June 2018 | Volume XXXVI. Issue 3 »

A Big Thing in a Small Place: Solo Librarians in Public Libraries

June 1, 2018
Diana Brawley Sussman, Carbondale Public Library

When I became a public library director it felt like I was learning to be a community leader, event coordinator, building manager, fund-raiser, and amateur contractor/lawyer/accountant all at once. I’d also never managed so many employees, which was daunting, until I quickly realized that more employees equal more resources, making everything exponentially easier. That’s when it dawned on me: There are people who do this alone. There are public libraries with only one paid employee. One.

Impressed by these independent stalwarts I recently surveyed solo librarians, soliciting responses from the sole paid employees in public libraries (excluding branches) throughout the United States. For the purposes of this article, I’ve titled them “solo librarians,” regardless of job title or degree. While some services may be provided contractually, or by local governments, each respondent represented a public library’s single employee.

How many public solo librarians are there? Of 9,305 public libraries listed in the FY2014 Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Public Library Survey (PLS), 1,126 have one full-time-equivalent (FTE) employee (or less) listed in only one category (MLS Librarian, Librarian Staff, Other Staff). Most likely, these are not all solo librarians because, for example, multiple part-time people may amount to one FTE Librarian Staff. That said, analysis of the PLS indicates that up to 12 percent of public libraries are staffed by only one person.

Looking at these potential solo librarians in the 2014 Public Library Survey, none of them had a master’s degree in library science (MLS). Of my own 37 survey respondents, one has an MLS degree. Forty-three percent have no post-secondary degree (associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s) at all. They have to learn it all on the job. Yet, look what they accomplish!

Surveyed solo librarians produce an average of 82 programs per year, with some doing 400 or more. When asked what they are proudest of, many reported bringing twenty-first-century technology and services to their local community. They are successful grant writers and fund-raisers. Beck Ames, director of the Simpson Memorial Library in Carmel, Maine, pulled off a building expansion. Roughly 85 percent of the budget for the Hamlin Memorial Library in South Paris, Maine, comes from fund-raising. Librarian Jennifer Lewis writes: “I'm pretty proud of how successful we’ve been with that.”

They are innovative community partners. The Viola Public Library District in Viola, Illinois, operates a children’s Christmas store “where area children can buy gifts for low cost and have them wrapped for free,” says Director Lill Batson. This library assists other local groups with fund-raisers, and supports the local food pantry by being a drop-off location for donations. Julesburg Public Library in Julesburg, Colorado, was “one of the first libraries in the state of Colorado to become a virtual workforce center and be given an award and recognized by the governor for our service to the community,” reports Director Tina Stone.

They accomplish all of this while working at the circulation desk. At my medium-sized library, I work at the circulation desk three hours or less per week, and jump in occasionally when needed. I like to know what my colleagues are facing up there, and I love to interact with our patrons, but I can’t get any work done at the circulation desk. Solo librarians work an average of 23 hours per week, and on average, they’re paid to work away from the service desk only 2.6 hours per week. Fifty-two percent of them get zero off-desk time. Seventy-two percent admit that this is only sometimes, or never, enough time for them to get their work done. For that reason, most surveyed solo librarians mentioned volunteering their time, with the average being seven hours per week. Some volunteer as many as 40 hours per week. As one anonymous North Dakota librarian puts it: “I do a lot of multi-tasking and some months a lot of off-the-clock work. Everything needs to get done whether I am getting paid for it or not.”

Solo librarians tend to have working boards, which seems to be essential to the success of their libraries. In addition to fulfilling traditional roles of budgeting, finance, and fundraising, 21 percent of these boards substitute in the librarian’s absence; 42 percent plan library programs; 15 percent mow the lawn or shovel the snow. While librarians generally praise their boards, there is some indication that trustees don’t always realize their own role as library advocates and fund-raisers. These boards are working with extremely limited funds, so frugality is essential. However, there is a risk to implementing policies that are shortsighted. For example, notably, 42 percent of solo librarians surveyed are not paid for snow days, which may increase the risk that these librarians need to seek other, more reliable employment. Solo librarians are already making a personal financial sacrifice by volunteering for unpaid hours, and working part-time at what is often a relatively low rate. Most earn less than $15 per hour; 18 percent earn less than $10. A library budget specifies a calculated amount for personnel expenses. Why should money then be taken from that line item—and from the librarian’s pocket—when inclement weather hits? How is a solo librarian to budget for her own expenses when her salary is literally as unpredictable as the weather?

