Exploring this Job

There are several ways you can explore the field of librarianship. First of all, high school students have their own personal experiences with the library: reading, doing research for class projects, or just browsing. If this experience sparks an interest in library work, you can talk with a school or community librarian whose own experiences in the field can provide a good idea of what goes on behind the scenes. Some schools may have library clubs you can join to learn about library work. If one doesn't exist, you could consider starting your own library club.

You can also learn more about library science by reading periodicals such as Library Journal ( and American Libraries (

Once you know you are interested in library work, you might be able to work as an assistant in the school library media center or find part-time work in a local public library. Such volunteer or paid positions may provide you experience checking materials in and out at the circulation desk, shelving returned books, or typing title, subject, and author information on cards or in computer databases. In college, you might be able to work as a technical or clerical assistant in one of your school's academic libraries.

The ALA provides a wealth of career information at Contact the ALA or another professional organization to inquire about student memberships. For example, the ALA offers a membership option for college students and a "friend" membership option for nonlibrarians who are "interested in participating in association work." Most groups offer excellent mentoring opportunities as well. Finally, if you have an e-mail account, sign up for one or more of the listservs (sometimes known as electronic discussion groups) offered by these groups. A listserv is an e-mail list of professionals throughout the world who consult each other on special topics. ALA members monitor a number of listservs for members and nonmembers. By subscribing to a listserv, you can discover what matters concern professional librarians today. Before you post your own comment or query, however, be sure you know the rules and regulations created by the list's moderator and always be respectful of others.

The Job

Librarians perform a number of tasks depending on their specialties. Some librarians may focus entirely on user services while others are concerned with technical or administrative services. Depending on the needs of their departments or institutions, librarians may perform a combination of these tasks, or take care of even more specific duties within their specialty. Some specific types of librarians in each category are noted in the following paragraphs, but this is not an exhaustive list. If one of these areas interests you, be sure to contact a library school or the American Library Association (ALA) for information about additional opportunities.

The librarian working in user services helps patrons find materials and use resources effectively. This type of librarian should be thoroughly acquainted with all materials in the library, from card and online catalogs to reference books. Reference librarians advise users and help them find information they are seeking in encyclopedias, almanacs, reference books, computer databases, or other sources. They also have access to special materials that may be filed in areas not open to the public or kept off-site.

Often librarians in user services may choose to work with a special age group. Children's librarians help children select books, teach them about the library, and conduct story hours. Young-adult librarians perform similar services for junior and senior high school students. Instead of story hours, however, they plan programs of interest to young adults, such as creative writing workshops, film discussion groups, music concerts, or photography classes. Adult services librarians work with the adult population. They may help conduct education programs in community development, creative arts, public affairs, problems of the aging, and home and family.

Special librarians, who are sometimes called information professionals, are employed in settings other than schools or public libraries. There are many specialties. For example, law librarians are professionally trained librarians who work in legal settings such as private law firms, government libraries, and law schools. Medical librarians, also known as medical information specialists, help manage health information. They are employed in libraries or information centers in hospitals and other medical facilities, public libraries, government agencies, research centers, colleges and universities, and pharmaceutical, publishing, biotechnology, and insurance companies. Music librarians perform many of the same duties as traditional librarians, but specialize in managing materials related to music. They are employed at large research libraries; colleges, universities, and conservatories; public libraries; radio and television stations; and musical societies and foundations. They also work for professional bands or orchestras and music publishing companies. 

Library media specialists work with young people in school settings. They select materials useful to students in their class work, teach them to use the library media center effectively, help them with assignments, and work with teachers on research. Also known as audiovisual librarians, library media specialists (who must also be certified as teachers) select and maintain films, videos, slides, prints, records, DVDs, compact discs, and other nonbook materials and supervise the purchase and maintenance of the equipment needed to use these materials.

Community outreach librarians or bookmobile librarians bring library services to outlying areas or to special communities such as nursing homes or inner-city housing projects. These librarians bring resources to communities that do not have easy access to library services.

