10 Questions: Siobhán McGuinness
Her affinity for Twitter and involvement in SLA have allowed Siobhán McGuinness to make a name for herself in the librarian profession very quickly.
By Jamie Marie Aschenbach, JD, MLIS
This interview appears in the March-April 2017 issue of Information Outlook.
Since leaving the hospitality industry to become a librarian, Siobhán McGuinness has found her professional voice, built a network and a brand, gained new confidence, showcased her work, gotten involved in SLA, developed leadership skills, and collaborated with other librarians, both in the United Kingdom and across the globe.
And she’s done most of it 140 characters at a time.
Siobhán enrolled in library school just as Twitter was taking flight, and she has used the social networking service to not just introduce herself to the library community but also to carve out a professional space in that community. It was through Twitter, for example, that she got introduced to SLA and formed a mentor-mentee relationship with Tracy Maleeff, who steered her toward the Leadership and Management Division. Soon after, Siobhán received the division’s Career Advancement Award, which helped fund her travel to the SLA 2016 Annual Conference in Philadelphia.
“I’m so thrilled I got the opportunity [to attend],” Siobhán says. “It’s a really, really awesome thing to happen for a new information professional.”
Information Outlook connected with Siobhán through another technology (Skype) in March, when her native Ireland was commemorating its patron saint, Patrick.
You first popped up on my radar last year with your tweets from the SLA 2016 Annual Conference. How has Twitter helped you grow your professional network and brand?
Twitter began when I was taking the master’s program, so back in 2013 I began using it. It had been around for a while, and I hadn’t really understood it and didn’t have any need to get on Twitter, and then the master’s came up and the teachers told us get on Twitter. Just set up an account, they said, as basic as it can be. Be an egg for a while, you know, figure out what it is.
Even the teachers were on Twitter. Just find them, we were told; see what they are talking about. Follow each other. Write a blog post. It was very, very easy to do. I never thought for a second it would be this helpful to me, in no stretch of my imagination. And it has helped me grow professionally in many, many ways.
So the first point would be reaching out, creating a dialogue with other librarians. What we did when we were in college was to follow the people that had graduated the year before. And they knew we were doing this. So they created a dialogue with us about what we were interested in and the different library associations. Like, there’s not just the Library Association of Ireland, there are other library associations. And you just expand that pool of people, and you get to learn about libraries in the U.K. and follow a few people on the American side within SLA. CILIP [the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals] is another big U.K. library association, and they do a lot of collaborating with the Library Association of Ireland. So that was a big pool of people. I have since followed a few Australian librarians as well.
So it’s a huge eye-opener, especially when you’re starting out and trying to figure out where you sit within librarianship. And I thought Twitter gave me a lot of confidence when I was in college. My background is, I’m 36, I went back to college at 28, having had a previous career in hospitality. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I went back to college until I found the master’s in librarianship, and even in that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was a bit daunting going into the profession—I didn’t realize it was so big, I really didn’t. And it was so significant. I always knew libraries were around, I was a big user of the public library, I read a lot, but it never clicked with me just how significant librarians and libraries are to society.
So it was through Twitter that I really found my voice, and I found how comfortable I was with these people that I didn’t know before. And I found the sheer love and passion for the profession that I knew existed, but not in the capacity that I had ever thought of.
It also allowed me to showcase my works. Never before had I put out anything—you know, an essay that you might write or a post on something you had done on cataloging, or, you know, very small pieces. To put that out there and have other librarians comment on it is such a big boost for a new professional, and it gives that platform to show off and say, “Here I am. I’m the newbie. Reach out to me.” And you slowly get to contribute to the profession and you slowly get to see who to talk to and who to learn from and who to touch base with, and, you know, how to ask the right questions. So, yeah, that’s kinda’ how it helped me grow.
I had never thought of it as a professional brand. The professional brand idea is quite American. It’s not so much pushed to be that way here—I suppose it’s more of a network. But I have slowly built myself into a brand as well. It’s been an ongoing process, really.
