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Efficient Librarianship – A New Path for the Profession

by Douglas Crane on January 23, 2018

By Douglas Crane

About the Author: DOUGLAS CRANE is Director of the Palm Beach County (FL) Library System (PBCLS). Contact Douglas at craned@pbclibrary.org or through his blog, www.efficientlibrarian.com.

Efficient: 1. Being or involving the immediate agent in producing an effect; 2. Productive of desired effects; especially: productive without waste.1 “I didn’t need one ounce more of creativity and intelligence than I already was born with—the issue was where I was pointing it.” —David Allen2

I believe that the future of librarianship belongs to the Efficient Librarian. Let me start with a story. There is a librarian, let’s call him DC. DC has worked in public libraries his entire life, starting as a shelver and then moving his way up through clerical work until he completed his MLS. He travels to a new library system far away from his hometown to be a children’s librarian. DC is soon promoted to electronic resources coordinator where he designed the website and developed computer training classes. Later on, he received another promotion to branch manager of a 30,000-square-foot building with more than thirty staff members. DC has served on many committees, is comfortable with public speaking, and now has important supervisory and managerial experience.

Everything looks rosy, except for one problem: DC is perpetually disorganized. He runs up against deadlines and misplaces important papers. DC feels his career is out of focus. He can do the expected work easily enough, but often feels bored after it is done. DC recalls a conversation with a colleague early in his career when one day in frustration he said, “I don’t know what I am supposed to do.” What DC meant was that after completing his assigned work, he didn’t know what to do with his discretionary time. It felt like he was missing a piece to the puzzle. Unfortunately, his colleague said that she felt the same way at times, but could offer no pertinent advice beyond commiseration.

I tell you this story because I am DC. I have worked at the Palm Beach County (FL) Library System (PBCLS) in southeast Florida for the past nineteen years after moving down from my hometown of Toronto. I don’t think my story is unusual. In fact, I am confident that it is common across librarianship, but not unique to it. The challenge I was facing was the burden of knowledge work.

An Oversimplified Modern History of Librarianship

When I started shelving books in Toronto in the mid-1990s, public libraries still followed a model that had served well for most of the twentieth century. To put it simply, libraries were educational facilities focused primarily around books. Building and managing physical collections was a key component of librarianship, while teams of paraprofessionals managed the circulation of the material. Our role was to provide the community with access to knowledge, and that knowledge was found in physical books, newspapers, and magazines. This collection made us the only game in town if the public wanted the knowledge. The daily tasks of librarians and paraprofessionals were well defined by long standing policies, procedures, and best practices that generally made the work routine and predictable.

This model was disrupted by the rapid growth of the Internet. Public Internet computers appeared in libraries during the late 1990s and early 2000s. With the arrival of Google and Wikipedia, the public now had a second option for information, one that was fast and cheap. While librarians bemoaned the quality of freely available online information, it did not stop the public from taking their general reference questions to these virtual sources.

A second disruption occurred in 2007 when the Great Recession caused library budgets to come under severe attack. As property tax revenues dwindled, some cities and counties started raiding library money to fund other services. Money for collections and staffing disappeared. Politicians began to openly question the need for public libraries in the Internet age, rationalizing that since information was free online there was no need to pay millions of dollars to support buildings full of books.

Both disruptions forced library workers to redefine our role in the community. With diminished resources and time, we are forced to do more with less. At its core, these disruptions have changed the nature of how we approach our work. This leads to basic questions around how our profession, buildings, and resources serve the digital age resident. I believe the answer lies in a better understanding of librarianship as knowledge work.

Challenge of Knowledge Work

The first work experience for most people is in a widget job. A widget job is one where the work arrives predefined. A library shelver is an example. A shelver arrives at work to find carts of returned books. They organize the carts and then shelves the books in the stacks. An empty cart tells them the work is done. This is repeated for the next few hours and then the shelver goes home for the day, not thinking about the job until the next shift. It may be boring work, but it is clearly defined, non-stressful, and filled with success.

