How Librarians Get Things Done

Group of post-it notes with handwritten: "At ease", "Just do it!" and "Urgent"

cc by-nc Lasse Rintakumpu.

I love a good productivity strategy, but I struggle with how to apply these practices in the fluid environment of the library. I usually end up with a desk covered in post-it notes and a To Do list as long as my arm.

Enter The Productive Librarian, a blog featuring interviews with librarians about how they arrange their work most efficiently on the job. One middle school librarian shared:

I remember reading a productivity article that suggested doing creative/problem-solving tasks in the morning and saving mundane tasks for the afternoon, when most people are more tired. This seems to be true for me – although, the library is generally busier in the morning – conundrum!

Oh, I feel that conundrum!

The Productive Librarian is a great new resource for finding out how other librarians deal with the nitty-gritty work of the library. Now I’m just waiting for someone to describe how they actually use Getting Things Done in library world.

Mentoring – You can do it!

Just before the new year, I attended an event where I saw someone I used to work with a long time ago, pre-librarianship. We both happen to be librarians now, but in different specialties. We spent some time after chatting and catching up, and she asked me if I would consider mentoring her formally.

This took me aback. In my head I listed the reasons why I should say no:

  1. I’m not that familiar with her area of librarianship.
  2. I have not kept up with her professional development or involvement in the profession.
  3. She doesn’t work for me.

And then I listed the reasons why I should say yes:

  1. I might actually be better at mentoring her in general management and giving her advice on specific situations because we are in two different library worlds with minimal overlap–I have no horse in her race.
  2. I can give her alternate perspectives and learn from her, too. This would be a great way for us to reconnect after all this time and perhaps find new commonalities beyond our shared past.
  3. I’ve never formally mentored anyone who was not my direct report. In those situations, I know exactly what I’m talking about. Here, I’ll have to pay close attention and ask lots of questions to understand the dynamics, which would be a nice stretch for me as well as benefiting her.

I was momentarily hung up on the idea that I had nothing to teach her, but I realized that this was unnecessarily limiting of me. She gets to determine when she wants to meet with me and she gets to drive the conversations–if I’m not helping her, or if she no longer needs me to help her, she can thank me for my time and end the formal mentoring. So, I said yes–I outlined my concerns, but I still said yes. She is going to contact me soon to set up a coffee or a lunch.

Have you ever had a formal mentoring relationship outside of your specialty or your organization? I’d be glad for any tips and advice.

Degree to Director and Beyond – Career Path Interview with Jessica Jones

Jessica Jones (@bibliographics), Branch Manager of the Larry J. Ringer Library in College Station, Texas talked to us about the unexpected turns her library career path has taken – from academic cataloger to director, then a jump to public libraries. She also gave us the scoop on the difference between managing an academic library and a public library. We love Jessica’s management philosophy: “Hire good people, train them well, and then get out of their way.”

Tell me about your career path. What was planned and what was unexpected?

photo of Jessica Jones SalgadoI came to graduate school with the goal of being a preservation librarian. I was just a few credit hours short of a double specialization, but graduated a semester early with the Library and Information Services concentration since I thought it was safer than Preservation Administration. This was during the recession, but I had public library experience already, having spent a year at the San Antonio Public Library (SAPL) prior to grad school, and I volunteered/interned with the Ann Arbor District Library. I hoped that if all else failed, I could go back to the SAPL to wait out the recession until preservation positions started opening up again.

I reached out to SAPL a few months before graduation, and they were in a hiring freeze. The job market in 2009 was . . . grim. I was offered a full time position with benefits in New Mexico two months after graduation, and I took it. I packed up and drove the 1500 miles out to Espanola, New Mexico to be a cataloger for Northern New Mexico College (Northern).

The cataloger position did not technically require my MSI, but as I started work there, I began to realize how much that position had needed someone with the degree. I worked very hard to improve the standards and consistency and thus won the trust of my superiors. When the Assistant Librarian left a few months after that, I seized the opportunity to assume a position that actually required my degree and added the responsibilities of access services, collection development, and teaching information literacy. About a year later, the Director retired, and I was nominated to be the Interim Director while still performing the duties of Assistant Librarian. At this point, the only things I was not doing were cataloging and ILL, and I was the only academic librarian in a county the size of Connecticut. I kept the place afloat, expanded our digital offerings, and shed the “Interim.”

