Me and a house.

in Libraries, Life, Richmond

What it means to stay

Seven years ago last month I interviewed for my job at VCU. I started work a few months later, assuming I’d stick around for a couple of years then move on to my Next Academic Library Job. Instead I found myself signing closing papers on a house on my sixth work anniversary, having decided to root myself in my city and my job.

So what happened? What happens when you have a career in a field that expects you to move from job to job, city to city, climbing a ladder towards Career Success…and you stay instead?

Go high or go deep

Last year about this time I was hanging out with my friend Liz, who has spent over 10 years teaching at VCU. “I don’t know what’s next for me,” I said. “I feel like I am supposed to move on but I am happy here.”

“You either go high or you go deep,” she said. “Choose which one you want and follow that. You’ll have success either way.”

Liz’s advice resonates with me to this very day. By staying and growing in my job, I’m choosing to go deeper into my specialization rather than higher into an org chart. Rather than looking outward to the Next Job Opportunity, I’m freed up to focus on getting really good at what I do and helping my library grow.

So, ruminating on my time at my job:

I switched from sprint mode to marathon mode

When you run a longer distance you pace yourself, make sure your form is right, get your head in the right place, and focus far on the road ahead. At some point over the past couple years, I stopped deciding everything needed to happen at a breakneck speed. Yes, some things need to move quickly, but not everything. Pacing is important.

I fear being the one who fears change

Every day I worry that I’m becoming the person who says “no” because it’s a new way of doing things, or because the answer was no in the past. Being aware of this is part of the solution – as is really, truly listening to new ideas, even when they scare the shit out of me.

I try not to poison the well

I also worry that my cynicism about work problems from the past (even in the way-way past) can show through. Being aware of where and how often I direct my crankiness is key, as is wielding that ire when needed to address larger organizational issues that need attention.

I try to fix small things that can become big things

Switching from sprint mode to marathon mode means looking out for the parts that rub the wrong way. As when you do anything for a long time, the smallest discomforts can turn into big problems if not addressed early on.

I plan far ahead

Choosing to stay meant deeply investing in the future—the way-way future, not just the next year or two. All of a sudden, policy changes and organizational culture changes were very important to me and I started using my voice as such.

I benefit from relationships I’ve built

Over the years I’ve made a lot of connections inside and outside my library, around campus and all over Richmond. Knowing people and having that mutual respect really helps get my job done and collaborate with others better and in exciting ways. It also means I have the respect and trust of colleagues in the library, a power that I try to wield for good.

Other people benefit from relationships I’ve built

Knowing more people means I can make introductions. I’m very proud that I can say I’ve gotten people jobs and otherwise connected disparate folks who benefitted from meeting each other. This is a fun part of being a librarian and I’m hooked on it.

I learn from my younger self’s missteps

One of our favorite questions to ask candidates for web developer jobs is, “Have you ever worked on someone else’s code that was good?” The ideal answer, of course, is “I don’t even think my own code from two weeks ago is good.”

We keep learning, circumstances change, and besides, it’s foolish to think we’ll never make regrettable decisions. After almost 7 years I’ve dealt with the echoes of strategy and code decisions I made years before – both good and bad. Projects are cyclical, and when they come back around, it’s me looking at my past self’s decisions and sometimes saying, “I don’t even think my own decision from three years ago was good.” And that’s okay.

I’ve become kinder to my future self

I’ve begun documenting more, communicating more, and acknowledging that I am working with the best information I have at the time, so missteps are inevitable but okay. And more importantly, I’ve stopped thinking I am my work and vice versa. That’s a harmful way to think and it helps no one.

I mentor newer employees

My library has an informal “buddy” program to match new hires with experienced employees, and I’ve otherwise reached out to new librarians just to say hello and offer a listening ear or advice. Hopefully folks have found this useful, and in any case it gives me an excuse to introduce myself.

Newer employees mentor me

It’s not a one-way mentorship relationship. I love hearing ideas from people who just got hired; they bring in new experiences and fresh ideas that I just don’t have the capacity or experience to bring. When I hire people, I seek out people whose ideas scare me a little. It’s having people who are new that keeps us longer-timers engaged and challenged.

What does it mean for you?

For others who have stayed at your institution: what does that mean to you? How do you benefit and what are you cautious about?

Many thanks to John Glover and Wren Lanier for their early feedback on this post.

  1. Erin –
    I love this! It echoes my sentiments so well.
    I never planned to stay. I had all intentions of using my position as a launchpad from the get-go. But now, as I’ve shifted to realize that I am <> I also realize that my position is <> and it’s brought great clarity — much like you capture in this post!
    Cheers –

  2. I really love this and hope that I can have the the kind of relationship with an employer that you obviously have.

  3. Erin, this was a total joy to read. I’ve been in my spot, too, for seven years, and about to have a conversation with a superior that will codify some of the unwritten things I do around here to, as you and Liz say, go deep. And I realize I’ve been building them for some time — GSA, Feminism Club, board membership in larger equity organizations that support independent schools. I benefit because my connection to this place is so very rich in supporting students, especially the non-high fliers of the social spectrum, the kids who need safe, particular spaces. They get the safe space, but I really do, too. That warm, accurate understanding of our institution couldn’t happen with a three year tenure inside of which I was always trying to get up and out while also doing my job. I’d be doing the job that was on paper, then pouring myself into looking outside for other things. The benefits are patience and a really nuanced idea of my use around this place, in addition to knowing exactly what the safe spaces are for me, because I’ve been here this long. I’m cautious about that last thing — that I do have a safe space. To get invested, I’ve got to know where my in-house team is. The benefit there is identifying new teammates over the years and hoping they’ll stay, too.

    Thank you for your post! I think I’m going to share it with the boss with whom I’ve got the meeting next week. VCU’s lucky to have you.

  4. All good thoughts. The thinking I am my work and vice versa is a real struggle. The one thing I wish I could see more of is people that do question their work and seek to improve. 11 years in one organization and I go back and forth about change. I want to be careful that I stay as long as the work inspires me but not long enough to that I am less value to another organization.

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