Hacking Your Career Plans: Independent Information Professionals

This post came about as a result of combining in my mind the following four things:

  1. A conversation about possible directions of big legal research sites (Lexis and Westlaw, specifically but hypothetically)*, now that there are so many reliable alternatives for finding primary law (statutes, court opinions) at significantly lower cost;
  2. The worn-out trope of the “death of libraries” (to which I’m not linking any items–do we really need to give it any more press?);
  3. Musings on the term “Chief Information Officer” and how it generally has nothing to do with information and everything to do with technology; and
  4. An announcement of a conference of the Association of Independent Information Professionals.

The sum of these parts is brownies. (Yum.)

No, the sum of these parts is the role of the librarian outside the four walls of the library. (And brownies.)

Many of us are going to get our degrees, find a job in a public, academic, or special library of our choice, and live happily ever after. But some of us may not want that. Did you know that you don’t have to want that?

Enter the independent information professional. The AIIP describes independent info pros as “information entrepreneurs.” Joe Murphy**, who is an independent info pro, describes his work as highlighting “library change opportunities.”

You might have heard–or used–the phrase “information professional” as a near-synonym for “librarian.” This isn’t wrong, exactly. But “information professional” is really a bit broader. Librarians are information professionals, archivists are information professionals, records managers are information professionals. And so on. An independent information professional does any of these things on a freelance or self-employed basis.

I first began thinking about the possibility of a librarian career outside the walls of a library–though not “independent”–when working on a project for my law librarianship class last summer. There is a law office I know of that chose not to replace its librarian when she retired, and subsequently distributed its materials to individual lawyers and practice groups, and to other offices (and in some cases to the trash). My project discussed the value that a librarian could add even without–or especially without–a central repository for the office’s information resources.

Now, I don’t have any desire to be self-employed. I appreciate my steady income***, good benefits, vacation days, and career ladder. But the idea of thinking (and working) outside the box does appeal to me. Personally, I’m fortunate**** to work for an organization (and have contacts within the organization) that conceivably could include an outside-the-box information professional.

What if you want to hang your shingle as an independent info pro? (Do non-lawyers use the phrase “hang your shingle”?) What skills would you need, and would your work look like? Note: most of the points below are extrapolated from this study of independent info pros conducted by Mary Ellen Bates, a past president of AIIP.)


Marketing, marketing, marketing. (Within which I would include networking, networking, networking.) Anyone self-employed, working as a consultant, having one’s own business, or whatever phrase you want to use to describe it needs to be a skilled marketer. When you work for yourself, you don’t have someone just putting work on your desk, you have to go out and find it.

Research skills. I guess this could go without saying. Tough to be an information professional without knowing about information! (Not all information pros provide research services. See more on research below.)


You’re going to need to spend time keeping yourself up-to-date on the latest trends and tools. So even if you don’t provide research services, you need to keep up your research skills. But keep in mind that those aren’t billable hours.

You’re going to work more than full time. No snow days. I learned this when working as a temp attorney (paid by the hour with unlimited hours)–when every 15 minutes spent not working is money not made, you’re going to work as many 15 minutes as possible. (Reference: Facebook statuses of every self-employed friend I have.)

You’re probably going to spend a lot of time on the phone, sending email, or video conferencing with your clients. (Another reason why I don’t think I’m going the independent route.) After all, you may be self-employed, but you’re working for your clients, not for yourself.

Finally, all of this said better and more authoritatively than I did/can: the AIIP’s guide to Getting Started as an  Independent Information Professional.

One last point. I began the discussion of independent info pros with the incident that got me thinking about librarians outside the box. But it is librarians outside the box and within the four walls of the library that are the reason why libraries won’t die.

*None of this discussion of Lexis and Westlaw in this post is based on actual business decisions made by either company or their parent companies.

**My fellow HLS author Michael brought Joe Murphy***** to my attention. Thanks to Michael for the referral, and apologies to the many equally worthy-to-be-mentioned independent info pros who I didn’t mention.

***Including pay for snow days.

****Extremely so.

*****[Post edited on 1/25/15 to add tags, and I noticed that I’d mentioned Joe Murphy. In case anyone is reading this subsequent to the update, I want to call your attention to #teamharpy and the allegations they’ve made against him.]

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