What makes a librarian?

This essay is a supplement to my more general essay about libraries and librarians, going into more detail about the education and different types of position in libraries.

Learning: quill on a green background

What does this mean for you?

The biggest thing I hope you take away from this is that  there are many different people who work in libraries, and that we have different kinds of education, training, and experience. Some of those things can be very confusing to figure out from the outside.

If you have a bad experience with someone (especially if they do something counter to the Library Code of Ethics, which includes making you feel bad or shaming you for asking about a topic, or treating you disrespectfully), I want you to know that that’s not okay, and that talking to someone higher up in the library may be helpful to both you and other people with similar needs in the future.

There’s a section at the end of this essay about what you can do if something’s awful.

What makes a librarian?

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

If you are a librarian in a professional library position, you probably have a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science (MLIS), Library Science (MLS), Information Science (MIS) or maybe something else. I’m going to use MLIS as the abbreviation here (since it’s both the one I have and probably the most common current degree.)

The MLIS is the terminal degree in the field unless you want to teach other people to be librarians (in which case you do a Ph.D in Library and/or Information Science.) 

The accrediting body for all these degrees is the American Library Association (they also accredit Canadian programs). An ALA accredited MLIS is the core requirement for most professional librarian positions.

It’s usually something like a 2 year program, but a lot of people do the degree part time while working, and these days there are a number of good quality distance programs, so the actual time for someone to finish their degree can vary a lot.

Different kinds of library jobs:

The fact I say ‘professional library positions’ implies there are other kinds, and there are: these are lots of people working in libraries in positions that do not require the MLIS. Some places refer to them as classified staff, or paraprofessionals, or by other terms (often the job title might include ‘assistant’ or something like that.)

Basically, the division is supposed to be that the classified role can be done by anyone who can learn the skills and procedures for that role, and the professional training is about making larger choices about collections, resources, ethics, administration, budget, resolution of concerns,  and the role of that library in that community that require a lot of independent decision making and responsibility.

(And in practical terms, in the US, a lot of classified positions are hourly, non-exempt, and a lot of professional positions are salaried exempt, which has implications for scheduling, work outside the scheduled hours, and how things like professional development might be handled.)

What’s involved in the MLIS degree?

A lot of the degree (though specifics vary by school) focuses on larger questions of information theory, ethics, administration, and library specific details like cataloging, as well as things like how to design programming, instruct people in library tools, and make decisions about what items are and aren’t part of the collection.

My library degree involved 12 courses. I took:

  • An intro to the field (required). Different kinds of libraries, current issues in the field.
  • An introduction to reference (required). How to answer questions and help people find information.
  • A cataloging class (required). How do we organise materials so we can find them.
  • An administration class (required). Budgets, future planning, project management skills. Mine focused on academic libraries.
  • Reference in the humanities. Specific resources for humanities subjects, including history.
  • Information policy. How different policies affect libraries, including privacy, statistics, etc.
  • User instruction. How to teach people how to research and find information.
  • Information seeking behaviour. How people look for information and how to help.
  • Collection development. What items should be in our library, why, and creating a diverse collection.
  • Communication and collaborative work. Communication and collaboration skills (focused on libraries).
  • Public library history. How did public libraries develop, and what historical habits should we know about?
  • History of the book. How books developed, and a little about preservation.

Many programs focusing on libraries in general will require courses in cataloging, reference, and administration plus maybe a general introduction to the field, with the other courses based on the person’s interests or goals in the profession. Specialised programs, like those for people getting certification as school librarians, or for people who want to work in archives, usually have a lot more required courses and fewer electives.

As you can see, these classes are a mix of practical concepts (cataloging, how to research and help people with it), theoretical (why information policy matters, why our libraries are like they are) and a mix. (Best practices for putting these things into use.)

Broader questions:

A lot of work for the MLIS degree is about ethics in various ways: how do we make sure our own biases and preferences as librarians don’t get in the way of serving the people who use that library?