You’ve cultivated your personal brand, or your personal network, online. How did you go about that?
I didn’t really have a plan; it all just seemed to happen. Because when I got on Twitter, I became obsessed with Twitter, and then I became obsessed with being a librarian on Twitter and finding all of the librarians that were on Twitter in the world. I kind of said to myself, “I like this. This is working for me.”
You kind of pick up ways of how other people are doing it, and you pick up how it works for you. There are people who will tweet every sentence of a conference and not look at the presenter. And there are some who will, you know, take the time to reflect on it afterwards and send out a few tweets.
I think the personal brand on Twitter itself as a librarian says a lot about how your profile changes over time. In the last two years, mine has definitely changed. Like, with the American electoral process, I became obsessed with politics, and my Twitter feed was full of American politics. Now I’m like, I don’t want to hear a thing. I also follow a lot of musicians on Twitter, and I think that has taken over my feed as well.
So now I’m trying to find all my library information again. I need to kind of pull back a little bit, so my feed is only for my profession. I want to know what librarians are up to, I want to know what information is out there on libraries, different topics and things like that.
And my bio’s actually changed a million times. When we set up this interview, I looked at my bio again and it looked dated, so I need to change it again. You have to know to do that—it’s not something that’s going to stay the same from the day you set it up to four years later. And by doing that, it’s a really good exercise because you see how you’ve grown and changed as a professional. You can see, hey, this is my personal brand, I want it to be this, I want my bio to look like this, I want my picture to look like this. One big decision I made was to go down to a professional photographer to have a picture taken, and I said that it was gonna’ be for Twitter, and it looked like that.
So, you know, things like that you have to think about. Come back to me in six months’ time, and it might be totally different again.
You’ve worked in a variety of library positions, including IT, technical services, records, and research. Which was the most challenging, and why?
I think all of them are, in their own way, very challenging. Each position was very different, and I needed to adapt and change to the new job or project. You know, that can be challenging in any environment—knowing you’ve never been here before.
In hospitality, even though you might change jobs every couple of years, you still kind of go in knowing what’s ahead of you, whether the place is bigger or smaller, whether the staff is bigger or smaller. With the skills you get in librarianship, you can go down so many different roads, which is what I kind of have on my CV. And even within that, even if you are a research assistant, every research post you do is extremely different.
So it’s very, very challenging, and at the same time, the contracts that I’ve done were a three-month contract and a nine-month contract, and another one was for a year. It’s very, very difficult at times to settle into a place like that. That can be the challenge itself—getting into a routine. You get to know a place, and you get to know the staff and you like them, and then you’re gone, never to return. So that can be a challenge in itself.
And I’m 36, I’m venturing on a new career, and you get to that age—I do, anyway—where I second-guess myself the whole time. So I think, you have to stop yourself. All these tiny little challenges that were never there before in my employment life are there now. They are the ones that are challenging me, more so than the job roles. But being that other new professionals are in the 18- to 25-year-old range, I’m a bit of an outlier in this position.
Being a newer library professional, what do you see as the most difficult aspect of librarianship today?
From my perspective, it’s getting the right experience. You can only do so much in internships. And what I recently found out, unfortunately, is that your courage to create will only take you so far.
If I had my time over again, I would really look at what employers wanted. Now, in Ireland, they want two years’ library experience for everything. I’m gutted that I don’t even have that, because I don’t have actual library work experience. Everything I’ve done is a research post or I’ve been working in a closed library, and they don’t see that as library experience. They want it very specific, as in academic library experience or public library experience.
I don’t know if you can perfect it, in that kind of way—to know that you have enough under your belt so if you do go for various positions, you have most of the boxes ticked, not just the degree. Today, for new graduates, there’s a lot of reason in saying get all the experience, get all the skills, because we can do so many different jobs, yet we still get pigeon-holed of being that librarian who reads books and tells people to be quiet in a lovely old library.
