November 22, 2017

The Art of Part-Time

By Sandra Collins and Allison Brungard

It’s the age of running lean and mean, and libraries are not exempt. Costly benefits, loss of head count through attrition, and the decline of face-to-face reference can make full-time positions seem hard to find. The information industry must include a strong part-time professional component.

Part-time librarianship need not be a disappointing alternative or entail a lesser status in the workplace. In fact, many librarians actively opt for part-time work—and not all of them can be pigeon-holed as on the "mommy track." Many work part time to pursue a graduate degree, to care for family members, or to try out other careers while staying engaged in their profession. Librarianship is one of the rare occupations where one can maintain a fairly high level of development and skill while contributing part- time.

Most librarians wonder how to make part-time work viable until they are ready or able to jump back in full-time. They ask if it will it hurt to have this on a résumé and just how to jump back into a full-time career after part-time work.

The downsides of part-time

As with any employment situation, there are highs and lows. Part-time work allows a free-flowing schedule that can be liberating, but other very definite limitations exist—and for some, they are more than a bit severe.

The first is salary. The majority of part-time work is straight hourly wage with no benefits, though there are some positions that are salaried or job share. The trade-off can be worth it, however. "Working part-time has allowed me to keep my skills fresh and still spend a lot of time with my family, which is very important to me," says Jill McConnell, reference librarian at Lauri Ann West Memorial Library, Fox Chapel, PA. "I am so grateful for my current job and don't foresee trading it in for a full-time position anytime soon. The one complaint I have about working part-time at this library is that I don't have any benefits at all—no paid days off, no health insurance, no retirement plan."

Author Collins is pursuing a Ph.D. while working part-time, so she has health benefits through her graduate program. She teaches during the week and works in the library evenings and weekends. However, because she is hourly, there is no vacation pay, holidays, or sick leave, meaning little latitude and real impact if she does fall ill.

Suzanna Krispli, director of Whitehall Public Library in Pittsburgh, tries to compensate for the downside of lower pay and few to no benefits. "Our part-timers receive both vacation and sick time as a function of hours worked," she says. "Also, I intentionally factor in flexibility on my part. If they're going to be late or need time off or need to leave early, I try to be as agreeable and accommodating as possible."

Beyond benefits, it can be hard to feel disconnected from daily decisions. "Working part-time can be a humbling experience because you are usually not able to participate in meetings or decisions that affect your work directly," cautions Leila Mandel, reference librarian at the Community College of Beaver County Library in Monaca, PA. "As a result, you sometimes miss out on important information." A related downside: feeling out on your own. "You will usually work evenings or weekends, when there is no one else to help you when you have a question," Mandel adds. "Try to schedule to work during the day at least once a week so you can make contact with the other librarians and have some of your questions answered."

Key to success

According to library supervisors, what makes for an integral part-time employee is flexibility. "When I hire a part-timer, I want someone who can change with the assignment and not need constant attention," Whitehall's Krispli says. "A great part-timer is someone who will keep me informed of any changes or recommendations before just jumping in, but once they get the go-ahead, they fly right in." Part-timers usually come with some schedule or time constraints. But that only becomes a problem if their professional attitude or approach is too rigid. "Someone who wants extra hours but is unwilling to change or adapt works against the system," says Krispli. "If I have to be there working with them—if hiring them doesn't free-up my time—then why did I bother hiring them?"

Ultimately, one's success as a part-time librarian depends upon the effort and attention they put into their work. "Despite their status, part-timers invigorate the workplace by bringing in new ideas or life experience," says Krispli. "Don't ever underestimate life experiences—they can totally change the workplace in really exciting ways."

The best advice to both new and seasoned librarians: don't overextend. It's natural to take on more, to accommodate the needs of the organization, and to excel as best as one can, not always paying attention to the limitations of time or energy that part-time employment imposes. By focusing on developing one or two critical skills, a part-timer can be better poised to make the jump to a full-time situation, when and if they are ready. Mandel worked part-time for years while caring for an elderly family member. By targeting her technology proficiency, her experiences using Blackboard in teaching helped her land a full-time directorship when she was ready. "The teaching and technology workshops I attended were very valuable. All this looked good on my résumé and allowed me to obtain a challenging full-time job when the time came."

While developing new skills sets, it's also important to target key areas of strength and showcase them as best you can. Rather than trying to be all things to all people, solid part-timers are those who can concentrate their efforts on elements of the profession that really matter to them. Furthermore, part-timers help supplement the full-timers in both scheduling and skills, leading to a richer and more productive workplace.

A strength of the profession

For the variety of reasons that one chooses to work part-time, it can be a vibrant and satisfying opportunity for personal growth rather than a limitation upon one's success as a librarian. Embracing part-time work evidences your commitment to the field while also showcasing for employers—both current and future—your adaptability, flexibility, and professionalism. For many already working in the part-time information field, it's an active choice, not a limitation. For us, it's one of the strengths of the library profession.