The challenge is that we do not stay in widget jobs. As our careers advance, we make the shift towards knowledge work. The term “knowledge work” was coined by Peter Drucker in his 1959 book, Landmarks of Tomorrow, and later fleshed out in the 1966 book, The Effective Executive.Knowledge work shows up undefined and it is the knowledge worker who must decide what the work is and how it is to be done. A shelver’s productivity can be easily measured in terms of carts finished and accuracy of shelving, but how does one measure a librarian? While there are certain widget features to the job, such as a desk schedule, success at work is not easily measured. For example, should off desk time be spent weeding the collection, researching new entertainers for the activity schedule, or creating bibliographies on hot topics? The librarian has to make executive decisions on how to spend the time and also determine what success looks like for each of these tasks. What does a well-weeded collection look like? Is it better to find entertainers who pack the house or those with unique musical abilities? How many books should be on that bibliography and what is an eye-catching design? Knowledge work gets tricky very fast and we haven’t even pondered all the challenges that supervisors, managers, and directors encounter in their daily work. The knowledge worker has days where it feels like lots of energy is spent with little demonstrated success.

The role of a library worker has changed due to the twin disruptions of the Internet and diminished budgets. With more information available from our smart devices than can be contained in our physical collections, we are no longer the guardians and gatekeepers of knowledge. With less money available, setting clear budget priorities is essential. We are in a period of professional reevaluation where we cannot afford to be passive observers. We must actively lead the change. To face the challenge of knowledge work, we need to become Efficient Librarians.

What is an Efficient Librarian?

An Efficient Librarian is an elite knowledge worker navigating the complexity of the post-Internet information world. The Efficient Librarian combines the skill sets of a librarian with the best productivity and efficiency practices to become a powerful consultant and decision-maker. He or she masters the ability to traverse the streams of information flowing throughout our increasingly digital world and then in turn helps others learn these skills. To start on the path, an Efficient Librarian recognizes and masters three types of engagement:

1. Defining and organizing personal workflow systems.

2. Developing personal knowledge management skills.

3. Invoking the power of “next action” thinking.

By mastering each type, an Efficient Librarian reduces unnecessary stress, brings focus to work, curates his or her own knowledge stores, and drives sustained momentum for positive change.

Defining and Organizing Personal Workflow Systems

What started me on the path of the Efficient Librarian was the discovery of the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity (2001) by David Allen.4 I came across the audiobook on the shelf in 2011 and was immediately drawn to it as a possible solution to my disorganization. I checked it out and listened to it on the ride home. Hearing Allen’s calm voice as he read his book reassured me that I had found the solution to my woes. Over the next two weeks I reorganized my office along the Getting Things Done (GTD) principles. Piles of paper on my desk were filed or trashed. The email inbox went down to zero. My work gained clear edges and my capacity for creativity widened. It invigorated my career and I was promoted to director of branch services in 2013 and then library director of the entire system in 2014. I would not be where I am professionally without this skill set.

At its most fundamental level, an Efficient Librarian is a master of their own work space. Most likely when you first read the word “efficient” it brought to mind the definition of being productive without waste. I am confident that everyone has had an experience of taking a process that was ineffective and finding a way to make it more productive. I believe that librarians should be naturals for this work. After all, our profession has been dedicated to the organization and preservation of information since the days of scrolls at the Library of Alexandria. We developed elaborate classification systems and institutions designed to make information freely accessible. Unfortunately, while we took great pains to organize our physical collections, librarians in general don’t seem to do better than other professions in organizing their own personal work spaces.

At the risk of being cliché, the public has considered librarianship to be a relaxed profession. If you want to make a librarian angry, ask if they spent the entire workday sitting around reading books! Busy times on the service desk or with back-to-back meetings are often balanced by quiet nights and periods of uninterrupted time in the mornings. However, with diminished staffing, most library workers are struggling to find time to finish their tasks. Efficiency arises out of recognition of compressed time. A person needs to see that expending a little time up front helps save a lot more time later when it is needed. For example, we sort papers we want to keep into labeled file folders in order to make them easier to find later. Alas, it is human nature to be lazy. People don’t care about efficiency when time is abundant. If there is not enough pay off on the back end to do the upfront work to create efficiencies, most people won’t do it.

