I recently started a new job. For the last year I’d been happily working at the circulation desk of a medical/academic library, and I was happy there. It was a comfortable spot: nice supervisors, nice work environment, and a job I knew inside out. But I’m aiming to work in digital collections, so when my library made some changes that brought a new emphasis to digital collections — including a new student worker position — I eagerly accepted when they offered me the spot.
I’ve been in this new job for a little over a month now, mostly writing metadata for a large digital collection of images. And if I were going to try to sum up that first month of work in a few words, they’d be:
That was an uncomfortable month, let me tell you. It’s not that I didn’t understand my job or how metadata works; it was just that, having sat down for the first time to actually write real metadata for an actual collection that real people will really use, my brain went into panic mode and my confidence fell through the floor.
One of my early challenges was coming to grips with MeSH. Since this a collection of images from the archives of a medical library, MeSH headings are a key element of the metadata I’m writing. And I knew about MeSH; I’d been trained on it a bit and had used it occasionally working the circ desk. But I didn’t know MeSH. So I found myself attempting to write the metadata for a photograph of a man sitting on a bulldozer, thinking, “what the hell is the MeSH term for a bulldozer?!” Day one of a new job and already I suck at it. Not fun. (Turns out it was sort of a trick question: there are no great MeSH terms for a bulldozer. We went with “Hospital Design and Construction.”)
The later stages of library school and the early stages of a career are an awkward time for self-confidence. You’ve started to truly understand how much you still have to learn, but you’re also reaching a point where you’re expected (and expect) to be able to apply your knowledge in a real-world environment. It’s time to prove that you’re useful! So when you get to that first real job, whatever it is, and find that you have no idea what you’re doing (or at least feel as though you don’t) it’s easy to fall into the trap of self-doubt and anxiety. The important thing to remember, and the thing I keep telling myself, is that nobody comes to a new job knowing everything about it. That goes double for entry-level jobs, which at their best are a place for new professionals to cut their teeth and acquire skills. And every librarian you meet has at some point sat down to do a job that he or she didn’t feel adequately prepared to do. Secretly, we all have to wrestle with the irrational fear that the fraud police are going to come for us at any moment, but that discomfort is one of the surest signs of growth and development. We all have to start somewhere!
A month in, I still have a lot to learn, but I’ve cranked out solid metadata for a hundred or so items, a few of which are already available in our digital collection. I’ve stopped looking for only the easiest items to work on, and started to dig into the harder stuff, finding to my satisfaction that the work actually gets more interesting when it requires more effort. After a few weeks of slightly dreading my work shifts, I’ve started to enjoy them, maybe even look forward to them a little bit. That’s a pretty good feeling, and a nice counterpoint to my state at the beginning of the month.
So embrace your uncertainty and your lack of confidence as a sign that you’re moving up to better things. Feeling as though you don’t know what you’re doing can be a sign of how much you’ve already learned. It’s also a universal experience among people trying to do challenging things, and it’s something you have in common with all of your colleagues.
When have you felt unconfident and underprepared, and how did it turn out? I’d love to hear other people’s stories of not knowing what they were doing, especially when it was their first step on the road to becoming awesome librarians. Tell me in the comments!