Thriving as a Mid-Career Librarian: Identity, Advocacy, and Pathways

ACRL announces the publication of Thriving as a Mid-Career Librarian: Identity, Advocacy, and Pathways, edited by Brandon K. West and Elizabeth Galoozis. This new book collects strategies, experiences, and advice to help you thrive in mid-career. 

Learn more about Thriving as a Mid-Career Librarian in this Introduction by the editors, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Mid-career Librarianship

If you’re reading this, chances are you consider yourself a mid-career librarian. Maybe you’ve worked in libraries for ten years. Maybe you’re halfway to retirement. Maybe you’ve reached the highest level of a hierarchy you care to reach. This stage looks different for everyone, which may be why there’s not a lot of scholarship or advice out there about this period of one’s career. Most of the literature about mid-career librarianship tends to focus on advancing to leadership or administration. But in conversations with each other and with our mid-career colleagues, many of us aren’t interested in those areas. Instead, our conversations revolved around questions like, How do we continue to grow professionally if we don’t want to move upward? How do we make decisions about whether to stay at an institution (or in the profession) or go? What strategies do we use to sustain ourselves amidst burnout, constant change, wage compression, or even boredom? How do we navigate cultures of white supremacy, patriarchy, and hierarchy?

We wanted to hear from other people in this amorphously defined stage of their careers how they’re grappling with these and other questions. Our own mid-career positions and decisions are quite different, even though we are at chronologically similar points in our careers. Brandon recently achieved full librarian status and cannot rise higher in rank, and he is content with his position as head of Research Instruction, where he manages the unit but does not supervise his colleagues. He has found himself in a place of “plateauing”[1]—reaching a particular, sought-after level and perhaps thinking, “Now what?” Elizabeth recently moved her career from a large R1 system where she was a faculty member and supervised no one to a liberal arts college consortium where she is a staff member and supervises two people. She characterizes this stage of her career, in which she’s also reducing professional commitments, as “downshifting”[2]—condensing the directions in which she’s pulled in order to concentrate on a smaller sphere of influence.

For many of us, the early stage of our careers in librarianship is a goal-oriented whirlwind, ripe with opportunities to network, attend conferences, and build up our scholarly profiles. While this certainly does not end at mid-career, the motivation and excitement can become transformed—perhaps because the novelty of growing as a professional has waned or we are just burned out. However, not everyone wants to move into management, or perhaps they have learned that management takes them away from what they originally loved about librarianship. This feeling of uncertainty—trying to find solace at a career plateau and downshifting or reprioritizing our goals—is the impetus for this edited volume. Discussing our experiences and strategies for navigating our individualized versions of mid-career librarianship will help us sustain our longevity in the profession and figure out how to find more comfort in a situation where guidance is often missing.

About This Book

In calling for chapter proposals for this book, we focused neither on academic studies nor pure advice but on people’s own experiences and what can be learned from them. We hope that by bringing them together, we showcase many different paths and that readers are able to recognize themselves at multiple points. We know that there are experiences that are not captured here; it would be impossible to represent everyone unless we included chapters from every mid-career librarian! We did, however, ask that authors do one or more of the following in their chapters: include marginalized perspectives, address intersectionality, and/or reflect on privilege. All of us are affected, in different ways, by white supremacy and patriarchy and the library systems and structures in which they are embedded. The two of us, who benefit from many unearned privileges, including being white, made this relatively small decision to require our authors to address these areas in order to make room for marginalized voices and provide space for reflection on the privilege individual authors have. We’re proud of how the authors in this book have incorporated these reflections in their writing and hope that more publications continue to make these efforts.

To focus the wide range of potential topics relating to mid-career librarianship, we asked our authors to center their chapters around one of four different sections: Staying Engaged in Your Career, The Role of Identity in Shaping Mid-career Librarianship, Being Your Own Advocate, and To Lead or Not to Lead? These were the areas we were most interested in and suspected that others would be as well. The sections are not, of course, completely separate; identity factors into decisions about whether or not to take on a leadership role, and staying engaged often requires self-advocacy. Our goal was to develop this volume to offer a variety of perspectives and situations to help inspire the reader. The remainder of this introduction offers a brief description of the chapters organized under each section.

Section 1: Staying Engaged in Your Career

The title of this section is fairly self-explanatory; we asked authors to share how they continue to find motivation during the mid-career stage. The authors in this section are not focused on leadership or administration (more on that in section 4) but on how to sustain themselves in their current careers. We hope that this selection of chapters will offer you ideas for sustaining yourself throughout mid-career.

This section begins with Fargo, Bhat, and Powell describing how and why they created the LibParlor website and the role it plays in helping them sustain their respective mid-careers. Leveque and Tewell’s chapter is an interview between a new and a seasoned librarian. Their conversation illustrates the differences between these career stages and serves as a commentary on the importance of giving back as a mentor. Nichols Hess also describes the benefits of mentoring in a more informal framework that draws on the literature of mentoring.

