What the heck is a freelance librarian? Eighteen months ago I was not sure myself, I had just graduated from my MLIS program and was working two rewarding but part-time jobs in special collection libraries. The work was paying my bills and put extra cash in my pocket. I was happy but I knew that in my first year of professional work I wanted to get as much experience as possible. And while my two jobs were different (I was a cataloger in one, a reference librarian in the other), I had the time and interest to pursue other work. I knew I had a marketable skill set but I did not know if I could use it outside of an institutional collection. I never heard of anyone contracting a librarian. Though I had my doubts I went tried to see if anyone wanted take me up on work. I want to share my freelancing experiences and share some useful resources to check out if you decide to strike it out on your own.
After reviewing my employer’s policy on being contracted for outside work and got the approval of my supervisor I was ready to look for work. Often time institutions have clear policies about employees being contracted out for work, be sure to review these or ask your Human Resources department if there is not a policy in place.
I began by tapping into my professional network to let them know I was available if someone they knew had need of my expertise in information classification and organization. I also contacted experienced catalogers, whom I met through internships and conferences, to get an idea of what I can charge as a new professional freelancer in the field. I was not under any pretensions that I could charge what they might have but I also did not want to undervalue my services and by extension my profession. They helped me work out a hourly price that my client also felt was fair and landed my first freelance job organizing and classifying a collector’s books on the history of the book and printing. I used free software to build a catalog for her personal use.
It was this contact that led me to my next job and while I was not actively seeking out work at that time the opportunity — assisting with creating bibliographic descriptions of text from the early hand-press printed period — was too intriguing to pass up. I saw each contract as a little experiment, a way to try new things in the field and see if I had a desire to pursue them in my career.
It is important to set clear expectations about what you are getting out of freelancing. For example, I knew I could not take long-term or intensive jobs. I turned down opportunities when it was especially busy with my steady jobs. In other words, I did not try to become a professional freelancer and I did not let the opportunities presented to be take priority over my main sources of work. Being honest about my goals allowed myself and my potential clients to hone in on projects that could work for both parties.
Currently, I am finishing up what will be my last project as an independant contractor for the foreseeable future. I am now employed full-time and that work and my scholarly interests are more of a priority at this time. Besides, this type of work was never meant to be a permanent lifestyle for me. Despite the complexities that are involved with freelancing, the projects I have undertaken were wonderful. I believe that librarians often lean toward modesty when assessing their skills. The most rewarding thing about freelancing has been the opportunity to discover new things about my value as a librarian and about the value of our profession as a whole.
As information professionals we have a necessary and valued set of hard and soft skills. However we do not always know how to market our abilities outside the institutional framework. Freelancing was able to get me thinking about how these skills transfer to other types of work.
If you are thinking about freelancing here are a couple of resources you may find interesting, including resources on paying taxes from your earned income. Don’t forget that you have pay taxes on any income you earn over $400.00 so keep meticulous records.
Tools — I used LibraryThing to assist clients with their collections, it is free for private use.
Ralph is the Social Media Coordinator for ArLiSNAP and the Assistant Librarian for Public Services at the Frick Art Reference Library. He runs, he bikes, he thinks about libraries and librarians. You can find him tweeting and sharing pictures about all of those things under the handle @hafabe.