Thriving in Solo Librarianship with Amanda Thompson
“I just happen to have ‘librarian’ in my title. One of our first librarians actually called herself an ‘information architect’. I’ve seen people in the health sciences space call themselves ‘informationists’ or say they work in ‘knowledge management.’ There is a wide variety of titles and places where you can work as an information professional.”
Amanda Thompson SJSU MLIS, 2014
San Francisco, California
Amanda Thompson is a solo librarian, but her career did not start out that way.
Amanda grew up loving her local public library from the young age of three, back when librarianship seemed both mysterious and wonderful.
“My mother was very dedicated to taking us to the library every single week. I wanted to be the person who shelves the books because I thought that person read all the books, and it was the most fantastic thing in the world.”
For Amanda, that dream would come true when she was a teenager. She started working at her library at the age of sixteen where she was encouraged to go into librarianship. But Amanda still wanted to explore her options so she went to college and went on to work as an urban planner for some time first.
But even during her undergraduate studies, where Amanda worked at her university library, Amanda was still interested in her original dream. Later, after having children and deciding to return to the workforce, she wound up back in the public library space.
Finding Her Path
“As much as I love public libraries, they don’t pay the bills,” Amanda stated. “And so I decided to take a virtual internship with the Army Research Technical Library. [At first], I had no idea what I was doing [but] I got to work with two other interns that were also from San José State University and we were able to collaborate together.”
During that internship, Amanda got to see how her work could make an impact in real-time, and it caused her to apply to help other researchers after the internship was through.
“I did an internship at UC Berkeley in their Environmental Design Library and developed some research guides. Then, during my last year at SJSU, I saw a job posting for Sandia National Laboratories as a Technical Librarian. I applied and got it.”
For Amanda, a lot of her professional career felt like being in the right place at the right time. She was assisting a principal librarian at Sandia, fresh out with her MLIS when the librarian left six months later.
“To be honest, it was really easy to pick up those responsibilities working on the collection development, answering all the reference questions, managing our budget, and so I ended up taking over management of the library itself early.”
These responsibilities made it easier for her to move on to Ultragenyx, a biopharmaceutical company whose focus is on curing rare diseases five years later, where she works today as a solo librarian.
As someone without a STEM background, Amanda had to learn how to serve her information community.
“I’m not a biologist by any stretch of the imagination, and I am working with people that all have their medical doctorates or their Ph.D. in something like allergy or epidemiology. And so there was a learning curve. It really has to do with how well you can answer a question and how well you can pick up the information. I mean, we’re librarians, right? So if we don’t know how to answer a question ourselves, we know how to at least find the answer.”
Amanda was able to use her experience in PubMed thanks to her time at Sandia, but there was still a learning curve, especially when it came to finding information on rare diseases.
“You really do have to talk to your colleagues. You have to pick their brains. People love to talk about the research they’re doing so if they’re a specialist in a particular field they will talk your ear off about everything. You’ll have the opportunity to learn from there.”
Amanda does not like calling it a digital library, but her library works primarily with articles found in databases online.
“At Sandia, we did actually have a physical space with books. It has to do with different uses. Sandia had a lot of engineers, they had monographs that they needed. So the books were absolutely necessary. For us that’s not where people are getting their information, it’s moving quickly, and it’s all published in journal articles which are now online.”
Serving the Pharmaceutical Community
Working as the sole librarian at Ultragenyx does not come with an average day.
In any one day, she could spend it finding references for investigations into new drugs for regulatory agencies like the FDA, sorting through literature to find what research has already been done on the topic, or helping the team stay on top of current information.
“If we’re using [inaccurate] information we can be denied. And if we’re denied, we don’t have a drug that we can take to market. So we have a very big impact.”
Her work is focused on providing access to people, assisting with research, and ensuring work is available so it can be translated into other languages and fit other cultures. There is also the legal and business side, too which requires checking copyright laws as well as their competitors.
“Sometimes there are fires to put out that generally have to do with something having to go to a regulatory agency (like the FDA). And we have to get those documents fast and quickly with accurate information, but it’s different every day.”
Another benefit to corporate librarianship is that Amanda is able to work a hybrid schedule, two days a week in the office and three at home.
“There’s a lot of freedom. So I don’t have somebody necessarily telling me what to do or how to do but there’s the freedom and also the flexibility. There’s not a lot of chain of command involved. We just turn, pivot and go, and that’s one of the beauties, I think, working in corporate spaces as well. You have more of that freedom to go a certain way if you have to go there.”
Advice for the Future
Amanda’s advice for current MLIS students is to volunteer, intern, and even shadow librarians.
“You have to be proactive. You can’t just do your classes and expect to have any results out of that. I really encourage every student to do an internship, especially one that will give you something concrete to put on a resume. I think that’s crucial. Do informational visits to learn more about their jobs and what they’re doing and try to gain more insight on those different paths.”
She also recommends checking out job sites and selecting courses based on the skills necessary to apply.
For Amanda, one of her most valuable courses was INFO 202: Information Retrieval System Design.
“I found that to be really helpful because it helps me think about how others think of information and categorize information, which is really crucial.” On the other hand, INFO 248: Beginning Cataloging and Classification, was a much less fun course for her, but because of it “I know how to read the MARC records – I was able to figure out how to read the MeSH records and then figure out how they’re categorizing that information so I can search better.”
Amanda also appreciated her INFO 240: Information Technology Tools and Applications (Web Programming and Design) class which taught her to use Sharepoint and her INFO 204: Information Professions course had group work that led to some library friends she still has today. With friends in traditional public libraries and “content managing” in the tech space, Amanda knows how different librarianship can look today.
“I just happen to have ‘librarian’ in my title. We’ve talked about changing that. I think one of our first librarians actually called herself an ‘information architect’. I’ve seen people in the health sciences space call themselves ‘informationists’ or say they work in ‘knowledge management.’ There is a wide variety of titles and places where you can work as an information professional.”
“I still encourage students to be very broad and to be very open and to you know, check out things you might not normally be into and don’t just look, you know, so, you know, San Diego has a technical library, New York engineering library, and here I have my health sciences library. Levi’s has a denim library. They hire librarians to catalog denim. So my point is – be open because those opportunities are 100% out there – you’d be surprised to find all the funny places librarians turn up.”