Post-recession, as a director in my early 30s with supervisory, administrative, and budget experience that is easily translated into other areas of librarianship, my next job hunt was much easier. My husband was offered a position as a PhD student at Texas A&M University, and I had an offer in College Station shortly thereafter. I am currently the branch manager at a public library, and I supervise 18 people who are fantastic and have made me feel very welcome and appreciated.

What’s your leadership philosophy?

It is difficult to completely separate my leadership philosophy from my management philosophy, which is: Hire good people, train them well, and then get out of their way. As my library’s leader and manager, I consider myself an enabler. Librarians don’t go into this line of work because it’s lucrative, it’s because they care; so, as a leader, I try to help my employees feel like they the opportunity to do things they care about.

I realize that I have been very fortunate in my career trajectory; I worked very hard for my experience and titles, but I know others who have worked hard and just weren’t in places where those titles were up for grabs. I currently supervise 6 masters-holding librarians, and several of them have been in the field longer than me; as their leader, I advocate for them constantly so that they can pursue the projects they love. The best leaders I have known in my professional life have tried to do the same; let people aim high, and try to meet them there with the guidance, skills, and supplies they need to achieve the goal.

When moving from an academic to a public library, what adjustments did you have to make to your management style?

My academic library experience involved a lot less face time with patrons than my public library experience. You often have more tech-savvy patrons in an academic library, which means more email and chat reference requests. In this public library, most of the reference happens in-person. What this has meant to my management style is that it has gone from a more process-centric method to people-centric. If a librarian is spending 8 hours a day on a reference desk, I worry more about burnout than email efficiency, for example. You can answer emails at your own speed, but if someone is standing at the desk, they need you right now.

To manage a place where almost every situation is more acute means that I have to spend a lot more time thinking about my people and making sure they are taken care of. This is not to say that I am perfect at this; I miss things sometimes, and I try to remind my librarians and clerks that I rely on them to be self-aware and tell me what they need. In an ideal world, everyone’s needs would be perfectly communicated and met in a timely manner. That’s not always the case, and I can always do better; this is a lifelong learning process.

You mentioned your library is adding services that demonstrate value to the community. Can you talk a little bit about the changes and new services?

photo of blue skies, a rainbow, and america flags over the library building

Jessica’s library comes complete with rainbows

It isn’t news to anyone in this audience that libraries often face an uphill battle when it comes to expanding (or even maintaining) our budgets. Because the immediate association many people have with libraries is “books” – specifically, popular fiction – we are often seen as a luxury instead of a community investment. Changes, therefore, are often creative (the nice word for “on a shoestring”) until their value has already been demonstrated. We have several librarians here who are doing some really great and creative things in their programming that rely on their inherent interests and expertise, such as: English conversation circles, themed storytimes for the entire family, collaboration with outside groups like our local NaNoWriMo, and early literacy workshops for parents and educators. We are reaching out to all age groups at all levels of literacy in an effort to provide the kind of engagement that improves the lives of all of our patrons and promotes a sense of community ownership.

What’s the top thing you think librarians need to do in order to succeed?

There are a lot of things that I attribute to any personal successes I’ve achieved so far. Some things have come more naturally than others, but, for where I am now, these are the top takeaway lessons:

Project confidence and be direct. Be creative and offer a solution whenever you bring up a problem. Admit when you are wrong or when you don’t know something; this goes a long way toward proving trustworthiness, which leads to more responsibilities. Challenge yourself and acquire new skills and knowledge whenever you see the opportunity. Say “Thank you” and “Please” and show your appreciation for others’ hard work as often as you can.

What do you see in the future for public libraries?

Because we are publicly funded, predicting the future of public libraries is inherently tied to politics. The political climate right now feels very polar, and I do worry a little about the public library’s future in some communities. I feel fortunate to be in a college town that appreciates the value of education and lifelong learning, but not every library is so lucky. My branch here is a wonderful example of what you can do without a lot of money, but we do definitely think about what we could be doing with more of it: workshops, maker spaces, guest speakers and author visits, web development, enhanced automation, etc.

