National Thank Your Mentor Day – Guest Author Ronald Wheeler

Guest Author – Ronald Wheeler, Director of the Law Library & Associate Professor of Law, University of San Francisco School of Law

What do we mean by mentoring?  What exactly do law librarian mentors do?  What are the traits of a good law library mentor?  Clearly, mentorship has a variety of meanings, and these questions can be answered in numerous ways.  I certainly have my own ideas about mentorship based on my personal experiences with mentors.  By sharing some of my experiences I hope to shed some light on the topic of mentorship.  I will use my impressions of my former boss and mentor Nancy P. Johnson, Associate Dean for Library and Information Services and Professor of Law at the Georgia State University College of Law Library, to illustrate my examples.

I have found that the most useful mentor-mentee relationships can only really happen between librarians working together in the same library.  Other people can serve as mentors from afar to offer advice when asked.  However, mentors that are there day to day and that take their role as a mentor seriously can have the most profound effect on a librarian and her career.  Fortunately for me, I worked for four years as the associate director to Nancy Johnson who has a reputation for actively mentoring academic law librarians.

Nancy Johnson

One of the most important things that a mentor can do is set a good example.  Mentors should model professional behaviors that are desirable and necessary for success.  When a successful law librarian acts with professionalism, actively pursues a scholarly agenda by contributing to the law library literature, volunteers with and participates in professional organizations, and strives for excellence in her teaching and her other work, she is serving as a role model for other less experienced law librarians.  These are important traits for a mentor.  When I worked for Nancy Johnson, she always set a good example.  Her example, as a successful law library director, helped to shape my vision of what I wanted from my career.  She did all of the things I mentioned above and more.  Moreover, Nancy Johnson modeled a work-life balance that was enviable.  She rarely worked late unless she was teaching a night class, and she managed to get to the gym at lunch most days.  When she was in her office, she was working hard and making that time count.  She showed up at meetings on time and prepared to discuss the agenda.  These are all traits that I aspire to emulate.

Another important thing that my mentor did was encourage me to write.  Nancy Johnson went beyond mere encouragement by suggesting writing projects and other scholarly endeavors like authoring CALI lessons.  Nancy went as far as finding topics and volunteering to co-author pieces with me.  This kind of scholarly mentorship is one of the most generous and selfless things that a mentor with an established body of scholarly work can do for a mentee.  Collaborating on articles and CALI lessons with Nancy gave me a window into her process which was a revelation.  It was a revelation because her only real process was to “…sit down and write” as she once advised me.  Brainstorming ideas, fleshing out concepts, thoroughly researching a topic by doing a true literature review, and constantly revising and editing are other processes that were helpful to participate in with an experienced scholar.  Nancy Johnson’s scholarly mentorship really helped to allay my fear of the scholarly process and gave me the confidence to embark on my own scholarly agenda.

As an academic law librarian aspiring to upper-level management, personnel management experience was particularly important for me.  Nancy Johnson was a really fine mentor in this area also.  Her hands-off style of managing me, her associate director, allowed me to develop a vision and a style of supervision that was indeed my own.  Without constantly telling me what needed to be done, she kept a close eye on library operations and allowed me to create (within reason) the work environment in which I worked best.  I was encouraged to identify and assign projects and library initiatives that I felt should be undertaken.  If I overlooked problems, she would certainly point these out, but in general, she was just there to support and advise as need while I managed most library personnel.  Addressing personnel problems, providing support and coaching to employees, and having “hard conversations’ with people when necessary were all left up to me.  Creating measurable goals with librarians and staff that kept them challenged and continuing to grow and learn was also expected of me.  Her insights and subtle guidance in this area helped me immensely in my development as a manager.

The final thing that Nancy Johnson taught me, again by example, is that an academic law library director can also still be an excellent reference librarian.  Having teaching and scholarly and law school governance duties does not preclude a director from remaining invested in constantly honing her research skills.  On top of all of Nancy’s duties, she still found time to test out new databases, learn how to navigate newer online products, and stay current with the constantly changing interfaces of existing electronic research products.  Without failure, Nancy Johnson would routinely teach me things about electronic research that she somehow learned by plugging away and playing with various databases.  Without the weekly obligation of working at the reference desk at my library, I find that my reference and research skills can become quickly eroded.  Carving out the time to run sample searches and to learn the idiosyncrasies of newer databases is terribly challenging for me.  It is, however, important and necessary for me as a teacher of legal research.  It is because of my mentor Nancy Johnson that I know it is possible for an academic director to keep current.

In my opinion, mentorship doesn’t just happen.  True mentorship is deliberative, and it takes a commitment to the growth and development of the mentee.  Helping a mentee to identify their career goals is important.  The next step, however, is to help the mentee capitalize on strengths while simultaneously working to improve any weaknesses.  Providing opportunities for growth and development in various areas requires daily contact and an established working relationship.  My advice to newer librarians is to seek jobs in which there are opportunities to work with people who will serve as your mentor.  Ask about mentorship opportunities in job interviews.  These are the jobs that will help you to craft the career of your dreams.

Ronald Wheeler

Ronald Wheeler is the Director of the Law Library and Associate Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco School of Law. Find him on LinkedIn!


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