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Career Strategies for Librarians
Solo Librarianship: Unique Challenges and Opportunities for New Librarians
by Kristina Keogh

Within the confines of small librarianship lies a perhaps even more challenging specialization: that of
the solo or one-person librarian.  The solo librarian must face many of the same issues as that of the
librarian in the small library setting, but often with added complications such as time management
issues and the pressures of professional isolation.  However, the solo librarian does have the unique
advantage – perhaps even more so than the librarian working in a conventional small library – of
encountering the opportunity and necessity of learning and becoming proficient at just about every
aspect of librarianship as one works overtime in the service of the parent organization, the library, and its
patrons.  It is an opportunity for new librarians just entering the field to quickly advance in their
knowledge and careers.

Solo Librarians

Solo librarians (also known as one-person librarians) have become more common in recent years as
institutions look for ways to downsize and cut costs..  They have traditionally been omnipresent in
special libraries, most notably in corporate or museum settings, though they are also found in school,
academic, and public libraries.  In many cases, organizations have come to the conclusion that one
professional is all that is needed for effective and efficient delivery of information needs.  There are
enough individuals that revel in this unique environment to make this a viable solution for institutions
with small libraries.   

Daily Operations

A typical day in the life of a solo librarian might include catching up on email, phone messages, and
correspondence.  Mail must be processed, often several times a day.  There are usually constant
interruptions from staff needing help or research advice.  There are typical responsibilities that may need
your attention, such as writing purchase orders for new books or ordering new equipment, supplies or
furniture.  You may work at public relations tasks to get the word out to the staff and the management
about the importance of the library in the organizational hierarchy.  This may require a great deal of
promotional effort and it will also elicit more work for you if successful, but that is why you are there.  
Depending on the day, a great deal of time might be spent filling interlibrary loan requests, which are
essential to the research of the patrons.  And of course, you must keep statistics on all that you have
done or accomplished in a month or a year, including the number of items circulated, the number of
books or articles requested through interlibrary loan, and the questions that were answered, in order to
“prove” the profitability of the library to the organization.  At any time, your supervisor may assign you a
new special project, which could cause your everyday work to be pushed aside.   

Budgeting

Effectively managing and employing a budget is one of a solo librarian’s most important
responsibilities.  According to Seiss (2001), certain expenses need to be justified in order to emphasize
to management that the library should control its own budget.  The librarian must demonstrate the
benefits of particular items; for example, how the item may save the organization time and money.  When
preparing a budget it is usually best to keep things simple.  Consider present and future needs,
possible organizational changes, and ways to cut costs or add needed services. It is always helpful to
think about places to consolidate, eliminate, or reduce operations or services that have become
unnecessary.   

Staffing and Supervisors

Dealing with supervisors and handling staffing concerns often present unique challenges for the solo
librarian. First of all, it is likely that you will have a supervisor who is not a librarian.  Although this might
cause some concern, there are also advantages to this situation.  For example, non-librarian
supervisors who have respect for your position will usually defer to your expertise when decisions about
the library are required.  They want the library to run as smoothly as possible, so they are often unlikely to
interfere with your decisions.  One problem, however, is that it will be more difficult and time consuming
to justify particular needs, especially if they are technical in nature.  Thus you must talk about these
needs in a manner that management unfamiliar with libraries will be able to comprehend.  Patrons
might be referred to as customers and collections should be emphasized in terms of access and the
benefit to the organization (Benedetti, 2003).   

Solo librarians often face unique issues related to staffing..In many cases there will not be a staff, which
causes its own set of problems; in other cases nonprofessional staff will need to be secured from a
variety of sources.  Often you will need temporary help because you do not have enough time to
accomplish everything that needs to be done.  St. Clair (1992) states that help can be found from a
variety of sources, depending on the parent institution that hosts the library.  For instance, temporary staff
members might be pulled from other departments.  In other cases, it might be possible to obtain funding
from outside the organization, as in the form of grants, for temporary help.  Students are another
possible source of labor and are often less expensive than other options.  Student assistance actually
has many advantages.  The library may be able to stay open for more hours than it could with only one
person on the staff.  Students are also usually willing to perform just about any service.  Having a student
worker on the payroll for as little as five or ten hours a week can be a tremendous help to the overworked
solo librarian.  Eliminating some routine or clerical tasks gives you more time for the pressing
professional elements of the job, for interesting special projects, or for professional development.  A
good and trustworthy student can perform many of the same tasks as a paraprofessional.   

