Libraries and Librarians

One of the things that comes up fairly often in my life is my mentioning something about my profession, and someone going “Oh! I didn’t know it worked like that.” This essay is my go at answering some common (and not as common) questions about libraries, librarians, and related subjects.

If you’ve ever wondered what kind of education librarians have, how we spend our day, or how things vary at different kinds of libraries, there’s something here for you.(I should note: my comments here are based on experience in the United States: libraries work a bit differently in other places, though many of the basic ideas will transfer anywhere English-speaking.)

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Types of libraries:

There are quite a few different kinds of libraries, but they fall into four general categories: public, school, academic, and special.

Public libraries:

Public libraries are generally run by the area they’re in – town, city, county. They provide resources, programs, and staff for anyone who lives in the area, plus visitors, and are usually funded by local or regional taxes. Public libraries have books, computers, DVDs, ebooks, audio books, databases, and all sorts of other kinds of materials. Programs can include everything from story time for toddlers, to reference and technology help, to connecting people with social services in the community.

They can have just one library in the system, be a branch in a larger system in the same town or city, or be part of a regional network that allows you to check out and use resources at any library in the system.

For example, I have lived in a city (Minneapolis), in a rural town (in Maine) and now near Boston. Minneapolis had a network of city libraries, but was also tied into a consortium that included the entire metro area. The public library in Maine was a single library, but could get books from other libraries in the state usually within a week. My current town has one main library and one smaller branch, but is in an immediate network with 42 other libraries in the northwest Boston metro, and I can also get a library card for the Boston Public Library and access their collection.

Public libraries serve everyone in the community (including visitors to the area, at least for use of things in the library), which in a time of tight budgets can be really complicated. Sometimes this means cutting hours the library is open, sometimes it means making different choices about staffing. However, when the library’s available, there are a wide range of things you can get help with.

School libraries:

School libraries are pretty easy to explain: they’re libraries in schools (public schools, private schools, whatever.) They mostly focus on providing the materials needed in that specific school, so their collections have a lot about the topics that come up a lot in classes, but not necessarily much about other topics. Some school libraries encourage kids to be in the library when they don’t need to be somewhere else, others have strict schedules (often because the library space is used for lots of classes, or because there’s limited staff.)

You generally can’t get access to a given school library unless you’re associated with that school (for the safety of the kids.)

Academic libraries:

Academic libraries are those at colleges, universities, and other places of higher learning. Again, the collections here are going to focus mainly on materials for classes and related research, but that can cover a wide range. The collection has a lot of books probably, but these days, most academic libraries spend half their budget on electronic resources like databases and ebooks. Many academic libraries offer some additional resources, whether that’s some lighter reading, programs and lectures on topics of general interest, or workshops to learn how to use technology.

Academic library services are obviously most available to people associated with that institution, but there are sometimes other ways to get access. Many public university libraries allow access to resources on site by residents of that state, and a lot of other academic libraries allow access to people who live in that town or nearby area (especially in more rural areas where there aren’t a lot of libraries). Other schools have an option to pay a fee (I’ve most commonly seen something in the $50-100 range for a year) for access. Finally, if the school offers extension courses or allows enrollment in a single course at a time, that often comes with library access.

Special libraries:

Special libraries are the category that covers everything else – these are libraries in hospitals, law offices, large businesses, federal and armed forces libraries, libraries for state-level departments, all sorts of other places. It also includes places like archives and state libraries. A piece at the Hack Library School blog has a nice overview of some kinds of experiences.

Usually these focus very heavily on a particular subject, and they serve a limited range of questions and patrons. Access depends on the library, and on whether you have particular reason to use their resources.

Subscription libraries:

These were one of the ways people got books before the spread of public libraries in the late 1800s, and there are some of them still around. In this kind of library, you pay a fee each year to have access to the collection, that fee pays for items and staff. Some subscription libraries are huge (like the Boston Athenaeum), others are very small, or focused on a particular field – there have been a couple of Pagan projects to run subscription libraries, for example.

