Thoughts on being a "solo librarian"...
A couple of weeks back I put out a call to solo librarians to offer some of their thoughts and experiences. Several of you graciously offered your time and candidly answered a short series of questions that I posed. Here, in Part I of this blog post, are the responses! In the interest of providing for confidentiality, some name and place references have been omitted and replaced with and ellipsis notation [...]. In Part II, I will reflect on the essential thing that us solos—and all school library media specialists—must do in order to maximize our time and efforts: establishing mentorships and networking with our professional learning communities.
A very special thanks goes out to the solo librarians who have participated in this blog project. Your schools are tremendously lucky to have such passionate and dedicated school library media specialists!
Part I: HVLA Members on being Solo Librarians…
Q1: What analogy would you say describes the job you do every day?
A1: Running a never ending marathon.
A1: Is "busier than a one-legged man in an ass kicking contest" an analogy? No? Well then, just let me add this to my to-do list over here...
A1: One thing at a time. Though this may sound cliché, there are so many tasks that my job entails; I make sure to focus on one thing at time so that I may do it efficiently.
A1: Oh gosh. I don't know. I feel like I'm always running around and juggling a million things at once (which I find exciting), but I don't know what to compare it to...
A1: Hmm, I don’t think I have time to create an analogy--the printer is broken and there’s a project due next period and our Proquest logins aren’t working…. Just kidding, but that’s how I feel day-to-day. I just came into this library in September so I don’t know if I can form an analogy yet.
A1: Fire Chief - every day I am presented with a large set of new tasks I must tackle with regards to planning workshop classes, collaborating with teachers, going over book lists, conversations with publishers, subbing, teaching, advising clubs, arranging displays, etc. Also, as a media specialist I am constantly on the IT end of faculty and student difficulties with computers. Since accessibility is a key component to any successful school library, I make myself very available to both faculty and students - in doing so however, I feel like I am constantly putting out fires or explaining how to do so!
Q2: To what extent (or how) does your vision for your school library inform/affect your daily practice?
A2: One of my visions for the school library includes giving every student the chance to pick out a book that they love based on the genres they prefer. I make sure that I interact with every single student at our school, to develop a relationship with them and learn what they like and dislike in terms of books. This also helps me to better develop our collection.
A2: My vision for the direction I want to take our library in certainly does influence the library's day to day rituals. In order to get books into the library, I must work on hosting bake sales, book sales, and find other creative tactics. Our catalog is a mess and I have been working on solving the mysteries (700 books marked as lost currently) although some are here but have duplicate or faulty barcodes. I work to find parent volunteers and teenage community helpers to work on shelving, cataloging, and other basic chores. I try to schedule authors. All of these things take a lot of time and leaving curriculum on the wayside.
A2: My vision IS my daily practice. Maybe I'm setting my sights low, but I think the way I catalog, the way I order, the way I shelve is all part and parcel of my vision. Most especially I think my vision is reflected in the way I interact with my teachers and students.
In your opinion, what qualities must a person possess in order to be successful at your job?
A2: As a solo librarian, I feel like my vision for the library is constantly informing my practice, which is great because I can make whatever changes or try new things without having to ask anyone else.
A2: Since I just came here I think I am afforded a fair amount of say-so in implementing my vision. There wasn’t a strong librarian here for the past year so although the students needed some gentle reminders about how they should behave in the library, so starting from scratch means I was able to see my vision realized. Obviously there is the day to day issues--paper running out, unnecessary chatter, etc., but because I am a solo librarian it is my vision alone. I don’t need to shoehorn what I want into anyone else’s ideas or adhere to previously held beliefs/designs. Therefore what I do every day is part of my vision, because I’m creating it from scratch in the now.
A2: I know what a great library looks like and I know how a great library functions. The quality and quantity of resources is always something on my mind, as is functionality and accessibility. As a librarian, I do my best to make sure I am informed of school curricula for every grade with regards to the collection, as well as personal knowledge on relevant subjects so that I can be used as a ready reference resource.
Q: In your opinion, what qualities must a person possess in order to be successful at your job?
A3: Organized, flexible, patient, self-motivated, creative, willing to let students work the desk, and focus on the big picture.
A3: Independence, determination, a mule-like stubbornness, a flair for the dramatic and a slightly neurotic need to do it all.
A3: Flexibility, initiative, patience.
A3: In order to be successful as a school librarian at [...High School], one must have the ability to interact with teens and speak to them in a way that they can relate to. Since I am a solo librarian, my job requires that I be a leader and am able to maintain the library independently.
