What Does it Take to Become a Librarian?

It's not an easy job.

We all know the stereotype. The middle-aged, glasses-wearing, bun-hair-styling female librarian who shushes people. But did you ever wonder what it took to become her? Modern librarians are very different from this old stereotype. And, per current standards, many have a Master’s Degree in Library or Information Science. How did this become a critical requirement? And how have librarians changed? Let’s walk through history to see how librarianship has evolved as a profession.

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Writing the Books On Libraries

For centuries, books were precious articles held in specific, challenging-to-access libraries in castles or monasteries for the elite literate population. As publishing expanded and literacy spread, books for establishing and organizing libraries came into being. The first was Advice on Establishing A Library in 1627 by Gabriel Naudé. He worked as the private librarian of a prominent French politician, Henri de Mesme, who made his extensive collection available to scholars. He wrote the book as an instruction manual for new employees on how the library worked, and it spread to include advice for new collectors on how to set up their books.

The Birth of Librarianship

The modern age of librarian education starts with S.R. Ranganathan. He began his career in librarianship in 1923 at the University of Madras. Taking on this role, one he accepted despite having no training, he dove in and traveled to England to get a degree. Upon graduation, he developed a classification system, the Colon System, which is still used in India today. In 1931, he published Five Laws of Library Service, establishing our current philosophy of the library’s purpose and forming the basis of future library programs.

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Books To People: Training Librarians

As the number of libraries in America increased, they needed librarians to run them. Responding to this, the first college offered a degree program in 1887. Founded by Melvil Dewey, creator of the Dewey Decimal System, it began the process of creating educational standards for future librarians. However, this program and the ones that followed lacked cohesion, so in 1903 the American Librarian Association started the first group devoted to this issue, the Committee for Library Training. Still, it wasn’t until 1923 that stringent standards got established.

At that time, another entity entered the conversation, the Carnegie Corporation. The Carnegie Corporation’s philanthropic organization wanted to ensure the ongoing vitality of the library mission of Andrew Carnegie. They wished to ensure that new library buildings were the best use for the funds entrusted to them.

Standards Shift

The Carnegie Corporation’s involvement coincided with a report examining the education of librarians delivered by Charles C. Williamson at the American Library Association convention in 1919. Williamson reported that the lack of established guidelines, standards, and principles made the library degree an untrustworthy barometer of basic skills. He recommended taking the parts of the various systems that worked and stitching them into a uniform program. Based on this, the Carnegie Corporation shifted resources into creating programs for training librarians. ALA set those new standards developed by the ALA’s Board of Education for Librarianship. The body granted accreditation to those that met the measures decided upon based on Williamson’s report. The ALA has been revamping and improving them ever since.

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The Role of Librarians

The professional standard that ALA decided on also reflects the changing role of librarians in society. We have moved from the position of a bookkeeper, focused on the books themselves, to a more expansive vision. Today’s libraries have pivoted again, focusing on connection and patron engagement, not just with the materials but with people. Degree programs have marked these shifts and altered their plan to create professionals ready to meet these demands.

Librarians Today

Now you know it takes far more than a pair of glasses and a stern demeanor to be a librarian. The title of librarian and the profession is dynamic and has altered itself to meet the challenges of our modern society. These professionals have morphed from enthusiastic amateurs to trained professionals over the past century. Librarianship will evolve as the materials and technology change, but, at heart, it will always be about literacy and information. They protect, collect, and make both accessible to the community.