Business Law

The Business of Being a Librarian

Zehava Brickner |

As librarians, we’re not expected to know the answers, but we do know where and how to find the answers.
On Thursday, May 5, I attended an event at the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) called “Suddenly Solo,” cosponsored by SLA-NY. The event was composed of a panel of solo librarians who spoke about their jobs as solos, the challenges that might arise and the pride they take in their work. As a solo librarian at the Vera Institute of Justice, I was particularly interested in hearing about the experiences of other solos and meeting other librarians in similar jobs. It’s sometimes difficult for us solo librarians to explain what we do because our jobs are without boundaries. Beyond performing all the tasks necessary to make our libraries function—which could normally take a staff of five or more to accomplish—staff often ask for our expertise on a variety of projects. And because we stand alone in our job title—and maybe even within our departments—we must establish a vision and set all the priorities for our libraries.

Given the near endless possibilities for our position, solo librarians are often natural born leaders and, in a sense, entrepreneurs. We must treat specific aspects of the day-to-day operations like a business. The following are strategies that I enforce daily to effectively run Vera’s Louis Schweitzer Library:
  1. Communicate: As the only librarian or information management professional on staff, I am often inundated with requests from staff members. These requests are made in person and via e-mail and telephone. Sometimes they are quick reference style questions that can be answered on the spot and checked off my to-do list. Other times, they are more in-depth queries requiring some digging, searching, and research by me. I try to be open about my schedule. When I have a lot of requests (on top of the regular library work), I ask staff for a deadline or time to fulfill the request. Surprisingly often, the request is not an urgent matter and it can be done a few days after the request is made. Depending on the nature of your work, not everything needs an immediate turnaround. Instead, try to keep the lines of communication open so you can meet staff requests while balancing your regular workload.
  2. Be honest: Sometimes staff members will request something that I have never handled or that I don’t know how to answer. Personally, I like the challenge and it makes me even more eager to help, but even librarians get stumped. If I don’t know the answer, I usually say, “I don’t know but I will find out for you.” As librarians, we’re not expected to know the answers, but we do know where and how to find the answers. Staff members appreciate the honesty and no doubt appreciate the dedication to helping them.
  3. Take initiative: Librarians have specific job requirements, but the nature of the work is limitless. Encourage people to seek assistance from you, keep your door open, and promote your resources by reminding staff that you are available. I try to always make myself available to the entire staff of the Vera Institute, especially by orienting new staff members. I arrange a meeting with new staff members, which often happens after I meet them in the elevator or am introduced to them as they get a tour of the facility. If you are aware of a specific project, offer your expertise. Whether it’s suggesting a bibliographic training to staff working on literature reviews or directing staff to proper resources, the objective is the same: market yourself.
  4. Make yourself invaluable: By taking initiative and marketing yourself, staff will view you as an essential staff member. By completing assignments on time and answering questions with relevant and useful results, you make your role significant and solidify your position. Not only will staff consult with you more often, but “returning customers” are a good way to gauge how vital you are within your organization or company. I take advantage of our Institute’s Intranet blog to remind staff of the library resources that are available and post links to webinars and free limited access sources.
  5. Know your resources: Resources, of course, include useful databases and websites, but resources may also be people. Get to know everyone in your organization and the roles they play. Because our jobs are without boundaries, people often think that everything falls on the library! By staying in touch with everyone on staff, you’ll know when to tackle a request yourself and when to refer staff to others within your organization. A staff member might ask me something to which I respond, “Ask so-and-so in communications,” and I’m still directing staff to the appropriate resource.
If you are interested in becoming a member of a local interest group for solo librarians, please contact Tom Nielson (

Zehava Brickner is a solo librarian at the Vera Institute of Justice. She holds an MLS from the Graduate School for Library and Information Studies at Queens College and is interested in folksonomies and exploring issues of copyright, user rights, and access to information. She continues to be fascinated by bibliographic citation managers and enjoys teaching people how to use them.

No comments: