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Do we need New Professional groups?

Below is an article I wrote for Information Outlook, the SLA’s journal, in August 2010. Since the online version (and obviously, the paper copy too!) is only viewable by SLA members, I have reposted here now the embargo has passed for the benefit of any non-SLA members reading.

Librarians who are new to the profession can learn much from industry veterans, but some of their concerns and interests are best addressed by connecting with other new librarians.

As a new professional and recent library school graduate, I am very aware of how much I still don’t know about the information profession. I learned library theory while earning my master’s degree and am learning professional practice on the job, but I find that the most useful source of information, inspiration and advice is my professional network.

Professional networking is vital for career development at any stage of your career. To paraphrase a paper delivered at the New Professionals Conference earlier this year, your professional network can provide support, opportunities for collaboration, access to collective intelligence, and a forum to discuss ideas, problems and solutions (Ruddock 2010). I agree with all of these points: through my peer network, which includes people I’ve met both in person and online, I’ve received encouragement to submit papers for presentations, found projects on which to collaborate, obtained help with research inquiries, and been exposed to some fantastic ideas I’d never have come across in my own workplace.

I find it tremendously useful to talk to people in different stages of their careers. When I attended SLA’s Annual Conference in 2009, one of the most useful events of the conference was the First-Timers and Fellows Reception. As a student (at the time), it was incredibly inspiring to be able to talk to people who’d been active in SLA for a number of years and were at the top of their profession. The exchange of ideas between beginners and experienced professionals is a key benefit to networking.

However, it must be said that there are advantages to having networks run specifically for and by new professionals. Particularly at face-to-face events, it can be incredibly intimidating for a new professional to approach others and start a conversation. This becomes a far easier prospect if you know that the rest of the attendees are in the same boat.

Networking with others at the same level can also be a good confidence builder. While I enjoy reading professional journals and attending conference presentations to get ideas from other information professionals, this can also be slightly dispiriting. I am at the very beginning of my career and working in a job where I have little input into the strategic direction of the library, so learning about projects that others have started often makes me wonder how I’ll ever get to a position where I’m able to implement these kinds of ideas. Hearing from other professionals at my level about projects they’re working on and ideas they’ve implemented can be of more practical use.

New professionals can also be a valuable support network. This is an incredibly difficult time to be graduating from library school and hunting for a job, but knowing there are others out there in the same position–people with whom you can share ideas, advice and sympathy–can make the situation feel much more manageable.

Serving an Important Purpose

The concept of a network for new professionals is not without its controversies. Recently, the Association of European Research Libraries (LIBER) launched YEP! (Young European Professionals), “the network of young professionals in university, research and national libraries across Europe.” When this was mentioned on U.K. mailing lists, there were outcries that such a network was “ageist” and that using the term “young professional” could put off those who are middle-aged or older but still consider themselves new professionals or are interested in networking with them. When contacted about the issue, LIBER clarified that “young professional” was intended to mean either “young of age or young of spirit” and that the network was open to anyone.

The objections to YEP! seemed to be based mainly on the terminology used. Plenty of people change careers and enter librarianship later in their lives after working as paraprofessionals. “New professionals” come in all ages, so it is not surprising that forming a group of “young professionals” caused offense. The problem could have been avoided by simply using the word “new” in place of “young,” but it is to LIBER’s credit that it clarified its position so quickly. I have, however, come across objections to the very nature of networking groups for new professionals.

One concern voiced about YEP! was that “fragmenting” the profession into “splinter interest groups” could “dilute our professional voice.” When a cross-sector online network for new professionals–the LIS New Professionals Network (LISNPN)–was launched, one person commented on Twitter that this amounted to “nannying” and that we should “get out of [new professional] groups and into the mainstream.”

I understand these sorts of objections, but I disagree with them. I’m not suggesting that “new professional” groups are a replacement for mainstream networking groups, but they do serve an important purpose. A networking group cannot be all things to all people, just as a professional association cannot. SLA, for example, has divisions for various specialties within librarianship in recognition of the fact that people working in different topic areas have different interests and concerns. CILIP, the main library association in the United Kingdom, has special interest groups for the same reason.

I see “new professional” networks as an extension of this philosophy. People at the beginning of their careers have different concerns, interests and needs than do established professionals.

I consider myself fortunate to have so many opportunities to network with other new professionals. SLA’s First Five Years Advisory Council provides some terrific resources and opportunities for those at the start of their careers. I was lucky enough to win one of SLA Europe’s Early Career Conference Awards in 2009, which enabled me to attend the SLA Annual Conference that year. I have also been involved with CILIP’s Career Development Group and recently joined LISNPN.

LISNPN is an online network, so it is perfect for networking with other new professionals around the world. Although targeted toward new professionals, it is open to anyone who is interested. Several established professionals have already joined with the intention of providing advice to, and sharing ideas with, the new professionals in the network.