More and more, I believe library workers are recognizing that time is a precious resource. There are only so many hours in the workday and our action list is longer than the time available. Constrained budgets make library staffing tight. The buzz of electronic communications often pushes us to respond faster. The many competing factors on our time mean that we need to prioritize the important over the trivial. Librarians, like all professionals, make inefficient use of their time when they fail to organize their own workflow in advance. This eats into the time we can spend on things that truly matter.

To that end, an Efficient Librarian acknowledges the difference between widget and knowledge work. The widget type work includes sitting on the service desk waiting for the public to ask a question, working on book order lists, or filling out monthly reports. As a knowledge worker, librarians are faced with the challenge of continually redefining their work. We must evaluate our environment, make executive decisions based on priorities, and seek out the resources needed to accomplish our goals. Knowledge work is psychologically challenging and stressful, but it carries with it the capacity to innovate in new and exciting ways which can lead to deeper personal rewards.

According to Allen there are five stages of workflow.5 First, we capture information as it comes to us, such as in email, phone message, or notes from a meeting. Second, we have to clarify what it means. For example, is it trash that can be tossed, reference to store, or a message that requires a response? Third, if not completed immediately, the information must be organized in a system so that it can be found later, such as with file folders or timed reminders. Fourth, the system must be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure it is clean and up to date. Finally, we must engage with our work and get things done. Understanding the best practices for each of these five stages is vital to mastering workflow.

An Efficient Librarian creates clean edges to her work. It all starts with an organized desk and a clearly defined physical inbox to identify new input. One habit-changing practice is to empty the inbox regularly and use it only to place new items that have yet to be processed. An Efficient Librarian pays attention to how time is spent and looks for ways to declutter surroundings and simplify systems. For me, mastering workflow and creating systems that were tight, clean, and quick was a key to my transition. I believe that the application of these principles saves me weeks of time every year to focus on creative and exciting work that takes me along new innovative paths. This unleashing of energy is needed to revitalize our profession in the face of changing times.

For example, a small change that made a huge difference for me was turning off new email alerts, such as notification vibrations, pop-up windows, and sounds. According to a study by behavioral economist Dan Ariely, only eleven percent of email requires immediate attention.6 New message notification alerts mostly serve to distract people from their primary task just to chase down content that is most likely destined for the trash. I turned off all my new message alerts a few years ago and instantly noticed a change in my depth and length of focus.

Action Steps

Read a book on personal productivity, such as Getting Things Done. Assess your own productivity practices and implement improvements based on the analysis. Some important best practices suggested in Allen’s book:7

  • Get things out of your head and into a system—don’t use your mind to remember details that can be quickly forgotten.
  • Have defined inboxes and capture tools such as notepads to trap new input. • Empty all inboxes on a regular basis—every 24 to 48 hours.
  • Separate actions, waiting for items, someday/maybes, and reference into clear folders.
  • Review your workflow system regularly to keep it clean.

Developing Personal Knowledge Management Skills and Systems

The concept of widget work implies that there is a tangible item that is manufactured or moved through the organization’s system to produce a specific end. In a public library, books are often considered the primary widget. Whether we are collecting them, circulating them, weeding them, or using them for research, physical books remain fundamental to our work. However, for all the effort we put into moving them around, more and more of our material is becoming electronic. The library of the future is shifting away from the physical collection, which challenges the public perception of our work given that most people associate libraries with books. I would argue since librarians are knowledge workers, books were never our primary widget. Instead that honor goes to notes.

