Saturday, February 4, 2012

A Recap of What Librarians Really Do

In the popular imagination, librarians do little more than stamp books and shush patrons. (Think of the stereotype of the stern librarian with a finger to her lips.) However, this couldn't be further from the truth.

Many people's ideas about what librarians do are as
antiquated as the card catalog.
image source:

Today's librarians not only process incoming and outgoing materials, they also order materials for the library, create catalog data for these materials so that patrons can easily find them, educate patrons on computer programs and the Internet, and lead classes on literacy and English as a second language...and that's just for starters! In an article published last year by the Guardian, Emma Cragg and Katie Birkwood explain why 21st-century librarians are a whole lot more than "frontline, customer service staff."

The Guardian (UK) * January 31, 2011

Beyond Books: What It Takes to Be a 21st Century Librarian
From connecting with people to keeping up with the latest technologies, there is a whole lot more to the job than stamping due dates

Librarians provide training to show people how to search for
information and evaluate what they find.
photo: science photo library

By Emma Cragg and Katie Birkwood

If we stopped the next person walking by on the street and asked them what our jobs as librarians involve, we'd be willing to bet that their first answer would be stamping books. This is because many people's experience of librarians is of the frontline, customer service staff. Have you ever considered how the books get on to the shelves and ready for you to borrow? Behind the scenes there are teams of librarians working to make this happen.

There are librarians who select the books for purchase, librarians who process the orders and librarians who create the bibliographic records that make it possible for you to find the book in the library catalogue and then on the shelves.

Books are only one aspect of what libraries and librarians are about. Librarianship is a people profession; a librarian's job is to connect people with the information they are seeking, whatever format that may take. At their heart, all library jobs have a central purpose: to help people access and use information, for education, for work, or for pleasure. In all library roles customer service and communication skills are important. If anyone ever thought they'd become a librarian because they liked books or reading, they would be sorely disappointed if they did not also like people too. Libraries of all kinds are keen to demonstrate their value to as wide an audience as possible, and to open up access to culturally significant resources that they hold.

In the digital age, when information is increasingly becoming available online, there is a propensity to say that libraries and librarians are redundant. This is not the case. Information available online is often of dubious origin and there is still a wealth of information behind paywalls that can only be accessed by those who have paid. We have helped many library users who have only been using search engines for their research and come to the library perplexed because they cannot find the information they want. If anything, the internet has added to the range of services libraries provide and in turn this has also increased the variety of roles available to librarians.

As well as being good communicators with people and active adopters and exploiters of technological developments, librarians need to have detailed specialist subject knowledge to pass on to library users. Librarians provide training to show people how to search for information and evaluate what they find. These information skills sessions are now expanding to include digital literacies such as how to stay safe online, the use of social media sites and online collaboration tools.

There is no standard route into librarianship: librarians have first degrees across the whole spectrum of subjects. To become a professionally qualified librarian you also need a masters qualification in librarianship or information science. An introduction to librarianship can be gained through a graduate trainee scheme. These are run by libraries in a variety of sectors with an aim to provide experience and training in a work-based context prior to the masters course. A year as a graduate trainee can be useful but it is not a requirement for a place on a postgraduate programme.

More information about the wide range of jobs undertaken by librarians can be found through the Library Day in the Life project. This is a biannual event that encourages librarians to blog about their working week. Round 6 of Library Day in the Life ran from 24 -30 January 2011.

If you are interested in finding out about how to embark on a career in librarianship, Ned Potter has summarised the ten things you need to know if you want to work in libraries. Many librarians have also written about their route into the profession through the Library Routes Project.

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