I’m on an Island: Thoughts on solo and subject librarianship


flickr photo shared by virgo200745 under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

This post started off with my reaction from Erin White’s great insights about why she’s stayed at VCU. Then it was spurred on by Chris Zammarelli’s post about his personal brand following a brief Twitter rant of mine. So here we are.

I am using this picture of some guy named Don because I often joke that I look like a certain kind of guy from the 60s. Ernie Douglas, Jack Nitzsche, Hank Marvin, Pets Sounds era Brian Wilson, and this guy. I tend to get fixated on things and then try to go as deep and obscure as possible. It’s my approach in life. Don, he captures my mood today.

I’ve been a solo librarian at MPOW for a month now. It’s been a very hectic, overwhelming, and stressful month, but it’s also kind of exciting. I’m not writing this blog post for sympathy or pity, but I also think a lot of my colleagues have no idea what it’s like staying at a library until it gets to this point. I also think a lot of my colleagues who are use to larger organizations don’t understand the kind of politics we play in small, subject specialty libraries in organizations where libraries are not the main focus. We’ll just call them special libraries.

I hope my colleagues who read this understand why their well intentioned advice misses the mark. Why I won’t just move on to move up, and why I am focusing my energy on this narrow field (transportation librarianship), even if it means less money and security.

White makes the excellent point that she’s grown her career not by moving on to move up, but by investing in her institution and going deep into the work. I’m also plagued by negative thoughts that maybe I should have moved on from here by now. I started working here in 2005, but my job has drastically changed in the last decade. I still affirm that as long as the position and the work evolves, I will stay. From student worker, to circulation manager, to head of public services, and to now acting director, I’ve grown as the library shrank. When I started we had a staff of 8 and 10 students. Now it’s me and 2 students, but we’re hiring so it won’t be so bad.

I love being able to have a hand in much of what the library does. Cataloging? Yeah, I get it. Circ? I’m on that, too. Research services? It’s just me. Collection development? Me again. I am the website. In planning for this period as a solo librarian, I mentioned to my new supervisor about balancing my time with keeping the library open – they didn’t realize those fundamental questions were on the table. Now everything’s on the table as we figure out the future, and I think it’s going to be a really bright one. At the same time, the weight I feel on my shoulders to keep this ship afloat is real. If I call in sick, the library will be closed and service will be nil. I would love to take the time to focus on some projects, but I also know I need to be here with the door open so that students, faculty, and staff can use the library. Despite the great proclamations, not everything is online.

And this is where I’m frustrated with my colleagues. Coverage – there is none. It’s not that if I’m out a day stuff piles up and I have a backlog, though that’s true. It’s that when I’m not here, the library is closed. Our hours are pretty minimal as it is due to staffing cutbacks, I’m feel a strong obligation to be there for our community because the collection and the space are still used. I need to be here for it to be. My presence is required until we hire another staff person in the library. So all my big dreams and goals are being pushed off and chipped away slowly while we stabilize things. Some of it is saying no and letting go, but we need to do an inventory first.

For a lot of special libraries, this isn’t that special – it’s just reality. I’m telling my story because I don’t think a lot of librarians recognize it. If I worked in a big, sprawling academic library I probably wouldn’t either. But I don’t, I work here and things are tight. There’s also politics. Politics here are different than a large academic library. It’s a small community and everybody knows each other despite being spread out across the country. I can’t do anything without thinking about how others will perceive it and how it might affect funding and future funding.

So why am I still here? Well, I don’t want to bail on this place. This library has long legacy of supporting transportation research and I don’t see that ending. It’s evolving like we all are, but the need hasn’t gone away. Though it’s hard work to pivot the library, it’s also exciting and rewarding. I feel like my work’s not done. I don’t want my personal legacy here to be just downsizing, I want to grow this place. It’s going to happen and this is the inflection point.  I also can’t quit the field. Transportation is an important convergence of many different things and all of it matters. There’s a direct tangible benefit to the work we do and I’ve grown to care very deeply about solving transportation issues. I believe in the mission of MPOW. There also aren’t many opportunities to work in transportation libraries, so I don’t want to jump too soon. By now my knowledge of the field is pretty deep and I understand the system pretty well. If I move to a more traditional library, this kind of policy understanding won’t matter as much, and that’s just not as exciting to me.

So I’m not the type to move on, and really I’m not looking for a directorship even though I fell into one for now through attrition. I am interested in trying new things, doing good work, and solving problems. I have a lot of opportunity to do that here right now. If I wanted glory and fame, I wouldn’t be here. Recognition is great, but I’d rather work to help my direct colleagues highlight their work better and get all the praise and accolades they deserve.

So right now I’m on an island and that’s a lot of pressure, but I knew it would be and that’s life. For many librarians, this is the nature of our jobs. I’m special but not that special. I just don’t think a lot of librarians realize what it’s like when you’re it.

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