One-Person Library A Singular Approach

Jürgen Plieninger
Jürgen Plieninger | Photo (detail): © private

Thousands of libraries in Germany are run by just one librarian. Jürgen Plieninger, Librarians at the German Association of Information and Library Professionals (BIB), reports on the difficulties and opportunities.

Mr Plieninger, what exactly are one-person libraries?

They are libraries in which just one person – be they a librarian or a media and information services professional – is responsible for managing the entire library. A one-person library, in other words, is an extremely small library in which big demands are made of the staff. Here we have a single person doing all the work that is normally shared between several people in larger libraries. A one-person librarian thus requires a very wide range of skills in order to be able to do the job successfully.

From info centre to monastery library

In which areas can such libraries be found in Germany?

Both public and research libraries may be run as OPLs. The latter include libraries at universities, but also for example those in legal practices, authorities, museums, hospitals, research institutes, pharmaceutical companies and church-run institutions.

Are such libraries always particularly small in terms of their physical size and collection?

Because a library always depends on the financial resources of its supporting organization, they are often small libraries. Incidentally, some one-person libraries have become information centres which do not even have their own premises – the librarian in this case manages the licences, the intranet and various other aspects. Information services, after all, are not tied to books.

There are also OPLs with large collections, however. Consider some of the monastery libraries which have a long history and as a rule have plenty of space, but which have been forced over the years to cut personnel costs.

The need for a wide range of skills

What particular challenges do one-person librarians face?

I believe there are three principle challenges. First, self-management – the ability to juggle a number of different tasks without becoming overly stressed.

Second, the need to keep pace with technological developments and apply technology in such a way that allows one to work as rationally as possible, while offering users the best possible service. In this context in particular the question of competence is a tricky one: these days, there are many trends towards virtually requiring librarians to have programming skills. What is needed here are cooperative agreements or the ability to buy in the required expertise at low cost.

Third, the librarian must remain visible for the management of the funding organizations and must be able at all times to communicate optimally with the library’s users.

Are there not also some advantages of being responsible for everything?

Of course! One can work according to one’s own rhythm, one can use one’s initiative and react with flexibility to changing requirements. It is a good feeling to look back and see how well the library has developed and to realize that one was able to overcome the challenges –in some cases without the need for complex decision-making processes.

How is the BIB’s Commission for One-Person Librarians trying to support these librarians?

In its more than ten-year history, the Commission has attempted not only to address areas of need, as for example were revealed during continuing training programmes, but also to tackle issues proactively. In the early days these tended first and foremost to be issues related to self- and library management, and later included technical issues such as Library 2.0. Training programmes were run and publications issued – like the “message in a bottle” and “checklists” which we offer free of charge on our website and which have met with a very positive response.

Opportunities offered by digital technology

Which strategies and opportunities for development does the digital world in particular offer one-person libraries?

If one-person libraries are regarded as a special form of library management that is based in particular on clever marketing, any technology can be helpful that gears a library’s services better to its user’s needs. Take Web 2.0 software, for example – this can be used in a highly targeted manner for external public relations work, internal communication and work organization.

If you were granted one wish for the future of one-person libraries, what would it be?

I would wish that every one-person library would get the person it deserves – someone who is open, proactive, fully qualified and professional enough not to overtax themselves. And that every librarian should earn a salary that reflects their wide-ranging and intense role. That’s a second wish, however, and one that does not apply only to one-person librarians.