Pinto and Galoozis’s chapter helps to contextualize the concept of mid-career; they offer goal-setting exercises for the reader to reflect on. Hennessey shares her experience as a systems librarian and offers advice as to how she maintains interest in her role and its larger context in the profession. Rath and Germain explain the varying reasons they decided to pursue a PhD and discuss the process of earning different types of doctoral degrees. Finally, the section concludes with Weiss detailing how coping with boredom can be important for sustaining one’s long-term career.

Section 2: The Role of Identity in Shaping Mid-career Librarianship

One of the goals of this book is to acknowledge that we each hold identities personal to us that influence the way in which we navigate our careers. This section aims to amplify the stories of librarians who are experiencing mid-career with marginalized identities or abilities.

Fullington and Cirasella’s chapter leads the section with a narrative about being librarians who are hard of hearing. They discuss how their shared experience led to a fruitful research partnership. In the next chapter, Vong analyzes her career as a person of color through the lens of the Community Cultural Wealth Model. Bladek uses her chapter to share how she navigated her promotion to full professor while balancing her responsibilities as a mother. Adamo’s chapter examines how she was able to navigate a career in librarianship by embracing her queer identity and chronic illness in uncertain situations. Hickner’s chapter rounds out this section through an exploration of learning how to thrive as a librarian with mental illness.

Section 3: Being Your Own Advocate

The chapters in this section highlight strategies for navigating day-to-day and year-to-year conditions within complex institutional environments. This topic is highlighted in this book because the only thing any person has true control over is their own choices, and being your own advocate—where possible—is one of the most powerful positions one can take.

The section begins with de la Cruz’s chapter about making self-care a priority in a service-oriented profession. He emphasizes that self-care is more than indulging in food or spa days but instead needs to be sustained through the long term. Next, Machin and Apfelbaum offer advice to folks considering a career change, something that can seem very daunting when you are mid-career. Union stewardship is the topic of Thornhill, Peterson, and Shaffer’s chapter. They discuss how they got involved with their union in order to advocate for librarian jobs that were threatened to be cut at their institution. Palmer, Keiko Stark, Albro, and McElfresh delve into strategies for dealing with incivility in the library workplace—a topic that most librarians, unfortunately, will have encountered at some point in their careers. The section ends with a chapter by Emery, Hyde, Fancher, and Albert who share how to leverage peer relationships to support oneself through the mid-career.

Section 4: To Lead or Not to Lead?

The last section of the book explores the complex nature of leadership. As noted in the introduction, leadership and administration are often encouraged among mid-career librarians. The selection of chapters in this section looks at more nuanced dimensions of leadership, and we hope you feel inspired to choose, or not choose, leadership as an option for yourself.

Leebaw and Tomlinson begin this section by offering their perspectives on the benefits and drawbacks of pursuing leadership at mid-career—what is gained and what is lost by moving into a management role. Lam and McKinney’s chapter focuses on overcoming post-tenure fatigue by finding leadership opportunities and navigating academic librarianship “as first-generation, BIPOC, cis-gendered women while also balancing motherhood on the road to, and beyond, achieving tenure.” Lundstrom describes how she developed a new model of rotating leadership responsibilities in her library unit to help share power, challenge traditional hierarchical structures, and give many people the opportunity to lead. Mitchell uses her chapter to explore why she chooses to be a library leader after experiencing bad managers throughout her tenure. Miles and Markgren’s chapter offers advice for taking advantage of informal leadership opportunities to stay engaged with their careers. The next chapter, by Pankl and Coleman, describes the authors’ career paths in leadership positions and offers advice on how to balance ambition and personal fulfillment as a librarian. Campbell’s chapter delves into the concept of being a “third space librarian” and discusses how to build a meaningful and satisfying career. Finally, an anonymous author shares her story of how she advanced through her mid-career in librarianship, then chose to leave the profession entirely.

Thriving as a Mid-career Librarian

When we put out the call for proposals for this book, we saw many negative comments about its title—namely that we used the word “thriving.” The common comment was, “I can barely survive my job!” As two mid-career academic librarians, we get it. It feels like everything gets harder, more political, and further under-resourced with each passing year. It is much easier to be cynical than positive when you have been in your career for a long time and have witnessed the revolving door of administrators, colleagues, and dreams that go unfulfilled. Nevertheless, we think it is possible that through the strategies of community, support, and advocacy detailed in these chapters, it is possible for us to thrive and help others to thrive. We want to resist this narrative and help other librarians think more strategically and sustainably about their careers. We hope that you will be able to apply lessons from this book to your work life, or use some of the strategies here to reframe, think through, and make decisions about mid-career. At mid-career, we may not have the same bright-eyed enthusiasm we possessed as new information professionals, but we have other things: the contributions we make to our communities and the wealth of experience we have built up since those days.

  1. Tina M. Neville and Deborah B. Henry, “Career Plateauing among Senior Librarians,” Journal of Library Administration 57, no. 6 (2017): 651–73.
  • Raymond CH Loi, Yan Liu, Huihui Tang, and Hang Yue Ngo, “Downshifting: A Career Construction Perspective,” in Academy of Management Proceedings, vol. 2021, no. 1, 12022.