So it’s a double-edged sword. For me, anyway, that was the most difficult aspect—anything I did, I didn’t do enough. I am still falling short of what they need or what they want.
You’ve been active in SLA and SLA’s Leadership and Management Division. Why SLA?
I joined all the library associations when I was in college, and then as the years progressed, I got involved on Twitter with #uklibchat. As I was already obsessed with Twitter, I got obsessed with Twitter chats, and SLA was developing their Twitter chats. So I was looking out for them, you know, and I got involved with that and I got to know a lot of people across the States and the U.K.There was one particular Twitter chat that I think was about mentoring, and Tracy Maleeff approached me regarding a mentor-mentee relationship. That got me really looking into what SLA was, and the European Chapter—I didn’t know what it was. And then I got involved in the European Chapter’s Digital Communications Division, and I have no idea how I got involved in that! And now, the last six weeks, I’m chair. So it’s like, okay, these things happen.
And then Tracy decided to sponsor me as an LMD member, and she encouraged me to apply for the Career Advancement Award, which I went on to win, and then I attended the SLA conference last year. And I’m really grateful to everyone I met there. I’m so thrilled I got the opportunity. It’s a really, really awesome thing to happen for a new information professional.
From there I became involved in LMD’s professional development team, as we deliver a webinar every month. And that’s really cool, getting to know the contacts for all the different people who do businesses, not just getting a librarian to do it. It’s reaching out to different people, and they’ve been really successful so far.
What leadership skills have you learned through SLA that are benefiting your career?
I would definitely say teamwork and communication. These skills are good to have when you work virtually with people, and that’s where my leadership skills have grown—working virtually with people through SLA and the LMD and with the Europe Chapter also. They meet in person at the British Library every month, and I call in via conference call. The LMD, the gal that runs the LMD professional development team, she’s based in England as well, and we basically e-mail and Skype. So it’s all been run virtually.
If you had told me three years ago that I was going to have this conversation with you today, I would’ve laughed. There’s no way I would’ve Skyped with you—I do not know this person, I’m not doing this, go away from me. So that’s where your leadership skills come in, that it’s OK to do things like that, it’s OK to be interviewed by somebody and then have it published.
I think as well, I’ve learned my tone and my approach to people and to listen to the tone and the approach of the other person—to read between the lines in e-mail to figure out what that other person is thinking. For me, to figure that out first and then go from there is really, really important.
Leadership skills, for me, have more to do with your personality than anything else. I like to think I’m a good people person, that I can meet people pretty well. I never push my help on somebody unless I can see or hear that they need it.
A good leader should be able to see that, six weeks into a project, somebody can turn around and say, “I can’t do this, I really can’t do this.” A good leader should be able to stand there and go, “We’ll get it sorted out, it will be fine.” You might not essentially be the team leader, but a leader is able to pick everyone back up again and go, “It’s okay. We’ll get this done. It’ll be fine.” And writing an e-mail just to say it’s okay is just as good as calling people and having an hour-long conversation.
You won the LMD Career Advancement Award last year for a proposal for a webinar. Can you tell me about the program and why it is important?I put together a three-minute presentation, and it got to be the basis of a webinar for new information professionals using social media. So, again, this is how Twitter helped me—basically it was my story as a new information professional. Now it’s kind of gotten to the stage where I’ve expanded it a lot. LMD got a new chair, and I sent out an e-mail that said, I have a few ideas, I want to do this, I want to do that, and they came back with so much support. So I was like, right, let’s do this.
Now I’m hoping to do a few interviews, a few blog posts, and a webinar or two, and it’s really easy for me to do these now because I have access to the LMD webinar tool and the webmaster, Grace Kim, to get things posted. And with the contacts I’ve been given already, I’ll be able to reach out to them to get them involved. I did have plans on getting things started at the beginning of this year, but next week is April and I don’t really know how that happened! So I’m hoping to tackle it this month and have it completed by September. I’m hoping to reach out to new information professionals within SLA.
