Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Solo Act

Thoughts on Solo Librarianship in School Libraries, Pt.1


Ok, comrades. I must begin this with a caveat: this first section is about my experience as a solo which, to be fair, has only spanned a little more than 2 years. That being said, what a wild ride it’s been! Feel free to skip over this slightly confessional editorial and move on to Part II where I discuss a little bit of the recent professional literature that’s out there. Go ahead, I won’t mind at all...promise! 

Two years as a solo, and counting...

Approximately two years ago I assumed my current position as the Upper School librarian for a brand new library in downtown Manhattan. My situation was exciting: I would be the inaugural librarian in a gorgeous, brand new facility in a very new upper school division of a very new school. Vision was essential and I had it! My situation was also daunting: I would be the only librarian responsible for building a library program (and this as my first formal School Library position having come from public and a maternity leave placement!).

I was a bundle of mixed emotions: enthusiastic and filled with the hope that comes with a new beginning, yet completely overwhelmed about the task that I had been entrusted with--alone.

It is safe to say that my first year could be summed up as such: treading water while integrating myself into the fabric of our school community. The most important accomplishments of that year were the fact that I established positive collegial bonds with faculty members and won their trust and that I did not give up, despite some very challenging circumstances. No mean feat, really, however I was disappointed that I had not been able to accomplish more of the goals I’d set for myself where curriculum and collection development were concerned. Looking back on it now, I realize that a number of circumstances--well beyond my control--limited me. Now, I am comfortable with the idea of limitations, whereas before I was not. A perfectionist with a lofty vision, I am now able acknowledge and accept my limits, as long as it is not for a lack of trying or taking at least a few baby steps in the right direction.

Every school is different. Each is a little country unto itself--unique culture, procedures, traditions, demographics, etc. This is important to recognize; take the experience of others into account--for sure--but with the understanding that your school is a different animal and certain ideas may not be such a good fit...or, at least, not for the time being.

Goals, I have learned, are only really useful when they are accompanied by a clear strategy with a system for measuring and checking one’s progress. This involves a great deal of strategy....sometimes down to the most concrete levels. Each goal can be broken down into many steps (something I failed to do at first). It is sometimes difficult to step back and realize we have actually been moving forward, one step at a time. Yet this is what I’ve been doing slowly--but steadily.

The piece of advice I’d like to offer to all librarians, not just solos, is this: Celebrate yourself!! It is not often that others in our school will give us the recognition we deserve for our commitment and hard work. Whenever I do get a compliment from a faculty member, I am over the moon! Of course I know when I’m doing a good job, but having that recognized by teachers means a great deal...It means that people are noticing what I do and, what’s more, they appreciate it. There were many instances where I had to be the one patting myself on the back and offering myself encouragement and “gold stars”--even if it was just for disasters avoided.

Best advice (also most cliche) I received from friends and colleagues: Rome was not built in a day. Second best bit of advice (also cliche) I received: pace yourself. These are still part of my daily mantra. When I get lost in the myriad tasks I must attend to and start to feel overwhelmed, both of these reminders have a palliative effect and seem to right me. I can stop, reflect and focus on the most immediate of needs and steps I need to take towards my goals. 

Enough about me...What does the literature say??

If you’ve read any school library news in the past few years you will be very familiar with the trend: flying solo is fast becoming the norm where school librarianship is concerned. Take the recent case of Philadelphia librarians that was recently brought before Pennsylvania’s state legislators where Mary Kay Biagini, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, brought forth her study highlighting the fact that 103 schools in Philadelphia are currently without school librarians (a total of 128 statewide are currently sans librarian). A consequence has been that a number of existing Philadelphia school librarians must divide their time amongst several schools, juggling responsibilities for administration, instruction and development for several schools simultaneously.

We’ve all read of at least one instance that echoes the experiences of Phildelphia media specialists. These may be public schools but, in this time of recession era budgeting and politics, private schools are not immune to this trend. We all know of at least one school librarian in a private school that is the sole librarian in the building (without clerical support).

Knowledge Quest (KQ) published an entire volume last year (Volume 40, No.2, Nov/Dec 2011) dedicated to “The Solo Librarian”. I encourage everyone--not just solos--to have a gander.

