Start-Up Librarian

Posted Monday, November 11, 2013 - 15:18
Expanding our skills into new arenas
Cen Campbell

Remember all those library jobs that were going to open up once the boomers retired? Pundits prophesied librarians being in demand everywhere, with libraries scrambling to fill empty positions. There weren’t going to be enough librarians to go around!

Things haven’t turned out quite as we expected, and now the rhetoric has shifted to the plight of new librarians trying to break into the job market, plus some doom and gloom about how libraries are becoming obsolete.

Librarianship is changing. It’s expanding into content development and production, and extending way beyond buildings, collections, and services as we have known them. As that shift begins to happen on a larger scale, there will also be a shift in where and how librarians find employment.

Today’s librarian is a combination of traditional skills and advanced technological know-how. The things we learned in library school (bibliographic control, readers’ advisory, and outreach) are hot commodities in high-tech environments. Many new librarians have an aptitude for new technologies that make us the people who can bridge the gap between producers and consumers. There’s a catch, though; you probably won’t see any postings for these kinds of jobs because they may not even exist yet. You might have to create them yourself.

Trust me, it can be done. After taking some time off to start a family, and then trying to break back into the library workforce by filling in at reference desks whenever I could, I began a library blog and started experimenting with using new media in storytimes. One day as I browsed Digital Book World, I saw an article about a reading service, Bookboard.com, whose office was near where I lived. I looked at the firm’s product and mission, “to encourage children to develop a lifelong love for reading,” and saw how the company’s values align with mine. I contacted them to ask if I could use their books in my digital storytelling pilot projects. They agreed, then asked if I could help them with:

  • Managing a growing digital book collection;
  • Developing and maintaining relationships with publishers, authors, illustrators, and other stakeholders;
  • Recommending functionality for use in library and school settings.

I’m now the library manager at Bookboard, and I don’t think this kind of position will be an anomaly for long; other high-tech content producers are realizing the value of traditional librarian skills in the new digital marketplace. What has been especially heartening about this “start-up librarian” phenomenon has been the response of the technology and business worlds. Both TechCrunch and Forbes highlighted that it’s a librarian who provides the “secret sauce” for Bookboard, in addition to algorithms, graphic design, and other high-tech mojo.

Start-up librarians could potentially have a greater impact on literacy and society than their more traditional counterparts because they work directly with the people producing the content that our communities use. Instead of pointing to prepackaged content on shelves or in databases, we can help create the information, tools, and services that are relevant to today’s library patrons, and help ensure that we do so economically and effectively.

Take a look around the digital marketplace; find a start-up or an organization that is working toward an ideal or a goal that appeals to you, and give them a call. Tell them about your ideas and skills, and propose a potential partnership. Remember that it’s often attitude, enthusiasm, and the ability to make things happen that attract employers in the start-up world, and that a large, strong network of healthy relationships is probably the best way to land your first job as a start-up librarian. 

CEN CAMPBELL is library manager at Bookboard.com and founder of LittleeLit .com. She also serves on the Children and Technology Committee of ALSC.

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