcomes are just as much about learning, getting to know your colleagues, and having fun. Those outcomes are important, and they’re the things to be invested in.
All that being said, please don’t think I’m arguing for library-driven decisions. I believe in the power of data driven decision making, going to our users for feedback and ideas, and being responsible stewards of our time. What I’m talking about is a side project that takes a few hours a week. This side project concept is about building skills, knowledge, collaboration, innovation, and motivation in library staff. In former jobs I carved this time out of my schedule. In my current job, I’ve made sure everyone that reports to me knows they have the freedom to do this. 10% of everyone’s time is open to this type of work.
A few things to keep in mind:
- The “fun” project can be a tool to motivate yourself to do more maintenance work. An example from my past: I wasn’t particularly excited about selecting books on a given morning, but I would allow myself to work on the fun project in the afternoon if I ordered X books before lunch.
- The experience is the real product. If you get a good product out of it, that’s just icing on the cake. The product you’re guaranteed is closer colleagues, broader understanding of the field and what the information environment is like, skills that will be useful later, etc.
- Things don’t last forever, but experiences do. Let’s say your thing worked! And users like it! And it’s awesome! That’s awesome! But even the best projects eventually become dated. When you focus on the experience, you’re saved some of the sadness that comes when the bright-and-shiny project is less shiny and eventually superseded by a new bright-and-shiny tool.
What I’m talking about is a small percentage of time. But if you’re lucky, and some of these projects take off, you will get stuff to talk and write about. Be aware: people will think it’s most of what you do. They’ll think it’s your only job. They may think that one successful project is all you know. It’s not. You have a job that fills the week. But the regular work isn’t talked about as much because people are familiar with that or they do it themselves. The atypical work draws peoples’ attention, and (in my experience at least) is what people want to hear about. Try to remember to acknowledge the team, and don’t get too comfortable. There’s more to learn and new ideas to try out!