I have been a solo librarian for my entire career working in school libraries. For the most part I like it (department meetings are super efficient), but there are definitely moments when I wish I had someone else in working in the library with me. As much as I value my professional network (and I do! I would be lost without them) I often wish I had a coworker who understood the culture and nuances of libraries AND of my school. It’s the difference between “how to collaborate with a reluctant colleague” and “how to collaborate with this reluctant colleague.”
Then there’s the practical aspects of how it would be nice to have another librarian. The first time I ordered new books, I looked at the supplies my predecessor had left behind, some covered books, and tried to reverse engineer the process. With practice (and YouTube) I refined the process. Even now, every time I’m processing new books, I hear this voice in the back of my head asking, “is this the right way to do this?” I am almost a decade into my career as a school librarian, and I am still not sure I’m doing it right.
There are a lot of things in my day-to-day work life like that, and ranging from the small (those pesky book covers) to the far more significant (does the scope and sequence of skills I’m trying to integrate into the curriculum really prepare students to be independent researchers?). This vague insecurity has definitely motivated me to stay engaged in my professional network, and those connections help me grapple with the big questions about my work. On the other hand, there aren’t really professional development workshops for how to cover a book, how to manage shelving, how to not to be driven to your wits’ end by being asked “where’s the stapler?” for the umpteenth time. Nothing strikes dread in my heart quite like the words “the laminate roll needs to be changed.”
All that being said, I do have some words of (what I hope is) wisdom for life as a solo librarian:
You will figure it out.
And even if you do it wrong, it’s okay. Really. Also, document your work along the way. It’s good for you. If you do make mistakes, you’ll be able to track down where it happened. Also, documenting helps you remember how to do those “every once in awhile” tasks (hello laminator, my old friend). Besides, it’s also good for whoever takes over your work for you. I have taken over from someone who left great notes, and someone who did not. Those days/weeks/months of trying to figure out passwords, contracts, and unlabeled keys made me a compulsive documenter--I never want someone else to have that experience.
You don’t have to be good at everything.
You can be awesome at some things and meh at others. If the things you’re not good at bother you, make a plan to improve your skills in one area at a time. Pace yourself. Resist the urge to compare your work to that of non-solo librarians. One of the things I love about our profession is that so many people are so generous in sharing work and ideas. But don’t feel like you need to accomplish the same things that librarians who have colleagues who help with programming and instruction and unjamming the student printer.
Don’t do more with less.
I have, on more than one occasion, written up proposals for increasing the staffing in the library, documenting what isn’t getting done or what could be done better if there were more help. I’m still a solo librarian, but I feel less guilty about the things I have to let go. If you’re a solo librarian, you can’t do everything. This is a hard one for me, and something I still struggle with, but when I’m torn between different priorities I ask myself “what does the community need?” Sometimes it’s not what they would identify as a need, or even something they’ll notice right away. When I made the decision to interfile my reference collection it wasn’t something my community was clamoring for, but the change in usage showed me that it was worth the time. No matter what, time invested in understanding your community and its needs is time well spent.
I don’t know if that voice in the back of my head will ever go away, but I do know that it’s gotten quieter over the years. If nothing else, I know I’ve learned to serve my community and take it one day at a time. Even with the laminator.
Sara Kelley-Mudie is the librarian at the Hawken School. She puts her motto of “Relentless Optimism” on as many things as possible, both as a reminder to herself and as fair warning to everyone she interacts with. She tweets at @skm428.