Waiting for the Fraud Police

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!

Categories: Honesty

10 replies

  1. Love this post! I started my first full-fledged librarian position in January of this year. I’d worked in reference departments and public services in student and paraprofessional capacities for about 4 years before taking my current position as a STEM librarian. My experience with STEM was minimal when I started, so I’ve made a lot of frantic calls and e-mails to my grad school mentors/incredible science librarians, attended *lots* of webinars, and gone to a couple of STEM librarianship conferences. It’s still overwhelming at times, but it’s getting better (at least, I don’t have the look of sheer panic when someone asks about chemical structures anymore). I was also named Outreach Coordinator recently, so that’s pretty rewarding 🙂


  2. I felt this doubly when I started my current assistantship. Part one is working the reference desk. I had taken a couple courses on reference before, as well as receive two weeks of training, but the second I sat down behind that desk I started freaking. I felt constantly worried that I was giving poor service, despite all of the smiles and “Thank yous” from patrons.

    The other part of my job is teaching information literacy. I’m still not sure how everyone hasn’t caught on that I have no idea how to teach.


  3. My first job in the library world was actually before I entered library school. I signed up to take a summer course on public history at my undergrad university. Part of the course was completing an internship and I worked with a local digital archive doing metadata creation. Now I didn’t know anything about metadata or librarianship. I just knew I was interested in this sort of work & I loved history.

    I owe a great debt to the wonderful librarian who ran the digital archive. She assured me that there were no wrong answers in metadata creation. (Now I was nicely told to use certain words over others especially in my titles, but in a way that didn’t make me feel like an idiot.) She also pointed out that every person’s metadata is different. Everyone has their own style in description and choice of subject terms no matter how detailed your guidelines are. I loved (and still love) this about metadata creation.

    I gained so much confidence in that first encounter with metadata that my first cataloging class was more a joy than a scary new world. I also easily transferred my knowledge to another metadata creation internship this past summer that used different subject terms (FAST instead of LOC) & a totally different management software.


  4. Great article, you described my exact feelings. To overcome my feeling of underpreparedness, I started seeking books about the profession for further education and wanting to re-read those articles assigned for homework in library school. Attending workshops, going to conferences, reading blogs, meeting other colleagues, definitely helped as confidence boosters. All these things were signs that at least I was on the right track to becoming a better information professional.


  5. The information is very useful. Thank you for sharing the knowledge with me. I hope you can continue to post articles so that I can always get new knowledge from you. once again I thank you and wish you continued success


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