This is all to say that I think the future for public libraries will be dependent on the values of their respective communities. I think the future for librarians is a little more predictable; whatever new technologies are introduced, and whatever technologies we are given the funds to procure, we will continue to do our best to bridge the Digital Divide, provide our communities with opportunities to learn and entertain themselves, and serve as guides for a world of information that expands exponentially every year.

photo of a woman speaking in front of library bookshelves with a flipchart with Toastmasters organization

Beyond Shhh: Finding an Effective Library Voice

In the past, we covered how to say no and public speaking skills (all librarians need them!). Now, it’s time to think about the mechanics of your actual speaking voice.

In decades past, a well-developed sibilant “Shhh!” might be a librarian needed. Now, a day’s work in the library today might include explaining resources at the reference desk, soothing an irate patron, negotiating with colleagues, and presenting a plan to the community – and each of those demands a different tone.

Vocal quality can affect your impact at work, from whether your voice trembles when you ask for a raise to how confident you sound when doing readers’ advisory.

Traditional advice suggests a lower voice pitch conveys greater authority and leadership, especially for men. New research suggests that women can achieve better results by working on pacing and emphasis rather than pitch alone.

Cover of Toastmasters guide to Your Speaking Voice. includes image of young man speaking into a microphone.

Toastmasters International offers a handy guide to considering all aspects of your speaking voice, including pitch, projection, and pacing. They start out with tips on evaluating your own pitch:

We each have a natural pitch on which we speak. It may or may not be good. If your natural pitch needs to be lowered, work on it by consciously pitching your voice lower in all conversation. Change it a half-tone at
a time. Speaking with careful enunciation and in a relatively soft tone will help you to establish the change.

Even if you don’t have time for all the steps outlined by Toastmasters, take one day at the library and listen to your voice. Does it sound different at the reference desk versus the break room? Do you speak differently over the phone than in person? Do you shift volume levels easily between a stacks consultation whisper and a closing time announcement?

Youth librarians – chime in here! I know you’ve worked hard to create your story time voice.

Featured image of Toastmasters meeting at Biblioteca Hasdeu in Chișinău, Moldova cc-by hasdeu on flickr.

Staff Day

We try to have a staff in-service/professional development day (we just call ours “staff day”) every year. During the rough years of the recession, we had to put the day on hold due to finances, but we were able to reinstate staff day in the last couple of years.

Staff day here is led by a committee of employees from across the library. Many of them volunteer; some are volunteered by their manager. There is always one manager on the committee, though the manager does not necessarily serve as chair of the committee.

photo credit: MeganElizabethMorris via photopin cc

photo credit: MeganElizabethMorris via photopin cc

This year, my managers decided it was my turn to serve on the committee. The chair, though, is one of the department administrative assistants–who, it turns out, is incredibly focused, organized, practical, and detailed. I kind of knew this about her already, but working directly with her now has really brought that into sharp focus. She is bold and unafraid to be different, and she’s carried this attitude through to the rest of the staff day committee. To wit:

Our staff day usually has a speaker in the morning followed by Breakout A, B, or C. Then there’s lunch, followed by Breakout A, B, or C (no repeats, you have to choose a different breakout than the morning), maybe a fun activity, followed by silent auction/raffle, longevity recognition for employees with anniversaries in 5-year increments, dessert, and farewell.

This year, there is no keynote speaker. We are spending the morning visiting our neighbors–we’ve lined up twelve public libraries around us to provide tours to small groups of employees at each one. The groups came back for lunch, where they reported out on what they liked, what surprised them, and/or the most valuable thing they learned from their tour. I love this idea (which we stole from another library, of course!) because my staff got to do some comparing/contrasting and, hopefully, gain some perspective on how variable public library service can be from one community to another.

Another bold change for staff day this year is no breakout sessions. After lunch, we had a company come in to do competitive trivia with the staff. This is the same company you’ve seen in bars and restaurants doing trivia nights. I think it’s a novel method (for my library, at least) of teambuilding, and a good opportunity for our know-it-all staff to strut their stuff. Prizes were given to the winning teams, of course.

No keynote speaker and no breakout sessions–this is how our 2014 staff day committee rolls. We’re hoping the change of pace re-energized our coworkers about staff day, and it was a ton of fun, too!

If you have a staff day at your library, how do you do it?

