Who and Where are the Librarians?

I was talking with a woman a couple of weeks ago, and she was surprised to learn that the Environmental Protection Agency has librarians. It hadn’t occurred to her that librarians existed outside of the traditional public library setting, and especially into a corporate or government setting. Yet, as I was talking with her she described to me a person at her company who most likely is a librarian, but doesn’t have that word in her title. This isn’t surprising; most people have only interacted with a librarian in a public library setting, but there are many other types of libraries and librarians.

So who are these librarians, and where do they work?

Well first off, almost all of them have advanced degrees. Most professional librarian positions require the applicant to have a Master of Library and Science (MLS). Sometimes they’re called Master of Librarian and Information Science (MLIS), and some schools call it a Master of Science in Library Science, but they’re all the same thing. But the truth is that librarians are everywhere. They exist at your school, at your college, and in your workplace. Librarians work for federal agencies, state agencies, law firms, hospitals, archives, filmmakers the public, non-profits, etc. You name it, and there’s a librarian working in that field.

There are many different types of libraries, and many different types of librarians in them. Libraries are typically grouped into five types:

  • Public Libraries – Public Libraries exist in most municipalities and serve the members of those townships. These libraries serve, well, the public. These libraries offer a wide selection of materials for their members, books, DVDs, databases, e-books, etc. However, some public libraries have other unique items in their collections such as tools, games, museum passes, telescopes, musical instruments, baking pans, and more.


  • School Libraries – School libraries are the libraries that exist in most K-12 schools. Sometimes they’re referred to as media centers. Many states require the librarians to have certification or licensure as a teacher. These librarians teach classes to their students, but how often will vary from school to school. In elementary school, the librarians can encourage reading and exploration of new topics, and as the children get older, they focus more on learning how to find credible sources for papers, different search strategies, and learning about plagiarism, among other topics.


  • Academic Libraries – Academic Libraries are the libraries within a college or university. These libraries serve the faculty, students and staff for the institution. Larger schools may have multiple libraries dedicated to different subjects like a life sciences library, or libraries dedicated to different schools, like a law school library. Many of these librarians are responsible for a specific subject matter (i.e. geology), and they may have a second master’s degree or undergraduate degree in that field to gain that subject expertise.


  • Special Libraries – Special Libraries are basically all other libraries. Libraries that exist in government entities, like the courts, or state/federal agencies, and libraries that exist in private corporations fall into this category as well. Some examples of a corporate library would be a law firm library, an insurance firm library, or an architectural firm library. There are also hospital libraries, and research libraries, like the National Institutes of Health. There are music librarians, some of whom work in the film industry. Almost any entity can have a library and most of those would fall under this category. In this type of library, there are more librarians who may not actually have the word “librarian” in their job description. For instance, sometimes companies hire librarians under different titles like “Information Resource Specialist,” or they may just be called “Researchers.” There are many titles to describe the work a librarian does, especially with regard to reference and research work.


  • Archives – Archives can be included in any of these types of libraries, and sometimes are included in the special libraries category. Archives contain important records and documents of historical importance to the public and/or to the company in which they exist. Some examples of archives are the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Coca-Cola Company Archives, the State Archives of North Carolina, and the Museum of Modern Art. Some archives can be visited by the public through appointment, while others are only accessible to their company’s employees.

Just as there are many types of libraries, there are many types of librarians, and they might not all have the title of librarian. I’m going to go over some of the bigger categories, but keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list:

  • Reference & Instruction Librarian – While this title is more commonly found in academic libraries, this position has similar job responsibilities across all libraries. This job involves doing some research to answer patron’s needs, and it may require more in-depth subject knowledge depending on where they work and with which department. Reference requires interacting with community members or faculty, and keeping up with new technological trends. As a part of this job, librarians also teach classes to their patrons, like information literacy, how to use certain databases and/or tools, or even English as a second language (ESL). For a better sense of what this might include, check out these blog posts from the academic librarian on reference and instruction.


  • Access Services Librarian – This title has a bunch of different variations, like user services librarian, or Public Services Librarian. The ALA (American Library Association) defines access services as “those functions in a library which enable the use of the collections, including the general circulation functions, reserves (both “holds” in a public library and course reserves in an academic library), shelving and reshelving of materials, and stack maintenance.” However, Access Services often also encompasses InterLibrary Loan, signage and collection security.


  • Collection Development Librarian – A collection development librarian is responsible for developing the library’s collections, usually both in print an electronically. Depending on the size of the library, a collection development librarian may only handle a specific topic within the collection, such as focusing on Korean studies in an academic library, or the children’s collection in a public library. Developing the collection involves purchasing new titles, and removing no longer relevant titles. They often analyze statistics from the library’s patron groups and the collection usage to determine which areas of the collection need more growth, and how much space to plan for over the next five years. To get a better sense of what a collection development librarian does, and what a collection development plan looks like, check out The Adventures of Library Girl’s Collection Development 2.0 blog post.


