As I work my way through library school, I’ve continued to researching possible career paths to take with an MLIS degree. In exploring non-traditional MLIS careers, I ran across the LinkedIn group, Library Services for the Home. Fascinated, I reached out to the groups founder, Christy Shannon Smirl, a librarian in Jackson, Wyoming, and the founder and owner of Foxtail Books. I had the opportunity to interview Christy about her library consulting work, and how her career evolved into niche library services for the home.
Megan Keane (MK): Can you tell us a little more about yourself, how you got into librarianship, and what sparked your interest in taking this alternative career path?
Christy Shannon Smirl (CSS): After getting my undergraduate degree in Denver, Colorado, I stumbled upon an article about the any different directions an MLIS/MLS degree can lead. They all sounded wonderful to me and clicked with my personality and passions in a number of ways. In particular, I was drawn to the interesting combination of elements the field offers: research, ordering, working with people, project planning, and close attention to detail. I could envision myself taking the degree in so many possible career directions. I had found my profession.
Since getting my MLIS at the University of Denver, I have worked in academic, school, and public libraries, doing everything from shelving books to working different kinds of public desks, to managing a collection of 100,000 items and supervising a staff of selectors.
While working at Teton County Library (TCL) in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I took on occasional freelance library jobs. Jackson is an affluent community, its famed ski resort bringing with it many homeowners who have the means to pay for services to manage their homes, including the management of their book collections.
Much as I loved my public library work for over nine years at TCL, from providing one-on-one service to patrons and by maintaining an incredible collection of books, I began wondering whether I could use my library skills and knowledge of the book market in a creative capacity. I am passionate about art and design, and I love using information, literature, and aesthetics together to make a beautiful wall of books in a room. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, the independence and challenge of being my own boss and building a business was incredibly attractive to me after many years working for a government agency. I knew it would be hard, but I also knew it would be well worth the risk. I have never looked back.
MK: How would you define library services for the home? What kinds of specialized services do you provide most often?
CSS: Primarily I curate and customize library collections for the home. I consult with homeowners about the topics and genres they would like to have on their shelves for themselves and their guests. Then I will research these topics, source a collection from the new, used, and rare markets, then organize and arrange the books both for accessibility and to work with the architecture and interior design of the home. Library services for homes often varies as much as the rest of library world and the book sector, albeit with a high-end customer service element, and an eye on design.
I provide all sorts of services for books, documents, and information in the home. Every time I think I have a grasp on all of the things a client might ask me to do, another project comes up that would never have occurred to me! So part of this work is going back to the roots of librarianship: What is the information at hand, or what information does this user need? How can I best make it accessible and usable for them?
MK: What might a typical work day look like for you?
CSS: On any given day I might be appraising books for sale or insurance purposes, sending a family bible off to a bookbinder for repair, cataloging books so a homeowner can search their collection on their phone, or doing research on a particular rare book someone has requested for their collection. Though to be clear, about half of my time is spent doing business tasks rather than using my library skills. Much of the job is getting the word out about my services, networking, collaborating with other professionals, and business details including bookkeeping and social media.
MK: Can you share a project or two in particular that was most interesting and/or you took a lot of pride in accomplishing?
CSS: It makes me so happy to curate local collections that take the client deeper into the history, nature, and landscape of the mountains here in Jackson Hole, because I love this place so much, too. But it’s also fun when I get to learn about something entirely new if a home is in an area I’m unfamiliar with, or my client is interested in a topic I know little about. Just like working at a reference desk, this work lets you encounter every subject you can imagine, and you have to understand the breadth and depth of each to pick out the appropriate resources.
One recent project of mine involved historical land surveys and the history of geology in America. A favorite client of mine is in her seventies, and she wanted to organize and catalog her 1,000 book collection with me. That project felt a bit more like instruction, but it was delightful. She had collected these books her whole life, and they were, of course, so meaningful to her. It was fun to talk through how she sees and uses her books (like I do with every client), but then to also teach her how I would turn that information into an organization scheme (and make it look nice).
I think I’m most proud of the things you can’t see in my projects: the extensive project management and detail-oriented work to decide upon and source hundreds of books. The behind-the-scenes action that ideally ends up looking effortless.
MK: What skills do you draw upon most often in your work?
CSS:I use the same skills I learned working with the public in every library job I have ever had: How to communicate people about what they want and need. How to be resourceful and find the most current, highest quality information on any topic under the sun. How to pick out really fantastic (and really beautiful!) books.
MK: For library students that might be interested in developing a home library business, what advice would you have? Do you see this as an emerging niche market?
CSS: I recommend becoming a fantastic reference librarian, materials selector, or archivist in an institution so that you feel confident owning those skills and providing those services privately. Outside that professional experience, knowledge of interior design and excellence in high end customer service – which is different from institutional customer service – are key.
This market is as niche as niche can be! I can’t say I see it as a thriving market, since it is limited to a demographic with a certain amount of income to spend on their home. What’s great about this type of work is that you can give it a try as a side job and explore the demand in your area, which will be dependent on the geography and demographics of where you live.