What does a librarian do?

Kalamazoo Public Library
By Kalamazoo Public Library [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.
When I was entering graduate school for my Masters of Library and Information Science, I had a few ignorant questions about what librarians do. Basically, most people ask: “You need a Masters degree to help people find books?” While I do think society does create false connections between higher education and the ability to perform work, these questions aren’t interrogating a system which saddles individuals with huge amounts of debt, stress, baggage, etc. for a supposed career (that continues to become less and less achievable).  These questions are either out of sheer ignorance or out of an attempt to devalue librarians’ work.

So, this post is mostly for the ignorant and a bit to push back on those malicious attempts to devalue my and my colleagues’ work.  I want to tell the ignorant what we do, and prove to the malicious that librarians put in a lot of high-level work.

So, what does a librarian do?  Tough question.

There are so many different types of librarians.  There are school (i.e. elementary and secondary education) librarians, public librarians, and academic (i.e. university) librarians.  Then, there are law librarians (who work in a law firm), corporate librarians (who might be in an archives or a competitive/business intelligence center), medical librarians (who work in a hospital or medical school).

Then, in each of those broad categories are other categories.  There are public services librarians – and they could be an instruction librarian, a research librarian, a reference librarian, a scholarly communication librarian, a copyright librarian, etc. Or there are technical services librarians. They could be catalogers, acquisitions librarians, electronic resources librarians, serials librarians, systems librarians, etc.  Then, there are library administrators, who deal with management and financials and all other sorts of tasks.

I won’t go into describing all these jobs.  In fact, I don’t know all the ins-and-outs of many of these library positions.

As my regular readers know, I am a tech services person in an academic library.  More narrowly, I’m an acquisitions librarian.  My job is so varied and sometimes specialized that  I can’t fully describe it, but I hope I can give a little bit of insight.

First, you can look at my post on “A Day in the Life of an Acquisitions Graduate Assistant” to get a peek at what I might do on a given day.

So, what does an acquisitions librarian do?  Well, anything having to do with buying library materials (books, magazines, journals, ebooks, ejournals, subscriptions to databases, audiovisual materials, etc).  That could be, very simply, ordering those items and paying for them and making sure the funds are allocated appropriately.  Then, there is plenty of research and analysis concerning the best ways to purchase materials.  For example, we analyze whether streaming videos is an economically viable alternative to purchasing DVDs.  We’re also on plenty of committees.  As the graduate assistant, at 20 hours per week, I’m already on two committees/task forces with the possibility of a third.

That’s what an acquisitions librarian does – very narrowly and briefly.

In terms of what reference and instruction librarians do, I’m also a bit lost.  Yes, I get what reference and instruction are…but what else does a reference and instruction librarian do?  (Most of these librarians aren’t on the desk or instructing 100% of the time; it’s too draining.)

Iris Jastram helped me out with her post “What does a reference & instruction librarian do all day?”  It’s a great, short post that I recommend you read.  But in summary, she breaks her work as a reference and instruction librarian down into four categories: subject liason work, supporting the library as an organization, supporting the university as an organization, and professional development activities.

I barely scratched the surface of what librarians do, but hopefully these two examples give a slight glimpse into the profession.  And yes, it can warrant a Masters.


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