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Career Strategies for Librarians
New Librarians as Project Managers: A Project Cataloger Tells All
by Marcy Strong

Most librarians are adept at managing their routine tasks – those everyday, predictable and repetitive
chores that we handle with ease due to their frequent occurrence.  However, just when the routines start
to become mundane, a project can loom in the future.  Projects, unlike routines, are temporary and
finite.  They have a distinct beginning and end and often involve teams of people both inside and outside
a department.  Their unfamiliarity can cause anxiety, especially for librarians who are not only new to the
profession, but new to the working world as well.  However, new librarians may have more experience to
draw from than they realize, and if they combine this knowledge with some helpful strategies, they can
manage projects successfully.

Project Management Experience You Didn’t Know You Had  
As a recent library school graduate, I started my cataloging position with little “real” professional
experience.  This new job would involve managing one project immediately, with a promise of several
more to come.  How could I take on this role?  I had never managed a project … or had I?  When I
thought about my leadership experience, I realized that it could take many forms.  For instance, I helped
manage a career development panel for the American Library Association student chapter during
graduate school. This event required finding speakers and a location, coordinating dates and times, and
most importantly, selecting a snack menu.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized this was a
great example of project management; I definitely had a pool of skills and experiences that I could rely on
to help myself in the future.  Such skills can come from many different types of experiences: have you
ever been a student officer?  Organized an event?  Taken an active role in community service?  Coached
a sport?  Taught a class?  You may have more project management experience than you realize.

Even if you haven’t done any of those things and cannot think of any leadership roles you’ve assumed,
you have probably been part of a project team.  Being part of a project team gives you a different and
valuable perspective of how a project is managed.  A successfully run project may give you an idea of
how a project should be organized or an appropriate strategy for reaching project goals.  A less
successful project may give you an even better idea of how a project should be managed because you
have been a witness to that project’s shortcomings.  As a student I was involved with a project that was
headed by a “team” of managers.  Although this shared management plan seemed like the ideal
solution for our busy student lives, it only created more problems down the road.  Tasks were not
completed and issues were not resolved because there was no clear authority to complete or resolve
them.  It was assumed that someone else on the team would fix the problem, and as a result, no one
did.  That experience taught me the importance of clearly delegating any responsibilities in the project
and encouraging the team to approach me if they have any questions or concerns.

Project Management Steps

An important first step in project management is defining the project, including the purpose, tasks,
schedule and budget.  The purpose is the point of the project and the reason that your library is taking
the time, effort and cost to undertake such a venture.  When the purpose is clearly defined, outlining the
tasks is the next logical step.  This breaks your project down into manageable pieces and can make it
feel more feasible.  What is your final deadline and how can the tasks be arranged in order to meet that
deadline?  Schedules need to be maintained so the project can be completed in the expected time.  
Finally, the expenses of the project need to be considered, and the library needs to determine if the
department budget will be sufficient or if outside funding will be required for completion.

Cataloging Project at Binghamton University  
Binghamton University Libraries recently received a significant gift from a professor emeritus of the
Department of Anthropology.  This gift included collections of maps, serials, and approximately 14,000
manuscripts from a non-profit organization related to the field of development anthropology.  All of these
manuscripts, many of which are unique or rare works about areas in the developing world, needed to be
cataloged and processed in our local system.  The sheer size of the collection seemed daunting, but
when we analyzed why we were undertaking this project and how we were going to do it, the project
started to fall into place.

The purpose of this project was simple: to provide access to a collection of documents that would
otherwise remain unknown and unused.  Cataloging this particular collection seemed especially
valuable due to the rarity of some of the manuscripts included.  That was the easy part; the challenge lay
in outlining a workflow and setting up the tasks that would lead us towards the completion of this project
and the cataloging of all the materials included.  So I began by selecting the first several boxes of
manuscripts and cataloging them myself to get a feel for what the material might look like and the
particular cataloging issues that might emerge.  From there I developed a workflow and created a tutorial
that provided step-by-step instructions for members of the project team.  In creating the tutorial, I tried to
be particularly clear on areas where the project differed from procedures common to daily cataloging
tasks.  To illustrate these differences, I used image-capturing software to demonstrate how those steps
looked in the local catalog.  The key to making this project manageable for the staff was to reduce their
work as much as possible.  With that in mind, I elected to create bibliographic record templates for the
manuscripts that included the MARC fields necessary for the project.  Many of the manuscripts covered
topics in specific geographic regions in developing areas of the world, so I also provided a suggested
list of subject headings to be consulted as a first step before using OCLC.

Although the majority of the work was to be handled by the Cataloging Department, the project would not
move forward without the assistance of individuals in other areas of the library.  Due to the size of the
manuscript collection, the boxes were housed in our off-site storage facility and a delivery schedule had
to be arranged with Circulation to drop off new boxes and return cataloged boxes in the correct order.  I
also had to create a processing policy for the manuscripts, which are sent to Book Preparation to be
prepared after cataloging.  Should the materials be labeled, tattle-taped, and/or barcoded?  Those
decisions had to be made and communicated with Book Preparation before any cataloged boxes arrived
on their shelves.

Once the documentation was in order and I felt fairly confident with the process, I organized and
presented a training session for members of the project team (7 members of the Cataloging
Department).  This meeting gave me the opportunity to discuss the history of the collection and why it
had been selected for processing so the team would understand its importance as well.  I brought the
boxes I had been working on to give them an idea of what to expect and then I went through the
cataloging process with the team.  When the meeting was complete, each member of the team left with
a box of manuscripts, a step-by-step set of instructions and the encouragement to ask any questions at
any time.

Don’t Lose Track of Time and Money

Planning and implementing the tasks involved in a project is the bulk of the work.  You will almost
certainly run into small and not-so-small hiccups in the process that you did not foresee, but careful
planning and control will prevent many other problems from interrupting your progress.  Fortunately, the
manuscript cataloging project at Binghamton does not have to adhere to a tight schedule, nor does it
require any outside funding.  It is actually a low priority project for most of the team members and it is
something for them to work on when their regular work is running low or they need a little variety in their
day.  With 14,000 manuscripts to catalog, I anticipate that we will be working on this project for years to
come.  However, many projects do have to be concerned with schedules, and one useful way to manage
these concerns is with a Gantt chart (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gantt_chart).  Gantt charts can show the
length of time for the entire project, as well as subprojects and specific tasks within the project.  
Estimated and actual times can be shown simultaneously.  Regardless of whether or not a Gantt chart
is used, a project manager should plan the project schedule realistically and also build in enough
flexibility that delays can be absorbed into later phases.

Efficient budget maintenance is also a key concern in project management, and a manager should be
aware of the various types of costs that could affect the project.  Direct costs are those that relate directly
to the project, such as materials or specialized labor.  In a specialized cataloging project, direct costs
might include a foreign language cataloger to handle language materials not typically handled by the
library or specific equipment or supplies that directly benefit the project.  Indirect costs are not directly
related to the project and can include items such as rent or general office supplies.  This distinction in
costs is particularly important when a project requires outside funding, as some granting agencies
prefer to fund direct costs only.

Making Your Experience Work

Becoming a skilled project manager will only happen with time and experience.  However, leadership
experience can be found in many forms; your personal background in school, work, community service,
or as a member of a project management team may provide a stronger foundation than you realize.  
Combining your personal experience with a strategy for thorough project management can produce
results your library will benefit from for years to come.  

About the Author:

Marcy Strong graduated from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany in May 2004 with a
Master of Information Science degree.  She is a Catalog Librarian at Binghamton University.

Article published Oct 2005

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in articles are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily
represent the views of the LIScareer editors.