It is undeniable that law firm and academic law libraries are experiencing shrinking budgets. This can impact law librarians in many ways. The acquisitions librarian may end up twiddling his or her thumbs and only ordering books that are specifically requested. Physical space may be taken away from the library to be used by another department. Librarian hours may be decreased or the staff as a whole may be decreased as employees are laid off, or leave and are not replaced. It is hard to make a case for how valuable the law library is when the library is so understaffed that only the bare minimum of services can be provided. At my law library at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, I am the only full-time reference librarian for a student body of about 1000 students and over 60 law professors. With the recent departure of our former Interim Library Director, our staff is now down to a total of 11 people. How do we do it?
Resume Building Time
When I looked for my first job, I wanted a flat management structure. I am outspoken and full of energy and ideas, and I didn’t want to end up being so buried in red tape and so far away from the decision-maker that I would have a hard time acting on my ideas. Well, I got my wish. I report to the new Interim Director and Head of Technical Services, Leigh Inman, and so does everyone else. What this means is that I have been learning how to work more closely with the reference team to provide coordinated service for our faculty.
We have a part-time reference librarian and the two circulation librarians, the serials librarian, and the Interim Director also help with reference and research projects. I am cross-trained to request interlibrary loans and to do some circulation tasks on Millennium
Close collaboration is a challenge because everyone’s schedule is different, and we are all used to operating in our isolated worlds. The evening/reserves and circulation librarian starts work mid-afternoon and usually has the library all to herself for most of the evening. She is also the only person who is supposed to be accessing her work email after 6pm. The daytime circulation librarian opens the library at 7am and is the only Public Services librarian around for the first couple of hours. Although there is a central email address for library requests, we also all get separate emails from students and professors asking for help. Our daytime circulation librarian also walks around the library a lot, putting up signs and book displays and supervising the circulation student workers. He gets around 300 reference questions a month. That’s way more than I get.
Collaborating on research requests has meant changes in my behavior. First, I now need to pay attention to when the part-time reference librarian comes in. She comes in around 10:30 a.m., and she works about 20 hours a week. When she comes in, I fill her in on the research requests that I have been getting, and I ask if she would like to help with them. Then I email her whatever I have done already.
Similarly, when I get open-ended research help requests via email, I try to remember to CC the reference team. I have been a law librarian for a year and a half, and they are all my seniors in terms of experience. When I respond to research requests, I have been trying to remember to CC the others, inviting them to add anything in case I may have missed something that they know about. This has been hard on my ego, swallowing my pride and opening myself up to being shown up. At the same time, it allows my patrons to get the benefit of four brains, instead of just one.
With such a small staff, it feels like someone always has a doctor’s appointment, or is on vacation. Fortunately, the rest of us can keep track of their work schedule by checking the shared calendar.
Advocating for the Library
I try to be a constant advocate for the library, but I also worry that I may be perceived as a complainer. It’s hard to know where to draw the line between informing and complaining.
Our shrinking staff has meant that I have had opportunities to do administrative tasks, like coordinating the legal research instruction offerings and creating a report on my suggestions for staffing. As I take on more responsibilities, I am starting to think that a title change seems fair. But, fair to whom. In the short term, it may look good on my resume, but do I really need a fancy title if the body of the resume reflects my experience and skills? In the long term, I think it’s bad for the profession for someone to end up eagerly taking on more responsibilities than they were hired for under the very expansive clause “other duties as assigned” and getting no accompanying raise. If employers can get more for less, why would they want to pay more? It’s particularly detrimental to new law librarians. If I (along with countless others) am willing to do my entry-level job plus a management position with entry-level pay, then why would anyone hire a newly graduated law librarian?
When we lament the devaluation of the Masters in Library Science, we are really lamenting our own willingness to continue doing more with less. If we continue doing more for less, our employers will continue to give us less while expecting us to do more. So even as you strive to work more closely with your peers and to cross-train so that you may cover each other’s duties, I urge you to remember to keep striving for fair compensation and reasonable staffing levels in the library.