You must be careful, however, not to take advantage of staff members.  Student assistants should not be
hired at a lower wage than a paraprofessional.  Similarly, volunteers, a third option for temporary help,
should not be asked to perform tasks which are not appropriate to someone who is not compensated.  
Jobs such as inventory and shifting should probably go to paid staff, while sorting, filing, compiling
bibliographies, or answering phones might be more appropriate for an unpaid volunteer.    

Professional Isolation and Professional Development  

Being the only librarian in an organization may lead to a sense of isolation; professional development
activities can often help alleviate these feelings.  Professional development is particularly important for
those who do not have access to a structured network of professionals with whom to exchange
information.  As you contend daily with the need to carry out a wide range of tasks of varying degrees of
difficulty, you must also consider the time required to complete them and their importance to the
organization and the library.  All of these tasks must be performed at the highest level of service
possible, all while you are dealing with a sense of isolation that cannot be understood until it is
experienced.  If you are used to working in an environment with many peers, it might be shocking to
suddenly find yourself alone.  For these reasons, professional development activities such as attending
conferences and serving on committees may be vital to your success.        

BENEFITS

Independence

Along with the challenges, concerns, and simple day-to-day struggles that solo librarians face come
certain benefits that are usually unique to this area of librarianship.  Foremost among these is the sense
and reality of true independence that comes with such a position.  This independence allows you to set
your own schedule and priorities, usually with little supervision or interference.  You will also enjoy the
ability to make your own mistakes and revel in your own successes.  You are able to develop a close
relationship with your customers and to anticipate their needs.  You are able to try new things and to be
creative when solving a problem.  Because you are aware of just about everything going on in the
organization, you will likely enjoy a high level of respect.  You are the authority on information.   

Power and Influence

According to St. Clair (1997), a second and closely allied aspect of the independence that comes with
solo librarianship is the power and influence that is possible with such a position.  Again, you will have
the opportunity to shine as the sole information professional within the organization, and when that
challenge is taken up, you will have the opportunity to gain a great deal of sway, both for the library and
for yourself.  You need to realize that you have a partnership with your organization, a partnership that
both of you can benefit from.  Management must recognize the value of the library within the organization
and the advantages of employing a professional librarian to run it successfully.   

Positive Aspects for New Librarians

Excelling as a solo librarian requires the mastery of myriad skills and talents and the ability to function in
a constantly changing environment, which may deter new professionals from accepting such a position.  
It does seem a daunting task from the outside, but the fact is that a new librarian may never get a better
challenge.  In any new position, one is required to assimilate a great deal very quickly and the new solo
librarian is no different.  As a new solo librarian, you must take the time to look around and take stock of
your position.  You will get the chance to try out new ideas, to fail, and to succeed.  You have the
opportunity to become adept at nearly every aspect of librarianship.  You can revel in the independence
and freedom of the position and seek out ways to alleviate isolation through methods that will benefit the
library and its parent organization.  The new librarian who comes into a solo setting with fresh ideas can
see them immediately implemented, and has the opportunity to shape his or her career around the
opportunities to be found in this environment.  For these reasons, solo librarianship is a career choice
that new professionals should consider.            

References

Benedetti, J.M. (2003). Managing the small art museum library. Journal of Library Administration 39(1):
pg. 23-44.  
Bryant, S.L. (1995). Personal professional development and the solo librarian. London: Library
Association Publishing.
St. Clair, G. (1992). Managing the new one-person library. 2nd ed. London: Bowker Saur.
St. Clair, G. (1997, Dec.). Solo power: how one-person librarians maximize their influence. Information
Outlook 1(12): pg. 27-32.  
Siess, J.A. (2001). The OPL sourcebook: a guide for solo and small libraries. Medford, NJ: Information
Today.
For further information about solo librarianship, check out the Solo Librarians Division of the Special
Libraries Association at http://www.sla.org/division/dsol/

About the Author:

Kristina Keogh was the solo librarian at the Florida State University Florence Study Center Library in
Florence, Italy from 2004 to 2005.  She received an M.A. in Art History from the University of Florida and
her MLS from Florida State University.  She is currently a reference librarian in the Alvin Sherman Library,
Research, and Information Technology Center at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Article published May 2006

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