The technical tasks of the librarian may include ordering, cataloging, and classifying materials according to the Dewey Decimal, Library of Congress, or other system, and librarians involved with these technical services might not deal with the public at all. These librarians select and order all books, periodicals, audiovisual materials, and other items for the library; this entails evaluating newly published materials as well as seeking out older ones. Many libraries now have added compact discs, audio recordings, DVDs, films and videos, computer and video games, slides, maps, art pieces, and photographs to their loan services. The selection and purchase of these is also the responsibility of the librarian. The librarian, therefore, considerably influences the quality and extent of a library collection.

All new additions to the library must be cataloged by title, author, and subject in either card or computerized catalog files. Labels, card pockets, and barcodes must be placed on the items, and they must then be properly shelved. Books and other materials must be kept in good condition and, when necessary, repaired or replaced. Librarians are also charged with purchasing, maintaining, and evaluating the circulation system. Considerable technical knowledge of computer systems may be necessary in deciding upon the extent and scope of the proper circulation for the library. The actual process of circulating books, such as stamping due dates, collecting fines, and tracking down overdue materials, however, is usually handled by nonprofessional library staff such as work-study students, part-time employees, technicians, or assistants.

Acquisitions librarians choose and buy books and other media for the library. They must read product catalogs and reviews of new materials as part of the acquisitions decision process. They do not work with the public, but deal with publishers and wholesalers of new books, booksellers of out-of-print books, and distributors of audiovisual materials. When the ordered materials arrive, cataloging librarians, with the aid of classifiers, classify the items by subject matter, assign classification numbers, and prepare cards or computer records to help users locate the materials. Since many libraries have computerized the acquisitions and cataloging functions, it is now possible for the user to retrieve materials faster. Many libraries have phased out bulky card catalogs and now provide users with electronic databases that can be accessed at the library or online at a user's home. Cataloging librarians are also known as library catalogers.

Bibliographers usually work in research libraries, compiling lists of books, periodicals, articles, and audiovisual materials on selected topics. They also recommend the purchase of new materials in their special fields. Information scientists, or automated-systems librarians, are specialists trained in computer science who plan and operate computer systems. More and more libraries today are tied into remote computer databases through their computer terminals, making it unnecessary for a library to house all the materials users may request. Information architects are information scientists who design systems for storing and retrieving information. They also develop procedures for collecting, organizing, interpreting, and classifying information. 

Circulation librarians, with the help of clerical workers and stack attendants, manage the records of books and materials that are borrowed and returned and make sure that the materials are returned to the appropriate place in the library. Conservation librarians are charged with protecting and lengthening the life of the library collection. These librarians plan for the future, preparing for circumstances that might threaten the collections.

Administrative services librarians manage all areas of the library. They supervise library personnel and prepare budgets. They are also responsible for public relations and represent the library within its community as well as in such policy-making organizations as state or national library associations. Ultimately, administrators make sure that the library is constantly cultivating and expanding its resources to best serve the needs of its community. 

The library director is at the head of a typical library organizational scheme. This individual sets library policies and plans and administers programs of library services, usually under the guidance of a governing body, such as a board of directors or board of trustees. Library directors have overall responsibility for the operation of a library system. Among their many duties, they coordinate the activities of the chief librarians, who supervise branch libraries or individual departments, such as the circulation, general reference, or music departments; periodical reading room; or readers' advisory service. In a large public library a chief librarian supervises a staff of assistant librarians and division heads while administering and coordinating the functions of the library.

The assistant librarians often consult with (and report to) the chief librarian or library director regarding policy decisions for their area. They also train, schedule, and supervise library technicians and library assistants. Library technicians and assistants work in all areas of library services. They assist patrons in the library, via e-mail, or on the telephone, and they provide information on library services, facilities, and rules. They also catalog materials, prepare orders of materials and books, maintain files, work on checkouts, and perform many other varieties of jobs within specialized areas such as audiovisual or data processing.