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What Do Librarians Do?

Librarians perform a wide range of tasks, both in public view and behind the scenes. A librarian in a large library might work in only one department. For example, he or she might focus on organizing magazines or answering reference questions. In a smaller library, a librarian might do everything from repairing books to planning special events. In the past, librarians worked mostly with books, magazines, and other printed material. Now they purchase and organize everything from compact discs to collections of computerized information called databases.

Helping People Find Information

A big part of most librarians’ job is helping people find answers to questions. People visiting the library go to the reference desk to ask questions. Others who need help telephone the library or send e-mail to librarians. Some librarians specialize in reference work and spend most of their time answering questions. Others work at the reference desk for only part of their day.

School librarians help students research homework questions. Medical librarians help doctors find information they need to care for their patients. Sometimes a librarian can help simply by pointing a patron toward the correct area of the library. However, sometimes a librarian must spend a lot of time looking for the right answer. Most librarians find the search for answers exciting. They compare it to going on a scavenger hunt or solving a challenging puzzle.

Librarians at the Lucasfilm Research Library provide information to people involved in movie and television production. If a movie is set in Chicago in the 1890s, the librarians might write detailed reports about that time period. This helps the screenwriter make the movie true to history. If a costume designer wants pictures of wedding dresses from 1954 or an artist wants photographs of African elephants, the librarians search through books, magazines, computer databases, and special file folders full of pictures to find what is needed.

Now that so much information is available online, sometimes library patrons find too much information. If someone searches the Internet for “whales,” links to thousands of Web sites appear. Librarians can help people screen out information they do not need. High school librarian Tom Jalbert remembers a student who needed to know about a certain mythological character for a report he was writing. The student searched the Internet and came up with dozens of Web sites for companies named after the character—not much help for his report! Jalbert was able to help the student find a better way to get the facts he needed.

Teaching Groups and Individuals

Many academic and school librarians spend part of their time teaching classes. Elementary school librarian Lezlie Glare usually meets with six classes a day. She teaches her students everything from book appreciation to research skills. Some academic librarians teach ongoing classes about how to do research. Some hold sessions at the beginning of each school year to show college students how to use library resources.

Jalbert feels an important part of his job is teaching his students how to determine whether sources they find on the Internet are reliable: “Is the information from a university, or is it just from some student who put up his own Web site on biology?”2 Since anyone can put up a Web site, Jalbert wants to make sure his students know whether the information they find online is accurate or not.

Public librarians and special librarians also sometimes teach. Because most library catalogs are computerized, a person who does not know how to use a computer will have trouble finding books. To help, many public libraries offer classes in basic computer skills. Even if formal classes are not offered, a public librarian might need to show a patron how to use the online catalog or even how to use a computer mouse. Special librarians sometimes teach staff members in their institutions how to use new databases and programs.

Sparking an Interest in Reading

Many school and children’s librarians feel the most important part of their job is getting students excited about books and reading. Public librarians hold story hours for young children and host book-related events. School librarians read to classes and teach students to appreciate books. Gail Bradley’s favorite part of her job is sharing books with students: “If I’m excited about a book, I love to share it with them. I then try to follow up with those who have read what I suggested to see if they loved it as much as I did. Another great part of the job is hearing the students tell me about a great book they have read.”3

Librarians design special programs to encourage reading. Some public libraries offer summer reading programs that reward children for reading. Librarians from the San Francisco Public Library visit local schools to tell students about their program. Children keep track of which books they read and how many hours they spend reading. At the end of the summer, the children receive prizes such as free books or baseball caps for reading a certain number of hours.

Bradley and Glare help coordinate a Community Read at their school in Atherton, California. Everyone involved with the school—students, teachers, staff, and parents—reads the same book at the same time. The book is announced at a kick-off event each spring. Over the next weeks, students participate in a variety of activities related to the book. One year when the book was about a Mexican girl, events included a piñata party, a dance performance, and a fiesta with Mexican food and music.

Choosing What to Buy

Librarians are responsible for deciding which materials to buy for their libraries. They purchase not only books, but also videos, DVDs, compact discs, databases, and magazines. Librarians use lots of information to help them choose what to buy. They read special journals filled with reviews of new books. They listen to requests from library users. They also notice which books library patrons use the most. If a librarian sees that children’s picture books in Chinese are checked out often, he or she might make a note to order more.

School librarians talk with teachers to determine which materials students will need to do their research and reports. If eighth graders in a school study the Civil War, their librarian will try to make sure there are plenty of Civil War books in the library.

Special librarians also make sure to buy materials that meet the needs of their users. Since so much of the research that librarians at the Lucasfilm Research Library do is visual, librarian Jenny Craik says, “The main thing we’re looking for when we purchase books is great photos.”4 If someone at Lucasfilm is working on a movie about a particular subject or period, Craik shops for books that will be useful to that person.

Working Behind the Scenes

Instead of working with the public, some librarians choose to work behind the scenes. Those who work in library management do things required to keep libraries running. They hire staff, manage finances, and plan for new library buildings.

Other librarians specialize in cataloging, a way of organizing materials. If the books in a library were not organized, it could take hours to find anything. Fortunately, all libraries have systems in place to help patrons find what they need. But who decides where each book should be shelved? Should a book about the birds and fish of Florida be shelved with bird books, fish books, or Florida books? Catalogers study the books carefully and consult special reference materials to help them make these decisions.

Other behind-the-scenes librarians organize computerized information. A librarian might develop an online class that teaches people how to use Internet tools. Librarians design and maintain Web sites for their libraries, and sometimes even for their towns. They also make sure that online catalogs are simple to use.

Many Different Tasks

Some special librarians work to bring their libraries right into people’s homes. They take digital photos of their collections and put the photos on Web sites so people all over the world can have access to them. Instead of having to travel across the country to see a rare book, a person might be able to look at it on a library’s Web site.

With such a wide range of tasks to perform, most librarians find their jobs stimulating and enjoyable. Whether someone wants to teach children, preserve old books, answer questions, or assist scientists, there is a library job to fit his or her interests.

2 Tom Jalbert, interview by author, November 25, 2003. fn3. Gail Bradley, e-mail to author, November 24, 2003. fn4. Jenny Craik, interview by author, January 29, 2004.

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