Career Strategies for Librarians
Prove Yourself: What Public and Academic Librarians Can Learn from Special Librarians
by Steve Casburn
learn, they teach adults to read, and at even the smallest library, they provide a glimpse of the wider
world. Best of all, librarians do all these things at a nominal cost to the people who walk in the door for
But the goodwill librarians have earned over the years might not be enough to save their jobs... or even
their libraries. An increasing number of people believe that libraries are no longer needed because the
Internet makes so many information resources available. Citizens seem increasingly reluctant to fund
public services, a reluctance reinforced by bad economic conditions. Soon, the question to answer at
budget time might be not "Why should the library budget be increased next year?" but rather "Why should
the library exist next year?"
What public and academic librarians need are new ways to market themselves not just to their patrons,
but to their supporting organizations. Most public libraries rely on their local city or county government for
funding, and most academic libraries rely on their campus faculty and administration. How can libraries
prove themselves indispensable to the people who fund them?
Fortunately for public and academic librarians, special librarians have been working on this question for
decades, and have developed keen survival skills that public and academic librarians can adapt for their
own needs. Here are five of their suggestions.
Get Yourself Out of the Library
The more you know about how your patrons live and work, the better you can understand and satisfy their
information needs. If you spend all of your work time in a library and around fellow librarians, you'll be
great at understanding and serving the information needs of librarians, but are they your target audience?
The way to learn about your patrons is to get out of the library and meet them in their world. Kathy Foley
lived this principle when she started at the San Antonio Express-News in October 1995 -- she moved her
office out of the library entirely.
"I basically separated myself from the previous library that had become irrelevant to the newsroom,"
Foley says. "I made sure I had an office on the main newsroom floor and over a year's time incorporated
the resources of the former library into my sphere. I focused first on building a good staff and spent
months visiting various desks and departments in the newsroom to listen to their issues and wishes. I
modified the mission and philosophy of the library to reflect the priorities of the organization. The news
research team is now integrated into the newsroom, and I encourage them to think of themselves as
Because Foley succeeded at understanding and meeting the needs of her patrons, her position at the
newspaper was re-classified from librarian to assistant managing editor.
Know What You Do and How to Describe It
"A lot of librarians, when someone asks what they do and why it matters, will ramble on with generalities
about how wonderful and important libraries are," says Shannon Cunningham, who worked as a special
librarian for a decade. "People think that's cute. They'll like you, and they'll say nice things about you, but
they won't take you seriously, they won't invite you to the meetings where decisions get made, and they
won't fight to protect your budget or your job."
Roberta Shaffer, who spent nine years as the Director of Research Information Services for top
Washington DC law firm Covington & Burling, warns librarians to tell higher-ups in their organizations
"loudly, clearly and often about what you've done for them lately and what you CAN do better than anyone
else in the organization. If you are not unique, then you can be replaced or displaced. Academic and
public libraries often focus too much on how they support the top line -- the mission. This is very
important, but it must be connected with a solid line, not dotted or invisible, to the bottom line!"
Cunningham urges librarians to develop three descriptions of what they do and what they can offer the
organization -- a one-paragraph description, a one-page description, and a two-page description.
"Memorize the one-paragraph description," Cunningham advises, "and be prepared to give it any time --
at a meeting, in the elevator, wherever. Your goal is that any person who has been talking with you for five
minutes will walk away knowing what you do, and will know at least three specific things you can do for
Be Where the Decisions Get Made
Cunningham also recommends that librarians watch the people who make decisions in their
organizations. If you can dress as they dress, talk as they talk, and demonstrate an empathy with their
problems, then those decision-makers will feel comfortable around you, and will want you at important
"Do you know what their pain is?", Cunningham asks. "Do you know what projects you can help take off
their desks? Do you know what worries you can help take off their minds? If you can demonstrate to the
stakeholders in your organization that you have the answers to those questions, then you make it hard
for them to say 'no' to you -- in fact, they start to worry that you'll say 'no' to them!"
"We don't have a library," says Foley. "We are a team that sits in desks within several departments -- not
close together. This allows the team to identify with the reporters, editors and photographers as much
as they do with their fellow news researchers. As newsroom middle management, they see me as not
just the lead researcher, but as one of the decision-makers for the newsroom."
Don't Be a Clerk
Many people think of librarians as glorified clerks -- people who shelve books, stamp cards, and
maintain vertical files. A certain amount of clerical work comes with most jobs, but how much of your
workday do you spend on clerical tasks as opposed to professional tasks? How much leeway with your
time and your organization's money are you given? Are your work habits unknowingly reinforcing the
"librarian as clerk" stereotype?
"Insist on clerical support," advises Joyce Koeneman, who was a librarian with the Association of
American Railroads for 17 years and now works at the National Transportation Library of the U. S.
Department of Transportation. "Without clerical support, you are a file clerk. And you must have a budget.
You must be able to act quickly to fill needs so that people will come to you. If you have to go to your boss
and ask for the money every time someone needs an ILL, you will not serve your clients well."
Collaborate as an Equal
As a librarian, you serve your patrons, but you are not your patrons' servant. You have valuable
information-seeking skills, and you should seek out opportunities to collaborate as an equal with other
departments in your organization so that you can demonstrate those skills and their value.
At the National Geographic Society, Susan Fifer Canby "collaborates with Law, Business, and IT on
enterprise document management, with Communications, IS, and HR on the intranet, and on Hispanic
marketing strategies with Marketing and Advertising, in addition to maintaining an excellent website that
serves as a gateway for staff to the web. We post a daily Business Intelligence Report (demographic,
trends, competitive intelligence), a Science Digest (key science news that is fodder for our publications
from the web), a monthly executive briefing on a topic of broad interest to the organization, and bi-weekly
trends reports to senior management, among other things."
The road ahead for public and academic libraries will be a rough one. Public and academic librarians
can be proud of the work they do, but the value that their patrons place on that work might decline to a
point that threatens not only jobs, but even libraries.
So if you're a public librarian, when was the last time you, say, spent a morning at the city police
department asking them what their upcoming projects are and suggesting ways the library could help
with those projects?
Or if you're an academic librarian, when was the last time you, for example, attended a faculty
governance meeting, then contacted individual faculty afterwards to express an interest in their ideas
and inform them about how the library could support them?
And if there's not a last time for either, why not make the first time be tomorrow?
Buckingham, Marcus and Curt Coffman. First, Break All the Rules.
Drucker, Peter. The Effective Executive.
Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point.
Mathews, Ryan. The Deviant's Advantage.
Special Libraries Association. "Competencies for Information Professionals of the 21st Century."
About the Author:
Steve Casburn is the Automation Librarian at the University of Houston - Downtown. His professional
interests include the future of libraries and the possibilities of converging academic libraries and IT
Article published Jan 2005
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.