Five ideas that will help make it work

While one might choose to work part-time for a season or be perfectly content with an abbreviated schedule, it might not be forever. The sorts of expert contacts and exposure that comes from professional meetings and presentations will prove invaluable down the road. Here are some other tips for making part-time work count:

1. Focus: In the short term, the best advice is to streamline your efforts. It's not about "running for dogcatcher" or trying to serve on every committee or attend every meeting. Part-time library work can be the time to concentrate and refine your skills in a very specific way. You can become the in-house expert for less flashy items. For instance, author Brungard capitalizes on instruction opportunities whenever possible, offering them in small, defined environments. She saw a disconnect between incoming graduate students and the library and proposed a new orientation program called "Gumberg for Graduate Students." The well-received project was her baby, so she saw it through to the end.

2. Gain new skills: Look at your résumé right now and find one or two voids in your skill set or experience and use this time to hone in on improving those professional weaknesses. Or, conversely, use this part-time experience as the time to sharpen your expertise further in a small, specific area.

3. Embrace new technologies: Given the environment within which librarians find themselves, new technologies don't emerge just for full-timers. Part-timers can make themselves far more integral to the workplace by embracing new technologies, even simply one electronic platform or format or programming language or serving as the trainer for one integral database. For example, Brungard had a few moments to spare one day before beginning her reference service, so she participated in a Horizon Wimba desktop lecture, "Instructional Design Tips for Teaching Live Online".

McConnell has used her part-time situation to advance her skills in developing in-house displays and materials promotion. She's responsible for generating pathfinders and online bookmarks. Rather than being viewed as merely ancillary to the work of the full-timers, she connects through her creativity to the overall mission of the library. "I love the people I work with and the people who come into our library," says McConnell. "Everyone is so considerate and appreciative of the work we do here, which is very rewarding."

At the suggestion of her supervisor, author Collins uses reference desk time to weed and make decisions concerning the reference collection. A small job that requires minute evaluation and policy decisions, this is a chance to stay in touch with current reference materials across a wide spectrum of fields. It also allows her to flex her writing skills by crafting policies and procedures. Such skill sets are never wasted.

4. Write! Part-timers can tackle any number of projects with little effort. It can be as simple as a quick-and-dirty email on current awareness or a short but analytical review for the in-house newsletter. Part-timers can offer to help with internal publications by developing pathfinders or annotated bibliographies in their subject area, setting up an internal bulletin board or newsletter, or serving as a proofreader on such publications. Offer to provide book reviews on current topics or provide packets of reviews within a select area of the field that your library is targeting, such as plagiarism, library literacy, or copyright concerns. A part-timer might not be running an ongoing program, but she can help create the literature, posters, or handouts that accompany those endeavors.

These seemingly small efforts pay important dividends: they provide evidence of one's writing capabilities as well as personal initiative and serve as tangible evidence for both current and future employers of your emerging and adaptive skill sets. Furthermore, if these publications go out on the web, you can link to your creations through your résumé.

5. Keep up: Just because you work part-time doesn't mean that you're no longer required to know the state of the field. Staying current with professional organizations keeps you attuned to emerging issues and developments in the field. Given the cut in pay that comes with part-time work, however, one might need to target specific groups or associations. Furthermore, many groups, including the American Library Association, offer discounted membership fees depending upon salary so that it's more cost-effective for part-timers.

Additionally, annual meetings provide an effective means for both professional development and networking. There's absolutely nothing to prohibit a part-timer from entering a poster session or presenting a paper at a conference. If cost is a factor, choose one of the regional sections; they are usually less expensive ventures. There is no harm in asking your employer for money for a poster session or travel expenses or paid time off—the library still benefits from the exposure. The director may say no, but that does not mean that the director doesn't appreciate your efforts or your enthusiasm.

Part-Time Facts and Stats:

More than 20% of librarians are employed part-time.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006–2007 edition. Accessed online at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos068.htm (October 9, 2006)

2005 librarians' median weekly earnings are $826 compared to national median weekly earnings of $651.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 39: Household data annual averages.

2005 national median weekly earnings for all part-time employees is $195.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, Table 38: Median weekly earnings of part-time wage and salary workers by selected characteristics.

43% (530,000) of individuals employed in higher-education as instructional faculty and staff are in part-time positions.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Table 230: Full-time and part-time instructional faculty and staff in degree-granting institutions, by type and control of institution and selected characteristics.

There has been a 27% increase in part-time faculty employment in higher education from 1998 to 2003. Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Table 233: Full-time and part-time instructional faculty and staff in degree-granting institutions, by race/ethnicity, sex, and program area: Fall 1998 and fall 2003.


Sandra Collins and Allison Brungard are Reference Librarians, Gumberg Library, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh

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