Cataloging Leader – Interview with Claire Sewell

black and white photo of Claire Sewell

Claire Sewell, Senior Cataloguer at Cambridge University Library

Claire Sewell (@ces43) is a Senior Cataloguer at Cambridge University Library in the UK. We connected through the International Librarians Network – a program for setting up librarian pen pal pairs across borders. Claire talked to us about library leadership, peer development, UK library credentials, and the future of cataloging – for more, check out her blog on library development resources at Librarian in Training.

Tell me about your career path. Is it typical for your area?

I started working in an academic library as a temporary job after I graduated university twelve years ago and I never left! I never had a clear career plan growing up but as soon as I started working at the library I realised that it was something I wanted to pursue. My first job was dealing with a project to convert a paper catalogue to an online catalogue – no mean feat in a library with eight million items! After that I worked on a project dealing with rare book material and then I moved to the main English Cataloguing Department. Some people look at my career history and see someone who has just worked in the same sector but the range of skills that I’ve developed is as varied as the material I’ve worked on. For example in my current role I still catalogue material but I also have a supervisory responsibility which involves teaching others.

Personally I see myself as slightly atypical as although I’ve worked in libraries for twelve years now I still consider myself a new professional. Due to family commitments I didn’t start my library degree until 2009 and I graduated in 2013 so I’ve only officially been a librarian for about a year. I don’t know if this makes me an old or new professional but I certainly still have a lot to learn! I think that today more people know that they want to work in the information profession at a younger age as there is more detail out there about it as a career option. Plenty of new library graduates will take a job in cataloguing as a way to get started as there is often a lot of short term project work. Hopefully they will enjoy it but even if they leave to pursue something else their cataloguing training will usually be in demand during their career.

Your blog is called Librarian in Training, reflecting a philosophy of continuing professional development for all librarians. What areas do you feel are most important to focus on developing?

The simple answer is the areas that are most important to you! The key to successful professional development is that it focuses on the individual and what they want to learn. As long as they are learning something that’s relevant to their career development in some way then it’s valid.

I think it’s important to keep updating your skills. Needs and interests change over time and we need to keep updating our skills to match. One thing I would say that professional development is really useful for is working on areas of interest which might be outside the scope of your current role. It’s always a good idea to learn more about what you currently do but be open to other areas as well. You never know which skills will come in handy in the future so it’s important to take any opportunities that you feel appropriate.

What is leadership like in cataloging in particular?

Cataloguing leaders have to be able to embrace change, something which I think goes against the industry perception of them. For example in the last eighteen months we’ve had the introduction of RDA, the new cataloguing standard. This was a huge change and has caused some departments to rethink entire workflows. Leaders not only need to keep on top of this change but calmy guide others through it. There will be many more changes in the future, not all of them positive, so being able to respond well to changing circumstances will become an ever more important skill for cataloguing leaders.

Tell us about your CILIP Chartership. Do most UK librarians go through the process?

CILIP Chartership is a professional qualification which has traditionally been completed after the library degree. One of the best explanations I’ve heard is that whilst the degree provides you with a solid grounding in theory, Chartership allows you to demonstrate your practical application of this theory in your work. It’s a voluntary qualification but it’s sometimes specified on job advertisements and in some sectors becoming Chartered can result in a pay increase. Candidates are asked to identify areas that they would like to improve on and then compile a portfolio demonstrating how they’ve done this. For me the process was a chance to develop some skills outside my current role as well as giving me a solid structure for future professional development.

Librarians can undertake Chartership at any point in their career and recently CILIP have abandoned the rule that you need a library degree first, opening it up to more people. As it’s voluntary not all librarians charter but I’ve seen it done across a variety of sectors and levels. I hope that with the recent changes which make the process both inclusive and straightforward more people will think about Chartership as it can be a very rewarding experience.

You host #chartership chats on Twitter to support others going through Chartership. What inspired you to do this? What results or impact have you seen from this?

I found the chats really helpful when I was going through Chartership so I was happy to help others by continuing them. It also helps me to learn what people new to the process are going through now. It can sometimes be difficult to find others who are going through Chartership and that can be an isolating experience. By participating in the chats people see that that they’re not alone and of course the hashtag is always available for questions or advice. I think that one of the best features of the chats is that people realise that they have the same questions as everyone else. Chartership is designed to reflect individual experiences so no two portfolios will look the same. There is no one right way to complete your portfolio and this can leave people thinking that their work is somehow wrong or not enough. Chartership chats reassure people that even the most accomplished professionals can have doubts and questions.

