I enjoy the holiday season because of the lively mood, cheerful colors, and the chance to hug people wearing sweaters. What I don’t care much for anymore is gifts. Don’t get me wrong, I love receiving cards with a personal note, but presents are mostly more of a burden then a pleasant surprise. The problem is that I have neither a need nor much space for a lot of stuff, so giving me a gift is typically a miss. Really, how could anyone know what I want if I don’t usually have any idea myself. Asking me what I want for my birthday is equally useless. “I don’t know,” I say and shrug, “a bowl of mashed potatoes would be nice.” My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving because the best I can ask for is to spend time with my family and friends eating and joking, I don’t need to take anything away from the evening but the pleasure of a nice time had by all.
This time, however, I would like to take the opportunity of the giving season to express a wish I do have. Of course, no one can take the future and bend it to the present, but I do hope that the occupation I describe here can someday become a reality. I am of the belief that, though wallowing in my desire is fun, the utility of it is questionable. Instead, hinting aloud to the world has a better chance of leading to results. Admittedly, there are far better ways to make my wishes happen, but for the present time I am satisfied with explaining this one wish. Perhaps someday I will run into a genie that may take one look at my earnest face and grant me a position as a Special Projects Librarian (SPL).
What’s wrong with my current job, the chorus intones, and I answer that nothing is. I like my job, it plays to many of my strengths and few of my weaknesses. I feel like I serve the public well and sometimes the public agrees. I spend a lot of time at the reference desk which takes me back to why I became a librarian in the first place: to work directly with patrons – to solve problems. I also like organizing and running programs, it’s a lot of fun and it is fulfilling when people enjoy them. I don’t mind doing weeding and putting together lists of materials to buy and other collection development responsibilities. I don’t dislike making and maintaining displays. Yet, if I were to be completely honest, I would choose to do the first two a lot, and the second two a lot less. There are also aspects of librarianship that I would like to do a lot more but, for various reasons, can’t. The position of SPL is a composite of the things I like to do and am good at. In addition, it is a job that, as far as I know, does not exist and yet would be beneficial for every library.
If I were to take jobs that already exist and use them to describe the SPL, I’d start by throwing Outreach Librarian into the pot, followed by PR Person, with a liberal sprinkle of Community Organizer, Interviewer, Event Planner, and Discussion Group Leader. The main charge of the SPL is to answer the question “What can the library do for you?” I believe that the library has something for everyone and so my job would be to facilitate projects from within the community that would include including organizing and/or running groups that could meet at the library (or not), providing on-the-spot reference service by finding answers and, if necessary, referring patrons to specific library services (“In fact, we have so-and-so database that would be perfect for what you need!”) or government entities, teaching one-shot or a series of mobile (meaning anywhere) computer and information literacy courses, and generally participating in (really, I should say creating) community life.
In her notes on Joyce Valenza’s 2007 presentation, Jenny Levine (popularly known as The Shifted Librarian) wrote “…as a librarian, you can be a catalyst and lead from the center, you can be a weaver…” This is the slogan for the SPL. Being in the middle of what’s going in the community is better than any survey at learning what people want. To do that, it is vital that the Special Project Librarian is able to go places where people are and talk to them. Forming real relationships with community members of various stripes is the way to get to “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we…” It is also the ideal mechanism for what I feel should be the librarian’s favorite phrase, “Yes, we can do that for you…” as in:
- You’d like a computer class at your nursing home? Yes, we can do that for you.
- The model train club needs a meeting place? Yes, we can do that for you.
- You’re interested in meeting other real estate brokers? Yes, we can do that for you.
- You want to learn to play the guitar? Yes, we can do that for you. (Shouts to Patrick Sweeney)
- The Chamber of Commerce wonder why the library is still useful and can you tell them? Yes.
- A new arts magazine needs help gathering submissions, can you help? Yes.
