On secondary assignments and exploration

One of the things that got me excited—almost a year ago now—when I was applying for my job, was that here at the Michigan State University Libraries, it’s commonplace to have what we refer to as a secondary assignment. Essentially, this means that at least 25% of any given librarian’s week is spent working in a separate unit from that of their primary assignment. For example, many of my coworkers have secondary assignments in reference, but secondary assignments can be in anything from digital scholarship to special collections.

When I applied to this job, I was excited about the opportunity for cross-pollination and breaking out of single specializations that having secondary assignments provides. While I am in a residency program, which means that I am offered the space to explore different interests within librarianship, I also knew coming out of library school what sort of work I wanted to be doing. A secondary assignment seemed like the perfect way to balance exploring with focusing on my specific interests.

Thus far, secondary assignments have worked out well for me. I currently have two: accessibility and cataloging. Cataloging has been an interest of mine since library school, but my school also only offered one cataloging class, so after that any practice I got was exclusively through my internships. Having a secondary assignment in cataloging has helped me gain a more solid foundation as well as a chance to explore some of cataloging’s intricacies. Scheduling blocks of time for cataloging has also helped to make my schedule, which can sometimes feel untethered, a bit more structured.

My accessibility secondary assignment has been equally fruitful. I came into this position with little prior experience in accessibility work, but did know that I was interested and wanted to get involved. And thus far my secondary assignment has allowed me to do just that. I’ve not only learned about all the various accessibility initiatives happening in the libraries and on campus, but I’ve also started to make meaningful contributions, especially working with vendors. Having a secondary assignment has also given me time to focus on my own education with regard to accessibility, disability studies, and assistive technology. A secondary assignment so different from my area studies primary assignment also means that I can shake my days up, moving between different sorts of work to keep myself engaged.

Of course, having three different focuses can also be hectic. I have definitely spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how to balance everything and which of my assignments deserves focus at any given moment. There are weeks when one or another just doesn’t get attended to, but this is also the nature of library work in general: no day is completely routine, no matter what your job description might be.

Overall, though, I have certainly benefitted from my secondary assignments and have found them to be useful ways to interact with more people in the library and to learn about the work of other units. Ultimately, secondary assignments have been exactly what I hoped they would be.

Even if your library does not have an equivalent setup, there are ways to create a similar, if more informal experience. For example, I don’t have any reference responsibilities, but I have found attending reference meetings to be beneficial in hearing more about library-wide happenings and connecting with colleagues I might not otherwise see on a regular basis. Meetings, discussion groups, or other similar events can lead to opportunities for collaborations across units. Look for other ways to reach beyond your unit to find others with similar or complementary interests.

Another avenue to explore would be finding areas where your job is flexible. If you’ve always wanted to learn more about a certain area of librarianship, are there ways you can work that learning into your current practice? To whom can you reach out to learn more and open up doors for collaboration? Carving out time and space might not be possible for everyone, but it’s worth looking for small ways to explore if that’s something you’re interested in.


Does your library have anything similar to secondary assignments? What strategies have you used to interact with others beyond your closer colleagues or to learn about new-to-you areas of librarianship?

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