On Librarianship: What Does A Librarian Do?

Since I announced a year ago that I was beginning my Master’s degree in Library and Information Science to become a librarian, I have often been asked variations of the following three questions:

“So what does a librarian do?”
“Why does being a librarian require a Master’s degree?”
“Aren’t libraries pretty much obsolete?”

In this series of three posts, I am going to endeavor to as briefly as possible answer these three questions. In this initial post, I will answer the first question, which is far more complex than it seems.

1. So what DOES a librarian do?

Hugo Movie Stills Bookstore 1 - Mr Labisse.png Librarianship is one of the most misunderstood professions. The vast majority of people have no idea what librarians actually do, or why librarians are important. Stereotypes of librarians are prevalent due to cultural depictions of librarians – either as the grumpy shush-er, or as a version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Rupert Giles (at least the latter is more accurate). But it takes much more than a desk and reading glasses to be a librarian. Librarians require extensive education, as their field is incredibly diverse and interdisciplinary.

By definition, a librarian is a professional trained in information science. Librarians can work in schools, public libraries, academia, government, archives, etc. – and their responsibilities are primarily to assist the people within their communities in finding and accessing information, and to provide services and opportunities that facilitate learning in those communities.

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to explain that there are many, many types of librarians, each with their unique roles and job descriptions. There are reference librarians, subject librarians, library directors, cataloguers, music librarians, law librarians, archivists, technology librarians, information literacy librarians, policy librarians… the list goes on. While each of these roles is very different, there is a common goal that makes each of these positions a librarian:

Librarians are professionals whose primary goal is helping other people find information and acquire knowledge.

Each of the previously stated types of librarians achieve this goal in different ways. A cataloguing librarian organizes information, both physically and digitally, so that it is accessible and easier to locate. A reference librarian engages the public directly by helping them in their precise information needs and by assisting with all kinds of research. Subject specialists provide specialized services in their area, be that music, law, English literature, etc. Information literacy librarians and other academic teaching librarians create educational content, publish research, and teach classes on library services, databases, formatting types, plagiarism, etc. in order to help college students succeed in their courses. Technology librarians create web content and programs and assist in information technology. Children’s librarians provided specialized information services and programming for children.

Each of these positions, while much more complex and intricate than described here, involves providing opportunities and resources that lead to other people finding information and acquiring knowledge. While not all librarians are directly teachers (though some are), all librarians assist in helping others to learn.

Lifelong learning is one of the core values of a librarian.

To illustrate how truly diverse the profession of librarianship is, I am going to give you examples from my own career. In the past year, while I’ve been working on my M.L.I.S., I have worked a number of positions and internships. Here is a list of a few of them, with a short description of how I spent my time in each one:

Library Assistant and Evening Supervisor, MidAmerica Nazarene University
Since this is a library assistant position (I’m still finishing my Master’s degree in order to become an official librarian), I have assisted each of MNU Library’s librarians with various tasks. Here is an example of one task I have worked on for each librarian:

  • Assisted the Research & Instructional Librarian by conducting extensive research on game-based learning and creating a soon-to-be published annotated bibliography on the subject.
  • Assisted the Cataloguing Librarian by adding new materials to the online database and creating labels appropriately according to the Library of Congress cataloguing system.
  • Assisted the Library Director by researching other libraries’ policies, so that the director knew how to update our own related policies.
  • Assisted the Archivist by scanning, uploading, and describing physical archival materials to our digital repository.
  • Assisted the Outreach Librarian by processing Interlibrary Loan requests as they come in, and then sending them out to students and faculty.
  • And finally my own tasks: which are to serve as the reference librarian on duty, by providing information services both in person and through our virtual chat component, and also to supervise the student workers and close the library in the evenings.

Archives Assistant, Missouri Historical Society
In this position, I processed historical collections of all formats of materials. My role was to understand the collections and the stories they told, in order to organize them intuitively and create published finding aids that would allow researchers and historians precise knowledge of what was in the collection and how to locate it.

Youth Services Intern, Kansas City Public Library
This position was an internship through the KCPL, to provide library services for the Jackson County Juvenile Detention Center. In this position, I organized and maintained a library for the detention center, brought in specially-requested materials for the youth, and planned and implemented periodic board gaming events with the youth. I also recognized the value of the board games for the education and recreation of the youth, and so I wrote a grant proposal to acquire a small permanent collection of board games for the detention center.

Information Literacy Fellow, University of Missouri-Kansas City
While I have not begun this position yet (it begins in a few weeks!), I know generally what the job entails. I will be participating in instructional initiatives and research service, teaching weeklong information literacy instruction courses (on library services, databases, plagiarism, formatting, research, etc.), developing instructional materials and online content, and providing public library services.

From those four positions, you should be able to get a sense of the diversity and interdisciplinary nature of Library & Information Science – and what I have done so far is only a small taste of the scope of the profession. Librarianship includes roles for every type of personality, and for many different skill-sets. The primary requirement for a librarian/archivist is that your mission be to provide access to information and opportunities to acquire knowledge for others, and to facilitate lifelong learning.

Librarianship is a service oriented profession.

In our age – dubbed the information age – quick access to information has become more sought after than ever. Also, finding quality information has become more difficult than ever, due to the vast amount of false information that exists, especially online. While librarians of course do not know the answers to everything, they are trained in finding those answers, or when possible, teaching you to find those answers.

Of course, the role of any librarian is so much more complex and diverse than described here – after all, a Master’s degree in LIS is required to become a librarian, and there is a constant amount of learning to be done even after acquiring that credential. If you want to learn more about what a librarian has to learn and why they need at least a Master’s degree, stay tuned for my second post in this series, coming soon.

But for now, at least you now know a little bit about what a librarian does – and that it is a lot more than checking out books, sitting at a desk, reading, and shushing passer-byes.

If you have any related questions, please comment!

And if you don’t know… now you know.

3 thoughts on “On Librarianship: What Does A Librarian Do?

    • You’re welcome!! Someone who is considering being a librarian asked me about it this morning, so I decided to publish my response in a blog post this time. 😛

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  1. This is a fantastic post, and I think it gives a great overview of what librarians are and what they do! I’m in my final undergraduate semester and I think that library work is a great fit for me (I’ve volunteered before and I’ve taken a couple of classes). I especially enjoyed your point about the “diverse and interdisciplinary” aspect of library work; I think these aspects (as well as the others you mentioned) are what draws me towards the profession. Looking forward to your next post!

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