I don’t know about you, but there can be times when my job feels stagnant. Like I’m doing the same kinds of things over and over, without much in the way of mental stimulation. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily – I think for a lot of office-type jobs, it’s normal to get into a sort of routine, and for it to become very regular. This isn’t that bad a problem, unless things don’t change ever. Part of the reason I left my last job more than 3 years ago is that in addition to doing the same routine things over and over each day, I wasn’t really being given the opportunity to grow. And by “grow” I mean doing anything to engage my brain on a higher level. I blame that on the lack of travel and training opportunities I had in that position. In fact, the last professional library conference that I went to during my time there was in May of 2012, one month after the GSA travel scandal made all federal agencies clamp down on non-essential travel and training budgets for fear of looking like they were being decadent with taxpayer money. The last 3 years I was in that job I was essentially isolated from outside librarians, with no mental stimulation, or real idea of what was new and exciting in the field.
When I switched jobs, one of the things that I mentioned in my interview was that I was interested in going back to professional conferences, that I had germs of ideas for presenting or publishing, and that since none of those things were possible in my old job, I needed to get out. Other reasons for getting out existed (my commute was TERRIBLE), but finding a job where there would be opportunities for professional development was a big part.
So what is professional development? I think in a lot of academic or academic-adjacent fields, it looks the same. In libraries, it means a few things, and I’ll describe those from simplest to most involved. First off is keeping up with the news and “literature” in your field. This means knowing what’s going on with other professionals who hold your same title, new developments, tools, techniques. Reading about what’s going on has been a hallmark of academia and professional societies going back to the 1600s. Sometimes you can get a subscription to a journal in question by joining a society, but at others, maintaining a journal subscription (especially to a premier journal) can be quite expensive. Libraries do a great job of being able to bring subscriptions to a wider audience at a lower cost per person, but it’s still not a cheap endeavor.
The next “easiest” thing to do is training – if there’s a course that is relevant to your role and responsibilities at work, taking a class to learn more about a topic or to refresh your knowledge is a great way to develop yourself. Unfortunately for so many of us, the training that covers the exact topic areas that we want is rarely local, and so you have to go through the rigmarole of getting both the class approved AND the travel to get to the location. In some industries, this is not an issue. In the government, even 6 years later anything involving travel or a cost to the government is looked at with a wary eye, especially if you’re in a more “administrative support” type of role which is not seen as needing the same kind of professional development as a more swiftly changing academic/scientific/research type of position. And yet, our fields are changing all the time too! There are new techniques and tools in libraries that I would love to learn about, and yet it’s not possible. Sometimes you luck out and courses are available online, but there aren’t as many of those opportunities yet.
Finally the grandaddy of all professional development experiences is the professional conference. This event combines many different aspects – sometimes there is training on new tools and techniques. There are always presentations by other professionals in the field be they through a keynote speech, a smaller talk, a panel discussion or a poster presentation. This last item – the poster presentation – is a good opportunity as well for another aspect of development: talking with other professionals in the field, aka networking. Additionally, conferences also are an opportunity for vendors in a field to speak to larger audiences – often there will be a vendor/sponsor area or hall, and they will set up booths and tables and want to talk to you (and give you swag!) so they can hopefully convince you to use their product over a competitors. Conferences can last anywhere from a day to a week, and are amazing opportunities to expand ones brain when it comes to what is happening in the field and give you new ideas, or at the very least, new people to talk to about what’s going on. They also tend to come with a heavy price tag, since they usually involve all the costs of travel – food and lodging – along with registration costs. When every penny in a budget is being watched carefully, it can be difficult to get attendance to a conference approved.
But the reason I write this now is because I recently had a terrific experience in professional development. A colleague alerted me to the fact that a two-day symposium would be held locally on a topic area which I am thoroughly interested in right now as it relates heavily to one of the most visible work-products that I as a reference librarian am responsible for each year. In fact, in my professional development plan last year, I specifically mentioned wanting to attend a conference where information related to this topic area would be discussed. And here was one that I could attend (because I wasn’t heavily pregnant/on maternity leave); it was local, so no travel cost to the government; and registration was free, so again – no cost there to my agency. All my boss had to do was approve my time away from the office, and she did, so miracle of miracles, I got to go.
And it was AMAZING. The first day alone was worth the time away from my desk because I felt so invigorated and full of ideas after attending all the sessions and poster presentations. I talked to people I didn’t know. I reconnected with some librarians that I did know who were there. I sat attentively in sessions and took diligent notes. I had exciting ideas for what I could do back in my library. I sent an email out that first afternoon asking to order two books through inter-library loan in the topic area that were recommended. It was thrilling. I came back to work after the conference excited to look into ways I could put my new ideas into action, and invigorated to start my work anew.
I don’t think there is a specific point to this post other than that idea – engaging ones brain in the area of professional expertise is so necessary. If you are going to remain in a position or a career field for any length of time, you’re going to need these opportunities to refresh your well of knowledge. And even short conferences, free training, local networking events can provide these opportunities for stimulation that you won’t get every day on the job.
So with that said – who else out there has had a good professional development experience, whether lately, or ever? How does professional development (or continuing education as it’s sometimes known) work differently in your field? Do you feel like your job provides you enough opportunities to further yourself, or is it the kind of thing you need to take your own initiative? What is the hardest part for you about professional development? I’m very curious to know how it works in fields outside of library science – and even potentially from other librarians, because I know that I’m often too shy and hesitant about how I interact at conferences!