What do librarians do?

I get that librarianing is serious business. I get that it’s sophisticated enough to warrant masters degree requirements. I understand the research aspect of things, as in having advanced -fu skills and advanced knowledge of reference materials for a range of fields. But since most librarianing goes on behind the scenes, that’s about all I know.

Mastering the Dewey or the LoC system is trivial. Or is it? Mastering it to find what you’re looking for is one thing; is it a different story from behind the desk? Do you have to categorize books? Don’t most books come with a LoC number? Is the skill in learning how to gauge a subject to build a collection? Is the degree similar to a highly focused MBA, in that you have a small to large enterprise to manage (staff, budgets, distribution, inventory control, etc.)?

I’m pretty sure we have more than one librarian here, but I didn’t find an ask the… thread—if it’s out there feel free to just link.



In knew this one librarian who would have a couple of tequilas and then do pretty much anything you wanted. She was awesome.

Damn, and I let my library card expire! :frowning:

I took a couple of courses in Library Science back in the Dark Ages (around 1980 or so), and one of the things we learned about was controlling the materials…what to buy, and how to buy, and just as important, what to discard. Most of the rest of what I learned is no longer relevant, as we have these newfangled search engines these days, and I don’t NEED to use the microfiche or card catalog or the various magazine indexes. Or Latin plurals, either.

I’m not a librarian but my brother plays one for money. From what I make of it, different levels of librarian do all these, depending on what role and title. Although the lowest level doesn’t just involve classification and procurement but also coordinating the different inter-library loan systems, training and managing volunteers and users of the library computers/electronic catalogs, and other duties that probably vary from location to location.

That’s actually called classification and who do you think does it to begin with? A librarian.

If I may simplify it a bit (a lot, really) there are two different species of librarians:

[li]Cataloguers, classifyers, indexers and what-have-you. These people are the salt of the Earth (although head librarians often don’t understand this). Their task is to describe a book (magazine, whatever) both the physical object and the contents so that[/li]
[li]Reference librarians can find what the customer is looking for or doesn’t even know he needs.[/li][/ol]

You might guess that I’m a cataloguer. :smiley:

Why you should fall to your knees and worship a librarian.

Depends on what you do. Right now I’m a periodicals librarian. I’m in a big library, so there are several of us periodicals librarians. Behind the scenes we select what magazines and newspapers we’re going to get and which ones we should get rid of, we weed annually to keep exactly what we want to keep (current and prior year of most magazines, except what we bind or get film on) which is a huge job, we input serials records into our ILS system because they’re quite specialized and different from books, so technical services gave that to us, we physically and electronically process hundreds of physical issues a day, we index local magazines and obituaries (a HUGE job) so people can find what they’re looking for, and a million other things. For example, I also write blog posts for the library blog, and I serve on a metric ass-ton of committees.

For the public, I answer questions. “Ask me about the bathroom @ your library!” I help people find current and archived articles, show them how to use indexes, look up hundreds of fucking obituaries for the most boring people on the planet, show them how to use microfilm, troubleshoot the microfilm readers, and now staff the information desk so I answer questions about the whole damned library. I help people with their resumes, help them upload their pictures to sleazy internet dating sites, help them learn how to use a mouse. I spend a lot of time teaching patrons how to use library databases.

I also prepare and put on programs for the public - classes, literary events, panels, etc.

That’s just the barest tip of the iceberg when it comes to public service, though - yes, we are a lot better at finding things in the catalog than you are. We know our collection backwards and forwards - I have to know pretty much off the top of my head, for example, what boating magazines we have, and where to find boating product reviews if you ask me. We have more than 1,500 magazine subscriptions and nearly a hundred newspaper subscriptions, plus defunct things bound and on film, and of course you can look them up but personal knowledge is always better. For example, I can tell you to stop wasting your time because there’s evidently no such thing as a good mattress review - they all say just go to the store and buy one you like.

At the much smaller local library where I used to work, librarians would do the following:

**Collection development and management. ** You want to maintain a current, informative collection that is the right size for your library. So there’s this constant process where you need to keep tabs on what you have in every subject. You look at the new books being published and decide whether you need them, based on what you already have, your library’s needs, and your budget. At the same time, you need to get rid of outdated information. So you’re always looking at, say, what you have on Chinese history–how many titles, how old, what gaps are there, what is that ugly book from 1940 doing there and does it have value?–and working on improving that, for everything. Different subjects have different needs.

