My Professional Advice

In my last post, I put the ultimate responsibility for professional development on librarians themselves, though without taking any responsibility from library administrations. My advice was more of a warning; the person most likely to look after your interests is yourself, so be prepared. In response to my response to her post, the Library Loon suggested that while I was a “talented autodidact” who could direct my learning in appropriate or useful ways, not everyone could. They need guidance so they don’t flounder amongst the many things there are to learn. Point well taken. Here I’m offering a little guidance, but also pointing out the places I get guidance. No librarian is an island. Also, while I’m no librarian “rock star” (whatever that might mean), I don’t think I’m being immodest in believing I’m a reasonably successful librarian, and I think the practices I discuss below contribute to that success. So, here goes. My professional advice, or how to be an autodidact while really trying.

If I could reduce my professional advice to one sentence it would be: Always act as if you’re on the market. An additional sentence might be: Graduation from library school is the beginning of your library education, not the end.

Below, I have thirteen suggestions for finding time and using that time wisely to keep up and keep learning. They aren’t especially profound or new, just the way I manage my time to do what I do. I’m not including health tips like get a good night’s sleep every night and using caffeine as a pick-me-up rather than life support, though I know there are librarians that need those tips. I would also suggest listening to Radio Swiss Classic while you work; it’ll relax you, but I didn’t think it deserved a paragraph of its own.


When you’re working, work. A lot of librarians claim they just don’t have time to read or learn new things. They’re too busy with meetings and other work. For some librarians, that’s true. All their “keeping up” would have to be done on their own time. To protect themselves from future obsolescence, it might still be worthwhile, but it’s tough. However, there are ways to gain more time. How much time at work do you spend on Facebook or Twitter that have nothing to do with work (so, not reading a Facebook update that gets you to good professional reading, but just messing about)? How long do you stand around with colleagues gossiping? Online shopping? Taking coffee breaks? IMing or texting with friends? All that time could be better spent.

Manage your email. Don’t spend a lot of time reading emails you were copied on but didn’t need to be. If you’ve read the subject line and the first sentence or two and don’t know why you were copied, you can probably just delete it. Don’t generate a lot of emails that copy people unnecessarily; you’ll end up getting replies you don’t need to read. Also, don’t reply to emails that don’t need replies; say your “thank yous” in advance when making requests. Keep your emails concise and focused, and hope everyone else does, too. Don’t subscribe to listservs with a low signal:noise ratio. If you must subscribe to some, get the digest. Set up filters to automatically file stuff you don’t need but might need. If you’re a slow typist, take one of the many free online courses and speed yourself up. I type about 75 words per minute, according to this test. That’s not even very fast, but it’s saved me a lot of time compared to some of the slow non-touch typists I see. Find the most efficient email management strategy for you. I strive for the zero-inbox approach, but the reality is often more like the 20-inbox approach (5 at the time of writing, none urgent, but each requiring action by me or someone I’m waiting for; anything not awaiting action is filed or deleted asap). Sometimes this all goes to hell, and I end up with a bloated inbox. Then if I spend a couple of hours whittling it down to nearly zero, I feel much happier.

Avoid unnecessary meetings. The biggest timewaster for a lot of librarians. Some librarians love meetings. They like to meet just to meet, even if there’s nothing to discuss. Meetings are social events for them. While there are some exceptions, in general if there’s nothing to discuss or deliberate about, a meeting is a waste of time. Announcements can be handled in an email. If there’s no agenda and topic of discussion, the chances are good that it’s an unnecessary meeting. If you have a culture of useless meetings, fight back. The over scheduled masses will be on your side.

Avoid “multitasking.” I put multitasking in quotations because there’s really no such thing. From what I’ve read, the scientific consensus at the moment seems to be that we never multitask, we merely monotask in tandem, and every time we switch from one task to another we reduce our concentration and efficiency. So stop checking email and Facebook every five minutes and focus on that project until you make some serious progress. And then focus on email. And then Facebook.


