Career Strategies for Librarians
What Size Fits You? Large vs. Small Academic Libraries for the Technical Services Librarian
by Renée McBride
Are you an MLS student, recent graduate in the job market, or early career librarian interested in technical
services work in academic libraries? You may be contemplating the possibilities available to you in
academic libraries of various sizes. What would it be like, for example, to work in a private liberal arts
university with 1100 students, 100 faculty, five librarians, and six fulltime staff versus a public research
university with 40,000 students, 4000 faculty, 163 librarians, and 272 fulltime staff? I have worked in both
of these settings, as well as in two additional large academic libraries (though smaller than the example
just given). After 13 years in large cataloging departments of large libraries of large public research
universities, I chose to experience life in a small liberal arts university setting.
When I moved from a large academic library to a small one, I was asked a number of times what EVER
had possessed me to make such a change. The question always assumed that bigger is better. Is this
true? Having returned two years ago to the large life, I have since been tempted to share my perspective
on life as a cataloger and technical services librarian in these different environments; it is my hope that
doing so will help you get a sense of what type of academic library environment might suit you best. Or
perhaps, what environment might suit you best at various points in your career.
As I describe experiences and lessons learned, I will do so with reference to my life as a cataloger.
Please keep in mind that you can extrapolate much of what I say to apply to other areas of the library.
In my first two fulltime professional positions, I worked in large cataloging departments in large research
universities, and in both cases my primary responsibility was to catalog, period. I also engaged in
professional service, and at the second institution, provided several hours per week reference service in
our music library. My music reference experience had nothing to do with my job title or assigned
responsibilities; it was a perk (in my opinion) that was allowed and encouraged in that library. Such
cross-training and cross-service opportunities won’t be found in all large academic libraries.
My next position was as head of technical services at a small liberal arts university with five professional
librarians and six staff members. My primary responsibility was managing and providing leadership for
all technical services functions, which included cataloging (from figuring out how to print call number
labels, to handling OCLC upgrades, to educating staff about cataloging rules, to making decisions about
local film genre headings), acquisitions, and periodicals (which on its own included check-in,
cataloging, binding, subscription management, and dealing with vendors and licensing issues). I also
functioned as a member of our team of five librarians by serving as the library’s liaison to all of the
university’s arts departments, as well as its art museum and arts management certificate program. This
aspect of my position involved providing general reference service, instruction and collection
development services, and overseeing the operations of our branch music library.
As you can see, one wears many hats in smaller libraries. It is very important that you be able to manage
your time well in such an environment, as you will have a variety of demands and responsibilities
requiring you to switch modes of thought rather frequently. You must be able to prioritize those demands
and responsibilities. This is neither a benefit nor a caveat, but a simple fact of life -- one that you need to
consider when contemplating the type of environment in which you will be happiest and most effective.
Benefits & Caveats
What do I see as some benefits and caveats to be taken from these two very different environments? As
a cataloger, a notable benefit of working in large research institutions was that I really learned how to
catalog, including participation in the Program for Cooperative Cataloging (PCC), NACO and SACO (the
name and subject authority components of the PCC). A large academic library cataloging department
affords one the opportunity to specialize, focus, and hone one’s skills, and offers an atmosphere in
which one may easily consult face-to-face with knowledgeable colleagues as questions arise.
Additionally, a large institution offers numerous professional service opportunities. What such an
environment may not offer are ready opportunities to learn supervisory skills and to develop an eye for
seeing the big picture.
In my position at a small institution I was able to develop management skills, as I was responsible for
supervising three staff and seven student assistants in the main library, as well as music library student
employees. In addition I had a highly supportive boss who provided me with excellent advice and growth
opportunities. In my earlier jobs I had relished the fact that I had little to no supervisory responsibilities;
however, when I eventually found myself back in the job market and of a certain age, I also found that
what I once considered a perk had turned into something of a handicap. If you want to remain mobile
throughout your career, or if you aspire to move up in library hierarchy, you will want to do what you can to
gain supervisory experience earlier than later. I can say without hesitation that I learned to be a real
librarian and manager through my experience in a small library. Without those experiences, I would not
have been prepared for my current position as a middle manager in – once again – a large cataloging
department in a large research library.