Notes are the basic unit of knowledge management. I define a note very broadly as an “information artifact with perceived value.” Notes come in many shapes, sizes, and formats. It can be a yellow sticky reminder to buy milk, a memo updating the dress code, points taken down on legal pad from a staff meeting, or a full-length report on homelessness. Notes don’t even have to be physical. Emails, photos, audio recordings, and videos are all notes under this definition. Since they are so plentiful, the care and management of notes is the key challenge of knowledge work, which is addressed by the field of personal knowledge management.

With any note that is created or obtained the Efficient Librarian must answer a question: Is it actionable? Actionable means is there something that must be done in response to the note. If the answer is yes, then the Efficient Librarian must decide on the next action. However, for most notes no action is required. What happens then? Many non-actionable notes are placed in piles, like ghosts haunting your desk. Every note needs to find a home or else it becomes a piece of clutter. According to GTD, when no action is required there are three possible places for the note to go.8 The first is the trash, and my best guess is that half the notes we receive have no value and should be trashed as quickly as possible. A few notes will fall into a category of “someday/maybe.” Examples of these can be advertisements for training programs, ideas for service improvements down the road, or even lists of sites to visit on vacations that are yet to be planned. All these notes can go into a folder for examination at a later time. The rest of the notes with no action are ones to save for later reference and need to be filed.

The art of effective filing is often overlooked. The Efficient Librarian understands the value that a clean and accessible filing system has on work and peace of mind. The merging of actionable and non-actionable items into the same space  is a creativity killer. Think about it from this perspective, have you ever lost an important note? You swore it was placed on the corner of your desk next to a pile of reference files, but it is no longer there. How long did you spend searching for that note and did you ever find it? Then think about how many times this has happened to you over the course of a month. This is waste we can ill afford to spend in an era where time if precious. Note that mismanagement is a self-inflicted productivity wound. An effective filing system is one into which notes can quickly be placed and then easily retrieved when needed.

How should notes be organized? Keep in mind that the best practices for filing are different for physical notes than electronic notes. In the case of physical notes, there are a few basic rules as articulated in Getting Things Done:9

  • Keep filing cabinets within swivel distance of your chair.
  • Have a fresh stack of folders at your desk so that new files can be made quickly.
  • Work with a simple A-Z system.
  • Purge your filing cabinets once a year to ensure there is space for new notes

The point of filing is to move inactive notes out of the way to create space to work on actionable items, much like a chef cleans up ingredients of prior dishes from their counter to focus on their next recipe. For a knowledge worker, clear space on the desk for actionable items is a must for productive work.

When computers were first developed, the concept of files and folders was copied from the physical world. This served well in the early days of Windows PCs and Macs as a bridgett bring office workers into the virtual world and used limited computing power to good advantage. However, modern computer speeds have changed the game, especially with email. In the book, Algorithms to Live By, the authors cite a study showing that power searching is the most effective way to search for emails.10 Also, the volume of electronic notes is much larger than paper. A 2015 study estimated that the average employee gets ninety-two emails a day. This volume was projected to grow to almost 111 messages in 2018.11 In electronic filing, it is better to run as lean as possible by dividing the non-actionable items into only a few categories. In email, this could mean taking the “Inbox Zero” approach advocated by Merlin mann of having just one reference folder for anything that needs to be archived as opposed to creating dozens of topical folders.12 A refinement would be creating a small number of folders to store messages from the most frequent senders to cut down on power searching noise.

How do personal knowledge management skills enable the Efficient Librarian to function at a higher level? Consider that librarians have long worked in a high-volume information environment, especially when you include our large collection of public resources. As the number of possible locations to find information has grown it became easy to default to a simple search solution, such as Google. Our profession has always sought to clarify for the public the best sources for information, which is why we have long known that Internet search engines are the start of a complicated search, not the only step. As we find quality sources of information and useful artifacts with each research round, maintaining our files become very useful to save time on the next research question. Streamlined electronic and paper filing systems improve the quality of our work. Also, efficient filing systems reduce administrative oversight costs associated with knowledge work. When you can always find the file needed quickly and return it just as quickly, your system will reduce stress and save time.

