What is a Librarian?

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“Do you get to just read all day?”

“So are you all volunteers?”

“You have to get a Master’s degree to learn the Dewey Decimal System??”

Librarians love to answer questions, but these are not among our favorites. The job of a librarian (degreed or paraprofessional) seems to be a mystery to many people, despite the library being a common fixture in every town in America.

Last month, I wrote about how the library is much more than books. Likewise, library staff are much more than book clerks.

Customer service is, of course, the cornerstone of library work. When hiring, we often ask our candidates, “Why do you want to work in a library?” While we love readers, we are not looking for an answer detailing the candidate’s love of books. We hope they answer by describing their dedication to helping people.

Our days are filled assisting people of all ages develop their literacy skills, apply for jobs, find tax forms and advice, gather stats and data, get updates on the stock market, research investment opportunities, find free legal advice and social services, and access forms for social security, unemployment, and insurance. We guide people who want to open an email account, perfect their English, design their family tree, edit photos, buy a new appliance or start a business.

Our way of customer service is much more than offering a smile and a “have a nice day!” We practice empathy, implement trauma-informed practices, protect your privacy, defend your First Amendment rights, and make a point to put you on a path to the information or assistance you need, even if we can’t provide it to you directly. We aim to make sure no one leaves here empty-handed.

The skills librarians draw upon are vast. A knowledge of books, literacy, and publishing are vital, but just as important are skills in analytical thinking, initiative, writing, management, data curation, organization, communication, marketing, program planning and project management. Not only do librarians need to be adept at, and up-to-date with, emerging technologies, we must have the patience and leadership skills needed to teach all kinds of technology to our patrons.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 73% of library staff hold an advanced degree. Most professional and managerial library jobs require a Master’s in Library and Information Science. In an article in U.S. News and World Report, Julie Peters, director of the James B. Carey Library in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, says, “Library science is not about card catalogs and rows of dusty books…It’s a field that is constantly changing and evolving, as technology creates new strategies for sharing, managing and organizing information.”

With our limited budgets, we must be careful when choosing which books, DVDs, and other materials to purchase for our shelves. One library couldn’t possibly house every book ever written, but we are dedicated to providing high quality, well-regarded, truthful, and entertaining materials for everyone. Librarians take great care to stay up to date on publishing trends, current events, political discourse, even pop culture. We rely on book reviews, awards and best-seller lists to help guide our choices.

It is important to us that everyone feel welcome, and know that the resources we provide are free for them to use and enjoy: free of financial burdens, free of judgement. The staff are essential to that principle. You can get books and information just about anywhere. A librarian will help you find the right books, and access trusted information. A widely shared quote from R. David Lankes, Professor of Librarianship at University of Texas at Austin, says it well: “I have long contended that a room full of books is simply a closet, but that an empty room with a librarian in it is a library.”

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