This exciting and varied profession embraces public service, literature, the cutting edge of technology, and more
By Rachel Singer Gordon -- Library Journal, 9/15/2009
So, you want to become a librarian? Welcome to a vibrant and exciting profession! Before leaping into a library career, though, take some time to explore your options. Learning what is involved and how librarians generally spend their time can help you determine if this is the field for you.
Perception vs. reality
While the popular perception of a librarian is of an older woman, hair in a bun, busily checking out books and shushing people all day, librarians’ actual duties, focus, and abilities are much more varied. While some still do enter the profession owing to their love of books, none of us gets to sit and read all day. Librarians’ workloads can range from creating original cataloging records for items in library collections and developing entire taxonomies to organize companies’ data to using their expert skills to answer complex reference questions. Many librarians also pursue newer career paths enabled by technology, which can range from having responsibility for implementing Web 2.0 technologies to managing an institutional repository.
A wide variety of options are open to information professionals. Beyond traditional options in public, academic, corporate, and school libraries, just about any organization in the information age needs people to shape, retrieve, and manage its information; if you think broadly about your prospects, you are able to maximize your opportunities.
If you intend to pursue a career in a traditional library, though, start by browsing the American Library Association (ALA) web site (www.ala.org) to find out about the different types of librarianship and the resources available to you from the national association. Also, be aware going in that there are several main types of libraries:
- Academic libraries are found in colleges, community colleges, and universities and may be either general or focused on one area of specialization, as in an academic health sciences or law library. Librarians’ roles in these institutions include such varied positions and tasks as working on the reference desk, teaching bibliographic instruction, cataloging incoming materials, selecting materials in particular areas, serving as faculty and departmental liaisons, and maintaining library web pages and online collections. A second subject master’s is useful (and sometimes required) in many academic positions. Academic librarians who have faculty status are often held to similar tenure and promotion requirements as other faculty, resulting in an emphasis on research, publication, and community service in addition to their day-to-day duties. Find out more at the Association of College & Research Libraries (www.acrl.org).
- Public libraries serve communities of all sizes and are distinguished by being open to all; this is what most people think of when they picture both libraries and librarians. Public libraries also employ people in multiple types of positions, which are often defined by department; you can choose a particular focus such as children’s librarianship, reference, technical services, systems librarianship, training, readers’ advisory, or collection development. Find more at thePublic Library Association.
- School media centers (or school libraries) are found in K–12 institutions. Most librarians in public schools are required to have a state teacher or media certification in addition to their MLS; check your state’s requirements. Librarians in private schools may not be required to be certified, but jobs are less plentiful and pay may also be lower. School media specialists are responsible for meeting students’ informational needs and acting as instructional partners with teachers while also carrying out the functions of running school media centers on a day-to-day basis. Be sure to visit the American Association of School Librarians, or start your quest with “Have You Considered a Career as a School Librarian?”.
- Special (corporate) librariesor information centers are found in corporations and other specialized environments, although many special librarians/information specialists now work with information outside the typical library setting and have a nonlibrary job title, ranging from knowledge manager to taxonomist. Find more at the Special Libraries Association. Since special librarianship is so broad, it also encompasses a number of subgroups from medical librarians to law librarians, each with its own typical set of duties and its own association. (Find more on medical librarianship at mla.org and law librarianship at aall.org.) Any previous experience or specialized degree will help you break into one of these specialized fields; seek out the relevant association(s) for your own area of interest.
Each of these types of libraries employs librarians in multiple subspecialties. In a public or academic library, for example, you can work in areas such as reference librarianship, answering questions at the reference desk and helping people with research; systems librarianship, working with library technology; or cataloging, creating, organizing, and annotating records for library materials. This list of "real job titles" for librarians and information professionals will give you an idea of the breadth of positions out there; also keep an eye on the job ads to see what types of jobs and titles are prevalent.
Librarianship can also be a great foundation for information-related careers in general; the skills you gain are directly transferable to a number of alternative careers, such as knowledge management, data mining, or competitive intelligence. You can think about careers with related organizations; library vendors, for example, often seek people with library and technical or library and training backgrounds.Some librarians choose to strike out on their own as independent information professionals and run research, indexing, records management, database, training, or other information-related businesses. This is a move best made by those with some years of experience as a librarian, though; it takes time to build up the skills and contacts necessary to run and market your own enterprise. Find more at the Association of Independent Information Professionals (aiip.org).
Before making the leap
We each have our own mix of reasons for entering the profession, and you’ll need to determine yours. Librarians, though, tend to be passionate about their career choice—this is not usually a profession people enter for the money but rather because they feel a calling to connect people with information, they find it a dynamic and fascinating field, they have a burning need to find information about anything and everything, or they are excited about technology’s potential to transform the way we interact with information. Asked why they became a librarian, some explain:
- “I don’t really want to be a librarian in the traditional sense, but I went into the LIS degree hoping for a jane-of-all-trades, Renaissance scholar–type education. Who knows little random bits about everything? Librarians!”
- “I realized not everybody liked searching for stuff as much as I do and became a librarian to help the confused/frustrated and make access to information more user friendly.”
- “Because Jorge Luis Borges was a librarian. Also because of Rupert Giles on Buffy. I like helping people and serving my community. I love the kind of services libraries provide to their communities. I like playing with new technology.”
- “I was working in a bookstore and liked helping people find books; it was an incredibly powerful and empowering thing to do. I was also impressed by a public librarian I knew who said she didn’t know everything, but she knew how to find out anything. I find it immensely satisfying work, morally and politically—plus a lot of fun!”
- “I enjoy working with people, technology, and information. Resolving a patron’s problem by using the resources available at my library, I imagine, is comparable to what a doctor feels after saving a patient’s life, or a lawyer feels after freeing an innocent person. While at completely different levels, to the patron, their problem at that moment can be life-altering, and, like doctors and lawyers, as a librarian I can make a difference.”
- “I didn’t enjoy my brief time in business and spent so much time at the library I figured I might as well work there. I started doing informational interviews and was impressed by all the people in librarianship who love their jobs.”
- “What I love about library science is that no day is ever the same, and you learn new things every day. When doing reference, it’s all the fun of research without having to write the paper; when doing cataloging, it’s like being paid to do puzzles all day. The more I study, the more I learn about LIS, the more interesting I find it. There is no limit to the things I can learn.”
Before deciding this is the right profession for you, put that urge to find information to work. Begin by conducting some informational interviews. Talk to working librarians in different types of libraries to find out why they entered the profession, whether their initial perceptions match the reality of library work, and what they do—and enjoy doing—in their jobs. Our impulse to share information extends to sharing information on the profession itself.
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