Tips for a Solo Librarian

By Sarah Engledow Brown

There are many different types of librarians and many different job situations. New librarians looking for their first job may find themselves in a situation where they are a solo librarian. In smaller libraries, especially in a special or arts library, sometimes there is only one librarian in charge of all aspects of the library. Here I will talk about some of the challenges in being a solo librarian and some of the solutions that have helped me thrive in such a position.

As an independent librarian myself working at a small music library at a university, I’ve been faced with many issues and challenges, and have developed several solutions that have worked for me. In my position, I do everything from acquisitions and cataloging, to processing, to circulation. I provide reference and instruction, and set policies and procedures for my library. When asked to explain what I do, I often tell people I perform the functions of every library department on a slightly smaller scale. The following are the tips that I would give to someone just starting out in a solo librarian situation.

Tip # 1: Time Management
When you are the only librarian, you are often faced with many different priorities. It can sometimes be overwhelming. In my position, which I have held for four years, I am responsible for all reference and instruction for the music library, collection development, and I catalog and process all the items for the music library. There were several mornings, when I first started my position, where I would arrive at work, and have no idea what to do first. Do I work on tutorials? Do I work on collection development? How about cataloging this pile of new items? It soon became clear I would need both a long term and short term plan.

Before I had a system, I would arrive, look around, feel overwhelmed, and spend most of the day reacting, rather than acting. The end of the day would come, and I would wonder what I accomplished. But I started keeping a daily to-do list, and became much more productive.

Here is my system: I classify goals by long term -six months or more, short term -usually by semester, weekly and daily. I organize them this way on my white board. Before I leave at the end of the day, I make the to-do list for the following work day. That way when I arrive in the morning, I know exactly what needs to be done that day. This has helped me balance and prioritize much more effectively than I did when I first started.

Tip #2: Stay connected!
When you work by yourself, and are not surrounded by other librarians, staying motivated is sometimes a challenge. It is very easy to lose the passion for the profession, as your day becomes filled with little details of running the library. I found myself forgetting the aspects of librarianship that first attracted me, as I became focused on day to day issues. One of the solutions to this was to volunteer for scheduled reference desk hours at the main library. Yes, it adds to my workload a little bit, but it gives me a chance to do some of the work I love. It keeps me excited about the profession, and helps me keep perspective, while still interacting with patrons.

In an isolated situation, it's really easy to get bogged down on daily details and forget what's going on in the world. It is really important to stay connected. This doesn't necessarily involve going to conferences. It's easy to participate in LIST-SERVs, forums, and to read. I try to include about 30 minutes a day just for reading- blogs, library news, journals, etc. When I don't keep up, I notice a difference. My passion is gone. I feel disconnected and isolated. Making that disciplined effort to stay informed is really crucial.

I even use Facebook to contact other librarians when I have a question. Sometimes a general status update with a question gives me great information, plus I feel connected with my fellow librarians, even if they're in another state.

Twitter is another valuable tool for staying connected. I started by following a few librarians and it grew from there. Participating in events such as #libchat on Wednesday nights is a great way to network and have some great discussions.

Tip # 3: Create your own job
To an extent, every librarian has the opportunity to create their own position. By this, I mean you have a certain amount of freedom when deciding your focus. For me, as the solo librarian, I get to decide each day how I will spend the majority of my time. At first, a situation like this seemed overwhelming to me, but then I shifted my thinking around and turned it into an opportunity.

It takes a lot of looking at the big picture, setting goals and working backwards. It also takes a lot of self-discipline and time management as mentioned above. For example: One of my big goals in this position was to focus on information literacy for music students. Over the course of several years, I developed a program that involved interacting with students from the beginning of their college career, at Freshman Orientation, through graduate school, in the Graduate Bibliography class. This involved setting a goal and working backwards. If you have a vision of what you want to accomplish, and take the steps to accomplish that goal, it makes the position much more satisfying.

It is always important to remember that there will be things in your new job that you did not learn in library school. The biggest tip of all is to be flexible. Be ready for the unexpected to happen at any point. This applies to all librarians, but is worth repeating. However, if you find yourself acting as a solo librarian, put some of these tips in action. You’ll find it to be a rewarding experience.

Sarah Engledow Brown is the Music Librarian at Philip J. Howard Music Library at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. You can find her on Twitter as @Bioniklibrarian.