A3: I would probably feel this way in any other school environment, but seeing as I am a young, petite female in a school of 900+ teenage boys, I feel like I had no choice but to be an authoritative (though not authoritarian) personality from day one. I knew that I wouldn’t necessarily have someone else introducing me as a person to be listened to/respected and so I made a stand early on. I am also pretty adept at switching from several roles throughout the day--I may be doing collection development, then scurrying away to help a student with a computer issue, then heading back and remembering that I have to meet with a teacher about their needs all in a matter of minutes. If I wasn’t comfortable with being flexible in this way I would probably have a hard time. I think that a person with a bit more tech savvy might be even better than I am--I do find myself sending students down to the tech department more often than a person who might have had a tech coordinator with her might have to. However I just graduated from school in 2011, so I think my embrace of tech as well as strong foundation in the fundamentals has me uniquely suited for being a solo librarian, as I can be several people in one.
A3: Patience, diligence, dedication and enthusiasm are key components to being successful as a Library Media Specialist. Patience with both students, faculty, administration, accounting and publishers is an invaluable virtue. Diligence and dedication refer to the knowledge and maintenance of the collection both on the shelves, in the computer and in your own head! Enthusiasm is one of the most important aspects given the audience that we work with: children and young adults. We want to get them reading and keep them reading. If they are feeling lost either personally or academically, we need to be a rock for them. They should never feel ill at ease for approaching the librarian for any matter because this is why we are here. It is important to be enthusiastic in the field and in practice to keep them comfortable and inspired while they are in school.
Q: In what ways do you feel your previous experience, training and schooling has informed your practice? Conversely, in what ways do you feel it was lacking?
A4: When I was working on my Masters, I was working at an affluent school for the gifted and felt that a lot of what we were talking about in classes did not apply to me. Alas, I have moved on to another job and now understand why differentiation was so important. My schooling taught me to promote the library (which is important!) and to collaborate with teachers (which supports the curriculum, makes meaningful connections and builds community.)
I was not adequately prepared to work with such a wide range of reading levels and am having trouble finding titles that the whole group is interested in and understands. Classroom management is a problem for me. I wish I had taken a storytelling class.
A4: School helped me understand collection development, cataloging and made me able to whip out enough jargon so as to confuse others when I need to. My previous job (public) helped me understand and refine my passion for libraries, and helped me tolerate and navigate school bureaucracy. My awesome style is all my own but my mad public relations skills were honestly honed doing lots of retail a long time ago (seriously, being a store manager was better experience than I ever gave it credit for).
A4: Since I’ve always worked and went to school at the same time, I have an ability to balance my duties well. Now that I’m done with school, I can focus on various work-related projects at once and get things completed.
A4: I've been working as a solo librarian for three years, but before that I was part of a terrific team of three other librarians. It was great to have support and be able to bounce curriculum ideas off of them and learn from one another. However, I also really enjoy being able to create curriculum and policies on my own. It can be overwhelming, but I really like challenges and being busy.
A4: As I mentioned just prior, the graduate education I had was a good preparation for solo librarianship. I completed the school library certification via Rutgers and while I felt that many of those classes focused more heavily on elementary and middle school students, the professors were realistic in assessing the state of education and taught the classes under the assumption that a librarian would be a solo. Therefore there was a focus on how to divide time and as I said above, how to be able to accomplish the goals of several in the body of one. On the other hand my past experience was in a library that was much more thoroughly staffed, so one of the things I miss is having a person with me to clarify or back up what I’m doing.
A4: My school (Queens College) gave me great ideas, tips, and reference instruction with regards to being a librarian for Children and Young Adults. They trained me to know what greatness is and what I should always be reaching for with regards to my collection and myself. However one can read about students until they are blue in the face, but interacting with a mass amount of students one-on-one is a challenge I never had to face prior. I don't think my school prepared me for the special needs aspect of students with regards to differentiated instruction. Also, it tended to focus on classes and workshops for children not YA, and when I began my job I struggled as a librarian-teacher who teaches YA classes.
Q: What are the most important lessons you’ve learned, thus far, from your experience as a solo librarian?
A5: Let things go and do the best I can with what I have. Not everyone wants to collaborate and that is okay. Pick a few areas to focus on and do them well.
A5: As a solo librarian, I have learned that I must remain extremely organized. Since I am running the entire library, I have to remember many details, therefore making it imperative that I remember things such as each students first and last name, the policies and procedures, what books have been ordered or need to be ordered, etc.
