I used to work at a tiny, specialized library. The position was demanding and rewarding at the same time, and I learned a lot. The organizational structure of the institution (the library was only one element in a broader museum organization) and the limitations of our resources meant that I had a great deal of freedom to set goals and priorities within the confines of some fairly restrictive circumstances.

Looking back now, I can see that I was well-suited to the position because of my propensity for what I think of as “backpack librarianship,” like the term backpack journalist that was coined early last decade. The idea was that a journalist could be a self-contained coverage unit out of a single backpack: video camera, audio recorder, camera, laptop. Of course, these tools have all been merged into a single device (the smartphone) connected to various social streams and the evolution of journalism has continued from that point since. Nevertheless, I think of generalist librarianship in a similar way to backpack journalism: bring your tools with you, you’re going to need them!

The fact is, many librarian positions available are in circumstances where there isn’t anybody else to call when things get difficult. Librarians in rural communities, small libraries, special libraries, or other special circumsances could find themselves with nobody to rely on but themselves. Beyond the basic skills needed to be a librarian (reference, cataloging, reader’s advisory, etc.), there could be any number of things that it’s useful to know how to do, or at least to know how to find out how to do. So what goes into the backpack librarian’s “bag of tricks”?

  1. Technology. An investment in knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the things that underpin the technology we rely on every day gives a librarian a huge edge. What I mean goes beyond just knowing how to get our apps open or how to use Microsoft Office. At least having the ability to set up a WordPress site or blog is a good start. Understanding the principles of web hosting is even better. Dabbling in networking or hardware evaluation is also extremely useful for the librarian. It can arm someone to actually troubleshoot that meddlesome printer or configure that new wi-fi router to avoid having to call somebody else. A somebody who might not be in the library’s limited budget.
  2. Library Principles. I once had to devise a makeshift taxonomy of controlled vocabulary in a very specific subject range in my role leading the library. We are librarians, and it pays off to know exactly what we bring to the table as librarians. If you’re stepping into a librarian role, you’d better be able to provide good research assistance and run a good reference interview. It’s basic, but can sometimes be lost in the trend toward specialization.
  3. Cataloging. During my time in a small library context, we recataloged our entire collection and processed a backlog of dozens of archival collections, producing finding aids and even setting up open source content management systems to display scanned objects from the archive. You don’t need to be a metadata expert, but knowing your way around a MARC record is essential.
  4. Customer Service. I have a strong background in retail, and I can’t stress enough the need to manage customer relationships and set realistic expectations for what the library can provide. I’ve seen many librarians fail to set good expectations and end with a frustrating encounter for librarian and patron alike. An exploration of solid customer service lessons will always serve you well.
  5. Big Picture Thinking. The backpack librarian will have the ability to form strategic partnerships, create engaging programs, and enlist the help of volunteers or colleagues in other departments or libraries. The ability to see the big picture and recognize the strategic direction of the organization is key to finding success with limited resources.

Having these items in your “backpack” won’t save you in a power outage, or when the basement floods and threatens to turn your boxes of archival materials into a waterlogged mess. Sometimes there’s no replacing an expert. But you might be surprised how far a librarian (or two) can get with hard work, willingness to learn, and the right set of skills. Overcoming obstacles is very rewarding for the generalist librarian, and it instills confidence that you can handle almost anything that comes your way.