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Mentorship and Sponsorship Needed in Research Libraries to Advance Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion

Last Updated on July 9, 2022, 9:40 am ET

photo of a diverse group of adults working together in a library
image © iStock.com/SeanZeroThree

Learning the ins and outs of navigating work and advancement in a research library can be challenging. Without guidance and support, it can be difficult to identify opportunities, make important decisions, and move up the career ladder. Mentorship and sponsorship offer pathways to building critical relationships that connect established professionals with people wanting to gain skills, grow in their roles, and succeed.


Mentors have a variety of experience levels, can facilitate professional growth, and often work outside of a mentee’s organization. Mentors provide support by:

  • Actively listening to the mentee’s thoughts and ideas
  • Giving advice, support, and constructive feedback on personal and professional development
  • Helping with career vision, goal setting, guidance, and skill acquisition
  • Sharing knowledge and experience
  • Encouraging mentees to build their networks while sharing their own networks and connections with mentees
  • “Talking with you” and “standing beside you”

The mentorship relationship is a voluntary engagement that requires hard work, dedication, and passion from the mentor and mentee. Both parties are equally responsible for the effectiveness of the relationship and for working to build a foundation of mutual respect and trust. Mentors should be aware of the power differential and inequality in the relationship and discuss strategies for navigating and equalizing this dynamic. Mentoring relationships can be built through networking, personal connections, or formal mentorship programs.


While mentorship is a more familiar concept in librarianship, sponsorship is essential for career advancement. Sponsors usually work at a protégé’s organization and are senior leaders in positions of authority who intentionally use their influence to help others advance. Sponsors do this by:

  • Being personally invested in a protégé’s upward mobility, career vision, and aspirations
  • Advocating on a protégé’s behalf to actively advance their career and promotion within an organization, and ensuring that other decision-makers know the protégé’s name and talents
  • Highlighting accomplishments to other leaders and directing advancement opportunities when appropriate, often using their platforms and reputation to increase the protégé’s visibility
  • Making introductions with the explicit purpose of moving a protégé’s career forward
  • Using their influence to connect the protégé to high-profile assignments, people, and promotions
  • Giving a protégé active network connections and making new connections for them
  • “Talking about you” and “standing in front of you”

Sponsoring relationships are the result of trust built over time, with both parties having a vested interest in the protégé’s success.

Differences between Mentorship and Sponsorship

As illustrated above, the roles of mentor and sponsor are very different, although both offer advice and guidance. Mentorship and sponsorship are complementary tools that can be used to construct deep and meaningful relationships in leadership development. Mentors can help a mentee develop personally and professionally, navigate change and inner challenges, and find career fulfillment. Sponsors can help a protégé reach predefined career goals and actively advocate to others, championing the protégé’s strengths and achievements.

Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Both mentorship and sponsorship can help academic libraries advance justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) by examining and decentering whiteness. Libraries have a history of being complicit in racism, and in many cases, still uphold unwritten, unspoken behaviors, language, rules, and political considerations rooted in white cultural norms. The “adherence to whiteness in libraries has had deleterious affective and career implications for librarians of color.” For mentorship and sponsorship efforts to succeed, libraries must also reflect on their management practices and systems, the structures that perpetuate inequity, and do the difficult and necessary work of decentering whiteness. This can be accomplished by identifying and removing barriers; creating new organizational norms that honor Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) culture; increasing the numbers of librarians of color—especially at high-level and senior positions; centering the experiences and well-being of BIPOC library workers and; making large-scale incisive structural change at organizational levels [paywall]. Mentors and sponsors can interrogate their privileges and how those may affect their relationships with their mentees and protégés.

The mentor relationship can be very important to BIPOC mentees, who often face cultural and institutional barriers to success, lack access to informal professional networks, and are unsure how to find a mentor in a profession that is over 83% white. Mentors can create a sense of belonging for BIPOC mentees, which drives much-needed retention efforts and can help to demystify the bureaucracy of library organizations, which are often rooted in traditional white policies and values.

Sponsors also play an important role in JEDI efforts. According to The Sponsor Dividend report from the nonprofit think tank Coqual (which does not include data on academic libraries), 71% of sponsors are of the same gender or race as their protégé. If we extrapolate this to academic libraries, which are primarily white institutions, senior leaders may choose to sponsor people they feel most comfortable with–other white men or women. This contributes directly to the lack of BIPOC senior leaders in our organizations, and the profession is known for its lack of racial and ethnic representation, especially in upper management [paywall]. With only 9.5% of American librarians identifying as Black or African American, 9.9% as Hispanic or Latino, and 3.5% as Asian American or Pacific Islander, the profession needs to do better. Research libraries can work against implicit bias by making sponsorship more accessible and the process more transparent, which will improve the diversity and inclusivity of management ranks. Sponsorship can also improve retention for BIPOC protégés, as having an advocate who is invested in their career development can increase feelings of job satisfaction.

Both mentorship and sponsorship can increase the retention of library workers by encouraging engagement and connection at a time when more people are working remotely and feeling isolated. It is the responsibility of existing library leaders to create new leaders, and now more than ever before, people have choices of where to work and live. By engaging in outstanding and inclusive mentorship and sponsorship, our organizations can make a powerful case that libraries are the place to be.