Working as a Librarian

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By Dr. Catherine Armstrong

What do librarians do?

The profession once known as ‘librarianship' has now taken on many different names, and consequently the role of librarians has also changed in some cases. No longer are librarians simply the custodians of shelves of books, but they also have to look after electronic resources too. So, some librarian posts are now entitled ‘information managers' or ‘information scientists'. Traditionally the roles of archivist and librarian have been different, requiring different qualifications and with differing professional bodies, but there is some overlap between the two. Librarians sometimes find themselves looking after the archives of a particular group, family or company too. It is not simply the storage and maintenance of information that should concern a librarian, but also facilitating access to this information. Sometimes a librarian has to deal with a small user population, say of a particular college, whereas librarians who work in large public facilities have to make their collections available to almost everyone. They have to deal with readers face to face and also make sure that the library catalogues are as user-friendly as possible so that readers can find the books they need.

Many librarians also have the responsibility to build up their collections. They have a certain amount of money to spend per year and are told to acquire new journals and books accordingly. This is often less an intellectual decision than a financial one with librarians especially in the state sector having to cut back on their acquisitions each year rather than increase them. There are several different sorts of library, these can be broken down into three main types: public, university and private.

Why be a librarian?

Being a librarian is an excellent job for those who like academic study but are not keen to become a lecturer. Librarians, especially in the university sector, can be research-active and attend academic conferences, although of course they do not receive funding to attend these events as an academic would. Librarians have to be meticulous and precise in their work of ordering, recording and caring for books, but also very friendly and customer-oriented for the outward-facing parts of their job.

The job satisfaction of being a librarian is often high. The job is undertaken by dedicated individuals, committed to the ongoing development of their library and passionate about books and learning.

Depending on the particular library you work for, once you have become an established librarian it is possible to gain promotion to managerial level. This means that you will become more strategy-driven and have fewer dealings with the readers of your library and its stock.

Problems in the sector.

For many junior librarians, financial problems are the key issue in the sector. Wages are often low, so that in towns with high cost of living such as Oxford or London it can be a struggle simply to survive. This can mean that morale is sometimes low, especially where excellence at work cannot be rewarded because of budget limitations. Finances also affect the work of more senior librarians and library managers who are unable to buy the resources that their library needs due to restraints on their spending. This is especially the case in public and university libraries. In some public libraries periodically there may be redundancies if the funding situation reaches a critical point.

Librarians today also have to be very adaptable, with their roles changing fast as digital technology means that access to their library and the stock they hold has become radically different to even twenty years ago. Digital copying of certain resources means that readers can now access information from their own computers and do not come into libraries to read the original copies of a book. And the use of electronic catalogues has widened access and allows for easier sourcing of information. Librarians have to make sure they are aware of the current technologies, but also one step ahead and anticipating the next generation of technological development.

What qualifications do I need?

One route to becoming a librarian is having a good bachelors degree and also a postgraduate librarianship qualification. It is possible to study for this while working as a library assistant, in which case your institution may pay for you to study. Depending on your first degree, it is possible to become a subject specialist librarian focussing on an area of interest, for example working in a science library. It is possible to do begin by doing an undergraduate degree in librarianship, but you would still need to go on to do the postgraduate work in order to become fully qualified.

More rare today, but still offered is the non-university entry route to the profession. This is when the professional organisation, CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals), rewards in-job experience and offers certification. This will usually be based on five years experience as a library assistant or two years plus an NVQ qualification. More information can be obtained at the professional body's website: CILIP

How do I find a job as a librarian?

If you are under 25 years old, it is possible to get your first job through the government's apprenticeship scheme, have a look at this website:

The CILIP website also has a jobs section. The Information Management category on is also very useful, as it carries jobs for both pre and post qualification librarians, in private, university and public libraries.

It is also worth checking your local paper and notice boards in your local libraries as they will advertise local, junior positions in these sorts of places.

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