Action Steps

Dividing actionable from non-actionable items and archiving notes in any format are important skills for the development of personal knowledge management systems. Here are a few steps to help you get going:

  • Take every item on your desk that is not equipment, supplies, or decoration and place them in your inbox. Process these items one at a time to determine which are actionable and which are not.
  • Place actionable items into a folder called “action.” Delay working on these items until your inbox is clear.
  • Trash as many notes as you can. While this is plainly evident for physical notes, even electronic notes carry psychic weight that slows down your system.
  • Archive anything that is non-actionable. If you need more storage space, purge first and then acquire more room if necessary.
  • Be disciplined in keeping a clear space on your desk in which you only work on actionable items.
  • At the end of the day, place this material back in a folder so that you leave with a clear space.

Invoking the Power of “Next Action” Thinking

Identifying and implementing improvements to personal and organizational workflows produce powerful results. However, the best systems in the world are only useful if they free up energy for productive next actions. An Efficient Librarian understands the implications of the first part of the definition of the word “efficient” given at the start of this article which is to be the agent that produces an effect. An agent by definition is one who acts. Therefore, an Efficient Librarian is very mindful of his or her actions.

Most people decide their next action at work by reacting to their surroundings. Crisis and stress tend to focus the mind on the most urgent needs. People may subconsciously allow crisis to enter their lives to narrow their action choices. To illustrate, think about what would happen if you discover that the building is on fire. Your next action would be very simple—get out! No need to think about that one. While it does help to simplify decision making, crisis is an unhealthy way to live from day to day due to the accumulated stress. Therefore, an Efficient Librarian purposefully moves past crisis to make meaningful action decisions when things first show up, rather than when they start to blow up.

To do this successfully requires a new way of thinking. A huge improvement opportunity embedded in GTD is to identify the next physical action needed to move forward.13 Physical actions are movements that an outside observer could see being done. Examples include making a phone call, typing an email, talking to a coworker, and drafting a memo with pen and paper. Too often people respond to a situation by saying they will “think about it” or “plan around it”—neither of which constitute physical actions. Instead, these phrases are typically signs of procrastination that is exasperated by messy desks and overflowing inboxes. The Efficient Librarian who has mastered personal workflow systems usually finds that next action thinking becomes easier. The time saved through better organization creates a space of calm in which you can make better decisions.

Equally important, next action thinking allows for greater clarity of success criteria. A knowledge worker must determine what success looks and feels like for each of their projects. Next action thinking forces the Efficient Librarian to consider the physical actions needed to move towards their goal. When we take a vacation, say a drive to Disney World, we see in our mind’s eye Cinderella’s castle with Mickey Mouse. No matter what may pop up along the way, when the goal is clear obstacles become temporary set-backs that will be overcome. The same is true for work projects. An Efficient Librarian envisions the committee final report and presentation at the start of the project, making it much simpler to reach that final destination no matter what surprises appear along the way.

A very simple but profound practice of next action thinking is Allen’s famous Two Minute Rule.14 The premise is simple: once you identify an action that can be done in less than two minutes, do it immediately. This is done because it would take longer to manage the item than to simply complete it right away. Also, it creates a quick victory at work which builds confidence. As Allen writes in his book, “Many people find that getting into the habit of following the Two Minute Rule creates a dramatic improvement in their productivity. One vice president of a large software company told me that it gave him an additional hour a day of quality discretionary time.”15

Next Actions

Harness the power of next action thinking to move your work forward. Some best practices on this path include:

  • Clearly identify the physical next action needed to move the project forward—remember someone should be able to see you do the action.
  • Determine what success means on each of your projects and have a clear visual image of it in your mind.
  • Work immediately on quick actionable items (Allen’s Two Minute Rule).
  • Tackle the ugliest action first before doing anything else—Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog approach.16
  • Have a designated folder to store reminders of actionable items that can be accessed quickly when you have discretionary time.
  • Subscribe to my blog to read more about best productivity practices: Efficient Librarian: Exploring the Intersection of Efficiency and Librarianship (https://efficientlibrarian.com).