  • Web Services Librarian – A web services librarian position can encompass a lot of different things depending on the institution. Some positions require lots of coding and app development, while others require more content management and development. Overall though, web services librarians typically are responsible for their library’s website. They help envision a future for it, and keep abreast of new trends in technologies and the use the website to promote the library and its services to its patrons. Here is a part of a job posting for one such position “the Web Services Librarian is charged with supporting the coordination, planning, development, maintenance and evaluation of the Library’s evolving web presence, including the main website, integrated web applications, user interfaces and mobile environment.” To learn more about what a web services librarian’s job looks like, check out this blog post in Letters to a Young Librarian.


  • Cataloging Librarian – A cataloging librarian is typically referred to as a cataloger. The core function of a cataloger is to classify library materials into whichever system the library uses (Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress are the most popular). However, this work is far from boring. As Richard A. Murray writes in LIScareer.com “Catalogers get to see the library’s most interesting materials and have to figure out a) what this thing is, b) who might find it useful, and c) how to make sure they find it. Yes, you need to know the rules, but the trick is in knowing which rule to use when and how to apply them to the thoroughly bizarre item that’s sitting on your desk.”


  • Law Librarian – Many organizations ask for their law librarians to have a Juris Doctorate (JD) in addition to an MLS, making this a tough field to break into if you don’t have the former. Just as there are many types of librarians, there are many different roles for law librarians; they just deal specifically with legal materials and resources. In an academic law library, a law librarian might work on reference and research, in addition to teaching a legal research course for first year law students. In a government or corporate library, the duties would fall more under the traditional reference and occasional instruction at orientations, depending on the institution. Of course there are collection development librarians, catalogers, and web services librarians and other librarians in law libraries too. Typically for these more “behind the scenes” positions, many institutions are willing to forego the JD qualification. To check out more about law librarianship, I would recommend The Ginger (Law) Librarian’s blog and the RIPS Law Librarian Blog.


  • Medical Librarian – Medical librarians provide important resources for health care professionals. They help keep physicians, nurses, etc. on top of new research and products in their fields of practice. Medical librarians can also work in an academic setting, in medical school libraries. There, they work with faculty and students to help them with their research needs, and maintaining the collection. Sometimes institutions require medical librarians to have either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a related field. However, they don’t all just work for hospitals or school though, some also work for pharmaceutical companies, or other corporate entities focused on health care. Like with law librarianship, there are many different types of medical librarians from catalogers to researchers, and everything in between. To learn more about what it’s like to be a medical librarian, check out the Krafty Librarian and Librarian in the City.


  • Archivist – While most archivists have to get their MLS for this job, they also have to go through a special program to get an archivist concentration or archivist specific degree. That’s because archivists have to be trained in how to preserve and work with historical documents. Archivists also have to determine if something is no longer worth having in the collection, or if multiple copies of said item are worth having. Sometimes a master’s degree in history is required either in addition to, or in lieu of the MLS. Some archivists work on digitizing materials, some work with photographs, others work with film, and many work with a combination of all materials. A good blog post to check out to learn more is the What Do Archivists Do all Day? blog post by Archives @ PAMA.


  • School Teacher Librarians – School teacher librarians, school librarians, or teacher librarians should not be confused with academic librarians. They are also sometimes referred to as media specialists. Academic librarians work for colleges or universities, but school librarians work in K-12 schools. School librarians often work with the teaching staff at their school to collaborate on curriculum. Often, they work by themselves, so they are also responsible for the collection development, and shelving, and all other aspects of the library that other librarians might do in a larger library. As I mentioned earlier, these librarians teach classes, encourage reading among children, and instill best practices for research. They help determine the credibility of a source, finding sources, and how to use the school’s databases for research purposes. For more information, I would suggest reading The Blue Skunk Blog.


  • Embedded Librarian – Embedded librarians are typically in a special library environment, and they work with a specific group of that company. They may work with the research & development department, the marketing team, or the antitrust group, etc. These librarians work with a single group and they fine tune their resources and skills to be most beneficial to that group’s needs. They might do the research for that division, work on email alerts, or finding new resources for them. In a white paper written by Holly M. Riccio, she says “the key element of embedded librarianship is to move librarians out of the traditional library setting, whether physically or virtually, and into a new framework for providing library services. It shifts the emphasis from reactively answering research requests in a vacuum to developing a unique understanding of what customers need and delivering proactive results.” They get to have an intimate understanding of what that division wants and needs and can envision what they might need for the future as well. For more information, check out The Embedded Librarian blog.

Hopefully this will give those who don’t have an understanding of librarianship a better view of what some of us do, and where we are.

One thought on “Who and Where are the Librarians?

  1. Pingback: So…What does a Web Librarian do? – Dhruti Kari Bhagat

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