A5: I hate cataloging. I love kids. I don't do well with authority but I love to make people happy, so it works out. I really like working alone while being a part of the larger school community.
A5: I find that people/administrators don't always realize how much it takes to teach classes, manage an entire library, and support other teachers.
A5: I would say the most important lesson I’ve learned so far is to trust myself--that the combination of school/experience/personality I have has served me well and going with my gut (since I’m the only gut) will serve me well.
A5: Often librarians are looked at as secondary to teachers, and this is how things were for me when I began my job. As a solo librarian I decided to do a lot of Librarian-Teacher outreach AND I publicized my accomplishments. The more people see what it is you do, the better. You will be utilized more, gain widespread respect, and become an invaluable member of the faculty. The downside to this is that the library will often become secondary, but sometimes this is what is required in a school setting. Also, always make the effort to work with the students, they don’t always know to go to you for help so make sure they know you are a resource to them. Not only is it your job, but it’s good for the preservation of the industry in ensuring the positive outlook of libraries and librarians for future generations.
**Bonus/optional: If a library fairy godmother granted you with 3 wishes, what would you wish for?
A: An assistant, a budget that allowed me to order books more than one time a year, and smaller classes.
A: I’d only wish for an assistant, but wouldn’t we all
A: ONE: I would wish that I didn't have to advocate for the Library every fricking second and that everyone would understand exactly what I do all the time. TWO: I would wish for a shiny new facility with more (any) technology. THREE: BIGGER BUDGET!!!
A: 1. An assistant 2. An unlimited budget just to get the library collection up to scratch 3. An extra hour or so in the day when I will not be disturbed so that I can just focus on the library and NOT the whole school.
Part II: Getting Connected and Staying Connected
Library Associations such as HVLA, ALA and AISL all provide membership in professional learning communities that offer support and resources for those practicing school librarianship. Active engagement within library associations diminishes feelings of professional isolation. A fellow HVLA member recently noted:
“HVLA was my lifeline. Being able to share at meetings, especially when we had divisional breakouts on subjects of interest in between the tri-annuals; querying through the listserve; the larger meetings when they focused on round-tables or brought in an author or professor of interest – I never felt alone.”
Another means to establishing a professional learning community could also be accomplished through organizing more regionally specific groups: within a district or borough, amongst alumni of particular MLS programs. Alternatively, focus-specific groups may also be set up: IB librarians, Charter School librarians or librarians working in special needs schools.
Addressing the growing trend of solo librarianship, Patti McCall, writing for the LIS jobs blog, suggests a number of tips to keep connected professionally: Joining a library association, pursuing professional development opportunities, keeping current with professional literature and, most notably, finding a mentor. I think this last piece of advice is particularly compelling. Being a self-described, “verbal processor”, I find it extremely helpful to have someone I can simply think out loud with or bounce ideas off of. Some of my best strategies and ideas have come about this way. Besides getting valuable feedback on your ideas from an experienced colleague, this really helps as it is extremely helpful to gain affirmation for the decisions you make.
McCall rightly notes that some organizations will formally arrange mentorships, it is also something you can (and should) pursue on your own. Pursuing a mentor is something I wish I had done upon assuming my current position. Though it is not too late, it sure could have helped me during that overwhelming--and often tumultuous--first year as a solo.
Sadly, the reality is that systems for mentoring are not provided as often as they should in schools; this goes not just for librarians and support staff, but for teachers, as well. It seems the best way to establish successful mentor-mentee relationships would be for both MLS programs and library associations to provide their students and members with mentoring programs. While MLS programs will assign and require an advisor for their students, this is usually done arbitrarily and without a mentoring component.
Failing to create opportunities that would help provide support and cultivate professional growth is a disservice--not just to the solos among us--but to the newbies and recent MLS grads.
It is a simple thing to offer as it requires no budget, and little in the way of legwork; we have members, constituencies at the ready. Moreover, it is an investment in the future of our profession. After all, the knock-on effect is inevitable and paying it forward would be the natural order of things considering the nature of librarians is to want to help others.
Naturally, formally constructed mentoring set-ups may not necessarily be as successful as those that grow organically from consistent dialogue and recurring contact with our colleagues via membership meetings, conferences and events. However, membership meetings--and conferences, in particular--can tend to be infrequent and the infusion of creative energy and camaraderie they offer is trampled by the grind of the every-day. At the least, we can offer mentoring “set-ups” for our members who are interested in either role.
I liken it to the blind date: things may not work out, but there is always the chance that they could...and how wonderful it is when they do!
By Laura Bishop, Membership Coordinator (2011-2013)