New Skills, Helpful Mentors, and an ‘Awesome Deed’
Where does value lie in an association?
SLA, like all associations, must continually ask this question of its members so it can adjust its programs, services, and other offerings to meet changing needs. But in a recent post on SLA’s community platform, Jill Hurst-Wahl, the 2021 recipient of SLA’s highest honor, the John Cotton Dana Award, posed that question to her fellow members in slightly different terms.
“At the recent SLA Town Hall, I was reminded of how being an SLA member benefitted my career,” she wrote. “So, I’m going to tell a story and then hope that EVERYONE who reads this contributes a story of how being an SLA member benefitted their career.”
Several SLA members took up Jill’s challenge; their stories, like Jill’s, are excerpted below. Some wrote about meeting fellow SLA members who later served as mentors; others wrote about new skills they learned that transferred to their jobs. The common thread in all of the posts was that SLA provided value—and is still providing value today—by helping advance their careers.
About three decades ago, I was in need of information about a wealthy entrepreneur. This person had started several successful businesses, and I needed to know his background and career history. The problem was that he lived in a country that was not covered by the online databases at that time. In addition, he had already been very successful, so new articles about him didn’t capture his history. I used the SLA member directory to find librarians in that country. I emailed them, introduced myself as a member of SLA, told them what I needed, offered to pay for the information, and waited. And the information arrived! If I remember correctly, the information was faxed to me and there was no request to cover the cost. To my boss and client, I had pulled off an awesome deed! And I was able to do it because of SLA.
I have often said I “grew up in SLA.” Initially I was involved with the Environmental Resources Division and SLA Illinois. I rose to leadership in SLA Illinois, thanks to some awesome mentors, and was president at the end of the 1990s. In that chapter I also had the opportunity to be part of the amazing “book team”—we wrote the 4th edition of the SLA imprint Special Libraries: A Guide for Management. I learned so many things running a large chapter, like running efficient meetings, budget planning, ways to work with headquarters staff to get information, how to run and evaluate programs, and how to do strategic planning, to name just a few. These skills usefully transferred to my workplaces.
I’ve gotten so much out of my membership in SLA, including some of the most AMAZING mentors anyone could ever hope for! Some of those mentorships were formal, but many of them were casual and built on a mutual passion for our profession and the impact specialized libraries and information professionals have on the people we support. SLA is a community of passionate, dedicated and dynamic people. Seek what you need and offer what you have to share. This is how we make SLA what we want and need it to be!
One of the many ways that SLA benefitted my career was the Middle Management Institute. I had recently been promoted to a management position and realized very quickly that my graduate studies had not included any pertinent courses. SLA’s MMI had four units; one course was offered each January and each June. All four could be completed in two years. I particularly remember the budgeting unit, which gave me exactly what I needed to prepare my first budget, and for all the other budgets that followed over the years.
Within a year of becoming a professional librarian, I joined SLA. SLA gave me the opportunity for leadership positions that I may not have had in other library associations, and I’ve met some of the best folks at Leadership Symposia over the years, when we really got into doing some SLA work (and SLA fun!). When working on the 2017 Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, I got to meet some “way cool folks.” DICE work has been fulfilling and has, I think, led to some positive changes in SLA. All of this work in SLA has also been beneficial to my career advancement.
At the SLA 2009 Annual Conference, I taught a half-day course for the SLA Engineering Division (now Community) on researching U.S. and international standards. In the audience was someone from a U.S. government agency. She came over afterward and told me she’d been following the work I was doing at my company (we published a lot of current awareness news) and how impressed she was with the course content. We connected on LinkedIn. In May 2010, I was laid off. That summer, the woman I met at SLA 2009 approached me through LinkedIn and asked me if I wanted to bid on a project to conduct an information audit. I put in the bid and won against two competitors. I delivered that project, and then I was brought on full-time as a remote contractor for two years. I worked on a lot of interesting projects and really enjoyed the culture, the people and the work. They then told me they weren’t renewing my contract because they wanted to hire me full-time. I know that I would never be in this super-cool job 8 years later had I not taught a course at that particular SLA conference!
SLA was the first library association I got involved with, mostly thanks to some classmates and Rebecca Vargha. For a time, I figured I was going to wind up in a special library setting after all, and so I just stuck with it. I moved into academia, but I have always liked how many niche things were in this organization. Having corporate engineering librarians to talk to helps out on my end with the education piece that I do, and several of the other communities that have tangential connections to engineering, like Competitive Intelligence or Legal, have usually put on some fascinating programs. I am not sure I would have found out about some of these fields or topics if it were not for this association.
SLA and SLA Europe have been great for me to keep believing in our place in the provision of library, information and knowledge (data, insights research, etc.) services. There were difficult times when my role or department was not valued or appreciated for what we did, but having a network of SLA professionals and libraries (physical and virtual) who were still providing important and vital services across the world inspired and motivated me. There are some members who have actually helped or informally mentored me personally and for work-related requests. SLA and its members still inspire me to this day, and definitely will do so in the future.