Interview of the Month: Elaine Li on the Transition from Student to Professional

It’s time for another librarian interview! This time I decided to interview a good friend, colleague, and primary role model for me in navigating the transition from student to professional with grace and confidence.

Elaine Li began her current position as bands librarian and logistics associate for the University of Illinois Bands in the summer of 2012. This position centers around serving all performing groups, conductors, and conducting teaching assistants with their music needs including acquisition, research, creation of part folders for student performers, creating edited parts, assembling scores, preparing materials for band related classes, and maintaining one of the world’s largest performance collections of band repertoire. Before her position as band librarian for the University of Illinois Bands, Elaine earned two bachelors and two masters degrees centered in music and library science. Her experience as an ensemble librarian is substantial and includes work at Interlochen Arts Camp, Tanglewood Music Center, and the Aspen Music Festival.

The topic of our discussion was how to transition from being a student to being a professional in the field. I was fortunate enough to be able to talk with Elaine as she navigated her first year in her current position, and even though I was still a student at the time, I remember many of the lessons I learned from her experiences. Now that I’m going through those same first steps, I’ve come to really appreciate the wisdom Elaine was able to impart to me!

MG: What made you decide to become a librarian?

EL: Ever since grade school, I kept being nominated for and working librarian positions.  I didn’t really think of it as a career and just did what was expected of me.  When I was deciding which career path to pursue, I discovered that I could feasibly and confidently imagine myself as a librarian.  I read over job descriptions and postings for librarians and could still see myself being successful with the work, and then I just went for it.  Looking back, it seems like this was where I was meant to be though: in elementary and middle school, I spent all my spare time in the library, helping out the librarians.  I loved going to the public library with my family and also loved looking up information and answers.  If there’s such a thing as having a “natural talent” for librarianship, maybe that’s what happened to me?

MG: In your transition from being a library student to being a new professional, what was most surprising to you? Challenging? Awesome?

EL: The most surprising thing about transitioning from being a library student to a new professional is how little change I really felt, maybe in part to the fact that I was working in library settings while also a student.  It was definitely – and still is – challenging for me to balance work and life or to let go of the urgent student mentality that there’s always something due or needing to be done.  There’s definitely always a million things that need to be completed, but in a strange way, there’s also a little more space to breathe.  It’s easy to get swept up in a new full-time job, especially for me, because I always feel like I have a compensate for a lot or am afraid of being too far behind my colleagues.  The most awesome thing was when I realized – out of nowhere – that I was capable and competent at my job and that I could achieve and overcome difficult situations: the feeling doesn’t come immediately or stay, but it’s a fulfilling moment.

MG: What has been the most challenging aspect of your current position?

EL: The most challenging aspect of my current position has to deal with confronting negativity, whether from myself or from the people that utilize the library.  I think it’s important to maintain a healthy perspective of what I’m doing and to keep illusions and assumptions at bay.  If the negativity is coming from others, it’s usually not personal.  Instead of letting it get to me, I think about where the other person is coming from and try to consider that in my actions.  I find that more often than not, engaging negativity becomes a waste of time and isn’t productive.  Taking a step back and re-assessing things usually helps get things back on track.  And it’s also important to know when to apologize: even if the incident wasn’t entirely my fault, the other person(s) felt a certain way, and if the situation is important enough, that might have to be addressed.  Another challenge is that many people still don’t know exactly what being a performance librarian of this scale entails from the day-to-day operations, and most students really have no idea what I do.  I think it’s a good idea to know what people are working with every day in order to place it in context of what I do, and that if there are opportunities to educate, I try to take them.

MG: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your current position?

EL: The most rewarding aspect of my current position is seeing a concert go from start to finish, even if there are bumps along the way, and witnessing the pride that students have in their success.  It’s gratifying when they are happy and you know that you’ve had a hand in facilitating that.

MG: Did you have any kind of mentor to help you with your transition from student to professional?

EL: I am really lucky to have friends in the same profession and all of them were like mentors to me as I was transitioning into being a full-time professional.  I was also in touch with my head librarians and mentors from music festivals where I had worked (I suppose I could call them friends too) and they also helped me navigate the transition.  My predecessor is also still in town, and she helped me out a lot as well.

MG: What advice would you give to other librarians who are very new to the profession?

EL: Always try to find answers before asking questions, but never be afraid of asking questions.  Keep track of every move you make and of things you find: they tend to become very useful later.  Have confidence in your authority no matter if you are a student or a new professional.  And always remember to have fun.

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