Read relevant news. I probably average an hour a day at least skimming dozens of headlines and reading a handful of interesting or relevant articles or blog posts, after which I generally ignore the feed until the next day. Academic librarians should keep up with what’s going on in higher education, scholarly publishing, information technology, their own college or university, libraries, and librarianship in addition to job-specific developments at the very least. That’s a tall order, one that I mostly fulfill through various online publications using Google Reader. I subscribe to the RSS feeds of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Insider Higher Education as well as our campus newspaper. IHE is fully available online in full text, and has good articles and often great discussions in the comments. CHE is subscription only for the most part, but they do have some open access articles, plus the headlines and first sentence of each article is available in the RSS feed. That’s usually enough to get an idea of what’s going on in higher education. I also subscribe to the feeds of about 35 online publications related to libraries (I’m not going to add links because I’m lazy, but these should be easy to find). My favorite newsy publications include Library Journal, INFOdocket, LIS News, Library Stuff, the Kept-up Academic Librarian, and Resource Shelf. I also keep up with the technology news through Google News. Build professional reading time into your day. Once it becomes a habit, you’ll wonder how you could have tolerated being so uninformed before.

Read relevant opinion. I also read a number of what could be called opinion blogs (a category I would include myself in). These include, but are not limited to: ACRLog, Information Wants to be Free, The Ubiquitous Librarian, Gavia Libraria, Library Babelfish, Scholarly Communications @ Duke, Sense and Reference, Peer to Peer Review, From the Bell Tower, and Hack Library School. For obvious reasons, most of these are by academic librarians. I follow many other library-related blogs, but most other blogs have short, easily skimmed posts. When I’m short on time, I read only the academic librarian blogs and mark the others as read. I save In the Library with the Lead Pipe for those afternoons when the entire library has shut down and I have nothing to do.

Read job ads. I also subscribe to job ad feeds from ALA and LIS Jobs, glance at every one of them, and read through many of them that resemble jobs I’m qualified for, even though I’m not on the market and have no plans to leave my excellent job anytime soon. But stuff happens. Reading job ads tells you what libraries are looking for in new hires, which allows me to know whether I’m still a marketable librarian and whether there are things libraries are now asking for that it might be good for me to cultivate to benefit myself and my library. You don’t have to be ambitious to be marketable; you just need to be cautious.

Read conference programs. Learn at conferences by attending, or not attending. Lots of people go to conferences to watch presentations and participate in workshops. Great if you can afford it. However, even if you can’t afford to go to a conference, you can learn from it. A conference program is like a course syllabus. Reading through the entire program (usually free online) gives you a good idea of the things librarians are talking about and doing at the moment. For most presentations, if you have the title and description, you can learn on your own from there. Take the topic, search it in Library Lit and Google, and read a few articles. After that, you could probably give the presentation yourself. It’s autodidacticism, yes, but it’s directed autodidacticism.

Follow up on new things. Through the reading I find out about new stuff. That could be a new piece of software or service, a library trend, a better way to organize something, a new approach to outreach, whatever. If it’s anything that looks like it will add something promising to my work, I follow up on it, by reading more, using the tool, integrating a new approach, etc. Often enough, some new thing doesn’t work for me, but at least I know why it doesn’t. And once in a while something great comes along. I’m as selective or expansive about following up as my time allows, but I always make at least some time if I find something interesting.

Force yourself to learn if necessary. For a few years I gave tech presentations around New Jersey as continuing education classes for librarians. One frequent presentation came about because the program coordinator said, “I saw that someone elsewhere was doing a presentation on X topic. Could you do that?” I agreed to do them to force myself to keep up with emerging information technology. Someone at one of the presentations asked me how I knew about all the stuff I was presenting on. Simple. Research. CNet, TechCrunch, Wikipedia, and ten hours of work will do wonders for your knowledge of any given information technology subject. I’m planning a couple of presentations this semester for a department I work with. Learning what I need to learn and organizing them will take some time and effort, and to motivate myself I announced in a meeting of students that I was planning them. That way they don’t just float to the bottom of my to-do list.


