Reinvention – easier said than done

I’m officially mid-career and it is not as glamorous as I thought it would be. I began my career in librarianship on a trajectory toward management. Early on, I was groomed to be a “leader” and I drank that Kool-Aid with gusto. Consequently, I became a department head within a few years of having started at MPOW. As a close friend observed, it was possible that I’d “seen the top of the mountain too soon.” I finished off my second term with a sabbatical where I focussed my attention on creating a research agenda and a firm intention to “reinvent” myself as an academic librarian. With a full semester back to work under my belt, I admit to still feeling disoriented and unfocussed; reinvention has not gone well.

For now, I’m doing my best to try on new portfolios. I have several temporary subject assignments and am dabbling in projects that need some attention and would benefit from my experience in collections. I think I am aware that I’m in a holding pattern, but it’s hard to really throw oneself into the dubious job title of “floater librarian” – temporary though it may be, patience is not my strong suit. I find myself distracted by shiny things. I was even seriously considering a move to apply for new gig, but then the reality of Toronto real estate and familial stability took over.

My vision of throwing myself into my research went a bit off the rails.  I went from the high of being an invited speaker to a well respected conference and writing the most read Open Shelf (not exactly the New York Times, but still, I was chuffed) article ever to the low of having that same well received work turned into a scholarly article and rejected in a particularly soul destroying peer review experience. Rallying to keep your chin up and keep going is really rough, especially when you haven’t experienced a lot of failure in your professional and academic life (see above reference to leadership grooming). I have to keep telling myself that I have it in me to do scholarly work. The temptation to just turn my back on that part of my career is strong. I’ve got career status. Fuck it. I can just rest on my laurels and meet the bare minimum, right? That’s a path that people seem to choose (is that a choice or does that just happen when you aren’t paying attention?). Luckily, I’ve got a husband who’s willing to call me on that bullshit and remind me that I’m better than that. And so, I carry on, and just hope that this relentless feeling of inadequacy will eventually pass. It will, won’t it?

I don’t think I’m alone in this wilderness. For many of us that are mid-career, perhaps we feel we need to branch out and gain expertise in other areas. Even if it’s just to try it on, it’s important to continue to learn and challenge ourselves. For many, there is immense pressure to move into management. There are no shortage of admin postings to aspire to out there. Chances are if you work for a Canadian university library, you’ve been encouraged to attend management training and had your personality categorized and presented to you in an attractively bound handout to help you locate yourself within your organizational culture. While I am in the inverse of this situation – I’m trying to back away from management – it’s difficult to find guidance in mid-career development, particularly if you aren’t keen to move to a different workplace, or climb the ladder toward administration.  I got a taste of work life balance and I aim to keep it, at least in this time of my family life.

So, what to do? In discussing this with my peers, there are options. Accept temporary assignments to cover while others are on leave when you can, it will better prepare you to accept new roles as they come available. Consider an international exchange – while a bureaucratic nightmare, they are definitely a gem of an opportunity to refresh your professional self. Secondments and local job exchanges are also appealing options – particularly if we were able to manage creating cross-sectoral opportunities. There would be much to gain from a year in public service at the public library and vice versa. Heck, you could even identify what you see as a gap in your own institution and offer yourself up for the job. Much depends on local organizational culture and administration’s openness to suggestion, but there’s nothing stopping you from trying.

The paperwork and hustling you’d have to do in order to make these things happen are daunting, but in absence of staying put (also totally an option for those who are happy where they are – I salute you) or going up, it’s awfully easy to fall into a comfortable pattern of “good enough” service and scholarship. It’s not where I imagined I’d be when I was a fresh faced go-getter, but it’s also up to me to look it in the face and challenge it. I can keep floating, or I can regroup and swim.

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