It was also at this small university where I gained an eye for the big picture. To give a rather humorous,
but telling example, when I arrived at the smaller library, I realized that I had never created an item record!
I had engaged in my cataloging fun, then sent my cataloged material on to the section of my vast
cataloging department that took care of details such as creating item records. I honestly didn’t know
what went on down the hall! In a small institution, you will not only learn what goes on down the hall, but
everywhere else in your library. You will learn to consider the ripple effects of all decisions you make. For
example, your decision to bring interdisciplinary titles from the music library to the main library affects
the circulation department’s workflow, as they have to plan a shift in the stacks. Another aspect of
learning to see the big picture arises from the opportunity afforded by small institutions to interact heavily
with faculty. I knew on Day 1 as I was walking across campus, when a professor from a department I did
not work with said, “Oh! You must be the new librarian!” that I was in a very different environment!
Everyone knows everyone. I leave it to you to place a value on that fact. It is an element of a small
academic environment that you will want to consider as you decide what type of library you would like to
be part of.
Caveats to consider in working for a smaller library include fewer library and university professional
service opportunities, and a lack of colleagues with whom to consult about cataloging questions. In the
area of professional service, you will likely need to be more proactive than in a larger institution. As a
cataloger or technical services specialist, you will very likely be THE expert, and if you are fresh out of
library school or very early in your career, this can be a challenge as you learn the ropes. In my case, it
was very helpful that I brought strong cataloging experience with me to the smaller library. I was able to
provide guidance to its catalogers, introduce them to some new ways of thinking about authority control
and subject cataloging (for example, by sponsoring workshops led by our OCLC regional provider), and
streamline some local practices to better serve the library’s users. I feel this would have been a tall
order, had I been a new librarian.
Organizational culture varies quite a bit in small and large institutions. A prime example is how
decisions are made. In larger libraries, one needs a fair amount of patience, as many decisions will
have to go through committees and various layers of bureaucracy. In my small library, the librarians and
staff were THE committee! We were able to make decisions and act on them very quickly. In addition, my
small institution was private, so that we were also relieved of the necessity of dealing with state
governmental bureaucracy. An example of where this can streamline life is in the area of professional
development funding; for example, having some expenses paid up front instead of after they come out of
To summarize, I suggest that you ask yourself the following questions as you decide what type of
academic library environment best fits you and your technical services skills and interests:
- Do you want to be a specialist or a generalist? If the former, a large library setting will usually
work best for you; if the latter, a small library.
- Do you want to remain a front-line librarian or become a library administrator? These are actually
not mutually exclusive. You may have more opportunities to develop supervisory skills in a
smaller library setting, after which you may choose to move into larger institutions with those
skills. However, smaller libraries definitely offer the opportunity to be both an administrator and
front-line librarian, if you desire both – and many people do. In fact, small libraries often don’t
have pure library administrators. In the small library in which I worked, our university librarian was
both the director of the library and an academic liaison, engaging in the same general reference,
instruction, and collection development services as the rest of the librarians. What a small library
will often lack is middle management. You’re either a front-line librarian with some supervisory
responsibilities, or you’re the head of the library with some front-line librarian responsibilities.
- Are you happier multitasking or focusing on specific tasks for extended periods of time? If the
former, small libraries are for you; if the latter, you’ll probably prefer larger libraries.
- What’s your threshold for bureaucracy? If it’s low, you may prefer smaller institutions; if high, you’
ll have no problem in larger ones.
- What type of workforce environment best suits your personality: one that’s like a small family in
which you may be the single member who possesses certain knowledge and skills (small
library), or a large extended family with both members to consult when you need help and
members whom you may never meet (large library)?
Good luck finding the right academic library fit for you!
The following related LIScareer readings may also help with your search:
About the Author
Renée McBride is head of the Special Formats & Metadata Section in the Resource Description &
Management Department at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Davis Library. Her previous position as Technical
Services & Arts Liaison Librarian at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA was the inspiration for this article.
Article published October 2010
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily
represent the views of the LIScareer editors.