Field 246 [Varying form of title]: If You Build It: How I Built My Personal Learning Network, by guest guerrilla Anne Clark
The year is 2007. I’ve just been promoted from circulation assistant to youth services paraprofessional. I’m half-way through library school. I mostly take classes online or drive to Lansing from Grand Rapids for class one day per week. Sometimes two days. The other students are nice but not overwhelmingly friendly. I carpool with two fellow students from Holland sometimes, and we’ve gotten to be friends, but neither works in youth services (by 2013, they both will have converted!). While I work in a big system, I’m the only youth services staff member at my branch and see the others about 3-4 times a year.
I’ve started a blog as a class assignment. I’m chronicling my classes and storytimes to keep a record. No one really reads it but that’s fine. I leave a few comments on other blogs I’m reading and some of their writers start to read my blog too. It’s nice but I don’t really know these people and it’s all at kind of a distance.
Now it’s the end of December 2008. My brother-in-law, a Web developer, has been pressuring me to start an account at this new site, Twitter. I protest for a while, since I’ve already got a Facebook account and this Twitter thing has a LOT fewer people on it and fewer features. I mean, why bother? But I’m bored over the holidays and start an account.
In January of 2009, I start my first professional job as a librarian. Holy crap! There is so much to learn. I spend hours reading blogs and then notice that a lot of the people I’m reading have really active Twitter accounts. I start following them on Twitter. They all seem to know each other and have really wise and funny things to say. Eventually I spot my all-time librarian hero Melissa Depper on Twitter. I take a deep breath and tweet to @melissazd to tell her how much I like her blog. A few tweets here and there and a friendship begins.
Eventually other youth services librarians start Twitter accounts. We don’t really know each other but will favorite or re-tweet other people’s one liners, anecdotes from working with kids, and links to each other’s blog posts. It’s an incredibly supportive group of people.
When Mel Depper begins posting a “Flannel Friday” on her blog, I’m ridiculously excited.* I have just begun building a professional collection of props and flannel stories for my own use at work and was in need of ideas and patterns to emulate. A few months into the project, and without asking for permission (that’s how I roll), I posted my own “Flannel Friday” contribution. Mel was so kind about me ripping off borrowing her idea and left me a nice comment. Readers I didn’t even know I had did the same.
We decided to encourage some of the other librarians on Twitter to join us in creating an ongoing blog project. A couple people did. And then some more did. And more. We decided to promote this project on the listserv PubYAC. We got lots of readers from that.
I organized a page on my blog where I keep track of all the “round-ups” of Flannel Friday posts. Since I coordinated that archive, I was the natural contact person for the project and received emails regularly from people who wanted to be involved. I tried to help them out with advice on starting a blog, taking photos, and anything else they might want to try.
Meanwhile, I got married to a wonderful man I met at storytime (this is not a homewrecking situation FYI) and we decided to try and have a baby. When I found out I was pregnant, Melissa Depper was one of the first people to know. We decided to organize a system of coordinators who would take turns leading Flannel Friday so that I could concentrate on my new baby.
Meanwhile, some of the people who would be the new “Fairy Godmothers” were scheming to make my baby a beautiful felt busy book. I received it in the mail a few days before my due date in June of 2012. I was amazed and incredibly touched that a group of complete strangers (at this point I STILL had not met any of these women) would spend hours putting together such a heartfelt gift.
A few months after my daughter was born, my husband and I decided to take her with us to Chicago to visit some of his extended family. Since we would be there for a few days, I decided to contact some of the Flannel Friday crew who live in that area. Cate Levinson was one of them and so we met in February 2013 for Sunday brunch. We had a great time and became even better friends.
In April of last year, I presented with Anna Haase Krueger and Sara Bryce at the Michigan Spring Institute conference. I met both of them a few short hours before we gave a presentation together. It went really well and we received lots of positive feedback.
This month, my family and I returned to Chicago. I contacted Cate again to see if we could meet up. I wanted to see the renovation at her library. Julie Jurgens was able to come out to lunch with us (and my husband and daughter) and we chatted for a long time at a very busy Panera. Again, the conversation flowed naturally and never had an awkward pause because we knew enough about each other from reading blogs and tweets.
Basically, this is all a really long way of saying that I have met some of my best friends from my whole life through social media. I have found my people. They challenge me to try new skills and grow, they laugh with me. They sometimes laugh at me, but never in a mean way. They are nearly as fond of my adorable genius daughter as my own family is. And I’ve got the “likes” on my Facebook pictures to prove it.
I know a lot of people will think these are weird connections. We are taught that we should be wary of people we don’t know online. I’ve had good luck (with no Catfishes) so my experience has been that, yes, be cautious with your safety. I do keep my Twitter account “locked” so it’s not out there for just Anyone With an Internet Connection to read so I feel more comfortable sharing pictures of my daughter and our adventures as a family.
As far as my career goes, I am 100% positive that getting involved in social media has helped me be a much better librarian than I ever would have been. I have a much bigger knowledge base to draw from (hey, I have a friend that tried this service or program and it worked well. She said the drawbacks were X and Y) as well as people I can ask for advice on any topic (work-related or not) without fearing judgment. It’s like I have my own personal, invisible cheerleaders.
What’s really been fun as a younger librarian, is having people around my age, with similar life experiences to grow through my career with. Some of us are beginning to get jobs higher in our libraries and it’s awesome to be able to talk about the pros and cons of moving into management.
I’d strongly encourage anyone interested in developing a professional network to be active on social media, particularly on Twitter, which is fantastic for letting you jump into a conversation with ANYONE at ANY TIME. I once got a Twitter mention from Casper Van Dien. Yeah, I don’t know who he is either. You can just read what people have to say and at some point you will come across something you want to respond to even if it’s just to say “I totally agree.” And eventually you may be brave enough to tell someone “I totally disagree.”
* I’d never heard of flannel stories until a children’s programming class in graduate school when I was assigned to make one. I had no idea how to create one and none of the necessary materials but eventually rigged up a cardboard (yes, really!) and sandpaper (WHAT?) version of My Friend is Sad by Mo Willems. It only somewhat stuck to the flannel board when I presented my story, but my animated telling most have been amusing to the professor because I got full marks for the assignment. My methods have improved a little bit since then!Anne Clark blogs at so tomorrow and tweets @sotomorrow. She’s one of the original Flannel Friday Fairy Godmothers. Her daughter is pretty darn cute, and I’m being totally objective when I say that.