Patron services. Your reference librarian exists to help patrons find the answers to every question there is, from research on WWI to how to join the French Foreign Legion to how a 75-yo man who has never used a computer can be expected to manage his Medicare account online. I’ve been asked for Gold-Rush era maps by guys who were planning a week’s prospecting, tried (futilely) to teach adult CC students who have never written a paper how to properly cite their sources, looked up psychological research, all that sort of thing. And public librarians will deal with a certain number of mentally ill folks who want interesting things, or just attention, or who are willing to start fights over the computers. Oh and you want to run periodical classes for the public on how to use databases, etc.

Management. Handle the budget, hiring, the usual kind of thing–of course you must do this with about a third of the money it would take to have a proper library.

Children’s and YA services. Run fun programs, make your rooms as enticing as possible, help children and teens find the books/information they want (just as above), give storytimes, run field trips, manage teen volunteers, do a summer reading program that includes special events like a live animal show, marionette performance, whatever you can get.

A certain amount of marketing, PR, grant application, fundraiser stuff.
It looks like I will soon be working at an academic library, where my job will involve reference work and teaching classes on how to use the library.

Different librarians do different things. As mentioned before, there are catalogers, indexers, reference, etc. But there are also various types of special librarians, corporate librarians, etc. Corporate librarians, for example, often (depending again on the industry, etc.) will be doing a lot of “finding” work for scientists, researchers, architects, etc. etc. A scientist may call and say “I need everything ever written about dialysis machine tubing between 1990 and now.” So the librarian’s skill is in devising a search strategy that will cover all of the possible appropriate resources, with all appropriate synonyms and alternative/related terms, and get the maximum level of both “precision” (finding only what’s relevant) and “recall” (finding everything that’s relevant).

It’s another type of librarian’s job to enter all these resources in the database with classifications, indexing terms, subject headings, and other information so that they can be found, again assigning terms with maximum precision and recall in mind. “Will someone searching for ‘dialysis’ be able to find this? Will someone searching for ‘renal failure’ be interested in this article?”

Reference librarians in academic and public libraries are often educated (or should be) in all of these techniques as well, since naturally knowing how the information is classified clues them in a bit on how to use those rules to find the desired information. But in addition to finding information, they usually have an additional role as teachers who enlighten people on how to find information themselves (which for various reasons corporate librarians don’t often teach people). So people say “isn’t everything on Google?” Well, a lot of things are, certainly. But to get the most out of it, it helps to know how to formulate the best query you can, so you don’t waste a lot of time scrolling/clicking through junk. And not everything is available through Google. Plenty of information needs still “require” a trip to the library. And while Google’s keyword searching is nice, there’s no subject classifications, authority control, or other techniques that serve to broaden your results to terms or resources you might like but didn’t know to look for.

(I’ve worked in libraries for almost 13 years now, and am closing in on completion of a Master of Library and Information Science degree)

When I started working at a library at my college, I at one point remarked to the reference librarian that she seemed to contain all human knowledge in her brain. She said, no, it was just her job to know how to find all human knowledge.

This was a teeny-tiny library, and we only had four librarians.
The Director: she is in charge of the library. Amongst other things, she was the one who told the college administration how much money the library needed, and decided which department of the library got how much. Basically any major decisions went through her, and all money stuff. She was also the ultimate authority in what books were purchased, replaced, sold at the book sale, etc.
Acquisitions and periodicals guy: He, uh, acquired things. This included managing subscriptions to about a hundred periodicals, which also meant deciding how many back issues of each periodical are kept out (ie, past six months of Time are open to the public, but only the past month of the local paper), how many back issues of each are kept in storage available upon request, and when to clear out old back issues for the sake of space. He was also primarily in charge of buying books - adding new items to our collection, deciding whether or not to replace lost or worn out items, and buying new copies of very popular items.
Cataloging/Tech Services: Once we got the new items, she made them usable. The first step is to figure out where it goes - some books do already have an LOC number, but some can also fit in multiple places, and it depends on the particular library. The book needs to be added to the catalog (both the computer and an actual hard-copy list), labelled, stamped, barcoded, and in many cases you need to put a protective cover on it. Once books are in circulation, they need constant looking after (rebinding, repairing taped pages, pulling the hopeless cases from the stacks, replacing the anti-theft strip, cleaning DVDs and CDs, etc.) Most of the actual tech work was done by student employees, in this case.
Circulation/Reference: What you think of when you think of a librarian. She checked out books, kept the database of patrons current, sent nagging letters at delinquent patrons, send us students to search for missing materials, sent us students to keep the stacks in order, lorded over the interlibrary loan program, and could tell you how to find just about any information (look online, look in archived periodicals, look in this or that online database, “Oh here, this book should really help you with that paper you’re writing”).

