My mentor recently forwarded me a thrilling job ad for a solo librarian at the Charles Darwin Research Station, located in Ecuador’s beautiful Galápagos Islands. As the only professional librarian present, the successful candidate would get to do digital curation, cataloging, collection development, reference, budget planning, staff management, and ILS and building maintenance. You would be the librarian! This job ad got me thinking about solo librarianship: both the challenges and the amazing opportunities this work presents.
Where would I work?
Solo librarians work in diverse settings, but always alone or with a few student or paraprofessional assistants. In academia, solo librarians may work in small private colleges, satellite campuses, community colleges, or special libraries that get little foot traffic or receive Lilliputian budgets. For many of these institutions of higher education (particularly private for-profit colleges), the library may exist primarily for accreditation purposes, so administration’s low expectations can afford the librarian a lot of flexibility and time for research and professional development. In public libraries, a solo librarian generally manages either a library branch or the only library in a small township or rural district, requiring a lot of responsibility and hard work but conferring an amazing degree of self-direction and autonomy. Volunteers notwithstanding, school media specialists commonly work solo too.
What would I do?
You would get to do everything! Solo librarians might check out and shelve materials, develop and weed the collection, catalog and digitize materials, provide reference and reader’s advisory services, teach information literacy classes, write budgets and grants, hire and supervise staff, negotiate with vendors and administrators, collaborate across departments and institutions, and lead their libraries into the future. The self-direction and flexibility you would enjoy, coupled with the well-rounded skill sets you would develop, could be so worth the hard work and steep learning curve often involved in solo librarianship.
Don’t be intimidated by the new hire messianism of many job ads for solo librarians. The reality for many small libraries is that administration doesn’t mind a holding pattern and may in fact prefer one—instant greatness not required! On the other hand, many other institutions are looking for those smart, enthusiastic, well-rounded newbrarians to shake things up. You can usually tell by the job ad’s tone and phrasing. Either way, you just might be the perfect candidate!
What are the benefits?
As a solo librarian, you will become a self-directed information professional with well-rounded skill sets and experience in human resources and facilities management. These are transferrable skills! Even if you choose not to stay solo long-term, you can translate what you have achieved on the job to a leadership role at a larger institution later on. Additionally, I have the impression that solo librarian positions receive fewer applicants than prime jobs at larger colleges or urban areas, making recent LIS grads more competitive. Once on the job, you get to build advanced collaboration and leadership skills, as you will be negotiating contracts, budgets, and the library’s role in your larger institution or community. Solo librarianship may be an ideal fit for generalists, nontraditional information professionals, or librarians with niches in Grateful Dead music or art museums.
What are the challenges?
Solo librarianship is a chronic condition. Independent of fellow information professionals, you will likely have to rely on conferences, social networks, and independent reading to connect with peers and keep up with developments in the LIS world. In some situations, the workload may wear you out or the responsibility may weigh you down. In private or community colleges whose administrators gripe about the library as a fiscal black hole, you might find yourself frustrated by lack of funding or opportunities for growth. In public libraries, you are the one who will have to deal with problem patrons or trustees, while in school libraries, you’ll be the one handling disciplinary problems and book challenges.
On the other hand, in libraries with low usage, you may sit at the front desk for an hour, yet have not a single person speak to you. (Believe me, I’ve been there!) Isolation of this kind might be why customers who visited Amazon’s page for How to Thrive as a Solo Librarian also viewed the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, to Twitter’s amusement.
On the other hand, many of us librarians are introverts, and for us solitude is actually conducive to productivity! It all depends on the institution and on yourself.
What should I do?
Be open to opportunities and cultivate diverse skills so that you can apply to those solo librarian jobs and see where the winds of graduation take you!
Are you a solo librarian? Were you once? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Smallwood, C., & Clapp, M. J. (eds). (2011). How to Thrive as a Solo Librarian. 26 chapters loaded with practical guidance for solo information professionals.
Siess, J. A. (2006). The New OPL Sourcebook: A Guide for Solo and Small Libraries. Practical guidance and resources for one-person libraries.
Special issue on The Solo Librarian, Knowledge Quest, 40(2), 2011. Staying effective and positive as a solo school librarian. Tagline: “You’re not alone.”
SLA Solo Librarians Division: “Working Together for Those Working Alone”
Blog posts and brief articles
INALJ Interview with Britt Foster, solo librarian, V. E. Petrucci Library, California State University, Fresno, April 2013.
Letters to a Young Librarian guest post by Lindsay Harmon, solo librarian, American Academy of Art, Chicago, June 2012.
Solo Librarianship: Unique Challenges and Opportunities for New Librarians by Kristina Keogh, via LIScareer, May 2006.
Tips for a Solo Librarian by Sarah Engledow Brown, via ALA NMRT, August 2012.