What do librarians do?

Reference librarian and patron

Reference interview

It never ceases to amaze me how many newspaper and magazine articles I see almost every month proclaiming that “the library is more than books.”

That’s public libraries. Newspapers and magazines don’t seem to acknowledge academic libraries, special libraries, or school libraries very much.

I don’t see nearly as many articles that acknowledge that librarians do more than sit around reading books all day, but that’s another long-standing misconception.

Library collections have been more than books for more than a century. Every new technology in information or entertainment becomes a new part of library collections.

But libraries have always been more than their collections, too. There are plenty of bookless libraries. The only requirement for something to be a library is that it has librarians

library catalogers

Catalogers at work

Not everyone who works in a library is a librarian. Librarians must have a master’s degree in library science. Reference librarians and children’s librarians work directly with the public. So do librarians who travel with bookmobiles.

Catalogers and administrators, among others, work behind the scenes. But all librarians perform public service even if the public never sees them.


Here is some of what professional librarians do with their master’s degree:

  • Prepare and maintain policies that determine what gets added to the collection, including online databases
  • Choose and negotiate with the vendors who provide items in the collection
  • Determine what materials will be accepted as gifts and acknowledge them for tax purposes
  • Analyze how patrons use the collection and various services
  • Determine which obsolete or unused materials to remove from the collection
  • Describe each item in the collection in a cataloging record so that people can find it
  • Maintain the computer systems without which libraries can no longer function
  • Maintain the playback equipment for all of the audio and video recordings, including long-obsolete formats for content that’s not available in newer formats
  • Learn how to use emerging new technology in order to be able to teach patrons
  • Answer patrons’ questions, which may be easy to answer or may require considerable research
  • Help readers of fiction or other literature to find what to read next
  • Borrow materials from other libraries for patrons who need something the library doesn’t own
  • Plan and administer classes, seminars, concerts, reading groups, game nights, and other programs
  • Prepare job descriptions for open positions and hire the right people
  • Train and supervise the paraprofessionals who work in the library
  • Prepare budgets in order to allocate resources to keep everything working
  • Work within the community to promote the library and its services
  • Keep up with library literature (which is not nearly as much fun as reading books!) in order to keep up with constant change

That is not an exhaustive list.

inter library loan office

Interlibrary loan office

Unfortunately, librarians must take on the role of defending the existence of the library. Too many people think that Google can answer any question. It can’t.

Only printed materials or expensive proprietary databases hold the complete answers to some questions. It takes a librarian to navigate through a deluge of information and help patrons find what’s most helpful for their individual needs.

Lately, some people have suggested that since an Amazon Kindle or other e-reader can hold so many books, library collections are not necessary. But how, then, would anyone be able to read the majority of books, which haven’t been digitized and made available for the readers?

Librarians’ associations work on issues that are larger than a single library or library system. Librarians vigorously defend intellectual freedom, equal access to information for all demographics, and the concept of public domain in copyright law.

Being a librarian is a real job—a real profession. Librarianship performs services for the public that no other profession can.

Photo credits.
Reference interview. Some rights reserved by AASU Armstrong University Archives.
Catalogers at work.Some rights reserved by sundaykofax.
Interlibrary loan office. Some rights reserved by Morris County Library (NJ)

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