Participate in ways that exploit your strengths and avoid your weaknesses. This could be at work, in professional associations, at conferences, or wherever. It also requires knowing your strengths and weaknesses, which we might easily misperceive. I know that I write well, that I’m very efficient and organized, that I work well under pressure, and that I can give a decent presentation about whatever with a little prep time, and sometimes even without it. I also know that I’m not as good with detail work as I am with other stuff (thus, no cataloging for me) and I’m shy around strangers and in large groups where I’m not the center of attention. (That is, public speaking doesn’t bother me much anymore, but mingling with strangers is sometimes literally painful to me). For example, every year we have an orientation for new students. I give tours because I’m good at giving tours. I avoid the unstructured meet and greet because I’m not good at it. This is better for me and better for the library. It’s the law of comparative advantage applied to work skills.

Think about your web presence. I write a blog (obviously), and a minor motivating factor in starting this blog was my web presence. Google me, and this blog  comes up in the first few links. Read this blog, and you’ll know what I think about libraries and librarianship and a few other things and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what sort of librarian I am. Some people think that’s a bad idea. I had a discussion with an LIS student who said she would never blog or write much online, because she might say something that would offend a potential employer. That’s true, it might. Then again, if a potential employer won’t hire you because of a professional opinion you have, then that employer isn’t worth working for. On the other hand, I didn’t start this blog until I had our version of tenure, so I’m not exactly a maverick on this one. Also, deliberately, I almost never write about my library or specific work issues, at least directly. If you’re acting as if you’re on the market, then this is something to think about, and there are many options. If you’re applying for jobs, you will be Googled.

Remember what you do and want to do. I’m really bad at remembering things I’ve done when it comes time to update by C.V. or put in my materials for my annual performance appraisal, so I keep a file (actually an Evernote note) where I list every professional thing I’ve done in a given year that wasn’t directly required by my job, along with a separate list of any good ideas I might have for things to do. If I accomplish one, I move it to the done list. They don’t have to be big things, just anything that I do that isn’t required as part of my daily routine, the kind of stuff I could get away with not doing. At the end of the year I decide what is important enough to get noted on my C.V. or elsewhere. I’ve found that keeping this list (and this is only my third year of doing it) helps keep me focused on doing more than just showing up and doing the minimum work.

So there it is. Live long and prosper.

16 thoughts on “My Professional Advice

  1. At its essence, being a librarian is about creating, nurturing, and supporting life-long learners (or autodidacts if you’d rather). The tips in this blog are great, but I’m still just kind of shaking my head at the fact that librarians need to be convinced to take responsibility for their own learning.

  2. I agree with Emily — the notion that there are practicing librarians who don’t think that part of their job is continuous new learning just astounds me (despite the fact that there is ample evidence that this is true). As a library administrator, however, (I’ve been an academic medical library director for 21 years — 2 different institutions), I also understand that it is very much my responsibility to make sure that there is plenty of support for that kind of lifelong learning. Last night I did an online lecture for a special libraries class at UA and the question of continuous learning came up. I said that one of the things that I look for when hiring new graduates is people who are personable, curious, and understand (as I think someone commented on your previous post) that getting the degree is just the beginning of their education. My part of the bargain, then, is to insure an environment the encourages and supports that. I can’t imagine how I could have a library like the one that I want to run if I didn’t work very hard to build that kind of environment.

  3. “Always act as if you’re on the market.”
    Oh, hear, hear. Shout it from the rooftops. And for those librarians who find it difficult to imagine how to be an autodidact, this is a pretty good cheat sheet. Now, how to send it to them and look helpful instead of bitchy… 😉

  4. The irony that those who might benefit from such advice the most would be the least likely to find it had not escaped me.

  5. Very useful for someone learning about the field, especially all of the different blogs, so I wanted to say thank you. Radio Swiss Classic is a nice touch!

  6. I wanted to re-post this on my facebook Would you consider adding a facebook icon?

  7. Elise, done. It’s been an oversight for a while. I just wanted to make sure this whole Facebook thing wasn’t a fad!

  8. Thanks so much for this awesome insight. I wholeheartly agree…stay off social media while working, read job ads, and participate in ways that exploit your strengths. This posting has given me food for thought. And I learned a new word… ‘autodidact’.