In “Solo But Not Separate” Becky Pasco, professor and coordinator of Library Science Education Programs at the University of Nebraska states that, as a consequence of dwindling budgets and a tenuous economic and political climate “many, if not most, of today’s school library candidates will 'go it alone.” She asserts that graduate programs preparing future school librarians (should) play a crucial role as mentors by creating networks that support and nurture leadership in their candidates. This, she argues, is key to fostering the motivation and confidence of School Library Media (SLM) candidates, enabling them to embrace “their chance to be unique, autonomous, and independent” in effect lessening feelings of isolation and increasing chances for success. The necessity of collaboration with teachers is something we are all well aware of when we graduate library school these days, but Pasco makes a point of noting that collaboration takes many forms and our academic network is an important tool for collaboration which is not to be overlooked.

Tips and ideas abound in this issue of KQ. In “School Librarian + Postive Attitude=Quality School Library Program”, Nancy Terrell discusses her experience of losing all her library staff and her school’s technology integrator at the same time due to budget cuts. Her article emphasizes the importance of positive thinking and positive focus. She goes into detail describing the creative ways she learned to delegate tasks, proactively preparing for upcoming changes, simplifying and organizing her work flow.

In “Talk Me Off the Ledge” by Cynthia Karabush and Pam Pleviak, we are implored to identify and attend first and foremost to those tasks we deem as “high impact tasks”. As explained by the authors, these are tasks that hold the greatest value to staff and students. There is, say the authors a distinction to be made between a task that could be considered “urgent” and one that is "high impact" and, they assert, "high impact" tasks hold a higher priority. If a department or district meeting possesses a high degree of potential for creating the sort of rippling, outward effects that your library program needs to create in the school community, it is time well spent! --Even if it takes you away from the library and instruction.

One of my favorite articles in this edition of KQ is “The Maxed Out Librarian”. The article’s author, Anne Busch, emphasizes the importance of taking care of yourself. She encourages us to get a good night’s sleep and be sure to break for lunch each day. A happy librarian, Bush argues, means a nicer library environment and happy students. Amen!

One of the themes that commonly arises amongst all these KQ articles: setting and sticking to priorities. In her article, “Solo Librarians and Intellectual Freedom”, Helen Adams meditates on the fact that it is not realistic for any solo librarian to expect to cover the whole range of issues related to Intellectual Freedom (IF) and school libraries. Instead, she encourages solos to hone in on what appear to be the most urgent, timely or manageable aspects of IF curriculum. To illustrate how this might be accomplished, Adams offers the perspectives of three different librarians in different parts of the country as “case studies”. What comes to light in the different agendas and approaches of these librarians is that geography, school size, demographics and perceived needs all play a role in influencing the goals set by each librarian. Furthermore, there may be a handful of solutions or strategies for approaching an IF curriculum, but, in the end, one must distinguish which are the best possible approaches.

A second common theme is the importance of maintaining connected and in communication with librarian networks through professional associations, interest groups, conference groups, networking events, etc., etc. Nothing else has more potential to free us from feelings of isolation. 

Take the inspirational account offered by Robbie Nickel in her KQ article, "Solo Librarians Working Collaboratively", for example. Nickel and her counterparts in the Elko County School District in Nevada were responsible for library programs in a district that spanned two time zones (that is 17,000 sq miles people!). Through the use of interactive video equipment for video conferencing, strategized conference attendance and reporting, and the creation of their own professional development courses using online resources,  Robbie and other Elko County media specialists found that banding together left them feeling empowered rather than alone.

 Lastly, one quip I’d like to leave you with is something that I read on a blog, Jessica Olin’s “Letters to a Young Librarian”. In this entry, Olin--whose mantra is "network-network-network"--is venting about the fact that one of the major difficulties of being a solo is that you find--all too often--that your supervisors and co-workers will not really understand what you do. While this is frustrating, Olin points out that it can actually be liberating as this gives solos the opportunity to let themselves “off the hook” once in a while. --No one knows exactly what you’re supposed to be doing or how you should be doing it, so this gives you the space to focus on priorities and emphasize certain aspects of your program.

The librarians featured in these and other articles in last year’s edition of KQ have shared valuable strategies to maximize their time and resources. Overall, their experiences have shown them to be extremely creative and resilient. I am profoundly appreciative of their talents and their desire to share them with librarians everywhere.

Suggested Reading for Solos, FREE from Google Books:
How to Thrive As a Solo Librarian, Edited by Carol Smallwood and Melissa J. Clapp  

Please tune in for Part II of this blog series on Solo Librarianship where your fellow HVLA members share some reflections of their own.... 

--Blog Entry by Laura Bishop, Membership Coordinator (2011-2013)


  1. This is an incredible entry Laura, and very insightful for both library students and veterans! Also, I had no idea there was that much literature out there for Solo Librarians - I am definitely printing out the literature you mentioned for further professional development!

  2. Thanks, Maria! I'm so happy you felt it was helpful!--Laura