You wrote on the SLA Leadership and Management blog, “You need to know what makes you curious and drives you to do more.” What sparks your curiosity and drive these days?
I suppose what I’ve learned in the last three to four years is that librarians like to learn. I think we’re naturally curious people. We’re not nosy, we’re just curious.
When I see a volume of people on Twitter who work so hard to make librarianship such an import aspect of our lives, I always look to see what they do. Some of them don’t even know they’re leaders, but they are to me. So I look to how they lead, and they drive me to be a good leader.
I don’t necessarily think I am one, because, you know, I’m still a new information professional. I don’t feel myself leading anyone. So the leaders I do see, like Tracy Maleeff and Penny Leach, really drive me to do better. Especially with this program I’m doing after winning the award, it’s not going to be, you know, half done. Always have your top game, and always go to see what others are doing that you can do just as well.
On your blog, you write about collaborating internationally. Why do you think this is important?
You can get very comfortable in a job, seeing the same people every day, working and living in the same area. You might see a variety of people every day, but you don’t fully understand what they do or where they come from.
Collaborating internationally or even nationally, like I did on a project two years ago with a group through the west of Ireland—I’m in the south of Ireland, so I never get to the west part—is really, really good. I got to know them and what was going on in the west of Ireland. I got to realize what their public library was like, the range of jobs they had. There’s nothing like that down at this end. I was like, okay, we need to do something about that.
With the U.K., you just know what’s going on. Libraries in the U.K. are going through a horrible time. So you get on Twitter and you tweet out that this is going on, or you sign a petition to say I’m with you. Simple things like that—you just know what’s going on. In Australia, there are two SLA members I’m quite fond of—one’s in New Zealand, actually—and you get to know what’s going on there. You always look to the webinars to see what else is going on, new things that they’re doing.
You can get too settled in your own bubble, and I never want that to happen. As much as I don’t like what’s going on, I want to know what’s going on, or new ideas, and to keep that curiosity.
You’ve often tweeted about reading 52 books in 2017. How do you decide what to read next? Is there any category of books you won’t read?
I have a really good Facebook book club. It’s called the Rick O’Shea Book Club (https://www.facebook.com/ groups/therickosheabookclub/). He’s an Irish radio presenter, and he set it up about four years ago, and now he’s got 6,000 members. So that’s my go-to for books, and they’re all pretty good books that I would read anyway—books that have won the Booker Prize, the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction, New York Times best-sellers.
On Instragram, Reese Witherspoon puts up what she reads. I think Sarah Jessica Parker also tweets what she reads. Basically I read fiction, but I have begun to crawl out of my comfort zone. At the moment I’m reading Roxanne Gay. She’s really, really good on Twitter, and she was a keynote for the American Library Association. I read Lena Dunham’s autobiography, and Naomi Klein on climate change—that’s been a terrifying read. So those are the kind of things I read to kind of get out of my comfort zone.
If there’s a category of books I won’t read, I suppose I could say no to romance or chick lit. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good love story, but I’m not going to be picking up 50 Shades of Grey or anything like that. If you sent it to me, I might try to read it, but if I don’t like it I won’t get through it. Science fiction, I’m not going to say no to, but it’s not something that I’m always drawn to. There’s a huge section in my public library that I’m always meaning to kind of sit down in and go, hmm, I really should read one of these, but I’ve got too much in my TBR pile.
I’m at 21 books already—I’m throwing it out of the park this year. My public library has e-books, and I started reading young adult fiction that way. They’re so good! There’s some really good young adult fiction out there.
Jamie Marie Aschenbach is the head of access services at Southern Connecticut State University. She previously served as head of research and access services at Florida Coastal School of Law, where she taught Advanced Legal Research and Introduction to U.S. Law and Legal System. Within SLA, she is a board member of the Academic Division and previously served on the board of the Florida-Caribbean Chapter.