- A Boy Scout Troop Leader is organizing a scavenger hunt…? Oh man, Yes Yes Yes!
The possibilities are open-ended, never-ending, and very exciting. And it’s not a one-man show; the SPL would bring needs to the attention of other library staff regardless of department or job title. An important facet of this position is that it does not belong to any one department – limiting in that way would be a hindrance to the SPL’s overall mission. In fact, the SPL should report to a neutral person in the administration if not the Director herself. Everyone in the library would be in on the cycle of opportunity to provide meaningful service to patrons; in one instance the SPL would make a need known to the Children’s Librarian, in another, the Director could ask him to follow up with a community member who wanted so-and-so.
If a comparison was drawn to the business world, the SPL would be like an intrapreneur. He would be the library’s lead generator, using his connections within the community to bring new ideas into the library as well as out. Furthermore, there is no reason why the SPL can’t act as the first-step in development (read: fund-raising). The notion of facilitating is very important to the SPL. Facilitating involves making what seem like arcane bureaucratic processes easier. This is applicable whether a wealthy patron wants to learn about honorary naming rights for a wing of the library or a club wants to know what it takes to use the meeting room. Since the SPL is an inter-departmental position, he knows the right person to contact no matter what a patron’s needs are and is happy to make the connection.
The above has mostly been a higher-level discussion of the role of SPL, here is an on-the-ground peek into a day in the life:
Arrives at 9:00AM Answers emails and makes phone calls. Has a brief chat with an Adult Librarian about the possibility of doing an album-release party for a local musician.
10:00AM-12:00PM Covers a couple of hours at the adult reference desk.
12:30PM-1:45PM Working lunch with a writing instructor to brainstorm ideas for a series of workshops.
2PM – 3:15PM Present “How the Library Makes Your Homework Easy!” a joint-presentation with the Teen Librarian for three middle school classes.
3:30PM-6:00PM Back to the library to catch up with some correspondence, joke around with the Pages, and run the weekly writers’ group.
7:30PM-9:00PM Makes an appearance at a new Toastmasters Club that he just found out meets a few blocks from the library. Make “What the Library Can Do for You” speech applicable to folks at the club. (I actually do have a speech like this which I delivered to my Toastmasters club awhile ago)
What stands out is that this schedule is unlike any librarian’s schedule that I know. First of all, at least half of the day is spent outside of the library. Second, most of it is spent in productive meetings. Third, it involves plenty of public speaking. Fourth, it doesn’t end at closing time. Other days may include more solo work to prepare something-or-other, or helping out at a branch. Naturally, this kind of thing would work very poorly in a big system since the bureaucracy would prevent the type of freedom that make the Special Project Librarian’s role what it is. The ideal place for this position is at a medium-to-small library system with a well-defined area of service. Since a lot of work is done outside of the library, there must be a certain level of trust between the librarian and his supervisor. Any qualms relating to this must be stamped out in the beginning by establishing guidelines (not unbreakable rules, mind you). In addition to guidelines for work outside of the library, the SPL and the person he reports to should establish clear and meaningful metrics that determine whether the SPL is effective. These metrics must relate to the library’s mission, including any initiatives the Director (or the library as a whole) is working on.
Sure, there will be some who will be, dare I say it, jealous, of the free-rein that the SPL is given. This is partially why the SPL must be held accountable for his actions by the aforementioned measures of his performance. Important to remember, however, is that the role of the SPL is assist library staff as much as patrons. That means connections to needs are to be made in the library and out; the SPL must attempt to establish excellent working relationships with everyone on staff from Pages to the Director – these relationships are crucial in maintaining a worthwhile cycle of opportunity. Everyone should benefit from the SPL at some point, otherwise his workflow needs to be reassessed.
That’s all for now on the Special Projects Librarian position. I’d appreciate any nuances about this position that I’ve missed. If I ever decide to write a grant to fund such a position, I wouldn’t want to run into any blind spots.
Have a happy holiday season all!