By getting involved with various “new professional” groups, I’ve made contacts and connections that have been of tremendous benefit even at this early stage of my career. On a personal level, I’ve also made some great friends I hope to stay in touch with long after I’ve left my current job–and no matter what direction my career takes me.

REFERENCES

LIS New Professionals Network. Accessible online at http://www.lisnpn.spruz.com/.
Ruddock, B. 2010. Proving the value of peer networks: Plugging into your peers. Presentation at the CILIP New Professionals Conference, University of Sheffield, July 5.

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4 comments on “Do we need New Professional groups?

  1. I tend to feel that people should form groups they find useful, and from what I’ve read and hear it seems to me that those participating in the ‘New Professionals’ networks get a lot out of it.

    Despite this, I have to admit to initially having a bit of a gut reaction against the idea and I hope you don’t mind if I explore this as a way of perhaps throwing light on why others object to the idea.

    Trying to analyse why I reacted against this initially, I think it is the idea of an exclusive group I reacted to – whatever the basis for the group. That is, while you explain cover the ‘Young’ vs ‘New’ issue here, even so this is a group that (makes it feel like) I personally am not invited – as I’m not a New professional.

    To look at this from the opposite point of view, if I setup an ‘Experienced Professionals’ group, aimed at those with at least 10 years experience working in libraries (I’m not going to by the way!) how would that make new professionals feel about my attitude to them?

    The final part of the puzzle, is why I think my gut reaction, although explicable, is wrong? It’s because actually every other group *is* an ‘experience professionals’ group almost by default. This is (I believe) what you are describing when you say “it can be incredibly intimidating for a new professional to approach others and start a conversation. This becomes a far easier prospect if you know that the rest of the attendees are in the same boat.”

    I would go on to reflect that actually some of these issues while they may be common to new professionals, are not limited to new professionals. I’ve worked with people who have belonged to the profession for many years, and still find networking and events incredibly intimidating. So, maybe more work needs to be done in getting to the heart of what the core things about a ‘new professionals’ group are so that all those who might benefit are aware of the group, and think that they would be welcome to join (as I’m sure they are!).

    • Cheers for that very thoughtful comment Owen. I think you hit the nail on the head with “every other group *is* an ‘experience professionals’ group almost by default”. That is really what I was driving at. Turning up at a meeting/networking event/whatever where all the other attendees will have more experience than you, and most will already know each other, is a really daunting prospect. Coming along to something that is billed as being for new professionals, so you know you probably won’t be the least experienced person there, is much easier!

      I should also point out that there are “experienced professionals” groups. For example, the Sue Hill networking breakfasts are billed as being for people in “senior or strategic roles”. Now, I see that description and it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t apply to me, but I honestly don’t have a problem with that. I wouldn’t get much value out of attending – it might be interesting to listen, although I could get the salient points of the discussion from the Sue Hill blog, but I’d have absolutely nothing to contribute.

      I get what you’re saying about trying to promote the core purpose of a new professionals group, and making people who might not fit the approved definition of “new professional” feel welcome. I think that’s really important, and it’s something we’ve been quite keen to do with LISNPN. The way I see it, the tag “new professional” can be applied in many circumstances. Maybe you’ve changed career, or you’ve been working for libraries for years but you’ve just changed sectors. Maybe you’re still in the same sector but you’re moving into a different service area. Maybe you’ve moved to a new country, even. I was talking to an Australian librarian the other day who’d recently moved to the UK. LISNPN came up, and she said that while she’d been working as a librarian for a number of years in Australia, starting over in the UK had made her feel like a new professional again – lots of new stuff to learn! I think someone in that kind of situation would get a lot out of something like LISNPN, and I suggested that to her.

      I understand that the concept of an exclusive group, whatever the reason, can be objectionable to a lot of people. That’s why I tried, in my article, to draw a parallel with special interest groups. I’ve never heard medical librarians complaining that they can’t join BIALL, for example, because it’s self evident that law librarians have a different set of interests and concerns to health librarians. On the other hand, medical librarians are not by any means banned from joining BIALL – if anyone thinks they’d benefit from membership, they’re welcome to join. That’s what I think is the purpose of a new professional group – they’re set up to cater to the interests of people at the start of their careers (or new to a sector, or country, etc.), but they should be (and I think usually are) open to anyone who thinks they’d benefit from membership.

  2. A really interesting post and I think I have to agree with you! As a new Librarianship graduate struggling to find a first professional post it’s really helpful to know that other people are going through the same thing. I feel quite isolated now that I’m at home and no longer surrounded by fellow students and things like LISNPN really help. I really enjoyed the New Professionals conference in July and I am the sort of person who is easily intimidated – going to a conference full of experienced librarians sounds a bit scary!

  3. […] on the SLA website. If you are not a member, Laura has also posted the article on her own blog, Organising Chaos. Bookmark to: Posted in News, Weblogs | Tagged Early Career, First Five Years, Information […]

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