How do we provide library services to the entire community the library serves, not just the ones who are most obvious or most pleasant to deal with? How do we help people know we can help with their questions? Are there things we should be doing to make our materials and spaces more accessible?

Technology is a more and more essential thing in our daily lives, but how do we provide that in useful ways, teach people how to use it, and teach people about larger issues (like privacy). Do we try a new technology because it’s new, even if it might not be useful? How do we spend our money so that we have some new tools, but keep the tested ones too?

This affects things like having a collection that reflects all of the people in the community (not just the well-off ones, or the ones who fit a certain demographic, religious identity). It affects how we design and furnish the library spaces. It affects how we approach customer service and library policies, and what the library focuses on.

A lot of degreed librarians are actually very adamant about people’s access to information, often in much more subversive ways than you might realise.

What if someone doesn’t have a degree?

There are plenty of jobs in libraries that don’t require one. (And more than there used to be, because as a cost cutting measure, a lot of libraries require the MLIS for some positions, but not all.)

Many of these people can do really great work – they know the library collection well, they can answer the questions that come up regularly, they know people in the community and help them feel welcome.

However, that doesn’t always mean they’ve got a good sense of how things are done outside their library or their area, or have had training and discussion to help them deal with complex but unusual situations.

(The degree doesn’t guarantee this either, but it’s supposed to improve your chances someone has that training or sense.)

Other kinds of education:

There are a few schools that offer an undergraduate or certificate program in something called library science: these don’t count as the professional degree (just like an undergrad psychology degree is not the same as a Master’s degree in Social Work or graduate degrees related to becoming a therapist.)

They’re usually meant for people who want some skills, or who are working in specific classified roles, and want to move up within those kinds of jobs.

If you want to be a professional librarian, it’s actually a lot more helpful to have significant academic experience in a particular field, and some positions will require that. (For example, if you have an undergrad degree in a science, you will likely be a stronger candidate for many science librarian positions.)

Some positions also require a second subject Master’s. This is most common in academic libraries (and especially those that treat their librarians as faculty with a tenure process rather than staff.) In that case, it’s meant to make sure you can interact with research faculty as a peer in doing substantial research.

Finally, there’s on the job training. Many professional librarians attend conferences regularly to catch up on new approaches, technology, or other resources. When there are changes to cataloging methods or technology, there will be training for staff. A number of organizations also offer online training for specific topics (like customer service, dealing with difficult patron situations, or a specific tool.)

What does this look like in different libraries?

Bearing in mind that there’s a huge amount of possible variation, here’s some general guidance:

Public libraries:

In very small or more remote public libraries, there may be no degreed librarian.

I lived in Maine for 4 years, and many small town libraries are open maybe 20 hours a week. There’s a special program in the state to help get the people who run these libraries appropriate training.

Some of the people in these jobs have an MLIS, but many don’t. (And they still do fine for having a small library that serves their tiny community.)

In slightly larger public libraries, if you have one or more full time staff people, there’s a good chance at least one of them has the MLIS degree, but the other staff might not.

In public libraries with multiple staff members, usually the library director or branch manager will be a professional librarian, and a few other members of staff probably are too – often at least the staff members in charge of reference, technical services, and children’s and young adult materials. The people working at the circulation desk, however, are probably support staff positions, and there may be other people in technical services or other departments who are too.

This means that if you have an unpleasant experience (someone questioning what you’re asking about, telling you the library doesn’t have books about that, etc.) from someone at the circulation desk, you can definitely ask to talk to the reference librarian or the head of the library.

Hopefully you should get an answer more in line with the professional code of ethics. (Which means they should not dismiss your interests, and will help you figure out the best way to access the material.)

School libraries:

Many school libraries used to have a professional librarian at every school. Due to funding cutbacks, a lot of districts have gone to a model where there is one professional librarian overseeing a number of schools (so one professional librarian between four or five elementary schools, or split between the upper grade schools) with maybe an assistant or a teacher who also does other things helping with classes in the school every day. Sometimes it’s parent volunteers.

