Thursday, April 13, 2017

Three Things That Worked for Me in My First Professional Librarian Position, by Emma Olmstead-Rumsey


I was hired for my first professional librarian position in March of 2016. The rash/generous institution that first gave me the ‘librarian’ title was the Cromaine District Library, a public library serving a small town and the surrounding rural area in the southeastern part of Michigan. Librarianship is not my second career, so this was the first time I’d been given any professional responsibilities, let alone ones that (theoretically) required an MLS.

I’m sure I could have taken it as a vote of confidence, but after brief trainings on the building, emergency procedures, administrative procedures, the ordering system, etc., my manager pretty much left me to my own devices to work out how best to spend my 20 hours per week. Here is what I found worked well for me in the first few months.

#1: Read a lot…
Unless you work in one of those rare libraries that is hands-on about training, you’re going to have a lot of time on your hands for the first few weeks. Keep yourself busy by reading everything you can about your new library and community. I read our Wikipedia page, the town’s Wikipedia page, and a bunch of demographic information from the U.S. census on my first desk shift. I also looked through all the brochures, quick reference sheets, etc. that had accumulated on the reference desk. I even spent an entire afternoon in the back looking over our staff intranet and opening any folder that sounded like it had information I should know about. It gave me a lot of useful context for my work, although obviously not everything turned out to be current or relevant. Which brings me to…

#2: …but don’t believe everything you read
Library workers are hoarders, of documents as well as items [Editor’s Note: Ain’t it the truth?!]. If a policy is updated, you can bet good money that instead of trashing the old one, the new one will be saved as “Policy revised mm-dd-yyyy” in the same folder, and the file name will only be changed if you are lucky. Also, the policies and procedures in practice never look exactly like their written versions. Accordingly, pay attention to what your coworkers actually do and say, not just to the written policies. I was fortunate enough to be in easy earshot of the circulation desk when I was at reference, so I spent a lot of time eavesdropping on the staff there to learn how it was normal for staff to talk to patrons, and vice versa. Similarly, it was what I focused on when I was shadowing my manager and colleagues on the reference desk, because I already know how to conduct a reference interview. This helped me a lot to learn which "rules" existed only on paper, and how the librarians and the clerks divided up responsibilities. It even helped me make educated guesses about who was the best person to go to if I myself had questions or needed help—whose response style would fit me the best.

#3: Get a project (I recommend weeding)
Although you’ll have a variety of responsibilities other than staffing the desk, a lot of them can be hard to pick up when you’re new. For example, my library schedules programs months ahead of time in order to advertise well. That turned out to be a good thing, since it was a big challenge for me to figure out what would and wouldn’t go over well with the community, and to do that I needed some experience and information that would take time to get. But if you don’t have anything to do but be on the desk, you might go a little crazy. The project that saved me was weeding. I was assigned my areas of collection management right away. I had a written collection development policy to reference, training in weeding tools, and familiarity with the principles of public library collection development. In short, I had everything I needed.

Making weed lists kept me entertained on the desk when it wasn't busy, and spending time in the stacks when I was off-desk helped me get to know my collection really well. I was a little worried that I would get a reputation for getting rid of library materials rather than adding to the collection, and I sort of did, but not in the negative way I was expecting. My librarian coworkers didn't pay much attention at all, but the clerks and the pages (who have to pull items on hold and re-shelve materials, and thus don't appreciate overfilled shelves) noticed my work and as a result I started out on good terms with them right away. Heavy weeding early on also left me in excellent shape later when I got busy with my other responsibilities. I could let weeding slide for a little while, knowing that I had plenty of space in my collection areas for new materials.

I have just passed the one-year mark in this position, and this approach continues to provide a good foundation for my work there.

How about you? Would you do anything differently?

Emma Olmstead-Rumsey fell into public librarianship as a fortuitous result of dropping out of a Ph.D. program in history and received her MLS in 2014. She is currently an Adult Services Librarian at the Cromaine District Library in Hartland, MI and a Public Services Librarian at the main branch of the Capital Area District Library in Lansing, MI. Some of her areas of interest are accessibility, collection management, and evidence-based practice.

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