Some allow access in the building for free, and require a membership to check items out. A few subscription libraries have extensive database collections, and membership can let you access them, even if you’re not local to that library.

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What makes a librarian?

One thing a lot of people don’t understand is how training and education work in the library field.

Professional library staff hold a Master’s degree. This can be a Master’s in Library Science, a Master’s in Information Science, or a Master’s in Library and Information Science. It mostly depends on the program they got their degree. I have a MLIS, and it’s probably the most common these days, so I’m going to use MLIS for the abbreviation here.

Usually the MLIS is about a 2 year program (there’s some variations) that covers a wide range of material about helping answer questions, how to do research, how to manage a collection, but also about things like the theory of libraries, ethics, serving a diverse community of library users, how to set and enforce policies (including how to deal with situations that have legal implications), as well as administrative things.

Other people working in a given library may not have this education: they may know the collection or their community really well, but they haven’t had the same kind of training and learning about broader issues in the field, especially ones that may not come up for a given library very often. Libraries refer to these positions in different ways, but some common ones are: classified staff, paraprofessionals, assistants, support staff, non-MLS staff, etc.

People in these positions can be (and often are) really good at the specific tasks they do, and many of them have amazing knowledge of their particular library. But usually their job tasks are things that have a defined process, rather than things that involve combining information from a broad variety of sources to provide answers or make decisions about the library. Some may know very little about how other libraries handle the same issues, or emerging issues in the library field as a whole.

There’s a lot more about MLIS programs, and differences between kinds of library jobs on my page about what makes a librarian.

Finally, just to complicate things, there are plenty people with the MLIS degree (or especially the MIS degree) who work outside of libraries and archives.

What do librarians do all day?

Lots of things! One reason many people become librarians is that we often get to do a variety of things. (Though, interestingly, the one thing most of us don’t do all day is read books!)

I’m a librarian in part because I’m a generalist who loves working with a wide range of information and kinds of resources. Even now I’m working in a more limited subject area, I can answer a question about something from the 1830s, and the next question is about cutting edge technology.

These are also things that can vary a lot library to library. In my current job, in a small special library, we don’t have a lot of circulation (and many of our questions come in by email or phone), but I do all of the tasks below if they need doing. (I have a part-time assistant, but I’m here a lot when that person isn’t.)

In a larger library – basically more than half a dozen people on staff – people will specialise more, and focus on one or two of these tasks most of the time. (They might fill in if someone’s on vacation or out sick.)

Daily library tasks:

Someone has to open and close the library, turn on computers, shelve books, and keep the library tidy. In some libraries, this can take just a minute or two (in my current job, I unlock two doors and turn on the lights).

In others (like my previous job), opening and closing can take 15-30 minutes each. Closing usually takes longer because you have to make sure everyone’s left. Be kind to your librarian, and be ready to leave just before the library closes for the day.

Another part of the daily job is to make sure that the library is safe and clean and available for people to use. That includes everything from tidying up and dealing with maintenance issues, to dealing with library patrons who are upset, causing problems for others, or doing things that are illegal or against library rules.

It can get awfully complicated, and libraries may handle these things differently based on what kind of library they are, what resources they have, and their community. (Though we hope the goal is always to treat people with respect and consideration and in keeping with our code of ethics.)


This is where you check books out or return them, if the library circulates materials. In some places it can be a really informal system. In others, there are computer scanners, staff who do this, or you can use a self-check machine. This is also often the place people pick up books being held for them from other libraries. Circulation roles are usually support staff positions, and they’re often responsible for opening and closing the library and related tasks as well.

Reference and Reader’s Advisory:

Some of the questions libraries get asked are really simple: “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Can I borrow a stapler?” and “How do I log onto a computer?” and those are often handled by the circulation desk. But more complicated research questions or those requiring librarian knowledge are another category.