  9. Love anything whose thesis is that our professional development is our responsibility :).

    To the LIS student – and as someone who started blogging in LIS school, as part of a professional development/personal branding strategy – yes, there’s a risk you’ll lose out on something by blogging, but I think a larger risk that you’ll lost out by NOT being online. As early-career librarians, in a nightmare economy full of unemployed librarians with more experience -we have to convince people to take a chance on us. We have to convince people that our skills are longer than our resumes, and/or that we’re such darn good fits for their organization that they’ re ok with that shorter resume. And the only way I know to do that is to PROVE the skills -by making examples visible – and to get to know people. And the web is, flat-out, the most efficient and cheap way to do that.

    Doubtless I have turned off some people by my blogging and tweeting style, and I’ll probably never know who all of them are. But I think the list of people I’ve established positive connections with is way longer. And I love my job. Optimism > fear.

  10. I have comments on two points you made. First… I spent years working in top academic libraries, and then I got a job at a vendor (only to return to libraries.) The “meeting culture” at the vendor was so different from the culture in libraries. People almost always had one foot out the door as soon as they got there, and if there was not a pressing need for the meeting, it would be cancelled even if it was set to recur at the same time each week. People would avoid going to meetings if they could, and I rarely, if ever, attended an unproductive and pointless meeting. If, once people got to the conference room, the issue to be discussed was resolved in 5 minutes, no one would linger. The culture did not develop because we had a bunch of anti-social employees… it was because they were actually BUSY. They had jobs to do, and (paying) customers to answer to.

    Meetings, with few exceptions, should not be social events. You’re supposed to be there to WORK. If you can have meetings as social events, you have too much time on your hands and your library deserves and needs to have layoffs and/or pay cuts.

    Likewise… I’m only 35, so it’s not like I’m not “with the times” with Facebook, etc., but I virtually NEVER go on Facebook or anything else while at work. Yet, when you check the newsfeed later, or go to people’s individual profiles, you see they are on Facebook ALL DAY LONG. Not just logged in, but active. And it’s not just librarians, although to be frank, I don’t see a lot of my doctor and lawyer friends spending their days playing games and updating their status and “liking” and mindlessly “sharing” whatever inane political photo has been posted. Again, these same people who spend half their work day not doing the work they’re being paid to do are the ones who are out there protesting when there are layoffs. You know… maybe there IS dead weight and the library could function with fewer employees, but more productive employees. Facebook, to be fair, can be of some value, and if you are a professional librarian, part of your JOB is keeping up with developments in the field. But, that’s maybe 1% of the “Facebooking” I see librarians doing.

    End rant!

  11. I also just want to echo Emily in saying that I shake my head when I hear of librarians who need to be convinced to take responsibility for their own learning. But, I’ll take that a step further and say that I’m shaking my head hearing of a practicing professional librarian who suggests that not everyone can be an “autodidact.” If you are an adult, with a masters degree (even if it’s just an MLIS….) and a professional position, you should have the skills to teach yourself, or find learning opportunities for yourself. If you don’t, you probably should not have the job you have. That is another problem in our field. If you are a skilled librarian, or have the potential to be one, you should be able to be an “autodidact.” Sure, it’s always great to not learn in a vacuum, and to be able to bounce ideas off other people, and feel solidarity in your profession, etc.. But if you’re paralyzed by indecision and incapable of taking it upon yourself to learn something, that’s just ridiculous… how did someone like that ever make it through school? They must not have gone to very rigorous institutions.

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  14. The advise about being efficient and self directed learning is applicable for all librarians but I appreciate the great list of resources and advise for the academic librarian. As academic librarianship blogs seems to be mostly outnumbered by blogs by Public librarians, this is a great roundup of resources for academic librarianship!

  15. Thanks for the excellent advice and links to other blogs and resources you skim. I think creating dedicated time for professional development is important, yet I think it’s something many librarians (myself included) fail to do regularly.

  16. Thanks for the advice!

    Do you have any advice on how to publish journal articles while you’re unaffiliated? I was a public librarian who took time off to raise a family and I’d like to switch tracks to academic librarianship. Though I’m taking professional development courses, they’re not with specific universities (e.g. Library Juice, edX, Coursera).

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