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What It Takes to Be a Librarian

Most librarians say their love of books and reading led them to pursue library work. Many fondly remember the time they spent in libraries as children. Library jobs offer a flexibility that appeals to many prospective librarians. Librarians can find jobs nearly everywhere, and there are many part-time library jobs.

After deciding to become a librarian, a person must get the required training. Some librarians begin working as library assistants and work their way up to librarian positions. But for most people, the journey to becoming a librarian begins with earning a college degree and then attending library school.

Training for a Career as a Librarian

No particular college degree is needed to enter library school. Librarians need a broad base of knowledge, so the more subjects a librarian knows, the better. Students interested in working in a special library may major in a related field in college. For example, someone wanting to work in an art library might get a college degree in art history. Someone who wants to work as a cataloger might major in a foreign language, since catalogers often process books and periodicals written in different languages.

Some librarians earn graduate degrees in other fields before they attend library school. A law librarian with both library and law degrees has more job opportunities, so many law librarians earn law degrees before entering library school. A music librarian might hold both a library degree and a graduate degree in music.

Because so much information is now in data­bases and on the Internet, students who hope to attend library school need good computer skills. They must be comfortable working online. Some library schools require their students to design Web sites. The student who knows Web design before entering one of these schools will have an advantage.

Library School

Most librarians who attend library school earn a Master of Library Science (MLS) degree. This degree sometimes goes by other names, such as Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS). A degree from one of the fifty-six schools accredited (approved) by the American Library Association gives a librarian the best job opportunities.

Most MLS programs take from one to two years to complete. Some students choose to attend library school part-time. Since they may work during the day and take classes at night, these students may take three years or even longer to receive a degree.

Some library schools offer distance learning programs. In these programs, students can earn a library degree even if they do not live near a library school. They log on to online classes and talk to their teachers and fellow students over the Internet. Students in some programs spend a week on campus during the summer. In other programs, students spend three to five days on campus each term. Still others allow students to earn MLS degrees without ever leaving home.

Types of Courses

Most library schools have certain courses that all students must take. In the first year of library school, students learn about the history of books and the role of information in society. They study ways to organize information, how to select materials, and how to do reference work.

After taking the required courses, library students choose additional courses in their special areas of interest. These courses help them prepare for the particular type of library work they wish to do. A student might take a course in cataloging or one in maintaining archives, which are collections of records or documents. Students can learn about how to manage library branches, how to work with government documents, or how to pick library books for teens.

Since school librarians often teach classes, someone training to be a school librarian must learn about teaching as well as library work. Some states require that school librarians also be licensed teachers in another subject.

Continuing to Learn

Even after they graduate from library school, librarians continue to learn. Professional organizations bring librarians together so they can learn from each other. There are separate groups for school librarians, children’s librarians, special librarians, public librarians, reference librarians, law librarians, and nearly every other type of librarian. For example, the Young Adult Library Services Association works to strengthen library services to teenagers and to support librarians who work with teens.

Many of these groups hold yearly meetings or conferences. Librarians spend several days at these conferences learning more about their fields. A school librarian might attend a session about new ways to teach reading or one about new books for children. Public librarians might go to sessions about how to better help library users who do not speak English, or about how to raise money for their libraries. At these meetings, librarians from around the country share ideas with each other.

Ongoing Skill Development

Librarians sometimes attend one-day classes to help them learn new skills. If a library subscribes to a new database, librarians might go to a class to learn how to use it. Other classes might focus on how to work with library volunteers, how to prevent injuries on the job, or how to teach computer skills to library patrons.

Even if they do not attend classes or conferences, librarians keep learning. As they answer questions on the job, they add to their own knowledge. One thing that many librarians love about their career is the opportunity to learn new things every day. Every time a patron asks a new question, a librarian has a chance to learn.

Qualities a Librarian Needs

Because helping others and sharing information is a large part of library work, librarians must work well with people. People of all ages, cultural backgrounds, and educational levels use libraries. In the course of a day, a librarian might assist a child with homework research, help a tourist check e-mail, and work with other librarians to organize a library event. Public librarians in particular need to be comfortable working with many kinds of people.

Most librarians perform a wide variety of duties, which means they must be flexible. They need to be able to switch between tasks quickly. For school librarian Lezlie Glare, “A typical day means meeting with six classes, preparing for the next day, and it may include ordering, cataloging, planning for visiting authors, working on grants, coordinating volunteers, attending meetings, and countless other things.”5 Librarians must put the needs of library patrons first, but still find time to do the things needed to keep their libraries running.

Librarians must be patient and organized to find the answers to difficult questions. Sometimes a librarian will spend hours seeking the answer to a single question. A librarian cannot give up when answers are hard to find. He or she must have a logical system for finding information.

For someone with the right interests, training, and qualities, a library career can be tremendously rewarding. Someone who likes reading books, using computers, and helping people might find that being a librarian is the perfect job.

5 Lezlie Glare, e-mail to author, November 21, 2003.

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Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesLibrarian Job Description