The Strategic Value of Clear Space

In one of his podcast lectures, Allen discussed the “strategic value of clear space.”17 That phrase has stuck with me since I first heard it. You see, many years ago I was a yoga teacher at a local fitness center. Yoga drew me in not only for the physical exercise, but for the focus and calmness it brought to my mind. I found that operating with a quiet mind was a powerful way to live. I believe that the practice of an Efficient Librarian is the yoga of knowledge work.

An Efficient Librarian approaches work like an artist with a blank canvas. To create a masterpiece, the artist must be able to focus fully on his art, being free to explore new and creative ways to express his inner voice. An artist that is fumbling around with lost brushes, spilt paint, and misplaced canvases is wasting time managing the space instead of working in it. Each level of mastery opens up new opportunities for an Efficient Librarian to practice their craft. Keeping a clear space (i.e. desk) to work from allows the flow of knowledge work to creatively emerge.

In the future, more and more widget jobs will be automated. Author Kevin Kelly discussed this trend in his 2016 book, The Inevitable. In the chapter on cognifying he discusses how robots will transform the workplace by absorbing widget-type tasks.18 This trend places a greater emphasis on the ability of a person to function as a high-level knowledge worker. Librarians are positioned to be leaders in understanding, implementing, and training others in the best practices of knowledge based work. In fact, Kelly eludes to a trend he calls questioning, where he believes that answers have become so widespread they are meaningless. The real skill lies in asking the right questions.19 With this understanding in mind, library workers can unleash a great wave of creativity and innovation in our communities by helping people ask the right questions.

Therefore, I call out to the profession to identify the unique opportunity that we now face. Let’s become a wave of Efficient Librarians who spread out from our libraries and across our communities to interact with the public where they need us the most and work to change lives in astounding and powerful ways. This is why I believe that the future lies with the Efficient Librarian.


1. Merriam-Webster, s.v. “efficient (adj.),” accessed Dec. 6, 2017, www.merriam -webster.com/dictionary/efficient.

2. GTD Live, audio recording, David Allen Company, accessed Dec. 15, 2017, https://store.gettingthingsdone.com/GTD-Live-p/20332.htm.

3. Drucker Institute, “Peter Drucker’s Life and Legacy: Drucker’s Career Timeline and Bibliography,” accessed Dec. 6, 2017, www.druckerinstitute.com/peter-druckers-life-and-legacy/druckers-career-timeline-and-bibliography.

4. David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (New York: Penguin Books, 2015).

5. Ibid., 27.

6. Dan Ariely, “Research Report on Email Use,” Dan Ariely The Blog, May 18, 2016, accessed Dec. 7, 2017, http://danariely.com/2016/05/18/research-report-on-email-use.

7. Allen, Getting Things Done, 99–105.

8. Ibid., 127–31.

9. Ibid., 100–03.

10. Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Understanding Human Decisions (New York: Henry Holt, 2016), 73.

11. The Radicati Group, “Email Statistics Report, 2015–2019,” Mar. 2015, accessed Dec. 7, 2017, www.radicati.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Email-Statistics-Report-2015-2019-Executive-Summary.pdf.

12. Merlin Mann, “Inbox Zero,” 43Folders. com, accessed Dec. 7, 2017, www.43folders.com/izero.

13. Allen, Getting Things Done, 132–34.

14. Ibid., 134–37.

15. Ibid., 135.

16. Brian Tracy, Eat That Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2001), 2–3.

17. David Allen, “Episode #15: David Allen at The Do Lectures,” GTD Podcast, May 8, 2016, accessed Dec. 7, 2017, http://gettingthingsdone.com/2016/05/episode-15-david-allen-at-the-do-lectures.

18. Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (New York: Viking, 2016), 29–60.

19. Ibid., 269-98.

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