I’ve met a lot of people through the chats, both virtually and in real life. It’s given me a chance to develop my professional network, especially in other sectors. It’s given me a real insight into what other people do for professional development and I’ve learnt some new things to try that I might not have thought of. Hopefully the chats have demystified the Chartership process for people as well which means more of them will be encouraged to take it on in the future.

You and I talked a little about cultural differences in self-advocacy and negotiation – how do you feel about how those skills fit into leadership?

It’s very important to me to lead by example. I’ve seen too many people in authority with a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude and I understand how frustrating this can be. To me your everyday behaviour is the most important form of self-advocacy. Leaders are not necessarily managers, anyone can develop into a leader and part of this is setting an example that you would like others to follow. Leaders also need to advocate for what they do. A lot of people are reluctant to undertake self-advocacy, myself included. We feel as if it’s boasting rather than advocacy but it’s important to realise that if you don’t shout about your skills no one else will do it for you. Leaders can help to instill this in others, again leading by example.

Negotiation is an important skill that can’t always be taught. Leaders need to be able to see the bigger picture and do what’s best for their team rather than what they would necessarily want. Learning to choose what to fight for and when is really important. You might not get everything your own way but negotiation is a two-way street and real leaders will know when they need to push for something important to the team.

What changes do you see coming for your librarianship specialization in the future?

I think that cataloguing will increasingly involve editing data in batches rather than looking at individual records Many libraries already do this but I can see the creation of original catalogue records becoming a rare skill. In some ways this is good as it means that you won’t have people spending time cataloguing the same thing but it would be a shame to lose the skills completely.

On the other hand it’s an exciting time for cataloguers with the introduction of RDA and Linked Data demonstrating the continuing need for the metadata skill set. As information is increasingly born digital there will be a role for those with metadata organisation skills to help navigate it. Cataloguers will be needed to help make sense of the wealth of digital information to avoid information overload for their students. I know a few people who say that cataloguing is dead but they’ve been saying the same thing about libraries for years and this is yet to be proven so I think we’ll be around in some form for a long time yet!

Public speaking is a skill librarians need

photo of a microphone

Fear this no more! Creative Commons License Andrew E. Larsen

I remember a speech class I had in college. I thought it was a complete waste of time. Yes, I went to college in the dark ages and it was long before Powerpoint and the idea of making an official speech was only a remote possibility. My only plus for the class is that no one ever said they couldn’t hear me.

It wasn’t until after I had been working for libraries that I realized public speaking (or should I say communicating) is essential for the job. There will be more times than you can count that you have to present an idea to staff members, bosses and library boards. This isn’t even considering the umpteen thousand times that you will absolutely have to get out and promote your library, explain a policy, teach a class, or even make a formal presentation to the general public.

I think there are great parallels between interviewing for a job and any kind of speech or presentation. Both need preparation and knowledge of the subject matter.


Preparation is not just practicing or memorizing a speech. You need to be so well-versed on your topic that you can handle any situation or potential question or problem. What are people likely to ask? What are they going to be concerned about? Be ready with an answer, even if it’s, “I don’t know, let me look into that”.

Visual aids

Use Powerpoint judiciously. Personal bias: I am not fond of Prezi, since I have gotten motion sickness almost every time someone uses it.   Some visuals distract from what the speech/presentation is about. Don’t put your verbatim speech on the Powerpoint. Slides should illustrate, not reiterate what you are saying.

Stage Fright / Performance Anxiety

As the reigning queen of anxiety, I feel your pain! I worry about EVERYTHING! I got a bit of perspective when I saw a library presentation where a woman was so visibly distressed and nervous. Her presentation was also quite technical. I thought she might burst into tears! In a word, she was awful. With the exception of one VERY STUPID LIBRARIAN, everyone was supportive and clapped. The said stupid librarian was shunned and I am sure she is not working in the profession anymore.  My point is even in the worst situation, there is support and people will understand. Keep getting up and trying and you will improve.

Some helpful resources on public speaking:

David Lee King’s Blog: Presentation tips using  Powerpoint. 

Mind Tools:  Managing Presentation Nerves 

Lifehacker: How can I become more comfortable speaking in public?