What is a Librarian?


Library of Congress’ Law Library Reference Desk from the LoC’s blog.

In a recent interview for a small public library, I made a discovery.  The library board thought anyone working in a library was a librarian, no matter what their actual duties.  They advertised for a typical “librarian” based on the job description when the duties were 100% advanced, degree-needed accounting.  This was not disclosed during the hiring process at all, including in the interview.  Alas, accounting is a skill I have not had coursework in.  Balancing my checkbook is the closest I get to that!  Needless to say, that job wasn’t for me.

However, back to the point.  Not everyone that works in a library is a librarian.  Depending on the library size, there can also be pages, clerks, library assistants, student workers, graduate assistants, business managers, janitors/maintenance men, security guards, food service workers, etc.  The larger the library, the more varied the roles.  These are not librarians, though some may have a “librarian” duty or two.  I know that was the case in my circulation clerk role; while most duties involved checking books in and out and shelving them–stuff anyone can do–I was able to answer some in-depth patron questions and plan one program.  Then when I served as a graduate assistant, my sole role was helping patrons whether it was at the reference desk or utilizing online reference methods, via an online tutorial, or workshops I planned/coplanned.  As a GA, I was a “librarian in training.”

Therefore to clarify, I thought this week I would focus on the topic of “What is a Librarian?.”  So let us examine what a typical librarian does.  This list is by no means definitive, but focuses on the main duties of a librarian that most, if not all, will have.  There will always be position to position differences.

  1. Librarians are there to help their patrons: Patron assistance is the main goal of librarians.  Depending on the specific role, the ways vary.  Reference/research/instruction librarians help their patrons find information.  This may be one-on-one at the reference desk.  It may be in a classroom or workshop setting.  Or it may be online via online reference or creating instructional material for patron use at home.  Cataloging librarians strive to include all the relevant information on a title being added to the collection to ensure patrons can find what they need when searching the catalog; the more subject headings or other metadata, the better for narrowing a search.  Other technical services librarians work to protect physical books and repair them as needed or to place in-house/university material online for patron use.  Access services librarians, preform roles such as checking material in and out for patrons, borrowing material from other libraries via inter-library loans, and, in academic libraries, managing the reserve material.  As you can see, a librarian does not even have to work predominately with the public to help their patrons.
  2. Librarians are content curators:  Librarians curate material for their patrons.  What they curate is based on the library’s collection development policy.  Most public libraries focus on reading and leisure material for patrons.  Academic and school libraries focus on collecting material that fits the curriculum and research needs of their students and faculty.  Themed libraries, such as historical societies or medical libraries, collect on specific topics.  Regardless, librarians are the ones who select this material and its format.   This means the librarians not only chose physical books/journals/magazines/videos/etc., but also electronic materials, such as e-books and databases.  In some case, they might even curate archival materials.  Librarians chose the final format based on a plethora of reasons, including availability, access, multiuser licenses (electronic only), patron preferences, etc.
  3. Librarians are community pillars:  Librarians are a helpful face in the community.  They are at the library to provide assistance, per point 1.  Sometimes when one is out and about town, they can be recognized and still be a resource a patron turns to.  I know I’ve had that happen several times!  I’d be out grocery shopping and have a regular patron come up and say “Hello” then ask a question.  Therefore, a librarian must realize work doesn’t always stop when they leave the library.  Also, many librarians have other prominent roles in the community, whether it be as part of Rotary, a church group, Girl or Boy Scouts, National Guard/military reserves, or another organization.  These roles only increase a librarian’s visibility and show they can also be turned to for help on other matters, as long as ethically appropriate (no medical or legal advice or pushing a religious/political agenda).  For example, a librarian I worked closely with during my assistantship is a prominent member of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.*  Another librarian I worked with regularly visited the local schools to encourage children to take part in the summer reading program ad other programs offered at the library.  Yet another, I know of worked closely with area Girl Scout troops.
  4. Public service librarians also plan community programming:  For this point, I do not mean traditional library programs.  Community Programming would be more like cultural enrichment, not teaching library skills.  Librarians working on community programming may bring in authors or other guest speakers; screen movies; hold chamber music events; plan crafting events; or arrange other special programs.  These are meant enjoyment, not learning (thought it can be both in many children’s programs).  For example, my undergraduate university library holds weekly events, including guest speakers and/or chamber music.  My graduate university offered an in-house concert once a semester and every finals week brought in “stress busters” do do ten minute massages.  My local county library recently held children’s science workshops in conjunction with the summer reading program and a Downton Abbey Tea.  And to clarify, in this case I am using the classification “public services librarian” to mean any librarian predominantly working with the public, whether that is reference, children’s, etc., and not those working in a back room doing things like cataloging or processing materials/requests.  Some public libraries have a titled role called “Public Services Librarian,” often meaning one who works works in the reference department and is responsible for planning programs.  They are included in my broader usage, but there are more titles than just that one for those who work with the public.

All of my above points have no direct sources to cite.  They come from my observations from class, textbooks/professional development reading, library work experiences, and talking to others in library roles.  That said, I’m sure many would back up these points, not just me.  Also, in all cases, “archivist” can be substitute for “librarian.”  Archivists do all of the same things, except with manuscript/archival collections and creating finding aids instead of catalog records.

Does this help your understanding of what a librarian is?  Did I leave out something you think is critical?

*The League of Women’s Voters is an organization that encourages women to vote and provides unbiased material to help women make informed decisions.


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