Another subject worthy of further consideration is the importance of paid off-desk time, simply for getting the work done, but also for networking and community engagement. It is heartening to see that 84 percent of surveyed solo librarians are paid to attend trainings or conferences, and 76 percent are paid to attend library-related meetings outside of the library. However, only 24 percent can participate in community networking opportunities, such as service clubs or local coalitions, while on the clock. Only 20 percent can use paid time to give presentations about library service outside of the library. Outreach seems to be the one thing that falls by the wayside. While all libraries represented in the survey do fund-raising and conduct programs, 12 percent do not do any outreach, networking, or marketing at all. This seems like a bundle of lost opportunities: to promote the library, to play a larger role in the community, to form partnerships for grants and special projects, to secure community support for increased funding, and to solicit donations.

Every time I talk to a solo librarian I feel the magnitude of his or her mission, so I asked solo librarians what the library community could do to support them. “They DO!!” says Courtney Young, director of the Village of Avon Public Library in Avon, Illinois. She references the Reaching Across Illinois Library System (RAILS) and the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL): “I’ve received a lot of help from other directors in my area, my Resource Sharing Alliance consortia, and the RAILS library system! Joining ARSL has been the best $15 I’ve spent in a long time. From that list, I’ve got a line on a grant that could possibly bring coding robots in for both the library and the local school. I’ve also joined a few library-related groups on Facebook, which has been an excellent source of ideas for programming on a shoestring.”

Solo librarians get the bulk of their training online. While 83 percent have attended online training in the last three years, 52 percent have attended local training opportunities, and 38 percent attended state or regional conferences, only 10 percent attended national conferences, and 31 percent do not go to conferences at all. More often than not, solo librarians cover their own registration fees and travel expenses. With so many obstacles, they seem to rely heavily on listservs, blogs, online training, local meetings (when they can attend them), and one-on-one advice.

In addition to advice and training, some solo librarians would also like to see their fellow librarians advocating for them, letting state officials know how difficult it can be to keep small libraries open. Many note how difficult it is going it alone, but Carol Kunnerup, director of Mott Public Library in Mott, North Dakota, wishes other librarians “understood that this labor of love is about the future of the community and that the unpaid hours are worth it because of the personal satisfaction of making a difference.” She tells us that “doing the job, really, is more than full-time and not something I ever stop doing. In my tiny town, I am the Librarian and always on and recognized by folks I have never met. It is a good thing, but a big thing.”

It’s tempting to think of solo librarians as superheroes. However, Jennifer Garden, director of Milledgeville Public Library District in Milledgeville, Illinois, says, “I’m not a superhero. I’m struggling to make it through every day, but I just have to do what I can as I can. Please don’t put that extra pressure of the superhero label on me. I can’t live up to that!” She makes an important point. Solo librarians are just people trying to do the honorable work of serving their communities, and succeeding. They deserve our recognition, respect, and support. 

Solo librarians are proud of their libraries. Time and again they describe their jobs as a labor of love. They heap credit upon their volunteers, their board members, and their communities. Carol Kunnerup writes: “I love that we are welcomed at the school and local childcare for outreach. I am proud that we are sought out and regarded as a welcoming place for informal learning experiences and fun. I am proud that we have moved from ten patrons per week to more than twenty per day.” She tells us that she loves her job, and that “this job uses all of my skills and abilities, talents, and creativity, and challenges me to be the best and most responsive person I can be.” Kelli Bryant, the librarian at Grand Saline Public Library in Grand Saline, Texas, writes: “I want to give a huge shout-out to all the others doing this on their own. There’s something very rewarding about being a solo librarian.” I second that shout-out.

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