This is obviously not a great solution. Limited staffing obviously prevents kids from being able to come and check out books during free times. Either limited staffing or staffing by people without specific training in children’s literature or development can lead to very rigid guidance about reading levels of books, rather than the more nuanced discussions that someone trained to work with multiple grade levels would have.

And there’s definitely a lack of continuity that means it’s harder to get kids excited about reading, support reluctant readers, or support kids who may feel left out of other parts of school life.

Academic libraries:

You can usually expect that the library director and department heads will have a professional degree, as well as reference and instruction librarians. Sometimes other people will as well.

However, this depends on the structure of the library: I know more than one academic library where the person at the top of the organisational chart making final decisions is not a librarian. (I disapprove of this, I should say.)

Generally, the people working at the circulation desk (and sometimes other tasks, like initial technology support) or sometimes also with simple cataloging or processing jobs are student workers, with support staff supervising them.

Student workers are often interested in working in libraries in the future, but they obviously have limited experience, and they’re also working a relatively small number of hours.

(At the academic library I worked at, when I left, the lead student workers were there about 15 hours a week, and most others worked 5-8 hours on average. That’s going to slow down improvement in skills that don’t come up every shift.)

Academic libraries may also include tutors, writing center employees, technology staff, and many others. Most of these people don’t have library-specific training, even the amount that student workers at the circulation desk might have.

Special Libraries:

Special libraries often have a professional librarian running the library, but there may be others working there, or support staff – since there’s a huge variation in special libraries and how they work, there’s also a huge variation in staff. It’s common in business and other settings for the head of the library to report to someone who isn’t a librarian (my boss isn’t, for example, though she does have a lot of education experience.)

When there are problems:

So, part of why I wrote this essay was to explain that sometimes people are treated badly in libraries for all sorts of reasons, and most of them are not necessarily about you.

I’ve known some amazing librarians and support staff at different jobs and using different libraries. At our best, we are creative, thoughtful, curious, committed to helping other people find information that makes a difference to their lives, and a centre for community and learning.

But at our worst, we can be – well, pretty awful. Sometimes it’s because we’re having a bad day, and it’ll pass. (Even though that’s not much help to the people who talk to us that day.)

There are also some toxic people and situations in libraries. Sometimes people take the job because it’s in their town and is convenient, but discover they aren’t good at it (or only like helping some kinds of people) and they’re not committed to the core ideas of freedom of information access, privacy, or diverse collections to support diverse communities.

Sometimes someone was a great librarian 20 years ago, but now they’re burnt out, and don’t want to learn about new things, and they make choices that make that library less and less useful or easy to get help in. Sometimes budget cut after budget cut has left people scrambling to cover core services, or the community has changed in ways that make people in the library feel like it’s never going to get better.

Some library jobs are union or local government jobs with agreements that mean that moving someone out of a position is very lengthy and complicated, even if they’re making library users and co-workers miserable. (Or the library is worried that they’ll lose that position entirely if they get rid of someone, and they don’t know how they’d provide some services if that happened.)

There’s no excuse for treating library users badly because of these things (or because of someone’s individual personality) but it definitely does happen.

If it happens to you, the best thing you can do is to escalate it. Usually the library director wants to hear about this kind of thing. A specific email with details of the encounter can work really well if you don’t want to try and explain over the phone. (You can offer to follow up in person or by phone, if you like.) Asking to talk to the head of reference or head of circulation can also work if you had a bad experience with someone at either desk.

If you have a situation you’re not sure about, you’re also welcome to contact me through the contact form here, tell me a little about what happened or what library it was, and I’m glad to see if I can help you figure out who to talk to and if there are particular phrases or references that might support your goal. (I can’t make any promises about the outcome, obviously, but I can at least help make sure you’re making the best argument for better libraries you can.)

Title card: What makes a librarian

Last edited December 25, 2016. Reformatted November 2020.

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