These are the Different Types of Librarians Found in a Public Library
It may surprise you, but just like there are different kinds of accountants, doctors, and lawyers, there are also different kind of librarians whose duties hardly resemble each others at all. While librarians in the United States tend to get the same graduate-level education earning some variation of an Masters of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree, once finished with school, they have many possible roads. The first question is, “Would you like to work at a public library, an academic/school library, a special library, a museum, or an archive? Once that is decided, each of these types of GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) institutions have many unique career tracks. While I feel all of GLAM is interesting, I’m going to cover public libraries here since it’s what I know best…
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Public libraries are the best-known type of library, receiving upwards of 1.4 billion visits a year in the United States. It makes sense, then, that there are nearly 50,000 public librarians (and almost 90,000 non-librarian staff).
It should be noted before I break down different types of librarians that job titles are one thing, but what librarians actually do in the wild depends on many variables: Size of the library, community need, budget, individual skills and preferences, and much more, meaning that while many of the following may be distinct jobs in large library systems, they may also be covered by a single person at a tiny rural library.
To start, front-line librarians break down by the age group they serve: A youth services librarians serves birth to twelve, a teen/young adult (YA) librarian covers 13–18 year-olds, and an adult services librarian handles everyone 19 and up. In rare instances, there are librarians who focus solely on more specific age groups such as pre-K, emerging adults (~19–25), and older adults. Regardless of age, most of these librarians spend their days answering patron questions at the information desk, coordinating and/or hosting events, and doing some form of collection development (buying materials, weeding, organizing displays, etc.). Some libraries also now have outreach librarians who don’t tend to focus on age, but place. The job of outreach librarians is pretty much all related to making community connections, conducting programming and, very occasionally, providing research assistance outside of the library. That’s not to say that outreach librarians are the only ones that serve outside of the library. Youth services librarians, for instance, frequently make visits to local schools to promote literacy and share library news.
Beyond these front-line staff, there is a whole cadre of other librarians that keep a library (or library system) functioning. Catalogers are librarians whose main job is to assign call numbers to materials, in the public libraries, it’s usually per the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), though not always. Large library systems, or those where purchasing is centralized, have Selectors (sometimes called Collection Development Librarians), or librarians whose job it is to purchase books for the system. These librarians tend to be very knowledgeable about publishing in general as well as a range of items specifically. For example, a library system might have a selector specifically for adult non-fiction or audio/video materials.
Many public libraries also have separate Technical Services Librarians, whose function is to coordinate the logistics of new material intake and processing, material binding or repair, etc. (basically, anything having to do with the physicality of materials). This role is frequently merged with the Collection Development Librarian. A similar but adjacent job title is Systems Librarian. This person might interact with library vendors, work on the library website and OPAC (online public access catalog), and/or deal with the back-end of the ILS (integrated library system, or the software libraries use to circulate materials and keep track of patron accounts). Systems Librarians tend to work closely with IT departments in addition to having substantial tech skills themselves.
Those are the main jobs you’ll find librarians doing in the public library, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention:
- Subject-matter experts, who can be both public-facing and behind-the-scenes, and usually provide training and advice to other librarians on specific library areas or age groups (such as youth services).
- Coordinators: Essentially, librarians who organize and run ongoing or one-off system-wide initiatives. This is most-often an office job and is really more of project manager position than a traditional librarian. This role is mostly found in large library systems since that’s where there is budget for multiple large projects to be going on at the same time. It’s also my current job!
- Government Documents (Govdocs) Librarians: In case you weren’t aware, the United States government publishes a lot of stuff. As the name suggests, these librarians handle the materials at libraries that serve as a government documents repository (an aside for classification nerds: These documents have their own special classification called SuDoc (Superintendent of Documents Classification System)). This is a position that was a lot more frequent in the past.
- Directors, administrators: It goes without saying, but, as with any organization, there are sailors toiling on the decks, others who steer the ship, and beyond them those that command the fleet. Depending on the size of the library, administrators may or may not have any interaction with the public (other than in handling elevated complaints). Their jobs consist of decision-making (read: problem-solving), high-level coordination, budgeting, and strategic planning. Not all libraries require their high-level administrators to have MLIS degrees, but most do. Though many of the top staff may also have additional credentials, most commonly an MBA or MPA (Masters of Public Administration).
Of course, besides librarians, libraries have all sorts of other essential functions performed by paraprofessional library workers. I’m always curious about the future of libraries and librarians, so I recently checked the Occupational Outlook Handbook, a longstanding career reference guide provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and learned that:
“Employment of librarians and library media specialists is projected to grow 5 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations. Communities are increasingly turning to libraries for a variety of services and activities. Therefore, there will be a need for librarians and library media specialists to manage these resources and to help patrons find information.”
Hopefully, this piece has given you a sense of the many types of work that happens in a public library. Now, if we expand to academic libraries and special libraries, we’d have to stay here a whole lot longer! Not that I’d mind.