Again, this was a very small college library, so we had fewer staff than a bigger library, and most of the day-to-day grunt work was done by us student employees. In bigger libraries, the work is divided up - the public library in town has three branches, a collection ten times larger, and several dozen librarians. So the specifics vary, but the basic theme of the jobs stays the same.

This is awesome, thanks.

Side question: How many of you have been looking at the Pit and keep seeing a thread called The 24 Types of Librarian?

Heh: I play online trivia games: in the variety I play you need to answer correctly before the buzzer, and you’re competing against everyone else in that chatroom who is trying to do the same thing. Since the buzzer is only around 12 seconds long, it is difficult to Google the answer before the buzzer.

But not if you’re a reference librarian like my brother was. It was so easy for him that it got boring, so he stopped playing. He didn’t need to “cheat” on the Google search like some people did who had an app that would scrape the text from the chatroom and google it: he just really was that good at thinking up an appropriate web search.

  1. Children’s Librarian
  2. Cataloging Librarian
  3. Law Librarian
  4. Chemistry Librarian
  5. Business Librarian
  6. Database Specialist
  7. Reference Librarian
  8. Academic Librarian
  9. Acquisitions Librarian
  10. Competitive Intelligence Librarian
  11. Solo Librarian
  12. Government Librarian
  13. Knowledge Manager
  14. Information Technologist
  15. Social Science Librarian
  16. Museum Librarian
  17. Digital Resource Librarian
  18. Engineering Librarian
  19. News Service Librarian
  20. Map Librarian
  21. Development Librarian
  22. Archivist
  23. Primary School Librarian
  24. Rare Book/Special Collections Librarian

(they’re all legitimate specializations, but there may be some overlap)

Everybody’s covered it pretty well, but I’ll chip my two pennies in too.

As an academic librarian (at a reasonably sized branch of a huge university), I generally work in public services. Meaning that when students, faculty, or staff on my campus need to know how to find a piece (or pieces) of information, they come to me. Our job isn’t so much finding a piece of information any more; it’s teaching people how to find information. In this age, a lot of that means teaching students that all words on a screen aren’t created equal.

I also teach classes on research methods (mostly for humanities and social sciences, but I can do it all) and on critical thinking about information.

In addition to all this, I select (and de-select) books for my collection, which, in an era of tight budgets means reading many more book reviews than you ever thought existed.

Further, I serve on committees at the campus, university, and national level. And boy howdy, does that chew up time.

As a faculty member, I’m also required to do research and publish in peer-reviewed journals. I mainly write about the labor market for librarians.

Oh, and I read the Dope from time to time. :slight_smile:

So what is the science, exactly, in “library science”? In what way do you conduct experiments?

Well, when there is a poopy smell, I sniff from here at the desk. Then I go over to the magazine racks and sniff over there. From there I decide on a third point from which to triangulate.

Once the origin has been determined, we observe to determine the nature of the smell. Poopy pants would require a visit from security, whereas a fart will dissipate on its own. The experimental protocol I’ll leave as an exercise to the reader.

I believe that the orgainzing of large amounts of information qualifies as a [science](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_science).   I am also beginning to believe that  librarians don't "do" tequila or have a sense of humor, that is until I saw Zsofia's latest post. :D

Awesome list, but FtR I wasn’t doubting that there weren’t a bunch of specializations. It’s that there’s a Pit thread right now called The 24 Types of Libertarian. I just kept seeing as librarian (which kept reminding me that I wanted to post this question).

Oh, by the way, the 24 types of librarians is really more like

  1. Ancient battleaxe on a smoke break
  2. Idealistic children’s librarian with puppet fixation
  3. Guybrarian with chip on shoulder
  4. Clueless administrator
  5. Young “edgy” librarian, belongs to “Librarians Who Say Motherfucker” group on Facebook

and so on.

Holy shit that’s a real group! (And hysterical.)