October 2016 | Volume XXXIV. Issue 5 »

Mentors Make It Better…But Not All Are Created Equal

September 14, 2016
Sarah McHone-Chase, Northern Illinois University

The importance of mentoring in the workplace has long been recognized. Personal reports have connected mentoring to enhanced job satisfaction and accomplishment. Catherine Kirchmeyer’s 2005 article in Human Relations suggested that those academics who took advantage of mentoring opportunities early in their careers were associated with higher rank and salary later. Mentoring provides value in many ways and in many different professions. For librarians—and their institutions—the potential benefits include: 

  • Engraining new hires into the politics, social attitudes, and culture of an organization;
  • Helping new librarians understand the ins and outs of the promotion and tenure process;
  • Providing networking and professional development opportunities;
  • Bridging generation, race, gender, or other potential divisions;
  • Having a seasoned pro to bounce ideas off of and to help solve problems;
  • Improving communication, retention rates, and decision buy-in at an institution;
  • Fostering cordiality, collaboration, and a sense of community within the institution;
  • Sharing of successes and learning from failures;
  • Preparing the next generation for management and leadership positions; and
  • Aiding in the writing and publishing process or conference presentations.

Some of these benefits will naturally have more impact at some library institutions than at others on account of size, type, or even professional atmosphere. Regardless of the institution, however, mentoring should be seen as a routine activity, a way of protecting the investment made when hiring, especially in lean times when permission/ability/funds to hire are less forthcoming. After all, it is in every library’s best interest that all of their librarians succeed and thrive professionally, and, moreover, feel welcome and supported by the library and, thus, an integral part of that library community.

Let’s get something out of the way first: not everything called “mentoring” is good mentoring. Scott Pointon, director of the White Oak Library District states it most succinctly: “Mentoring is NOT the mentor imposing his or her will or way of doing things upon others.” Instead, effective mentoring “is all about listening and finding ways to help the mentee to know themselves and to be successful utilizing their strengths.” He further defines the mentor as someone who is able “to push some buttons on the mentee to illuminate where they are not looking within themselves.” Betsy Adamowski, director of the Wheaton Public Library, echoes this sentiment, saying that for her being a mentor is about being a person who is “honest and trusting and will give constructive advice and criticism to an individual.” So, while we can define mentoring as simply training a new librarian on certain important procedures (for example, what exactly needs to be done to qualify for tenure or which skills are most critical for promotion), it is also about recognizing and encouraging strengths. Mentoring is about the development of new talent, and not about making carbon copies of the librarians already in the workplace.


There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring, and the right style depends upon the library’s culture and the individual librarian’s personality. The discussion contained here is by no means meant to be exhaustive or proscriptive.

Perhaps the most common arrangement is the “classic” formal mentoring model when an older, more experienced colleague is somehow assigned to a new hire—either by a third party or by a committee—or a new hire perhaps approaches someone to officially ask them to serve as a mentor. This is the type of mentoring Adamowski describes, as she has often been contacted by new public library directors needing guidance. Many times, these directors have been directed by their boards to seek an experienced mentor who can assist them with questions and guidance.

This structure is almost always hierarchical and often parameters are tightly defined: for example, the mentor and protégé will have a certain number of meetings together or will meet over a prescribed period of time, after which their obligations to each other are terminated. The model has pluses and minuses—it’s familiar, tried and true, relatively easy to implement. But its structured rigidity is a turnoff to some, the mandatory aspect making it seem like an assignment. And when not administered properly, such relationships can give the impression of favoritism, be exploitative, and also inadvertently (or otherwise) disadvantage women and minorities. There is also the concern that the traditional model is simply out of date and no longer meets the needs of the newer generation of librarians who require different skill sets and knowledge.


These concerns can be at least partially mediated by effective mentor training, but new mentoring models are developing to meet contemporary needs—informal, formal, blends of both. Informal mentoring may take a variety of forms. It can be as simple as two librarians chatting at a conference exchanging advice, but can also be considerably more organized and still be considered informal. Examples of such models include:

  • Peer mentoring, where a librarian or librarians of roughly the same age or experience mentor each other;
  • Co-mentoring, which highlights and acknowledges how the mentoring relationship benefits both the mentor and mentee;
  • “Mentoring Up,” where a junior librarian mentors a more senior librarian;
  • E-mentoring, in which the entire mentoring relationship can take place online;
  • Group mentoring, whereby a group of people are mentored by an individual;
  • Spot mentoring, which is situational and provisional; and 
  • Mentoring circles, in which one mentor works with a group or groups mentoring each other; as well as others.
  • It is worth pointing out that with the informal arrangements, a mentee may need to form more than one kind of mentoring partnership in order to gain the most benefits.

Informal mentoring tends to focus less on completion of specific assignments or projects, to deemphasize measurable objectives, and is usually thought to be volitional (as opposed to mandatory), more self-organized, and tending to transpire only when needed by the mentees. Gwen Gregory, resource acquisition and management librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), emphasizes that even though a system such as peer mentoring works well in many libraries, the important issue to keep in mind is “to enable these networks and help people feel comfortable using them,” pointing out that people are often shy about approaching another and asking questions, especially when they think they should already know the answer.

This latter point needs specific attention, as librarianship is still a majority white profession: regardless of style, mentors and mentoring programs must take into account the particular needs of librarians of color in order to ensure equal opportunities to succeed. For example, Trixie Dantis, teen services supervisor at Arlington Heights Memorial Library, describes how ILA’s Cultural and Racial Diversity Committee (CARD) has recently begun a mentoring program for the recipients of the Sylvia Murphy Williams Award (which in turn recognizes the Illinois recipients of the ALA Spectrum Scholarship). Dantis states, “With this mentoring program, CARD hopes to foster the success of these diverse future librarians, encourage them to stay in the field, and promote diversity in the field.” 


In many informal models the mentoring responsibility tends to be more diffused, which can be more convenient for the mentors, although it can also be more difficult for all involved parties to stay engaged when there are no formal agreements in place defining how/how long the mentorship should progress. Adding a few more rules to define the mentoring relationship creates models that blend the formal and informal. Some examples include:

  • The Resource Team Model, in which multiple experienced mentors, generally assigned by a committee or administrator, work on mentoring an individual;
  • Mutual Mentoring Networks, where it is recommended that mentees pursue additional mentors in addition to the mentor that they were formally assigned in order to augment their experiences; and
  • Community of Practice, a shared learning model where the group has a common purpose or goal and works to create knowledge together.


Librarianship is a very altruistic profession already, and mentoring fits in with this image. “Librarians have a great tradition of service, and this includes service to the profession and to our colleagues,” says UIC’s Gregory. Regardless of the mentoring method(s) undertaken, mentoring can be considered a responsibility of librarians toward the profession. Good mentoring demonstrates what successful librarianship looks like, as well as contributing to the success of a new librarian. Modeling how to adapt to challenges will not only effect an individual’s library career, but will have an impact on the very future of libraries. Mentoring helps to prepare the library leadership of tomorrow, passes along institutional knowledge, and prepares the mentors of the next generation. Models and styles will continue to change and evolve, with new themes and variations, all aimed at developing the talent pool that makes libraries indispensable.

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