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Different Kinds of Librarians

In the children’s room of a city library, a woman gathers toddlers and their parents together for story time. At a law school, a man teaches students how to find information they need for their classes. In an office downtown, a man working for a large corporation searches the Internet for news about a rival company. In a special museum vault, a woman carefully mends a rare book printed three hundred years ago. What do these people have in common? They are all librarians.

People often think librarians spend their days surrounded by books in school or public libraries. Many librarians do work in public libraries and schools. However, librarians can also be found working at radio stations, hospitals, museums, law firms, film studios, and government offices. Some librarians work with books, but others organize film clips, photographs, maps, or sheet music. Some work only with information stored on computers.

No matter where they work and what materials they handle, librarians help people find and use information. In the United States, about 150,000 books are published each year. There are thousands of different magazines, journals, and newspapers, and new issues of each appear regularly. New Web sites spring up every day. Librarians have the knowledge and skills to help people sort through this flood of information and find what they need.

Public Librarians

Public libraries can be found in big cities, small towns, and rural areas. A public librarian might work at a bustling reference desk, teach classes in researching on the Internet, or drive a bookmobile that brings library materials to people living in the country. Since public libraries are open to everyone, public librarians help people of all ages, races, and backgrounds. Some choose to work mainly with children, and some work with teens or adults.

Public librarians help patrons find answers to questions. What does a vampire bat eat? How do you say “house” in Italian? Who wrote Pride and Prejudice? How many jelly beans would fit in a basketball? Librarians answer questions like these every day. In 1998, public librarians answered over 292,000,000 reference questions. People do not even need to leave home to get help from public librarians. During library hours, librarians answer questions by e-mail or telephone. In some places, people can log on to the Internet and get help from a librarian any time—even in the middle of the night!

Public librarians provide important services to their communities. They plan library programs that educate and entertain the public. Almost all libraries provide computer access, and librarians teach people how to use computers and the Internet. Public librarians organize many types of reading activities. These activities include book discussion groups for adults and summer reading programs for children. Librarians also plan special events such as puppet shows, concerts, and readings by authors.

School Librarians

School librarians, also called school library media specialists, work in public schools, private schools, and parochial (religious) schools. Whether a school librarian works in an elementary school or a high school, an important part of his or her job is teaching. Gail Bradley, an elementary school librarian, leads four or five classes a day. She teaches students how to use dictionaries, atlases, encyclopedias, phone books, and other reference sources. In addition, she introduces them to different types of books, from mysteries to folktales. She also shows students how to find books on the library shelves.

Some school librarians do not teach classes, but they still spend much of their time showing students how to do research. High school librarian Tom Jalbert helps students with class assignments and research papers. He also tries to make information easy for them to find. If he knows students are studying a certain subject, he will place books on that topic on a special cart. He sometimes prints out lists of books for students so they will know what to look for if they visit the public library.

Like other librarians, school librarians have a wide variety of tasks. When Bradley is not teaching classes, she might be checking the library shelves for outdated or damaged books, sending out overdue notices, organizing author visits, or supervising the fifty students who come to use the library during recess.

Academic Librarians

Academic librarians work in college or university libraries. Teaching students how to find information is often part of an academic librarian’s job. Karen Beck, a librarian at a law school, spends nearly half her time on the job teaching law students how to do legal research. She shows her students how to use computers to find law cases and teaches them how to do research for the articles they write. She also helps professors find information needed to teach their classes and answers questions at the reference desk.

Many academic libraries contain collections of rare books or other historical items. Along with her other responsibilities, Beck is the curator, the person in charge, of the law school’s rare book collection. She talks with rare book dealers and helps decide which books to buy. Putting together public exhibits of the rare books is one of her favorite jobs. As she explains, “I love to be among the books and think of all the lawyers from hundreds of years past who have handled these books and used them in their lives. And the books themselves are very beautiful and very special. It’s fun to be able to bring them into people’s lives.”1

Special Librarians

A special library is a library that focuses on a particular subject. There are over nine thousand special libraries in the United States. They can be found in a wide range of places, from art museums to zoos. Some companies and law firms have their own libraries. Special librarians are hired to run these libraries. For example, librarians who work for newspapers show reporters how to find facts needed for their stories. Government librarians help elected officials and members of the public find information.

Special libraries often contain books as well as periodicals, publications printed at fixed intervals, but some have other special collections related to their fields. The library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California, has a collection of sixty thousand film scripts and twenty-five thousand movie posters. It also houses unique film-related items such as the wig the Cowardly Lion wore in the movie The Wizard of Oz.

Because special libraries focus only on certain subjects, they can cover those subjects in much greater depth than a general library could. Lawrence Currie, a librarian at a science museum, works with a large collection of books, maps, and journals that all relate to natural history. He points out that not many general libraries could buy an expensive book on single-celled plants because not many people would use it. However, in a special library focused on natural history, there would be greater demand for such a specific book.

Combining Interests

Librarians often choose to work in special libraries so they can combine their interest in books with interests in other subjects. A librarian who enjoys music might decide to work in a music library. A librarian interested in medicine might work at a hospital or medical center library.

No matter where librarians work, people turn to them for help when they need answers. Without librarians, the search for information would be slow, frustrating, and sometimes even impossible.

1 Karen Beck, interview by author, November 19, 2003.

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