Thursday, February 18, 2016

Going It Alone, by Sara Kelley-Mudie

I have been a solo librarian for my entire career working in school libraries. For the most part I like it (department meetings are super efficient), but there are definitely moments when I wish I had someone else in working in the library with me. As much as I value my professional network (and I do! I would be lost without them) I often wish I had a coworker who understood the culture and nuances of libraries AND of my school. It’s the difference between “how to collaborate with a reluctant colleague” and “how to collaborate with this reluctant colleague.”

Then there’s the practical aspects of how it would be nice to have another librarian. The first time I ordered new books, I looked at the supplies my predecessor had left behind, some covered books, and tried to reverse engineer the process. With practice (and YouTube) I refined the process. Even now, every time I’m processing new books, I hear this voice in the back of my head asking, “is this the right way to do this?” I am almost a decade into my career as a school librarian, and I am still not sure I’m doing it right.

There are a lot of things in my day-to-day work life like that, and ranging from the small (those pesky book covers) to the far more significant (does the scope and sequence of skills I’m trying to integrate into the curriculum really prepare students to be independent researchers?). This vague insecurity has definitely motivated me to stay engaged in my professional network, and those connections help me grapple with the big questions about my work. On the other hand, there aren’t really professional development workshops for how to cover a book, how to manage shelving, how to not to be driven to your wits’ end by being asked “where’s the stapler?” for the umpteenth time. Nothing strikes dread in my heart quite like the words “the laminate roll needs to be changed.”

All that being said, I do have some words of (what I hope is) wisdom for life as a solo librarian:

You will figure it out.
And even if you do it wrong, it’s okay. Really. Also, document your work along the way. It’s good for you. If you do make mistakes, you’ll be able to track down where it happened. Also, documenting helps you remember how to do those “every once in awhile” tasks (hello laminator, my old friend). Besides, it’s also good for whoever takes over your work for you. I have taken over from someone who left great notes, and someone who did not. Those days/weeks/months of trying to figure out passwords, contracts, and unlabeled keys made me a compulsive documenter--I never want someone else to have that experience.

You don’t have to be good at everything.
You can be awesome at some things and meh at others. If the things you’re not good at bother you, make a plan to improve your skills in one area at a time. Pace yourself. Resist the urge to compare your work to that of non-solo librarians. One of the things I love about our profession is that so many people are so generous in sharing work and ideas. But don’t feel like you need to accomplish the same things that librarians who have colleagues who help with programming and instruction and unjamming the student printer.

Don’t do more with less.
I have, on more than one occasion, written up proposals for increasing the staffing in the library, documenting what isn’t getting done or what could be done better if there were more help. I’m still a solo librarian, but I feel less guilty about the things I have to let go. If you’re a solo librarian, you can’t do everything. This is a hard one for me, and something I still struggle with, but when I’m torn between different priorities I ask myself “what does the community need?” Sometimes it’s not what they would identify as a need, or even something they’ll notice right away. When I made the decision to interfile my reference collection it wasn’t something my community was clamoring for, but the change in usage showed me that it was worth the time. No matter what, time invested in understanding your community and its needs is time well spent.

I don’t know if that voice in the back of my head will ever go away, but I do know that it’s gotten quieter over the years. If nothing else, I know I’ve learned to serve my community and take it one day at a time. Even with the laminator.

Sara Kelley-Mudie is the librarian at the Hawken School. She puts her motto of “Relentless Optimism” on as many things as possible, both as a reminder to herself and as fair warning to everyone she interacts with. She tweets at @skm428


  1. Great advice! I especially appreciate your tip about not doing more with less, having been alone in my department for about 6 months. Staff members from other departments help and offer support as they can, but it isn't the same as having another full-time colleague to share both the daily tasks and the long-term goal-setting. I've realized that it's important, in the midst of trying to provide all the essential services, to remember to talk to people about what isn't getting done so they know why it's not okay for me to be alone indefinitely.

    1. It can be so hard to say "this is not what's getting done", because we so often want to feel like we've got it all under control. I've also found it helps to "translate" the undone tasks into what impact it has on other people--a pile of unprocessed books goes from an abstract problem to a concrete one when teachers are looking for books in that pile.

  2. THIS. THANK YOU. I started out as a solo librarian for two years, and it was both exhilarating and terrifying. I felt so alone, even though I loved trying to figure everything out. There is not a ton of visible support for solo librarians, especially newly-minted, young librarians who are just starting out and don't have the benefit of a librarian mentor or even coworker. Thank you for making those struggles visible, and for offering support and advice to other solo librarians! I'm in a different job now, but I really value the skills I gained from solo librarianship.

    1. It can be exhilarating! And you definitely build a lot of problem solving and troubleshooting skills. I hope more experienced solo librarians will share their experiences--it can make us all feel a little less isolated.

  3. Thank you. I've been a solo librarian for about 5 years now (and I'm part time as well). The advice to don't do more with less really struck home with me. That and that it is ok if things take longer then I hope they would. There are only so many hours in the day.

    1. Yes! I've had to do serious work on adjusting my sense of how long things will take--especially when you're also the one who has to handle the projects that pop up in the middle of other work.