Reference questions are a consultation (and conversation!) in which the library staff person uses a variety of resources to help meet a patron’s information needs. The library staff person might find items in the collection that would help, help someone search for websites, pull together a list of resources, make a referral to a particular specific resource, consult a subject expert, or do further research themselves to find information.

That doesn’t mean telling the library patron what to do! People answering reference questions are not supposed to give medical or legal advice (we’re usually not doctors or lawyers – and even if we are, we’re not that patron’s doctor or lawyer), just point to resources that might help the patron find more information.

One of the most challenging parts of being a librarian can be getting into a discussion with a patron, and finding out, part way through, that what they want to do is something you find against your own personal values. (This is where that professional education comes in!) Sometimes patrons will ask really startling things that take a lot of solving.

However, when you can find the information or resources someone needs, it’s an amazing thing. There’s an older blog that’s still up called the Feel Good Librarian, where a reference librarian from a public library in the midwest wrote up some of her interactions, if you want a sample.

Reader’s advisory is a lot easier to explain: it’s the library term for the question “What should I read next?” A reader’s advisory librarian probably reads a lot of books, but even more they know how to ask questions about what you liked about things you’ve read, and compare those to other books and lists, and make some new suggestions.

Librarians who do reference and reader’s advisory usually also spend time helping create resources (like lists for the library website, handouts, etc.) or working with other library roles to share information.

Instruction and Programming:

Another easier one to explain, these two roles have to do with sharing library resources with people. Instruction refers to sessions that teach people how to use the library (if you’ve gone to college, you’ve probably sat through at least one) and programming is the term for other kinds of events at the library.

For example, a public library might have an evening with the author of a new cookbook and some recipes to test, or a genealogist might come speak about researching your family tree.

Some librarians spend most of their work time making these sessions happen, and in other libraries, it’s part of the job of librarians who are also doing other things. Sometimes instruction and programming is more casual: in my library if someone has a question about how to use a resource, I may just sit down and show them individually.

Interlibrary Loan:

Interlibrary loan (or ILL as it’s commonly called) is the process of getting materials from outside a given library’s network. The process is usually several steps and can take a day to weeks to arrive. You can read more about this on the essay about getting access to materials. 

Collection development:

I sometimes refer to collection development as ‘buying books and other items with other people’s money’. Which is true, just not the complete picture.

Collection development and related terms are about how we build a library that fits our particular community’s needs and interests, not just the ones they’ve told us about already, but the ones that they don’t want to tell us about, or the things they’ll need in six months, or a year, or five years.

My collection development professor in grad school talked about the process as a series of conversations between an individual item, the library user, and other items in that collection: you want to have a diverse range of materials, of interest to people who use that library, that is also going to fit in your available space and your available budget!

Obviously, libraries do this in all sorts of different ways. Some big public library systems centralise it. Others allow specific libraries to develop particularly strong collections in a given area (but then those books can be requested by people elsewhere in the system). Some libraries, like the one I work in right now, keep a strong historical collection of outdated materials (that are still useful for historical research), other libraries focus only on current materials.

Technical services:

Technical services is one term for the people in libraries who do a lot of behind the scenes organisation: this involves people who catalog books (assigning subject headings and call numbers so you can find out about the book and then where it is in the library.) It can also involve people who process the physical books, deal with subscriptions to journals and other items, manage digital resources, and many other tasks.


The last category of library work is admin work – this covers everything from budgets to hiring to human resources to keeping statistics about who uses the library and how. (Non-identifying statistics!)

In my current library, which is tiny, in terms of staff, my work this week includes interviewing someone for the assistant position we’re hiring for, working on statistics of our reference questions, working on my own yearly review documents, dealing with some planned travel for work details, and probably several other things I’m not remembering right now.

Someone has to do these things, and they all take time.

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In conclusion:

There are lots of different libraries and library resources out there. I’m going to tackle how to deal with some common library and research frustrations in a separate article.

Title card: Libraries and librarians

Last edited December 25, 2016. Reformatted November 2020.

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