Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Side Gig

Although I swore I’d never attend another ALA conference in New Orleans (too damn hot!), I couldn’t resist the opportunity to be on a panel of librarians who, like me, work several jobs. The program was called “The Side Gig: How to Supplement Your Income in Tough Economic Times” and featured seven women, including me, who hold down a variety of jobs—everything from dog-walking to moonlighting as hourly reference librarians. Some even contribute articles to a number of information-based websites, like Groupon and Patch.com. It was fascinating to hear just how creative librarians can be when full-time employment isn’t available.

My own story is slightly different. For the past 16 years, I’ve voluntarily chosen to work part-time. In 1995, I quit my full-time public librarian job to pursue a Ph.D. in library science. Since receiving my doctorate in 2000, I’ve managed to cobble together the equivalent of 40 hours (or more!) of work a week, despite being employed only part-time. I prefer working at home and really like the variety of opportunities that come my way. Besides, if I were laid-off from one of my part-time gigs, I could live on the income from the other job(s), if necessary. I am also lucky to have a husband whose well-paying job is fairly secure.

Tips on Becoming a Part-Time Teacher

I work part-time for the California State Library. I consider this my “real” job because it’s permanent and pays benefits. I’ve also taught MLIS courses for more than two decades—first for the San José State University’s School of Library and Information Science (1991-2000) and since 2000 for the UCLA Department of Information Studies. Teaching can be emotionally as well as financially rewarding, but is, of course, not for everyone.

If you are thinking of becoming, say, an adjunct professor who teaches an occasional master’s-level course—or even classes for a local library technology program—I strongly recommend that you start small by first making presentations before non-library groups (e.g., Rotary, campus clubs, etc.). This will help test whether you like public speaking and allow you to practice organizing your thoughts into a coherent and compelling presentation. If you do well, you might then decide to volunteer to be on a library conference panel or offer to guest lecture as part of a library course.

The next step would be to pull together a full-blown workshop (2-4 hours) on a professional or personal topic you know well. Potential opportunities include local library conferences, university extension courses, and even “learning annex” type workshops. Do you have what it takes to hold people’s attention for several hours? Are you able to present your knowledge in a way that encourages others to learn from you?

Conducting a successful workshop can be bliss; but teaching a multi-week course is often something altogether different and much more complicated. How does one create a semester-long curriculum covering lots of different topics? Which criteria should be used to grade papers? How do we keep our students consistently engaged from week to week? One of the best ways to answer these questions is to team-teach with an experienced instructor before venturing out on your own. This is especially important if it’s been several years since you’ve been inside a classroom yourself.

Once you’re ready to become a part-time instructor, you can contact local schools and let them know what topics you teach. Salary often depends on a combination of teaching and work experience, plus level of education (i.e., Ph.D. vs. MLIS).

Tips on Freelance Consulting

In addition to teaching, I also occasionally accept freelance consulting gigs to either (1) manage a short-term project or (2) evaluate existent library services or programs. The secret to marketing yourself as a consultant is to develop an area of expertise (through research and/or experience) that few others have. Then, as much as possible, share your knowledge by publishing articles and presenting at conferences. You will also want to subscribe to relevant e-lists and immerse yourself in the literature about your area of expertise.

Once your name becomes associated with an area of expertise, you may get offers to speak at conferences or advise on projects. You should seriously consider all opportunities that come your way, even if it means going outside your comfort zone. I have a fairly notorious fear of flying. And yet, I have traveled to libraries around the country, conducting workshops on subjects I know well and am particularly passionate about. You can also create your own opportunities by applying for research grants in order to develop your expertise even further.

Final Words of Advice

1. Do a thorough self-inventory of your strengths and weaknesses. What skills and/or knowledge can you offer others as either a teacher or consultant? What limitations might keep you from pursuing certain opportunities—overly-committed work schedule? geographical restrictions? fear of flying?—and how will you overcome them?

2. No matter which path you take, stay connected to the library profession by keeping up with the literature and remaining active in library associations. Even while I was a doctoral student, people knew my name because of my work through the California Library Association.

3. Cultivate a strong network of colleagues. Good jobs will come your way if you’re a good worker, but it’s often “who you know” that gets you in the door.

4. Take advantage of opportunities that come your way and always follow-through. Cultivate a good reputation by meeting expectations.

5. And finally, if you’re going to work several jobs, be sure to create boundaries for yourself so you’re not completely consumed by work. This is especially important if you work at home, where it’s very easy to plug yourself into your computer from the moment you get up until you go back to bed that night. Trust me—you do not want your life to become the “side gig.”

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