Thursday, June 14, 2012

Things to Know When Going Solo, by Lindsay Harmon

“Solo” librarians like me can be found in nearly every type of library, from school to academic to special to (generally branch or rural) public libraries. One thing that most of us probably have in common is that we didn’t start out intending to work in a one-person library, and we weren’t trained for it since there’s no library-school track designed with solos in mind. If I could have enrolled in one before I started my solo job, these are some things that would have been useful to know:

Everything is your specialty. It makes sense--if you’re the only one in the library, you do whatever needs to be done. But it’s hard to fully grasp what “everything” is until you’re doing it. Collection development, cataloging, circulation, technology, reference, instruction, copier repair... the tasks vary depending on the type of library, but rest assured that if it needs to be done, you’ll probably find yourself responsible. Even if you’re planning to specialize, it’s worth taking a variety of classes in library school, and taking them seriously. You never know where you might end up. If I’d known I was going to be cataloging, I probably would have paid more attention in that required course.

Learn whatever you can, however you can. Professional development is at least as important for a solo as for a librarian at a big institution, but it’s not as easy to come by. There are no in-service programs at a one-person library. Instead, look for workshops, webinars, and classes that can help you develop the skills you need. If the budget’s not there, look for instructional books (I’ve found Neal-Schuman’s How-to-Do-It Manuals to be a lifesaver on more than one occasion) and, if necessary, request them via interlibrary loan.

No one knows what you do. If you’re the only librarian in your institution, you’re probably the only one who knows what terms like “collection development” and “controlled vocabulary” mean, let alone why they’re important. This can make it difficult to make a case for projects or expenditures that wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow at a larger library. Your best bet is to drop the library jargon, phrase your ideas in terms that your bosses understand, and be prepared to demonstrate how your project/purchase will benefit your institution.

On the other hand, no one knows what you do. If you’re the only librarian at your institution, you’re probably the only one with a good understanding of what a librarian does. So as long as you meet your basic job responsibilities, the library can be what you make of it. Because I’m more interested in instruction and technology than my predecessor, the focus of my library has shifted in that direction since I started.

Solo doesn’t have to mean lonely if you network. One of the downsides to a one-person library is that there’s no one at the next desk to talk library shop with--you have to step outside your institution to find librarian colleagues.  In addition to being sources of continuing education opportunities, professional organizations are a great way to meet other librarians and to form relationships that will help you grow in your career. For instance, many organizations have programs that will match you up with a mentor. If your career goals include publishing in journals or presenting at conferences, networking can also help you meet those future co-authors or -presenters.

You’ll be amazed at what one person can accomplish. I’m coming up on 5 years as a solo academic librarian. I still wish every day for a clone, or at least a full-time assistant, but when I look back over the last few years, I’m also pleasantly surprised at how many projects I’ve been able to see through myself, from developing a library instruction program to rolling out a new website. Going solo can be scary, especially for a new librarian, but it can also be an incredibly rewarding experience.

Lindsay Harmon is THE librarian at the American Academy of Art, a small visual arts college in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @libraryofone.


  1. This post summed up exactly why I am pursuing the graduate certificate public library services to children and young adults in addition to a MLIS -- not because I want to be a "teen librarian" but rather because a rural librarian truly does it all.

  2. You're amazing. Great post, and really captured what it's like to fly solo.

  3. All of these things are so true. Especially the "no one knows what you do" dilemma. I recently had to explain to IT why it was so important for our OPAC not to be blocked on the public wifi network.

  4. I've been a solo librarian since 1993. It really makes you a person of many skills. In my case I am a paid church librarian and I get a lot of positive feed back from our congregation. Other solo librarians are not as lucky as I am!

    1. I'm a paid church librarian too but at the conference-level. Although I do get positive feedback, it is usually on the phone or in an email. I love our annual conference where I finally get to meet people face-to-face. I think most church librarians are solo and there are a lot of intricacies to our work that are not fully developed in the realm of professional librarianship.