Very interested to see that the Historic Libraries Forum has launched a mentoring scheme for librarians working with historic collections.
Such librarians are particularly in need of support. Firstly because, as the scheme intro observes, they/we are often “rather isolated, either because they work alone or within a very small team in small organizations or, if their collections form part of a larger library, their particular expertise might not be shared by colleagues working in other areas”. So true!
Secondly because of the very nature of Special Collections work, which is open-ended, with a multitude of possibilities and difficult choices. Librarians must deal with the conflict between the very high standards for our work (BS 5454! I wish!) and the reality of minimal resources, poor spaces, lack of understanding in our organisations, and demanding users and stakeholders. This is where more experienced colleagues can advise and support.
Of course librarians will build their own networks of external support if they don’t have them internally. Social media is a boon in that way. I have felt much less isolated in my own role since I found lovely twitter! The listservs can be invaluable, there are training courses and informal meetings which enable librarians to meet others, and plenty of relevant organisations which help to bring people together e.g. CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group and AMARC, to name just two of the many I find useful.
However, it’s not appropriate or easy to share problems in a public space like twitter or the listservs, particularly where they relate to institutional shortcomings or personality clashes with donors or colleagues. Although one can be more candid chatting in person, it is difficult to reflect in the bustling setting of a planned event. Mentoring offers the space and time to build a relationship which allows both parties to think more deeply and to be honest with themselves and each other. It could be a shared journey, in which the mentee learns from the mentor’s experience, and the mentor learns about the mentee’s world and refines their own ideas and practice by explaining and discussing them.
Mentoring is definitely in the air. There seems to be a lot of discussion about this scheme, the CILIP one, and others are being considered. It’s easy to see why. Cuts to training budgets make it harder for people to attend traditional training courses and conferences, and librarians are taking responsibility for their own professional development, beyond the immediate needs of their current employer. To be effective (like dating agencies I suppose!), mentoring schemes need a critical mass of mentors and mentees to ensure everyone gets matched up with someone suitable, so I hope that people will support this scheme and the others out there. I’m seriously considering signing up for it as a mentor. I am so grateful to the many colleagues who helped me tackle the challenges of my current role, and I feel that I would like to give something back in return.